Monday, January 28, 2013

Dispatches from Sundance 2013: 5

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 fifth report from Sundance 2013 (read Dispatches from Sundance 2013: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4):

Depending on one’s perspective, Sundance 2013 will be remembered for any of a number of things. Celebrities intent on getting in some quality skiing while in Park City enjoyed ideal snow conditions when the festival opened and when it ended. In between the weather warmed up, so catching the sun on Main Street became the activity of choice. The blizzard on the final day was a hardcore skier’s dream but it also delayed flight departures for some visitors.

A British newspaper seemed to believe many of this year’s Sundance films shifted into the realm of erotica. “Sundance or ‘Porndance?’” The Guardian headlined, and Katey Rich’s first line of the story was “Sex sells.” Two decades on from the 1989 breakthrough film sex, lies and videotape, more indie filmmakers recognize the importance of commercial success, and sex as the means to achieve it.

The Look of Love, a British film about the porn industry pioneer and tycoon Paul Raymond, may constitute Exhibit A for Porndance adherents. But in today’s world it hardly attains soft porn status, and The Guardian’s citing of a couple of conservative Utah lawmakers arguing that state funding for the festival should be terminated is unrepresentative of generally favorable local opinion for what Sundance screens.

Another perspective on this year’s festival is that women had finally secured a long-term presence in independent filmmaking. A Sundance Institute and Women in Film study found that 30% of the top jobs in films – director, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, editor – that had screened at Sundance between 2002 and 2012 were held by women. Astoundingly, women comprised just 4.4% of such jobs in the top 100 box-office films over the same ten-year period. At Sundance 2013, eight of sixteen directors in the U.S. dramatic competition were women. Men still control film industry money, a panel on women in film noted, and that is why the more commercial a film is, the more likely it is a nearly exclusive male undertaking.

Stacie Passon
Stacie Passon’s Concussion is an indicator of how successful female directors are at the festival. It relates how a forty-something woman in a marriage with a woman is drawn into the lesbian escort business. Lisa Schwarzbaum writes in Entertainment Weekly that “You’ve never seen so many beautiful women-who-love-women, and such fine fashion choices” as in this film. It is a tour-de-force of “same-sex sexytime.” Passon is an extraordinarily insightful and intelligent director familiar with critical theory. She presented us with a sophisticated explanation for why this film is important in understanding the need for personal rediscovery of someone who is otherwise happy, affluent, and resourceful. Still, highly-intelligent directors can make dumbed down cinematic texts far removed from the narratives related by directors.

Films about rock music have become standard at Sundance. They are good at bridging indie values with market awareness. This year’s trove included two on recording studios: Muscle Shoals and Sound City. A third, Twenty Feet from Stardom, explored the obscure world of backup singer while a fourth was a documentary about History of the Eagles Part 1. Such films bring rock stars to perform at Park City and this year it was Dave Grohl [photo left] of the Foo Fighters, who directed Sound City, who topped the festival’s musical headliners.

Award winners are typically films with a conscience, not a lucrative distribution contract. Fruitvale won several awards for writer-director Ryan Coogler for his affecting recreation of the killing of a black man at a BART station in Oakland on December 31, 2008. In turn Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother won a pair of Sundance awards for its poignant story of an American who remains in the south of India to treat children with HIV and AIDS.

The biggest sales of film rights at Sundance 2013 had different subject matter. The Way, Way Back is a light comedy about an introverted fourteen-year-old boy who works at a water park one summer. Fox Searchlight paid $10 million for rights to this Little Miss Sunshine knockoff, a figure not heard of at the festival since the recession began. Fox Searchlight had already picked up espionage thriller The East and the family drama Stoker for princely sums.

The eternal tension between independent filmmaking and market success shapes Sundance each year. I suggest then the following thought experiment. Let us imagine Park City on the second Saturday evening of Sundance. The annual awards ceremony is in progress where nearly everyone is high. The “Short Film Audience Award presented by YouTube” and the “Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for U.S. Dramatic” have already been announced. The pressure rises and the Master of Ceremonies finally turns to what all indie filmmakers have been waiting for.

The MC reports that the “Never Mind the Bollocks Award” is being given to the film director who is most blithely unaware of or brazenly flouts the commercial aspects of filmmaking. The 2013 winner is Soldate Jeannette directed by Daniel Hoesl.

Austria is known for its feel-bad cinema, Hoesl told us, so he decided to make a good feel-bad film. Vienna is known for being the European capital of techno, which Hoesl didn’t tell us except through the soundtrack he used for his film (it was actually nominated for the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize).

There are 0ther reasons for the “Never Mind the Bullocks Award” for this film. Hoesl argued that it had a “reverse director,” that is, the film directed the film maker. There was a cast before there was a screenplay. Its protagonist, Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, spent much of her life in castles she owned before taking to deadpan acting; Soldate Jeannette was her feature film debut. She acts her aristocratic role impeccably and shows all the chutzpah becoming to a castle-owning woman.

But Hoesl says the main message of his film is how farming entails hard work in Austria. He singles out a scene in the film showing a herd of cows walking through a pasture as his favorite. Another scene shows stacks of 10,000-euro notes being burnt. “We can burn money in Europe, unlike the U.S. where you can’t,” he informs us. Then he adds: “Marx destroyed God but he didn’t destroy money.” The film budget was 65,000 euros.

Fredrik Bond
Honorable mention for “Never Mind the Bullocks Award” nominees must be given to The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. Director Fredrik Bond decided to shoot the film in Bucharest, Europe’s least chic capital, on impulse. It is not an attractive picture. The title alone merits consideration for this award. But Matt Drake’s screenwriting scorns commercial formulae and gives Charlie Countryman as many leases on life as Rasputin had: Charlie is pummeled and kicked, his body hung upside down oozing blood, he is shot in the chest by the love of his life, then he is released into a raging river below. Charlie surfaces as John Hurt’s voiceover says how love trumps everything.

Indie films continue to flourish at Sundance – the legacy of the 2013 festival.--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