This year, Sundance was the festival of Bad Things Happen, but you wouldn’t have known it from walking around Park City. The skies were blue, the snow crisp white on the mountains, and everyone looked snug in their microfibre and new SUVs.
Yet the films pointed to clouds on the horizon. It started when bummer-in-chief Robert Redford kicked things off on opening night by noting that the U.S. government owes its people “a big, massive apology” for the botched war in Iraq.
After that, Sundance 2007 was awash in parents dying, spouses dying, torture, environmental collapse, and men being penetrated by horses. Where was the love?
I found a way to miss the screening of Zoo, Robinson Devor’s documentary about the men who traveled from all over the world to a remote northwest farm where horses would fill a hole in their lives. Word on the film was disappointing. Even though it promised to be too much to take, it was still somehow unsatisfying.
It was right in line with the Sundance zeitgeist, though. Where the past couple of years have seen American documentary filmmakers address the war directly, this year it seeped deeper.
Over in the Premieres section, Catherine Keener and Ellen Page starred in An American Crime, based on the true story of a child who suffered unimaginable torture at the hands of her foster mother. Page and Keener were noticeably downbeat doing interviews and admitted it was hard to promote a film with so punishing a subject.
If Sundance was in a mood to mull over the new culture of war and torture, one film stripped away all metaphor and cut right to the heart of the feel-bad vibe. Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib was a sober, gripping chronicle of American soldiers’ descent into everyday brutality at the nudging of their military superiors.
Director Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of the late Robert Kennedy, interviews some of the soldiers who stripped Iraqi prisoners naked, abused them nightly and posed at the scene for pictures. Naturally, they all come off as otherwise decent people.
Using the cinematic distancing common after trauma situations, one soldier describes the prison as “a combination of Apocalypse Now meets The Shining, except this is real and you’re in the middle of it.”
Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib was made for HBO, and its form is strictly televisual, but it’s very good television. Kennedy builds a persuasive case that American commanders got away with torture and perhaps even murder. More importantly, she gives time to Iraqi prisoners victimized in Abu Ghraib.
Sundance may have found its root film in Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib, but it did try to set a more upbeat note on opening night with Chicago 10. A documentary-animation hybrid, it retells the story of the Chicago Seven activists — plus Black Panther Bobby Seale — put on trial for protests at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago.
Those events were famously captured in Haskell Wexler’s semi-fictional film Medium Cool, and Chicago 10 director Brett Morgen attempts a similar border-blurring, dramatizing the trial transcripts as video-game animation.
Those scenes are intercut with a barrage of archival footage of the events. Morgen, who made The Kid Stays In The Picture, runs the convention and subsequent trial along intersecting timelines, both set to flurries of crunching music. Sometimes that’s brilliantly used, as in a live MC5 performance of “Kick Out The Jams,” and sometimes it’s just plain baffling, as when the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” shows up mainly to provide amped-up noise.
Chicago 10 so desperately wants to make past activism relevant to today’s kids that it junks coherence in the trying.
It may be that metaphor was the way to go. The Savages was the best film I saw at Sundance. While writer-director Tamara Jenkins may never have set out to make a war-mood movie, in the context of the festival it had reckoning written all over it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney star as a brother and sister whose aging father has begun to show signs of dementia. Having barely talked to him for years, they suddenly have to bring him back north from Arizona, find the right nursing home, and begin dealing with his erratic bowel movements and bouts of screaming rage.
The Savages begins with sun-bleached shots of the elder Savage’s Arizona retirement community, where old ladies dress up for cheerleading activities and men roam the streets in golf carts.
It looks like we’re in for another ironic American indie, but writer-director Jenkins (Slums Of Beverly Hills) pushes past the soft targets to get at the harder questions of how people wake up from living incomplete, compromised lives.
Linney plays a mildly depressed woman working temp jobs in New York and carrying on a listless affair with a married man. Her brother (Hoffman) is a theatre professor in Buffalo; his own depression has hardened into callous pragmatism. He insists on bringing Dad nearby to a low-rent nursing home staffed mostly by Caribbean and African immigrants.
This was Jenkins’s first film since Slums of Beverly Hills eight years ago. That movie also found humor in family dysfunction, but Jenkins works bluer notes here. That sense of reckoning with past pain and future death runs like a rhythm under the moments of domestic comedy.
There are shades of About Schmidt here — and Schmidt director Alexander Payne is an executive producer. But Jenkins works at a more detailed scale and closer to the emotions she elicits. Theatrical release looks set for late summer.
Theatrical sales are Sundance’s bottom line, and one of the biggest box-office performers was Grace Is Gone, James C. Strouse’s drama about a man who gets news that his soldier wife has died fighting in Iraq and can’t bear to tell their two young daughters. Instead, he takes them on a cross-country road trip to an amusement park.
John Cusack gives a solid, low-key performance in the lead role. He’s adopted a heavy, shuffling walk, head bowed down by life even before he gets the tragic news. That’s what it felt like this year in Park City.
Grace is definitely gone.