#FrancisOnFilm: Sundance - It's a Wrap!

02 February 2017

In the last three days of Sundance, I was fortunate enough to see a few more movies worth looking out for.  The first four below haven’t reportedly been sold for distribution, but you may be able to catch parts or all of them online.

Kuso was Sundance at its most bizarre, even for the Midnight session of the festival. The film was directed by musician Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison), co-written by David Firth and Zach Fox, and features jazz from Kamasi Washington and other Brainfeeder colleagues of Ellison’s. The program guide describes it as “plung[ing] the audience into a magical mix of filth-covered fables and hypnotic animations to reveal a film rotting from the inside out” in “the aftermath of Los Angeles’s worst earthquake nightmare.” Instead of a plot, the film features interwoven vignettes, including a woman gnawing through concrete to get at what sounds to be a crying child, an apparent abortion, and a quack clinic curing a patient of a fear of breasts in a manner not easy to describe in print. There are growing facial boils, hideous bugs crawling from bodily orifices, and quite a lot of excrement throughout.  Critical reviews described Kuso as this year’s walk out movie and “the grossest movie ever made.” They also noted, far too mutedly, that the film aims to critique aspects of racism. An interview at Sundance with Ellison (Flying Lotus), Firth, and Fox suggests that members of the audience should make up their own minds about the movie. Ellison, who financed the film himself, just wants to make his money back, or so he said.

Philosophers have been taking disgust seriously in recent years. Experimental philosophers study what disgusts children and adults as a key origin of moral emotions. The predominant theory of disgust holds that it is an emotion that helps us to avoid contaminants and disease (Strohminger 2014). Colin McGinn, in a controversial 2011 book, The Meaning of Disgust, argued that disgust reflects our existential terror at the mortality of our own bodies. Kuso deploys disgust to challenge its audiences to think about forms of contemporary social rot.  Or maybe not.

The New Radical is a film by Adam Bhala Lough about contemporary techno-anarchism. It features three stories: Cody Wilson’s gun rights advocacy of printable plastic firearms that avoid metal detectors and are available through downloadable publicly available files, the conviction and life sentence of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbrich for drug trafficking, and Amir Taaki’s participation in the development of bitcoin trading through DarkWallet. In between there are shots of Julian Assange defending the freedom of information. The film presents a studied neutrality about its subjects, presenting them as champions of individual liberty but with a sufficient dark side for critics to suggest that they are merely peddlers of crime. The film ends with the ubiquitous brooding presence of this year’s Sundance, Donald Trump. Wilson says that he’s glad Trump won . . . but that he didn’t vote for him, leaving it open whether he voted at all.  I don’t think the film has been purchased, but it could stimulate some useful discussion about the outside limits of free expression and whether the motivations of speakers matter.

Where is Kyra? Director Andrew Dosunmu told the audience before the film that he wondered about the background stories of homeless people he saw near where he lived in New York. In the film, he portrays how fragile financial security can be for a woman in late middle age.  Critics universally praise Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Kyra and the film’s dimly lighted cinematography, and rightfully so. They also note that perhaps the film hasn’t sold yet because it’s depressing, and they’re right about this too. But warehousing this film seems to me like warehousing Kyra herself.

Rememory (directed by Mark Palansky and starring Peter Dinklage) is a mystery featuring a memory machine. The machine records your memories and plays them back to you. It works in a hokey way—you put on what look like earphones and see what looks like a perfect film of actual events with occasional black flicking lines across the screen apparently to indicate that it’s a replay. The machine’s inventor believes that “you are your memories” (also hokey) and that he can solve people’s problems by confronting them with their memories (still hokey). But it’s a fun flick and Dinklage is great.  And the movie raises some philosophically and legally interesting questions about memory. Is an accurate memory really like a recording of the past? Are memories evidence of what actually happened, so that if we could elicit stored memories they should be admissible in criminal trials? Do memories constitute identity and would you be a different person or just a happier (or unhappier) one if your memories were rewound and rerecorded?  

I’ve saved the best for last. By far the best film of this festival that I saw (and I only saw about a sixth of the films screened) was Call Me By Your Name, a lyrical coming-of-age gay love story starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet and directed by Luca Guadagnino. It’s been picked up by Sony Pictures and will next be screened at the Berlin film festival—so you should be able to find it relatively soon.

After having seen 23 movies in 9 days (35 if you count the shorts separately) and dined on popcorn and coffee, I’m experiencing withdrawal from what was also withdrawal of a sort, but with a decided political edge. More than a few of the documentaries were edited at the last minute to include some footage of Trump. A hastily put together documentary of the Trump election itself was panned by critics and drew reportedly the smallest audience of any films at the festival. As I write this, reports are continuing of the impact of the immigration ban on film festivals, the Academy Awards, and film-making itself. The three films about Syria at the festival (Firas Fayyad’s documentary Last Man in Aleppo, which won the world cinema grand jury prize; Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts; and Evgeny Afineevsky’s Cries from Syria) are examples of the impact. Fayyad is a Syrian who will not be able to come back to the US in the foreseeable future once he leaves; his subjects and the subjects of all of these films also will be unable to come, despite what they have endured. Film festivals like Sundance underscore the importance of independent, international, idiosyncratic, informative, and in-your-face media, now more than ever.