On Thursday (Jan. 21) night, after more than 30 hours in Park City, Utah, I finally got around to doing a not-so-unusual thing for the Sundance Film Festival: I saw some films.
As Drew McWeeny has already discussed, HitFix is hitting Sundance hard, with five of us on the ground seeing movies, listening to the bands and talking to the stars. As part of our effort to showcase the breadth and depth of the Sundance experience, I'm personally going to be trying to wander off the beaten path, catching as many documentaries and World Cinema offerings as I can. I may not see that many movie and TV stars testing their indie cred, but instead I'll see movies from places like Bolivia. And isn't that what Sundance is really about? I sure hope so.
Kicking things off for my 2010 Sundance experience was the Opening Night presentation of Shorts Program I, featuring Spike Jonze's "I'm Here," Rory Kennedy's "The Fence," François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy and Ludovic Houplain's "Logorama" and Patrik Eklund's "Seeds of the Fall"...
A review of Sundance 2010's Shorts Program I after the break...
Shorts Program I was chosen as part of Sundance's opening night slate because it represents the many sides of the Festival's shorts slate. It includes an American narrative short ("I'm Here"), an American doc short ("The Fence"), an international animated short ("Logorama") and an international narrative short ("Seeds of the Fall"). The official Sundance guide tries to make the argument that the films in Program I are unified by the theme of love. That's ridiculous. They're mostly unified by the aforementioned diversity and being among the longest shorts on that side of the Sundance lineup.
My quick take on the four shorts...
"I'm Here" (dir. Spike Jonze) - Drew is going to do a full-length review of this one and he's also going to spend some quality time with Spike tomorrow. For my part, I'll just say that I found this simple little romance about a pair of socket-faced robots learning about dreams, music and the sacrifices that come with love, to be strangely moving. Think of "I'm Here" as a grown-up version of "Wall-E," filtered through Jonze's particularly twee and whimsical view of the world.
"The Fence" (dir. Rory Kennedy) - Since October of 2006, the United States has poured more than $3 billion into building a 700 mile fence along the Mexican border. Over 36 infuriating, disturbing and morbidly hilarious minutes, Kennedy makes a compelling case that those taxpayer dollars might as well have been thrown in a pile, doused in gasoline and set on fire.
Produced for HBO, "The Fence" unfolds its story starting with the absurdities of the wall itself, with its inexplicable gaps and strange spaces of no man's land, including a golf course that exists in a limbo between the fence and the Rio Grande, a patch of land stuck between the United States and Mexico. That part of the fence's history is played for comedy, with slapstick musical accompaniment.
But Kennedy knows that this isn't entirely a laughing matter, as she also chronicles the environmental damage caused by the fence, as well as the loss of life caused by illegal immigrants forced deeper and deeper into the wilderness to cross the border. It's a national embarrassment, but also a national tragedy.
While you never for a second doubt Kennedy's feelings about immigration in the United States, she has an even hand when placing blame. Yes, George W. Bush is the smirking face signing on for the construction of the fence, but Kennedy doesn't ignore the number of Democrats who voted to fund the project and caved to special interests. The Minuteman groups that forced the politicians into action also get fair-ish treatment, with some members looking like lunatics and others seeming to be *almost* responsible, concerned citizens. Kennedy's thesis is that this fence (and immigration policy in a broader sense) is a fiasco, but pointing fingers isn't productive.
In 36 minutes, it's impossible for Kennedy to take the documentary to the necessary next level and find people offering alternatives to this failed course of action. We get astounding access to Mexican coyotes, who show off their various strategies for smuggling illegals into the country, men who make it clear that no matter how many walls we build, people will get through. So if fences and walls have no impact on terrorism and no impact on illegal immigration and no impact on drug smuggling, obviously they don't work. But what then? "The Fence" doesn't go that far... Still, it's damning and persuasive.
"Logorama" (directors François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy and Ludovic Houplain) - Corporate imagery is everywhere in this French animated hoot, which plays on the conventions of American action films, Roland Emmerich-style disaster films and even "Pulp Fiction," while filling the screen with brand names and mascots.
Ronald McDonald is a dangerous fugitive. The cops are a gang of Michelin men. Mr. Clean is a gay safari tour guide. The Pringles man is a sexual harassing perv. The Jolly Green Giant has jolly giant green censored genitals.
Depending on how you look at it, "Logorama" is either 5000 lawsuits waiting to happen, or else it's three cheeky Frenchmen mocking Western capitalist excess, repurposing the familiar graphics and characters in somewhat the same manner as Andy Warhol used to or Shepard Fairey, who receives a visual shout-out, still does. I'm guessing that copyright laws governing satire probably protect "Logorama," but I'm not sure.
It's audacious and silly, but it's also pretty empty. The directors don't limit themselves merely to tweaking advertising icons, but also movie imagery and sports team mascots. The point about the pervasiveness of mass-produced imagery isn't invalid, but is it so very different in France or Israel or anywhere else in the developed world? What does that have to do with the action conceit or the strange stab at petro-consumerism at the end? After laughing for 10 minutes, I spent the last seven minutes hoping that the short would be tied together by more than just a musical gag that was already used on "The Simpsons."
It was also unclear if anybody in the audience was finding any irony in seeing this movie in the over-branded, exhaustively sponsored marketplace of Sundance.
"Seeds of the Fall" (Patrik Eklund) - A cute dose of Swedish absurdism, as a string of unexpected disasters lead one couple to make an indecent proposal to their neighbors. If the two films in the middle of the program aren't really about love, "Seeds of the Fall" is nice closing compliment to "I'm Here."
It's hard to know what to say about "Seeds of the Fall" (especially at 2 a.m.) other than that Eklund has a terrific eye for comic composition and a wacky sensibility that makes the ending surprisingly sweet.
Bedtime now. I've got a six-movie day scheduled for tomorrow...