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Sundance 2018 Critic’s Notebook, Day 6: Madeline’s Madeline, Of Fathers and Sons, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, The Price of Everything

Madeline's Madeline

Context is everything — I’m writing this final Sundance dispatch at a remove of a day/continent from Park City, back in NYC, with a day’s pause between marathon-writing while reconsidering the chronological melange of what I saw and what, if any, narrative can be extrapolated about this year’s fest. My feeling, overall, is of a weak year, despite having (per usual) missed some of what appear to be the standout titles (Mandy, alas), which framed my response to Madeline’s Madeline, the last film I saw there. Is this a great movie? With a day to think about it, I’m not sure it is, but Josephine Decker’s feature has ambition and the desire for greatness in spades — in the context of a festival that mostly inspired one “yup, that was fine” reaction after another, that counts for a lot. I was grinning throughout; it’s nice to see somebody going for it.

Decker’s Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely both start as clearly agitated but at least ostensibly normal narratives, then turn into remakes of The Shining in the home stretch, burning down an unresolvable narrative morass seemingly out of frustration — in both cases, it seemed like a pyromaniac punt I couldn’t hang with. Both films also play like a knowing annotation of the “crazy woman” trope: a protagonist who’s only deemed bonkers by a society that can’t handle women with strong personalities turns out to be actually crazy. Madeline’s Madeline rectifies this back-half gearshift by being bonkers from the start: it’s clear from the get-go that we’re trapped in a subjective POV that’s already fallen apart, so there’s no ground to lose.

The Madeline in question is a high-school actress (Helena Howard), part of an ensemble working on a new, improv-based piece under the guidance of theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker). Workshops and rehearsals based off psychic deep-dives will shape the production. Madeline’s already had at least one hospital-stay breakdown (a wristband confirms that, at least theoretically; the truth-value of everything in this movie is unresolvable) and this production literally seems hazardous to her health. As far as what’s summarizable, that’s basically it: this is an overwhelming 90-minute slipstream of fractured consciousness, overlapping voices (real or imagined), non-diagetic music and severely jumbled editing in which discontinuity is an aggressive weapon. This does not mean randomness: the movie tells you exactly how to watch it, twice over, in the opening stretch, with dialogue that both states “What you are experiencing is a metaphor” and talk of a “secret order” which “swings between sense and nonsense.” Once you know that, everything’s as clear as it’s going to get. Working with her regular ace DP Ashley Conner, Decker’s created an overwhelming mass of footage, mostly working from slightly out-of-focus medium/close-up shots and prioritizing energy over composition. (The end credits confirming this was developed from improv sessions makes total sense.) It’s a bracing dose of ambition in a festival that could use more – on the ground, it was a great tonic to close things out. Breakout masterpiece? That I’m not so sure of; it’s definitely an experience, but what else it might be on second pass is unclear to me. One pun I won’t let go of: there’s a lot of merging of personalities, and also a surplus of cat imagery. Call it Fursona? (Sorry.)

I have less to say about Talal Derki’s Of Fathers and Sons, even though it’s easily one of the strongest things I saw on the ground. This is an extremely accomplished and upsetting documentary that, in a better world, would not need to exist; on the scale of Syria nonfiction films, it’s slightly less depressing than Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, if only because the sheer volume of people killed onscreen is lower. Syrian-born/Berlin-based Derki returned to his homeland, passed himself off as a jihad-sympathetic war photographer, and embedded himself with a family headed by patriarch Abu Osama. The title should be taken literally, as women are almost invisible and silent when onscreen; this is a story of male pathology transmitted down the generations. Abu Osama loves Osama Bin Laden so much that he named one of his sons after him — he prayed for a child to be born on the anniversary of 9/11 and got his wish, God Is Great. Derki follows along as Abu discusses his grievances, drives and sings along to peppy tunes urging caliphate conquest and prepares his children to go off to jihadi camp. There is a sequence of Abu defusing a mine that, lord willing, will be the single most excruciating scene I endure all year.

Derki’s film is an amazing feat of staying calm in circumstances where I personally would be just praying to survive, let alone having the fortitude to think about framing — the distance between the camera and a gun/mine is often alarmingly close, and even though the director was there and obviously intact to introduce the film, it’ll make you sweat. Where the first half stays close to fathers and sons, they’re separated in the back half, and watching children undergo the full metal jacket treatment is a whole other flavor of upsetting. Abu Osama is a sympathetic protagonist in many ways (jihadis, they’re just like us), whose deep upset over what’s happened to his homeland has led down to a form of madness he’s passing to his children with the best of intentions. Watch it and prepare to have the rest of your day ruined; unfortunately, it’s necessary.

I have even less to say about David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is a drag — his They Came Together is one of the best slept-on recent comedies, and he’s generally responsible for a lot of funny work. Gesture is, unfortunately, a standard-issue biopic of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney, in which Wain’s name is not on the screenplay, which dictates that one act of fun must be balanced out by two acts of heavy drama. The thesis is that Kenney was wounded by his uncaring father, grew up to be a compensating cut-up who changed comedy forever, and acted in self-destructive ways that require repeatedly cutting back to the same childhood flashback/psychological Rosebud that explains everything. This is probably true (the biographical profile sketched here accords precisely with this very good Esquire profile from 1981), but a drag all the same.

