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THE (LEAD) TIMES WE LIVE IN

In the first post on this new Filmmaker blog, I wrote about how we’d use this space to break out of the quarterly confines of the magazine’s publication schedule. Well, that’s still the intention, but after a few days here at the Sundance Film Festival, this blog has been filling up with news items filed by the New York office while the Sundance-attending staff has been seeing the movies, going to the parties, but not quite figuring out how to get into the rhythm of daily online journalism.

One of the good things about publishing quarterly is that it allows time to let film reactions gel over a period of weeks. One of the bad things about publishing quarterly is that it encourages a kind of OCD-ish approach to writing. Opinions can be futzed over for months — one Filmmaker writer typically sends me as many as 26 self-generated revisions of a single article — and then spastically reworked one last time in the days before press.

But this Sundance, I thought, would be different. And each day, I’d work out a lead paragraph in my head while riding the shuttle busses from theater to theater, struggle to remember it through the nightly parties, return home, and then — and here was my mistake — would scan online film sites like Moviecity News to check out what I’d missed that day before writing. And suddenly, the jazzy lead that seemed pithily entertaining on the bus would read painfully dull and obvious as I’d realize that countless versions of it were already all over the web. Like the Dean scream, news blips involving the Biskind book (included in the Diesel/Cinetic party gift bag but not, as many claimed, discussed here all that much), Paris Hilton, The Motorcycle Diaries (the raves for which are truly deserved, as I’ll post here soon), and Redford sightings would surface, quickly scour the internet and then be replaced by the next celebrity mix-up or tidbit of acquisitions news.

Which is why the film I feel like writing about first is one that’s somewhat invisible to the hype merchants. Alison Maclean and Tobia Perse’s Persons of Interest is an hour-long series of interviews with innocent Muslim Americans detained and locked up by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department in the days following 9/11, The material is sad, disturbing and usually shocking. A guy with a rented car gets picked up in front of a Burger King and locked up for weeks before he’s released; a father is dragged out of his home and incarcerated when police find a videogame flight simulator on his son’s computer; an American-born wife learns that her imprisoned husband was suddenly deported and must decide how — and where — to raise her family now that he’s gone. Maclean — whose previous fiction films include Crush and Jesus’ Son — and Perse intercut their stories with televised statements by John Ashcroft in which the Attorney General makes clear that sweeping overenforcement is now official policy.

Maclean and Perse take a minimalist filmmaking approach to tell these stories. All of the interviews are conducted in a fluorescent-lit white room from a single stationary camera angle. The interviewees often stand uncomfortably before the camera, and almost all clasp their hands behind their back, as if they’re handcuffed. The set provides a simple visual metaphor that is made painfully apt when one man describes his months spent suffering sleep deprivation in a perpetually lit cell.

What gives the otherwise austere Persons of Interest the strange rhythms of real life, however, is the directors’ penchant for leaving the camera running at all times, capturing their subject’s awkward human moments pre and post interview. And when several participants show up with their famililes, Maclean and Perse let the tape roll as the kids mug for the lens, stomp around the room and, in one clip, cheerfully trash the place. Simple and elegant, Persons of Interest is an essential document of our current “war on terrorism.”

In a scene from John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Laura Dern asks the alienated adulterous college professor played by Six Feet Under‘s Peter Krause why, if he wants to make a difference in the world, he doesn’t work with cancer patients or teach fetal-alcohol-syndrome-damaged kids how to read. “Because those people aren’t very interesting,” he replies.

Indeed, Curran’s and Maclean and Perse’s films could easily swap titles. In We Don’t Live Here Anymore, scripted by Larry Gross from two Andre Dubus short stories, four rather unlikeable people eventually become “persons of interest” through a penetrating script, sharp performances by Dern, Krause, Naomi Watts and Mark Rufalo, and Curran’s bold, musical, occasionally arch direction.

Gross began writing this script in 1969 — yes, 1969 — and it’s definitely of a piece with other works of marital discord like John Cassavete’s films Faces and Husbands, Whose Afraid of Virigina Woolf, but also “suburban fiction” like Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Like Virginia Woolf, this is a “two couples” movie, and we instinctively know that somehow the deck will be shuffled on these four lost souls and that when the dust settles, some characters will fare better than others.

The challenge facing a film like this is the one posed by Maclean and Perse’s movie. Should we care about relatively privileged characters such as these in times like this?

To answer, the same question can be asked — but somehow isn’t — about the misfits in Napoleon Dynamite or dreamers of Garden State. Watching We Don’t Live Here Anymore, one senses that Curran and Gross understand the challenge and have responded by throwing down the gauntlet in return. On the one hand, the film is really just about hunkering down with these four actors as they unravel the neuroses and compulsions that make their characters tick. On the other, Curran’s technique is far from invisible. The movie is fabulously visual — Maryse Alberti’s cinematography has a burnished elegance, and the editing by Alexandre de Franceschi is exceptionally fluid, cutting from tense moments to symbolic imagery. (A red light at a train crossing is a recurring shot.) Most boldly, Lesley Barber’s original score consistently affects one’s point-of-view in the film, adding a mock solemnity, distancing humor, or sometimes just a queasy empathy to the scenes. But as the film progresses, the distancing elements fade away. One comes not to “like” or “bond with” any of these characters but to recognize and perhaps guiltily understand their behavior.

Female executives at a couple of distributors told me that they loved the film and argued about it with their male colleagues. The Bush administration can continue to wage their “war on terror” — and filmmakers like Maclean and Perses can respond — but for Warner Independent, let’s hope that the age-old “war between the sexes” still retains its power to shock and awe.

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