Almost 6,000 films were submitted to the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for it’s yearly showcasing of new cinema, a ten-day affair during the last half of January in Park City, Utah. Of these, only 255 titles get into the program — if you don’t count the shorts that’s “only” 167 features.
Most spectators pace themselves and attend a chunk of either the first half or the second half, picking out films that start anywhere from 8:30am on toward ones that might stretch out until 2am. I’ve attended eight years in a row and this time I was only able to attend three-and-one-half days of the festival for eighteen films in all. Of these eighteen, I’d like to skip to the three that made the biggest impression on me.
So there you have it. Of 167 features I’m coming back to tell you of only three. Will I touch on the Blair Witch-like mock-doc shot in Afghanistan, or the 3-D Korean film, or the latest film by the director of American Movie about the real-life pranksters who infiltrate WTO meetings, or even David Lynch’s presentation of a film about his Eraserhead star on a self-destructing dvd?
Pathetically, no, I’m going to limit my reviews to the following three films — all of which should enjoy distribution to U.S. theaters in the near future.
Super Size Me
|Spurlock donates his body to science — and to film
The director becomes a willing guinea pig by observing his own fixed rules that only allow him to eat items on a McDonald menu for one solid month, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If he’s ever asked if he’d like to “Super Size” his meal he always accepts.
Along the way he uses the topic of our nations’ headlong rush toward epidemic obesity as a springboard for looking at other things besides his expanding girth and declining health, such as visits to public schools to see how cafeterias are now run, interviews with advertising and marketing executives, and attempts to talk directly with McDonald’s representatives.
Spurlock brings to the screen all the insight, humor, and polish that one would expect from Michael Moore. It’s almost surprising that Moore didn’t beat him to the punch (Ronald & Me...?), except that Moore’s physique would hardly allow for quite as impressive of a “before” and “after” presentation since an extra 25+ pounds on Moore would likely be lost to the casual viewers eye. Spurlock, on the other hand, has a Vegan girlfriend and is in the pinnacle of health before his McDiet, thus making his findings all the more ominous and dramatic.
Super Size Me was already the talk of Park City with the Sundance Film Festival still in its opening stretch, and the film made it to the finishing line with a Directing Award for Documentaries.
Super Size Me is an excellent companion piece to the best-selling Fast Food Nation (which the film, oddly, doesn’t quote from at all) and is an impressive piece of independent filmmaking that dares to take on the ever-powerful fast-food industry. Whatever publicity it is enjoying right now, one can’t help but speculate that current attention is the tip of the iceberg when compared against the kind of attention it’s going to get when it awakens the full wrath of the sleeping behemoth it has bitten.
Super Size Me was preceded by an animated short, Nibbles, by Chris Hinton – an appropriate and bouncy look at runaway consumption.
|Taylor (The Dandy Warhols) and Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) go for a drive
Both Taylor and Newcombe are brilliant musicians who met each other at the Dandys’ first show in San Francisco eight years ago. They still revere each other, but they are also bitter rivals, and their respective paths down radically different avenues of artistic manifestation are riveting from beginning to end.
In Dig!, the Dandys come across as the luckiest band on the planet. Their success in Europe outpaces their growing following in the U.S., and the likes of David Bowie, Robert Smith, the late Joe Strummer and Trent Reznor have all crowned the Dandys as personal favorites.
As the Dandys traipse across the U.S. and Europe they play to huge audiences and are obviously having the time of their lives playing a catchy pop and psychedelic-tinged brand of fun and moody music that is infectious. Their riff on Andy Warhol goes beyond the name and embraces the notion of nurturing the art of their friends who are painters, filmmakers, graphic designers, or other musicians, by taking their profits to create a space akin to Warhol’s Factory (the Dandys dub it “The Odditorium”).
In both music and vibe, they have rearranged the DNA of T-Rex and the Velvet Underground and made it their own. They have four albums out, and they just keep getting bigger. Like Andy Warhol, who could touch a soup-can and turn it into gold, the Dandys keep hitting the right notes and aim to enter the great rock pantheon.
