Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dispatches from Sundance 2013: 1

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's first report from Sundance 2013:

As is so often the case, the first morning of this year’s Sundance Festival proved cold but sunny. The ski trails of the Park City Mountain Resort rising above Old Town were covered with a thick base of glittering snow. At the elegant Yarrow Hotel just down the road from Main Street, a pair of guests appeared at the early morning documentary shorts program that, in that time slot, was overshadowed by two much-anticipated full-length feature films from Chile.

Robert Redford, founder and host of the film festival, had an unannounced celebrity in tow at the Yarrow - Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Leader and a critical ally of President Obama since his first term. The two were attending the premiere of Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra’s film debut. Fall to Grace tells the story of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s journey from married Governor to gay suburban priest. “Best day of my life,” I heard Alexandra had said when I visited the hotel later that day. After the showing Redford took the Pelosis to Zoom, the posh restaurant he founded in 1995 in the former Union Pacific railroad depot. A more evocative image of what Sundance is about would be hard to conjure up.

It’s happenstance that four feature films connected to Chile are screening at the Festival this year. One was just nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film, the first time a Chilean film has obtained this distinction, and it was No that I chose to see over the Pelosi short Friday morning. It deals with the historical period in Chile most familiar to middle-aged Americans, the Pinochet dictatorship – an all-too-common historical device used by foreign filmmakers everywhere to grab the attention of American critics and distributors.

No’s appeal is secured by casting Gael García Bernal as an advertising genius. He is recruited by the “No” side to produce a series of 15-minute television ads during the 1988 referendum on whether Pinochet should be given eight more years in power.

The story is based on a novel by well-known Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta, author of Il Postino (“The Postman”) which was the basis of the Oscar-winning Italian film of the same name. There is a newsreel feel to No, not just because archival footage is included in the movie; shooting and editing were made to reproduce 1980s visual quality. But what grips the audience most is very much a contemporary phenomenon – the extraordinary and ever-burgeoning influence of advertising in politics. In many ways this film is about late 1980s Chilean campaign strategists and advertising executives – the two cannot be separated - who succeeded in pulling off regime change before James Carville and more recently David Axelrod were able to bring party change to the White House.

A gripping story line – is the referendum rigged? Can the “No” side win a majority of votes if it isn’t? – is juxtaposed with the shallowness of political commercials aiming to capture viewers’ support. “Give me a jingle,” the García Bernal character insists after rejecting using patriotic and emotional hymns and songs in political ads.

The last scene in the film is easy to forget after we’ve experienced the euphoria capturing Pinochet’s referendum defeat. It shows García Bernal back at his advertising agency reviewing an ad promoting a new soap opera on TV. It has a famous male soap opera star holding a bouquet of roses while leaning out of a helicopter which is hovering over a tall building on the roof of which are five female models taking part in a fashion shoot. A convoluted commercial for a new soap opera? Yes - much more so than the ingredients making up a “No” campaign ad: the rainbow logo, the slogan of happiness for all Chileans, the girls’ song-and-dance routine straight out of a Feist music video (think “1, 2, 3, 4”).

Whether it involves historic change or merely change you can believe in, the message of Pablo Larraín’s film is that the fate of either lies squarely in the hands of advertising agencies.

The beneficiaries in Chile of the end of dictatorship feature in one of two new films by Sebastián Silva, Crystal Fairy (the other one at Sundance is Magic Magic). This film is based not on a novel but instead on a mescaline trip taken by the director some years back which he wished to recreate.

“We at Sundance love this director,” exclaimed a senior programmer in introducing the film; in 2009 Silva’s The Maid won two awards at Sundance.

After the screening Silva told the audience that Crystal Fairy’s main characters really did take mescaline on the day of shooting in the desert in northern Chile, and that the cast improvised much of the dialogue. Michael Cera’s character is equal-part funny and fearful on his psychedelic trip while Gaby Hoffmann told us stone-faced that the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus juice she imbibed was a tool she could use to stay in or go out of character. Both actors charm in their gringo roles; Silva together with his two brothers serve as perfect Chilean foil for them.

A low-budget film – the director claimed the five fire logs at the camp site in one of the last scenes were all they could afford and there could therefore have been no re-takes – Crystal Fairy, like No, offers a cautionary tale. Silva put it this way: “don’t take mescaline and make movies at the same time.” Many of the “yes” voters in recent referenda in Colorado and Washington State might think otherwise after viewing this humor-laced film.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

--Marshal Zeringue