Sundance 2015, Dispatch 4: Experimenter, Station to Station and Listen to Me Marlon
It’s been far too long since Michael Almereyda’s last feature, 2009’s dreamy diary film Paradise; his 2015 return with not one but two features (the Ethan Hawke-starring Cymbeline adaptation Anarchy is set for release later this year) is overdue and very welcome. Experimenter, a pared-down biopic of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, ostensibly exists to hit the career highlights, but it’s far from standard issue. As in his career (the writer said with all the authority conferred by a quickly read Wiki), the film begins with, and is dominated by, Milgram’s obedience to authority experiments. The “teacher” sits on one side of a partition, unable to see the “student” on the other side. Questions are asked, each wrong answer resulting in the administration of an electric shock all the way up to 450 volts. The “teacher” doesn’t know there’s no shock actually being given; the point is to see how blindly people will obey instructions.
Breaking the fourth wall early and often in a career-best performance (or at least since Shattered Glass), Peter Sarsgaard’s Milgram explains how a fascination with the evils of Nazi Germany informed his interest in finding out how and why people can be convinced to perform acts abhorrent to their nature. He’s trailed, in two hallway monologues, by an elephant (presumably the ghost of the one infamously electrocuted in an early Edison short), the first of many alienation/non-naturalistic devices. Pascal’s Pensées informed Happy Here and Now, and Experimenter is similarly and unrepentantly allusive (Almereyda certainly doesn’t fear the “pretentious” label, nor should he), quoting Nabokov’s Speak Memory and Montaigne (“We cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”) to place Milgram in context. In the film’s final moments, Milgram finds the bright side to his depressing conclusions: if we are just “puppets with awareness, with perception,” then “perhaps with awareness comes liberation.”
This career overview is the surface text of Experimenter, and it’s a fascinating one; what’s going on formally is even more interesting. It’s evident very early that this is a cash-strapped production. Almereyda starts small with the experiment’s facilities and in the university parking lot outside, manageable locations he does a bang-up job with (“classicist craft” if you like). The room tone is perfect — a loud, unnerving hum in the “teacher”‘s room contrasted with the airless quiet of Milgram’s observational space — and Almereyda matches the harsh buzzing of an electric doorbell at the party where the psychologist meets future wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) with the sound of electric shocks, suggesting the inextricability of Milgram’s life and work.
For a while, it seems as if Almereyda might try to confine the movie to three locations tops. This proving impractical, he battles a lack of resources with overt artifice. When Milgram and Sasha drive to meet his mentor Solomon Asch (Ned Eisenberg), they journey against flagrantly implausible rear-screen projection, in black and white no less. Throughout, Almereyda chooses backdrops that suggest the era connotationally rather than trying to represent it literally — the glossy colors of illustrated advertising art, a mock-up of the Dick Cavett set replicating the famous blue wall and little more — and saddles Sarsgaard with a patently fake beard for the ’70s. These are both alienation effects and experiments in seeing exactly how much or little it takes to suggest an era. What can be recreated, with what degree of plausibility, and what does it matter once a certain threshhold is reached? Per this fictional Milgram, “illusion can set the stage for revelation,” even more so if the illusion is transparent. (For what it’s worth, each and every extra is perfectly dressed for their period.) The representational hall of mirrors hits an apex when Milgram watches his experiments heavily fictionalized into a TV movie starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis, played respectively by Kallen Lutz and Dennis Haysbert. For all this distancing maneuvering, the film’s no less philosophically urgent or emotional, and the final shot’s a stunner.
I dipped a toe into the New Frontiers section — where Sundance lets the more-or-less avant-garde flourish alongside New Media and other uncategorizables — with Doug Aitken’s Station to Station, about as novice-user-friendly as a non-narrative could get for someone totally unfamiliar with his work or interests (that’d be me). A nine-car train traveled coast to coast, stopping for ten “happenings”; the whole thing was sponsored by Levi’s (read a skeptical appraisal of one stop here). The resulting film is actually 61 one-minute shorts — not rigorous, James Benning-ish tableaux, but a rapid parade highlighting musicians and artists.
I don’t know a thing about Aitken, but I do know his aesthetic isn’t mine: one short is devoted to a minute of that hoariest of cliches, the beauty of various people’s hair floating in the wind in slo-mo. (Life is evanescent, pretty, and easily reduced to a few familiar tropes.) Nor am I much interested in Aitken’s (sporadic) voiceover observations: why, exactly, would “the road” be the last place where rich and poor meet? (What road? Where to? Who travels it and who pays for it? Levi’s?) But I can’t claim to have had a bad time watching Station to Station, the cinematic equivalent of having someone extremely culturally knowledgable take you on a epilepsy-inducing YouTube tour of stuff they like. I was tickled, for example, to learn of the existence of Cauleen Smith’s project Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band — the idea of a marching band, no matter how temporary, devoted to letting us know space is the place is just great.
The quality of insight delivered by artists is predictably variable: if you want to hear Ariel Pink babbling about writing a song about Nostradamus while wearing a Bela Tarr t-shirt, you have that option, but you could also learn, as I did, about Aaron Koblin’s laser experiments. Failing that, you could head the wise words of the band Bloodbirds, who know exactly what they’re about: “We’re not trying to do anything. We’re just trying to have a good time.” What does that mean? “We get drunk.” The music is constant, loud, all pretty impeccably curated, and the cross-section of modern artists interesting to someone like me who barely knows this terrain. There’s a bit too much talk of “just stopping” and appreciating life for what it’s worth (from the observation car, I presume), which plays hypocritically in this hyper-frenetic context. But surely nearly everyone could learn about someone they didn’t know about before, and at 61 minutes — each labeled onscreen, allowing you to track exactly where you are in the film — it’s impossible to get bored. Silly but fun, even if its idea of transcendence is too often shots of people rapturously dancing at shows.
Listen to Me Marlon is a very good film of its kind, if not precisely for me. I’m interested in, but not deeply passionate about Marlon Brando, but — with access to the actor’s copious archive of tapes of self-hypnosis, to-do lists, answering machine messages, etc. — director Stevan Riley’s succeeded in telling a familiar story almost entirely through the actor’s own words and those of important people in his life. It’s a semi-classical compilation documentary (improbably, my second film of the day to include a Dick Cavett interview), minus some unexceptional but harmless bridging footage envisioning Brando’s Omaha childhood in a two-story black-and-white house, with walks through the woods looking up at a Malickian sun gloomily beaming through the leaves. The big, bookending get is a digital scan of Brando’s disembodied head reciting Shakespeare and predicting that motion-capture is the future, a truly eerie/ethereal image.
Brando’s semi-tragic story is told with an emphasis on the actor’s inner life rather than on a film-by-film breakdown; e.g., do not expect acknowledgment of the existence of The Teahouse of the August Moon or The Island of Dr. Moreau. The familiar highlights are here — his ’60s decline into hackwork, Tahitian sojourns, social activism, ’70s resurgence, battles with obesity, etc. — but told with renewed vigor. The clips, home movies, and news footage have been carefully sourced and logically assembled: using the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty to metaphorically represent the actor’s struggles for control over his dialogue and material is a typically smart move. A Brando-loving colleague told me it felt like being in the actor’s head, a rare feat considering that he still retains considerable enigmatic mystique, and the elegiac finale — repurposing the actor’s self-hypnotizing injunctions to let go to simulate his final moments — is genuinely moving. Fans only, perhaps, but a much better primer than usual; produced by Showtime, it’ll air on the network later this year.