As a flipside to the Dandys, the B.J.M. looks like of the unluckiest bands around. In Dig!, Newcombe’s self-destruction eclipses his musical genius. He slides into heroin addiction, resents the Dandys’ success, antagonizes his fellow band-members, his audience, and with each fight and digression Newcombe quickly establishes himself as his own biggest enemy.
Despite his crazy antics, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Newcombe, especially when the audience realizes that he comes from a broken home and that his father, a manic-depressive alcoholic who kills himself on Newcombe’s 30th birthday, passes along quite a bit of genetic and psychic baggage to his son.
What gets lost in the film is that, yes, Newcombe is constantly making a spectacle of himself, but anyone who listens to the B.J.M. is in for a serious treat – it’s solid stuff. When Taylor says that Newcombe is always three steps ahead of him musically, he’s not just blowing smoke for the camera. And when Newcombe derides the Dandys for their glib lyrics, a cursory comparison between the Dandys’ music and that of the B.J.M. supports Newcombe - he is genuinely performing an exorcism via his music on the many demons that haunt him and his lyrics have teeth. This latter point might also account for why the B.J.M. has put out eleven albums, three of which were recorded in one year alone, and despite the many hardships, the B.J.M. is still touring.
Like Brian Jones, the troubled-genius that helped propel the Rolling Stones in their early years but whose declining health and substance abuse ultimately led to erratic stage behavior and his drowning in a swimming pool, Newcombe seems destined to be that troubled genius that influences everybody but flirts with an early demise and risks becoming a footnote in musical history.
Or does the film blow things out of proportion? Newcombe’s response to Dig!, via his website, is that he “does not support the recently screened documentary film Dig! in its currently edited form. He feels strongly that the ‘Jerry Springeresque’ vilification of his nature is an inappropriate, miscontextualized, and exploitative use of the footage.” He’s also off the junk and possibly hitting a new stride.
Either way, Dig! won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is poised to make big waves with music fans across the nation who will surely help elevate Newcombe out of his obscurity and into the limelight. One hopes the newfound glory does not result in further self-combustion. It would be a tragedy to lose him.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring
|Kim Ki-kuk returns, but not to shock
With this, his ninth film, the 43-year-old writer/director/editor returns to another exotically beautiful location, also set atop water, but this time he refrains from any images that would send audiences running for the door. The story is centered on a small Buddhist monastery that floats in the middle of a large pond surrounded by lush vegetation and majestic rocks. An aged monk looks over a child monk as he grows up to be a young man.
The five segments of the film each represent the different stages of life, and it was shot in the North Kyungsang Province of Korea. In a director’s statement about the film Kim Ki-duk says “I intended to portray the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of our lives through four seasons and through the life of a monk who lives in a temple on Jusan Pond surrounded only by nature.”
Each segment is entered, and framed, through carved wooden doors that sit on the edge of the pond and open ceremoniously at the beginning of each season. It begins with spring, and the boy monk, somewhere around five-years-old, learns a lesson on cruelty. In the summer the boy monk is now 17-years-old and is introduced to a woman who is brought out on a pilgrimage to heal her spirit. With fall, the boy monk is now an adult of thirty years and returns to the floating monastery, on the run from the law for a crime he committed in a jealous rage. In the winter, the once-young monk is now a mature 43-year-old monk (actually, his age isn’t given, but as this monk’s phase is acted out by director Kim Ki-duk, it stands to reason). In this penultimate stage, the monk’s spiritual journey comes to fruition as he takes on an act of contrition that helps pave the way for the last segment, where the life cycle completes itself and begins again.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is an elegant film that composes each frame and scene carefully and is always brimming with nature’s beauty. Some aspects of the spiritual journey are predictable and already encoded in the unwieldy title, but the plot arc feels secondary to the visual discovery of the awe-inspiring scenery as a platform for an intricate dance between age and youth. The film was Korea’s official entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and has already screened at six film festivals, winning four awards at the 2003 Locarno International Film Festival.