It's potentially dangerous to look at the lineup of the Sundance Film Festival (which ended Sunday) as a reflection of the character of contemporary indie film, the collective American consciousness or, well, anything. But there's no question that the festival's 2012 edition was stuffed with films in some way touched by the psychological and practical fallout of economic crisis. Fiction and nonfiction features, whether broaching economics directly or indirectly, grappled with the difficulty of holding on to what you've got when everyone else is losing theirs. Many films suggested the new American normal is to dream not of accumulation or advancement but of merely maintaining the status quo.
It was blatant in documentaries such as Lauren Greenfield's Queen of Versailles, in which a nouveau riche time-share mogul's gaudy lifestyle is threatened by the mortgage crisis. The struggle to stave off total wipeout is given more poetic and evocative treatment in Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's city symphony documenting the devastating effect the elimination of manufacturing has had on Detroit.
The inherently degrading nature of a service-based economy gets bloodless horror-movie treatment in Compliance. Based on real-life incidents (Google "strip search prank call scam"), Craig Zobel's second feature takes place in a fast-food joint, in which a female, middle-aged middle manager is convinced by a male phone caller posing as a cop to detain and strip-search her pretty blonde counter girl. When the manager has to go back to relieve the restaurant's overburdened employees up front, the voice tells her she needs to find a male to supervise the still-naked alleged thief, and soon that "supervision" escalates to sexual assault.
Zobel waits a long while before revealing who the caller truly is and where he's calling from; once he does, as the characters continue to follow virtually every command with little protest, their gullibility mixed with the caller's gleeful smirking is scream-at-the-screen infuriating. And then, just when you're convinced that there is no humanity at the ChickWich, when it seems that horror-movie logic has taken over the movie's real world like a spell, suddenly that spell is broken.
As exploitative as it may be of an audience's goodwill, Compliance is not an exploitation film, exactly; it's more of a procedural on the worst-case-scenario endgame of labor abuse, in which uneducated, minimum-wage workers are subservient to their potential future selves, and everyone needs a paycheck too badly to let morality trump authority.
Whether or not it's a product of austerity, many of the narrative features I saw at Sundance took on the shaky-cam "immediacy" once primarily associated with documentary (and now a mainstream narrative tactic commonly employed by sitcoms plumbing for laughs by presenting the ridiculous as "real"). Sundance features such as Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as a couple of young married alcoholics, or the humorless portrait of a self-absorbed musician I Am Not a Hipster essentially pull the same trick as the sitcoms, without the jokes, appropriating the aesthetic to give their patently artificial situations, characters and dialogue the depth of tragic "reality."
In director Mark Webber's The End of Love, the actor (who was one of the exes in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and his toddler son, Isaac, play actor Mark Webber and his toddler son, Isaac, in a loose narrative about the young father's struggle to juggle single parenting with his libido and showbiz ambitions. Some of the story elements injected to give the film structure ring false, but the ample material of Webber just interacting with his kid achieves the sense of real-life-on-screen that so many of the other movies seemed to be shooting for. Sometimes drifting into cringe-worthy, raw-nerve personal territory, Webber comes across as humbly self-aware — something of a feat in a film that could accurately be described as a Hollywood actor's overly cute home-movie vanity project — while little Isaac would give the kid performance of the year, if there were any evidence that he truly understood he was acting.
Another film to use handheld close-up camera work in a way that transcends the current trend is For Ellen, directed by So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain). This slow, sparse, moody character study of a Chicago rocker/fuckup (Paul Dano) who arrives in a Midwestern small town to answer his long-estranged wife's request for a divorce and hopefully spend time with the daughter he's never met is virtually a showcase for Dano. At times it seems like he's doing an awful lot, particularly in contrast to Kim's naturalistic style and the film's staid environment. But For Ellen's final scenes reveal a fascinating tension between what we think we know about the character from what we've seen him do, and his actual internal life.
That gulf between outward appearance and reality is the subject of the best narrative film I saw at Sundance, Simon Killer, Antonio Campos' follow-up to his directorial debut, Afterschool (and last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, which he produced). Like Martha Marcy, Simon is built around an attractive, enigmatic young person whose recent trauma (in this case, the titular college grad, played by Brady Corbet, comes to Paris in an effort to recover from a rough breakup) both muddles his vision and complicates the film's view of his behavior. Simon is a character study willfully obfuscating the "truth" about its main character, and a psychological thriller offering only a misleading glimpse into a psyche.
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Simon claims early in the film to have been a neuroscience student specializing in the way the brain relates to the eye, and the gorgeous cinematography is constantly drawing attention to the way eyes — and cameras — work, with extreme focal changes amplifying the tension between foreground and background, and pulsing color-field abstractions acting as transitions. Slowly revealed as a pathological liar, Simon may or may not be an expert in the science of perception, but he shows particular aptitude for manipulating the perception of women, who repeatedly take what Simon shows them at face value and lose their ability to focus. Sensually rich, Simon Killer embodies cinema's power to manipulate the eye and the brain while also effectively dissecting the mechanics of male sexual compulsion.
That what we see is up for infinite interpretation is borne out by the most innovative nonfiction film at Sundance, Room 237, filmmaker Rodney Ascher's brilliant work of alternative film criticism — and a critique of criticism — that explores the conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Self-proclaimed experts, who are heard but not seen, make the case that the film is loaded with hidden allusions to the Holocaust and the genocide of the American Indians, and includes Kubrick's implicit admission that he "directed" the Apollo 11 moon landing. Ascher refrains from his own verbal commentary, or from pushing toward a single conclusion. Instead, he collages imagery from the film (and from other films, most notably Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) against the litany of interpretations offered via voice-over on the soundtrack, allowing the viewer to play filmic detective, sorting out the reasonable from the crackpot based on our own experience of the movie.
Disappointments? There were a few, including the uncontested "hit" of the festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin's thematic sequel to his much-acclaimed 2008 short, Glory at Sea. Billed as wholly original, the film is in fact an uneasy mash-up of Where the Wild Things Are, The Tree of Life and Trash Humpers. Set in a magical ghetto island of outcasts floating off the southern coast of Louisiana, it is all fairy-tale fantastic wonder, all the time. It stumbles in its attempts to anchor that wonder to something real: The film's central apocalyptic storm and its prehistoric beasts (both brought on by global warming), and its subsequent detour into a mainland displacement camp, make the Hurricane Katrina metaphor painfully literal.
And yet, it's the ultimate example of Sundance 2012's gallery of crises. At one point in Beasts, its 6-year-old heroine says something like, "The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right, and if you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back." This childlike faith in the possibility of returning to an old normal is undeniably naive — and, in positing wistful thinking as a game plan, it bore troubling resemblance to the supposedly adult perspectives delivered in what seemed like half the films at the festival.