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Sundance 2024: Stress Positions, Veni Vidi Vici

A white man with wet hair leans out of a window on a bright day.John Early in Stress Positions

Amidst diminishing film coverage and uncertainty about the future of arthouse theatrical distribution, Sundance offers movies arriving with distribution a near-guarantee of concentrated response while also implicitly making the case for elevating those works from the content mill and going to see them in a theater if/when general audiences get a crack at them. With three features apiece, NEON and A24 are tied for most features premiering here this year, a step down from last year’s six [!] last year in the latter’s case. The first NEON title to screen is writer/director/co-editor/co-star/composer Theda Hammel’s Stress Positions, a debut feature that offers the relative novelty of being the first period COVID comedy—not a rapid-response dramedy but an after-the-fact harvesting of summer 2020’s humorous potential, proceeding from the assumption that that experience is now far enough away to be productively re-purposed as a petri dish for the study of Brooklynite liberal foibles.

On hyper-vigilant lockdown, Terry Goon (John Early) is taking care of half-Moroccan cousin Bahlul (Qaher Harhash); because Bahlul is a young model, hornily inquisitive visitors intrude, including Terry’s trans woman friend Karla (Hammel), her lesbian girlfriend Vanessa (Amy Zimmer, wearing period-inappropriate Tevas), Terry’s terminally lusty soon-to-be-ex-husband Leo (John Roberts) and GrubHub delivery boy Ronald (Faheem Ali). The characters circle each other over the course of two extended setpieces that are structurally essentially the same—one a spontaneous visit from Karla that spontaneously devolves into drunkenness, the second a July 4th party that devolves into planned drunkenness.

Brooklyn, summer 2020, is reconstructed almost entirely in one apartment building plus backyard, its interiors cluttered with Clorox wipes and stockpiled crates of Kirkland products. The comic register is set by Early’s performance, which begins at the hysterical pitch of Gene Wilder in The Producers before dialing down slightly to “sad, drunk and bad at arguing.” In the first mode, the jokes are mostly of the “my, wasn’t lockdown crazy” kind: Terry frantically sprays disinfectant on a $20 bill before tipping Robert (did anyone ever actually do this anywhere?) and is zealous about making sure to lean out his window and bang a pan come evening. These actions indicate that he’s only a good progressive in equally paranoid and performative measure: His actual politics are hasty and intellectually half-baked, his apartment decorated with a poster of MLK ill-advisedly juxtaposed with JFK and RFK.

The basic comic point here is that all white liberals are full of shit, most especially when they’re exuding flopsweat while trying to not be racist, as demonstrated when both Terry and Karla say ignorant things about which countries are and aren’t from the Middle East. Later, Karla sets an American flag on fire and posts the video on TikTok, saying “it’s radical”; “it’s criminal,” responds Terry, freaking out that the NSA will track her down in response. It’s easily understood that both sides are “equally flawed”: Karla is doing it for the dopamine rather than out of conviction, Terry’s fears of the retaliatory security state have hypertrophied to Alex Jones levels. And if we’re “all” full of it one way or another, something which the film makes it exceedingly clear for viewers to diagnose, then it’s easy (a relief, even) to embrace a common-sense centrism that’s sexually progressive while otherwise rejecting ideological extremes (“of any kind”). 

The sense of humor is very not mine, roughly akin to an Instagram reel where a single comic will perform as, say, New Yorkers from different neighborhoods on first dates, their personalities sanded down to namechecked hot restaurants and on-trend sentiments. As embodied by one person, each type inevitably looks and sounds the same, and their superficial differences are irrelevant because the in-jokes are all aimed at the same kind of viewer, who will recognize the references and thus can’t help but be complicit, and probably secretly gratified. Stress Positions’s frame of reference is likewise limited, its sense of history foreshortened and thoroughly social media-pilled, and the audience is implicitly presumed to be roughly ideologically and demographically identical to those onscreen. A more charitable reading is that Bahlul has no choice but to move through atrocious white gatekeepers if he wants entree into NYC’s queer social life. But the targets were so soft, the main characters’ gaffes so obvious, I couldn’t help but think that in fact, some of us actually have done the reading—at least enough to know better than to create a narrative in which non-white characters serve primarily to place into relief the psyches, however objectionable they may be, of the leading white protagonists. 

