By Ray Pride
“The bear went to the top of the mountain to see what he could see, and what did the bear see when he got to the top? The other side of the mountain.”
If memory serves, I first heard that fairytale gobbet in a question-and-answer session with Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet at a Film Center retrospective ages ago, Straub oblique and elusive as a snowstorm quietly howled outside. My favorite aspect of Sundance 2008, which takes place 6,500 above sea level in Park City, Utah, up a mountain from Salt Lake City, is that I didn’t see Chicago’s week of overnight zero and sub-zero temperatures. It was lovely out-of-doors.
But a different kind of chill wafted through the 8,000-population village with its estimated 50,000-visitor deluge: no matter what kind of festival attendees were expecting, most everyone seemed to have a contrary experience. Film buyers wanted to fill their larders, producers wanted to see movies that surpassed their expectations for their own yet-unproduced work, filmmakers wanted to be discovered, reviewers and pundits and bloggers were all less than circumspect about wanting their fetishes and prejudices concerned and colossal trainwrecks would be as welcome as delicate flights of fancy. (It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the crash of a movie like Barry Levinson’s Hollywood-set comedy, “What Just Happened,” starring Robert DeNiro, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci, a $20 million movie financed by an arm of the Mark Cuban-Todd Wagner conglomerate that also owns Landmark Theaters and Magnolia Pictures.)
Last year’s opening day of Sundance brought a colossal opening-night stinker, but within a few hours I’d also seen the premiere of Tamara Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated “The Savages” and my first of two viewings of the tuneful “Once.” Those are examples of the kinds of movies that are ideally formulated and shaped to a particular idea: quite different, but each ideally executed and heartbreakers in their individual ways. The 2008 feature entries that hit hardest were slow and simmering while nonfiction films offered more exuberant pleasures. Marina Zenovich’s long-in-production “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (with a well-deserved jury prize to editor Joe Bini) did a smashing job with archival footage and latter-day interviews to describe a lost era only three decades past, a troubled life and a crime compounded by layers and layers of misconduct by a publicity-hungry judge. The documentary, bought by HBO, is straightforward and not apologetic: Polanski pled guilty to charges for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. His victim appears as an adult who abhors the way both she and Polanski were treated by the California court system of the 1970s, and the underlying message is less one about libertinism and privilege than of the simple question of whether justice is served when even the semblance of taint, let alone full-on corruption, is allowed to enter.
Robb Moss and Peter Galison’s “Secrecy” is quiet and discreet in its examination of how contemporary crimes are being papered over, and devastating in both its analysis and in its presentation. (It’s one of the few recent documentaries to incorporate animation that doesn’t make the eyes cross, then roll.) There’s a portrait in there of a career military lawyer who does the right thing against the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, and as his appearances increase, his fury grows: he is right, he knows he’s right and history will record that he is right. On the other hand, Morgan Spurlock’s second feature, “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” is more like “Super-Snide Me,” glossily, glibly entertaining yet deeply dumb and seriously shallow as the mustachioed West Virginian purports to seek out Mr. Al Qaeda in various Middle Eastern countries while a baby grows in his girlfriend’s belly back home. Much of the movie is told through video-game animation, but the only battle Spurlock gets into is with angry Orthodox Jews whom he laughs at while picking a fight by videotaping them in their own neighborhoods. (The Weinstein Company will release it sometime in the future.) Yet one documentary soared: James Marsh’s “Man on Wire,” about the stunts in the life of French wire-walker Philippe Petit that led to his 1975 crossing on a cable strung surreptitiously between the Twin Towers. With its black-and-white recreations, the movie often has the urgency of a heist thriller, and comes to resemble a dissection of the conspiracy of a clandestine cell of terrorists, yet the ultimate act, buoyed by an insistent score drawn from Michael Nyman’s back catalog, grows immensely, illogically, beautifully thrilling. Beauty need not apologize, but sometimes requires fingerprinting. When the film took its second nod on closing night, Petit suggested, “Keep moving mountains, keep growing wings, keep dreaming.”
Two nightmarish fiction features: Azazel Jacobs’ emotionally naked “Mama’s Man,” the story of a thirtysomething man who visits his New York parents in their artifact-stuffed rent-controlled Chambers Street loft and finds he can’t return to his wife and child but instead curls up into all kinds of stalling tactics. As a dry comedy about clinical depression, it’s a wondrous monument. (As well as a tribute to the home and lives of his mother and father, filmmaker Ken Jacobs and artist Flo Jacobs.) “Ballast,” a movie that dearly needs to be distributed but will be a tough sell, is Lance Hammer’s Mississippi Delta-set study of contemporary poverty and desperation, told in the most urgent and emphatic fashion, breathless yet quiet, with a level of filmmaking skill that makes the head spin from its first few cuts. This is the kind of movie you make with a copy of Bresson’s “Notes on Cinematography” rolled up in your pocket like the morning news. It’s also the sort of idiosyncratic, intimate filmmaking that ought to be loosed to sprawl across the other side of the mountain.