The film is strongest in its first third, where all the jokes are. If you’re a nerd for this period of comedy and have Netflix (where it drops tomorrow), you might as well check it out: Thomas Lennon’s Michael O’Donaghue impersonation is amazingly spot-on, and various performers who look nothing like the people they’re playing still manage to nail their major traits: Joel McHale does Chevy Chase pratfalls, Jon Daly nails Bill Murray’s voice. As much as I vibed with Kenney’s voiceover about how hard putting out a magazine is and the kind of unhealthy self-medication that led him to, Gesture is annoyingly low on the specifics of what he did and when, skipping over the details of comedy lore for a broader psychological profile. Note that this is definitely a Netflix production in a production lavishness sense: there is a shot of 59th St., period-dressed for the early ’70s, which starts with an establishing shot looking down the entire street before panning left and zooming onto a building. That means there’s something like 40 cars on the street in a shot that’s fun to look at but is insanely expensive for five seconds of establishing context; please keep giving Wain more money, but let him write the script next time.

Before finishing this off, let’s talk about capital a bit more. Festival bumpers are nobody’s favorite kind of short film (content) — I’ve literally never heard anyone say how much they loved seeing that opening scroll of sponsors and vague images. Still, this year’s edition seemed to be driving everyone particularly off the walls. A series of words were slathered over stills in a font and colors that basically rip off the cover of The Life of Pablo; once the word salad is over, the music drops out and is recapitulated for the sponsor crawl. At one of my screenings, someone took their iPhone out and recorded this segment, presumably so they could hear this wonderful tune whenever they wanted for the rest of their life, and the running time for that back half alone turned out to be 39 seconds. One bright person at a party had a good idea of how to respond to this: every time a new word pops up, lean over to whoever’s sitting next to you and whisper “story.” This piece of content was credited as being animated by one studio + one person, but had three brand consultants listed; how do I get that full-time gig? It seems like a dream. Let’s not even get to into the “volunteer appreciation” bumper, lest I induce myself into an apoplectic rage. OK, fine: NB that it’s a bunch of quotes about The Power of Storytelling, sourced from, inter alia, Plato, Margaret Atwood and Robert Redford (all on the same plane!), who I’m sure wrote his own statement, just like I’m sure sponsor Kenneth Cole was one of the three (!) credited co-writers for a segment that takes all of a minute.

If all of this seems like a very specialized form of whining — well, it is, because it’s definitely a privilege and perk to be able to attend this festival as paid work. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to keep in mind how money works and shapes everything around us, especially in a realm where the question of where financing is coming from and what it takes to get it is especially pertinent. I’m unwilling to make a synoptic diagnosis about what kind of festival this shaped up to be or how it bodes for 2018 In Film; my one note here is that scanning the credits for every film almost always answers the question, “Why is this film screening here?” There’s always a name tied to a known network of creators, which both makes sense and limits the chance for gatecrashers and new talent from the outside.

So, lastly, Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything — the most pleasant surprise of my festival, and shockingly pertinent to these jumbled reflections. Kahn’s feature debut My Architect was fundamentally unreplicable; over 2+ sprawling hours, he traveled the globe to look at the buildings of his father, the famed Louis Kahn, and try to figure out the balance between the greatness of his work and his failures as a human being. You can’t go back to that well twice, and judging by his IMDB Kahn has been keeping a steady career going with workmanlike fare for TV that I wasn’t aware of. The Price of Everything delves into the art world, specifically the ways in which it’s mutated into a super-steroided commodities market. Kahn is still asking an above-average number of questions from behind the camera, and as someone who knows about money himself he’s completely unintimidated by the super-wealthy people who are his subjects, all terrific interviewees who can say precisely what they mean without mincing words. They can literally afford to be honest, because there will be zero repercussions. Predictably, this is both hilarious and unnerving.

The general subject is how the contemporary art market came to be so lucrative, and Kahn gets answers — this may be an entry-level primer that’s absolutely a standard-format HBO doc, but I knew none of this, so the answers were fascinating. That most successful of frauds, Jeff Koons, is given a lot of dubious credit for this; in a juxtaposition that’s so on-point as to be even unkinder than he undoubtedly deserves, stories of his rise are intercut with Wolf of Wall Street. In the kind of apposite coincidence that’s too good to be true (but is!), the opposite of Koons is Larry Poons — one last-name letter off, but who chose a different path, and whose return to the NYC gallery/auction world after decades out of fashion provides an interesting counterpoint. It’s bracing to hear rich people unapologetically say things like “It’s very important for good art to be expensive. You don’t protect something unless it’s expensive.” (Related question: how much do you want to scale up for your next film?) Some of the wealthy collectors frankly admit that they’re investing in a bubble market swimming with too much spare money, and that they’re part of the problem — capital operates us, not the other way around.

One of the side points the film (inadvertently?) makes is how this money travels: in a montage of the major artists who are particularly valuable on the market, nearly all the clips of Gerhard Richter et al. seem to come from the many, many documentaries made about contemporary artists over the last decade or so. If filmmaking is just a job, then reverse-engineering your subject by figuring out whose name would be enough to raise the budget is logical. Thinking about money, and how it shapes us, made this the most surprisingly apropos viewing experience I had on the ground. It was a short line from there to the director I talked to one evening who was debating whether or not to go to a particular industry party. His worry: “If I say the wrong thing to one rich person, that cancels out my entire day.” Assuming an average development time of two years, next year’s Sundance will be the first to be crammed with movies explicitly made in opposition to The Age of Trump, so we’re all going to have to keep thinking about this harder than usual.

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