Park City Critic’s Notes #5: Short Shrift

The Lion's Mouth Opens The Lion's Mouth Opens

There were movies. Some, like New York Times film critic (and my fellow SUNY Purchase Film alum) Manohla Dargis, said there were too many — even before she saw any of them. Sales, at least during the festival, weren’t robust; perhaps some of the weary execs, including a couple she overheard dishing on their inability to sit through American Hustle while in line for a theater, are taking her advice and sitting on their pocketbooks. Perhaps we’ll find some of these movies on VUDU or Seed&Spark or NoBudge. Maybe someone will tap an unexpected and unforeseen audience outside of the existing VOD and art house channels in support of some wild vision, something truly extraordinary, by some heretofore unknown means, with real, tangible dollars. But you shouldn’t hold your breath. There was a lot to be seen out there and even being in the privileged position of riding buses from movie house to library to worship center, all in order to watch as many selections from the 30th Sundance Film Festival as I possibly could, I couldn’t possibly see them all. Or as many as I wanted to. So your Albanian plumber in Canarsie is doomed as he faces the choices that lay in front of him on his global-warming implicated flatscreen, Roku box at its side, bus with Bradley Cooper’s face on it zooming by on the streets below. How’s he supposed to know? Beats me. Maybe he reads Filmmaker Magazine.

But he certainly ain’t hearing about shorts, that’s for sure. One year, at the Gotham Awards, I was talking to a decorated filmmaker, a nominee that night who is also a professor at a vaunted film school, one of the East Coast’s most well known. Somehow, we got on the topic of shorts. “I don’t know why people make them,” he said to me, this man who teaches people to make them for a living. “Where do they ever get you? Is it worth the money?” Well, years later, well past the early days of streaming, when “monetizing your short” was the topic of regional film festival panels and late night, gin-fueled condo parties, I can still count on the most truly out-there, batshit crazy and sometimes most intellectually provocative work being done to be in the short format. In fact, the most emotionally devastating film at the Sundance Film Festival this year was a short.

Oscar-nominated documentarian Lucy Walker (Waste Land, The Crash Reel) followed actress and director Marianna Palka for a night and a day not too long ago, in order to document the most terrifying few hours of her life thus far. The resulting film is a very hard thing to stomach. In The Lion’s Mouth Opens, Walker and her camera watch as Palka and a small coterie of friends, including Bryce Dallas Howard and Palka’s Good Dick co-star Jason Ritter, hang out, uneasily, the night before she finds out if she has the grave and untreatable neurodegenerative affliction, Huntington’s Disease. Her father was felled by it in middle age and Palka, as we learn very early on, is at grave risk to receive a diagnosis herself. Even thinking back on the entire 15-minute affair threw me right into a bout of tears recently; the film catches up with you later if you let it. I sat through it with a growing sense of lump-in-throat horror, but the reality of it needed to sink in, needed to borrow into memory. Most great documentaries leave you with a large, but perhaps impersonal horror that may have occurred long ago; The Lion’s Mouth Opens leaves you writhing in pain at something that is yet to happen to someone specific, who you want to get to know more, but may not be able to. If it doesn’t leave you shaking, check your pulse.

There was also a fine new short from 2007 “25 New Face” Moon Molson. In his third trip to the festival, he presented The Bravest, The Boldest, a stark work that meditates on a woman living in the projects, caretaker for her niece, who, recently finished laundry in hand, prepares to return to her 17th floor apartment when she is joined by a pair of American military personnel traveling to the same floor. That her son is serving in our Middle Eastern wars of folly complicates matters gravely and definitively; she is immediately quite sure they are there to inform her of her son’s passing. The woman, played with quiet grace by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, quite literally ain’t trying to hear all that. What follows is a surprising and emotionally adventurous film, one that’s full of levity and pain, both bold and brave enough to leave you with the same punch-in-the-gut longing as Molson’s 2007 short Pop Foul did; the previous film, an all-time great Sundance short selection, has a worthy younger sibling now.

Another product of Columbia’s MFA directing program (and SUNY Purchase’s), Charlotte Glynn has made a film that is an absolute keeper. The story of an awkward Rust Belt boy’s loss of sexual innocence, The Immaculate Reception takes place on one afternoon, as his family is gathered for what turned out to be a significant turning point in his city’s identity as well as his own. His brother, a more studly, less ambivalent fellow, whose dope smoking and high-school womanizing go mostly undetected by their football-transfixed family, is a perverse thorn in his sexual ambitions with a neighborhood girl who happens to be by for the big game. And a big game it was! The picture takes place in Pittsburgh, two days before Christmas in 1972, the Sunday that Franco Harris quite miraculously caught a ball that deflected away from quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s intended John Fuqua. Harris scooped it out of the air just before it touched the turf and rumbled into the end zone for a touchdown with just under 30 seconds left in the AFC title game, forever changing the fortune’s of Pittsburgh’s previously maligned and now quite decorated football franchise, the Steelers.

That the movie evokes the time aesthetically, not just in its production design and writing, but in its looks and texture, is impressive enough; that it ends on a note that’s not triumphant, as its Trainspotting-esque, Eisenstein-ian juxtaposition of football and sex would initially suggest, but one rife with post-coital male sexual malaise contained within a last shot that expertly recalls one of my favorite recent scenes from any film; the amazing and shockingly brief moment of emasculation Kieran Culkin bravely lives through after he gets off the phone in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. The Immaculate Reception signals a subtly subversive new voice in Glynn.

