By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Buried in the avalanche of advance blurbage that clogged my fax machine for weeks before this year’s Sundance Film Festival, lay an apparently guileless announcement by the ultracool fashion house Diesel -- which co-sponsored the festival‘s meet-and-greet space for nonfiction filmmakers -- to the effect that “Diesel strives to capture the essence and reality of global youth culture in fashion just as documentary cinema aims to record the authentic human experience with rare intimacy in film.” Now there’s a parallel not worth thinking about: I suppose this breezily cynical gobbledygook is the festival‘s cross to bear in return for the dough that enables it to showcase some terrific documentaries by recorders of the authentic human experience who have about as much in common with the Diesel credo on art and commerce as they do with the Harvey Weinsteins and camera-ready celebrities who crowd the pricey watering holes of Park City.
For sheer unmarketable esoterica, it would be hard to beat the subject matter of Southern Comfort, Kate Davis’ study of a transgendered community that makes its home in a Georgian trailer backwater. Not that movies about gender-bending don‘t sell -- John Cameron Mitchell’s highly entertaining transvestite rock fantasy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was a New Line property long before it came to the festival and ended up winning the Audience and the Directing awards. Yet even had she wanted to, Davis could not have turned her prime subject -- a friendly, whiskered female-to-male transsexual complete with hunting rifle -- into anything resembling exotica. Wisely, she doesn‘t reduce him to “just folks” either, in the anxious way of liberal heterosexuals striving for inclusivity. In this tactful, unsensationalizing slice of verite, Robert Ead speaks for himself, and what a voice he has -- wise, tolerant, amused, forgiving of the 20 doctors who refused to treat the horribly ironic ovarian cancer that is killing him, and reveling in his cobbled-together family of a transsexual “son,” the biological grandson whose father calls Robert “Mom,” and his own new love, a diffident, sexy, male-to-female transsexual named Lola Cola. By the end of Southern Comfort (which carried off the festival’s documentary prize), the strange has become not only familiar but very dear, and abstract questions of gender identity all but disappear into the lives -- at once particular and universal -- of a self-sustaining community whose end-of-story you‘re dying to know.
Much the same can be said of Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s haunting Trembling Before G-d, which makes the case for gay Orthodox Jews marooned between their faith and the equally powerful need to be true to their sexual selves. Luckily for DuBowski they‘re a preternaturally chatty and witty bunch, whose isolation from their roots (it would take an open-minded rabbi indeed to embrace someone claiming membership in a group called the Orthodykes) is evoked by the director’s astute visual composition. Surprisingly, the establishment they‘re up against includes some pockets of, if not acceptance, then certainly sympathy: One straight Orthodox youth, clearly at a loss after a tirade from a gay lapsed Jew who has lost contact with his censorious family, breaks his baffled silence to offer his fallen brother a slice of cake. In the end, given the uncompromising proscription of homosexuality in the Jewish texts, one has to agree with the voluble black sheep who, in sorrow and anger, concludes it may not be possible to be gay and Orthodox, and with the compassionate Israeli therapist who tells his gay religious clients that they will struggle with an intractable contradiction for the rest of their lives.
A different order of Jewish dilemma, though Lord knows no less colorful, propels the most interesting film I saw in dramatic competition. (As distinct from the most accomplished: Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which won for best screenplay, cleverly suspends its audience in the timeless anxiety of its protagonist, a man whose short-term memory loss compels him to relive his recent experience over and over.) The Believer, a richly eccentric drama based on the short, sharp life of a New York Jewish teenager who converted himself into a Jew-baiting skinhead, is written and directed by Henry Bean (who wrote Internal Affairs) and features a performance by the enchantingly named young Canadian actor Ryan Gosling that will surely have the agents circling like vultures. With its broad hints at parental dysfunction and its carefully positioned comic relief, the movie struck me at first as glib, until it flowered into a complex probing of Jewish philosophy, and of the unpalatable idea that evil simply exists, without reason. In the manner of its mouthy antihero, who loves and hates the doctrine that gives him his fierce intellect, I was arguing with the film, which took the Grand Jury Prize, for days.
Which, sadly, is more than I can say for two disappointing movies by directors I admire. One was Christopher Munch‘s The Sleepy Time Gal, a loosely autobiographical story starring Jacqueline Bisset as a sick woman drowning in regret for mistakes made and opportunities missed. As always, Munch’s romantic visual flair is superb, but his dialogue, which sounds as if it were lifted wholesale from a psychotherapist‘s case notes, mashes the movie’s emotional complexities into the kind of psychobabble you would never expect from the director of the sublime The Hours and Times (1991), Munch‘s exquisitely imagined weekend encounter between John Lennon and Brian Epstein. Intimacy, adapted from English writer Hanif Kureishi’s novella by French director Patrice Chereau, who made 1988‘s gorgeously elliptical Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, is a dank excursion into urban English alienation that, punctuated at all too regular intervals by quantities of graphic and gloomy sex, contrives to be at once overwrought and undercooked. What Kureishi, who wrote My Beautiful Laundrette and remains one of England’s scabrously entertaining writers, thought of this glum little number was perhaps indicated by his apparent absence from the festival.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city