More satire: Daniel Hoesl’s official bio states that he “uses film to examine the price of money,” while his co-director Julie Riemann’s says their work together (including previous documentary Davos) “addresses the themes of wealth, power, and entitlement.” Both statements are incontestably true of Veni Vidi Vici, whose opening epigraph is taken from The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark: “The point is, who will stop me?” For Ayn Rand, this was a positive soundbite from her rapist superman about willing greatness into the world; Veni’s task is to transform that boast into a call-to-action for the audience to rise up. As immediately established in the first two shots, this is The Most Dangerous Game in the Austrian countryside, with the mad hunter being Amon (Laurence Ramp), patriarch of an ultra-wealthy family. He shoots randos to blow off steam—or, as daughter Paula (Olivia Goschler) observes in her affectless monotone voiceover, “he likes to be in nature. For his work-life balance.” Subsequent ironies are similarly thick and unmissable. 

I was mainly curious about Veni because Ulrich Seidl is its producer. (After doing some homework, I learned that he’s a producer on a large number of films every year, so this isn’t as unique a distinction as I initially thought.) Thematically, this is closest in his filmography to 2016’s Safari, which was an aggravatingly long feature expansion of what Peter Kubelka did in 13 minutes in 1966’s Our Trip to Africa: document aggressively repellant Austrians on their ideal vacation of shooting animals. The footage’s self-indicting qualities are self-evident to pretty much literally anybody else, and the substitution of people as the target is barely relevant to the overall idea. In practice, this blandly shot film bears no meaningful stylistic resemblance to Seidl’s malignly accomplished mise-en-scene, relying on humorlessly clear dialogue (“Ethics. What a waste of time”) to propel an unsurprising trajectory: gleeful shitheads prosper while mentoring a younger generation whose uncontrollable evil may cross what few lines remain.

Adults understand that while satire will almost certainly lack the power to meaningfully afflict the powerful, it might nonetheless comfort the powerless through bluntly expressed anger, analytical wit or some precisely calibrated combination of the two. But the uselessness of Veni’s condemnation is evident from the very beginning and the jokes never get any sharper. Unable to conceive, Amon and wife Viktoria (Ursina Mardi) are raising Paula, from Amon’s first marriage, plus two adopted children of color—but Amon kills people, so maybe rich people are hypocritical and bad after all, et al.

Veni’s minor insights include providing examples of when Austrians integrate English into their speech, the majority of the time relating to business (the codification of corporate culture and vocabulary being one of America’s lasting global contributions to the world). Mostly the film gave me a (slightly) greater appreciation for Ruben Östlund who, whatever the hyper-obviousness of his targets, at least understands that he must provide surplus value besides blunt social diagnoses and creates clearly difficult-to-execute setpieces whose visible lavishness indict their self-defeating status as expensive commodities. (That may be an interpretive stretch, but at least Östlund tries to be funny in a way that isn’t 100% predictable.) No similar labors here: There is something tremendously lazy about a film that not only uses the most familiar classical music cues, like “The Blue Danube,” as ironically beautiful counterpoints to ugly acts, but makes sure to underline the intended effect by defacing those staples with overlaid yelps (Richard Frohlich’s “psycho screams 2”) obtained via a Creative Commons license. To properly embody its thematics, shouldn’t this production spread the wealth to musicians along with the rest of the crew? While Veni explicitly reiterates its call to rise up at its end, it had the opposite effect on me in motivating me to speak my truth: rich people, I am ethically flexible and eminently available for your communications needs.

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