***

Speaking of throwback cinema that doesn’t simply appropriate but forges its own thing out of the familiar, Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person is a film one could watch a dozen times. Assuming he doesn’t change the Vimeo password and refuse to tell me what the new one is (he might), I may be up for a baker’s dozen. Are there still, in the New York conquered by wealth, record store owners named Bene, guys who are somehow the best character from a Vincent Gallo film that Vincent Gallo didn’t make, who throw parties where they play soul records on vinyl and have Asian customers with Charles Bronson mustaches and black ones who look like extras from The King of New York? I know not, but I do know that I was hooked on Defa’s short from start to finish, even if I fell asleep watching it the first time (cut me some slack, it was 2:00 AM).

Adam Ginsberg’s luscious 4:3 16mm framing goes well with Person to Person‘s choppy editing and “Desplechin goes to old Noo Yawk” cadences. And star Bene Coopersmith is someone you can’t take your eyes off of; he looks and sounds like whatever real-life guy inspired Christian Bale’s character in American Hustle. Maybe Jeff Zucker ought to try to watch this one instead. In this tale of a guy who has a simple problem — that being a woman who passed out on his floor at last night’s party and the next day refuses to leave because she claims they’re made for each other — the effortless evocation of something bygone (soul music, vinyl record stores, 16mm film) doesn’t feel like a cheap facade the filmmaker is temporarily wearing to seem, to use a word from the past, “happening” (although that “New York, 1983″ poster on the wall at Bene’s apartment might be pushing it a bit). The movie has the best score of any film in the festival; Little Ann, The Georgettes, The Supreme Jubilees, Jus Us, Darando, Mattison, Helene Smith. One for the ages, this one. Seek it.

Speaking of movies with some stellar crooning in them, The Guatemalan Handshake and The Catechism Cataclysm director Todd Rohal’s finest work yet is Rat Pack Tat, his amazing 18-minute “Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator visits a dying white man in the boonies and jerks him off until he dies” short. Eddie Rouse, who was the father in George Washington, is simply amazing as the Davis, Jr. impersonator and easily the guy least likely to be at most of the parties you could spy him at during the festival. He’d lurk in the corners, or chill on the couch, reserved half-smile on his face most of the time, saving that sewing-machine-like voice for when it it matters. If someone would give him enough money, Rohal might become our Terry Gilliam. The film won a special jury award for “Unique Vision.”

Unique vision is something the great American avant-gardist Kevin Jerome Everson has in spades. Fe26, his newest effort (he’s always got a newest effort, even before you saw the one he made last week), is an impressionistic portrait of Isaac Chester and Jonathan Lee, one of whom is a father of two, both from the ghettos of Cleveland, who together make a bare-bones “living” by stealing scrap metal, usually piping from foreclosed or otherwise abandoned homes, anything they can get really, and hustling it. Everson shows their existence, and that of a lot of folks in the swath of downtrodden, post-industrial Americana, in his typically disjointed, poetic, wholly original way, employing long takes, a swirling 16mm camera and recorded conversations of the two men discussing copper prices over seemingly unassociated images of lonely, late-night gas-station visits. A young woman stands idly by the pothole they’ve just uncovered with a crow bar in order to enter a nearby abandoned home. No one will use this metal, the houses will be torn down, they claim, justifying the work they do, beating the city fathers and land speculators, a new generation of which is always surely around the corner, to the grim work of gutting these former middle-class communities. This is how you get by in America when no one cares that you succeed, when vandals come wielding sub-prime mortgage offers to old black widows. The protagonist, if you’d like to call him that, has a blue teardrop tattooed just beneath his left eye and a Superman emblem on his chest. Apparently copper costs more than aluminum; it’s almost, as he reminds us, like gold.

***

Children, beware. Actress Rose McGowan, who nearly two decades ago became notable as a 20something playing a teenager who got her neck broken in the doghole of a garage door toward the end of Scream, was at Sundance with her directorial debut, Dawn. It’s well made, with glossy surfaces and high production values, and somewhat chilling, with its story of teenage sexual angst met with cultish, tossed-off murder, but Dawn doesn’t really stay with you the way it probably should. It feels, as many shorts do, especially ones made in an academic context, like an exercise more than a fully formed statement about a particular situation. Or the world for that matter. I would be curious to see McGowan make a more fully realized thing; she has a eye for color and a real sense of where to put the camera.

Like in Dawn, a key plot point in Christopher Radcliff’s Jonathan’s Chest involves someone appearing, seemingly from out of nowhere, into a young person’s second-story window in the middle of the night. This is usually a harbinger of bad things to come, as it is in Radcliff’s deeply unsettling story of a troubled suburban teenager whose midnight visitor claims to be his brother. That his brother disappeared years ago doesn’t seem to be the only thing torturing young Alex; his innocuous mother may be implicated in the disappearance, the brother suggests, and although the film never properly resolves what nefarious forces are at work making Alex’s life an experiment in existential family terror, it doesn’t have to I suppose; it’s a potent, tense chamber piece, with Radcliff impressively employing sound and chiaroscuro lighting to keep the audience engaged and unnerved. It’d be oddly appropriate to play this film in front of Who Took Johnny?, the eerily effective Johnny Gosch-disappearance documentary that was at Slamdance this past week. I doubt many of the parents in the audience would stay until the finish; it’d be like screening Dear White People at Northwest Iowa Republican Fundraising Dinner, I suspect.