By Ray Pride
They come to the city on the hill, by air, by roads, seekers of wisdom headed west into the wilderness, into the mountains, beneath crystal blue skies, among dreamers and ideas in thin bracing air, amid Starbucks and Stella Artois, among official sponsors and “riff-raff” brands to the side, ten days formally kicked off with Robert Redford’s annual, perennial peroration of what independent cinema is and will be for the immediate future, foreseeable budgets and attention spans.
Sundance. Films and filmmakers, press agents and sales agents, and agents galore, shuttles shuttling the small hamlet of Park City, engorging its paths and runnels from its year-round resort-town population of under 10,000 to a figure estimated as high as fourteen million. Actually, it only seems that packed on opening weekend: 120,000 was one of the highest estimates, and it’s plausible—the traffic is worse than cross-town Manhattan even in the middle of the day, or Chicago when there’s a compelling multiple-car pileup on the side of the Kennedy.
As of Tuesday afternoon, as many as forty films had been sold for distribution, up from fourteen in 2010. The range of themes was downbeat but reviewers were as optimistic as buyers. Cults. (Multiple stories about cults.) Hard times. Minor and major apocalypses. The crisis of capital and capitalism, crises of journalism. The onset of AIDS. Faith.
Author Naomi Wolf (“The Beauty Myth,” “The End of America”), of all people, may have been one of the more optimistic among the many, many optimists on the streets and in the theaters. “We seem at one of the few nexuses left in the U.S. for brave journalistic critical thinking. Sundance this year is packed with substance, and documentarians especially are tackling head-on issues that US print journalists, especially those who work for corporate-owned media, have abashedly refused to tackle. The two main themes in the festival—to my amazement, given that the mainstream pop-culture world seems to have dismissed feminism and closed its eyes to threats to freedom—seem to be gender rebellion—and civil liberties.”
And of course, the freedom to define what we see at the festival as a reflection of the larger picture, and of what “independent” films are from the perspective where we’ve paused and placed our boots, whether from the attempt of a Liberian warlord’s coming to Christ and hoping to apologize to his victims in “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” or a twentysomething Canadian’s attempt to vitalize pulp in “Hobo With A Shotgun.”
Prolific Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who has two additional films premiering in February at Berlin, made his Sundance debut with “Uncle Kent,” an uneasy satire of fortysomething male sexual confoundment, an extension of his earlier tech-savvy “LOL,” tracing similar themes. A restored twentieth-anniversary version of Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” marked Sundance past; Sundance present included other fortysomethings facing bleaker ends in Mark Pellington’s “I Melt With You,” which stars Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane and Christian McKay in a purple pile-up of midlife crisis, fueled by incessant pop songs, drink and drugs, starting in your face and racing under your skin.
“Rebirth” is a kind of “9/11 Up,” a longitudinal documentary that follows five survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center across the successive nine years of their lives, and ours. It’s an inspired, persistent concept, as is director-producer Steve James and writer-co-producer Alex Kotlowitz’s “The Interrupters,” which the press kit subtitled, “A Year In The Life Of A City Grappling with Urban Violence.” Kotlowitz wrote a 2008 New York Times article about CeaseFire, the group founded to stem neighborhood violence in Chicago, largely through the intervention of violence “interrupters.” Three hundred hours of footage shot across fourteen months have been distilled into emotionally pungent, ripplingly intimate work. The language is blunt and raw, and there are bursts of on-camera violence. The film not only suggests, but also demonstrates, through the heroic investment by its subjects, day to day, that the cycle of violence can be broken, and must be broken. In the words of one, the goal is “humility and not anger.” These are powerful stories of trust, transformation and renewal of hope in Chicago streets and the hearts of America. The closing shot is elegiac, literally dazzling, as sunset ripples golden-orange across the skyline seen from the west, not the Lake, and yet it also says Chicago, and cities, and Chicagoans, and the hope for a better nation still stand, and stand strong. It’s a powerful image, echoing an earlier image in James’ career: the opening shot of “Hoop Dreams.”
Then, there’s “HERE,” and you wonder its future THERE, outside of the city on the hill, an oblique but uncommonly mature romance between adults, set in the expanses of Armenia, as an American cartographer (Ben Foster) works to match the lay of the land with the eye in the sky, to choreograph Google Maps and his own wanderlust. He meets an Armenian photographer (Lubna Azabal) who’s returned from her larger world of Parisian galleries and artistic dreams. “Big world, small country,” she says wryly on their second chance meeting. Co-written and directed by Braden King—once a bartender at Ukrainian Village’s Rainbo Club—and scored by Michael Krassner and Califone’s Tim Rutili, “HERE” has an ambling, aleatory quality as they traverse a gorgeous, little-populated landscape. Their nuanced emotional and sexual grappling is marked by suddenness and surprise, as fleeting as clouds, as inevitable as dusk and dawn. It’s as intimate as conversation, as flickering as a smile, as tender as a crushed heart. Wistful and hopeful, too: a postcard from a former Chicagoan to bring back to the great Midwest.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.