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Sundance 2017. Correspondences #1

Our Sundance coverage begins with the travails of crossing the Canadian-US border, followed by "Lady Macbeth" & Dustin Guy Defa's new film.
Person to Person
Person to Person
Dear Lawrence,
Sometime during our excursion from Vancouver to Park City you asked about a movie I’ve been planning in my head for over a year. Though neither of us are filmmakers by trade or by nature, we both have an innate desire to create, to harness life experience and transform it into something universal: into art. But as critics, we’ve become accustomed to deciphering meaning rather than creating it, better at explaining with words than evoking with images, inspired to discuss others’ stories but not tell our own.
But instead of making a movie, my life had become one. Our trip began on Wednesday with a two hour inspection at the border where we were ultimately turned away. The next day was gonzo, shifting tones at a breakneck speed, jerking us around from crushing disappointment to hope, from frustration to elation. If Wednesday seemed like a dystopian satire (didn’t the border office look like something out of Total Recall?), Thursday was a breakneck screwball of dilemmas, with us rushing from one setting to the next: a visit to the US consulate, debates over semantics and loopholes in Visa laws, and a last-ditch attempt to cross the border. The sudden rush when we finally made it through to the USA dissipated quickly as the long trip ahead settled in.  But did you sense something sublime about the drive, something cinematic? The landscapes framed by the windshield, the early morning fading in, the flat Idaho farms covered in a layer of powdered snow, two perky mountains almost touching each other with us traversing the crevice between them: this array of images bled into my exhausted eyes, registering in impressionist strokes of light. For a few seconds there, almost all of this mess seemed worth it.
Jump cut to us at our first film, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth. When I noticed your head nodding off in the opening few minutes, I knew you were a goner. Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov, the film follows the powerful ascent of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a wealthy young woman in 18th century, who fights back against the patriarchal order and its repression of her autonomy and control of her sexuality. In the first shot, the eponymous woman is married off to a middle-aged man who is left offscreen. As the men in the congregation sing a hymn, the bride’s faint voice quietly interjects in the male chorus’ song. This hidden oppression haunts the sound design throughout the film; the tying of a corset, the closing of windows and doors, the noise from approaching footsteps—actions that domesticate and lock Katherine in her position—are registered in a violent, loud pitch.
Despite replicating a classical melodrama, Lady Macbeth has a modern point of view. Katherine’s affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a peasant that works on the plantation, is not born out of love but unkempt desire. The film thus becomes less about which man she’ll choose, than which one she’ll use to gratify her lust for sex and violence. But what starts off as interesting and potentially inventive becomes more and more confused as it goes on. After a few developments in the second act, the tone is less assured, playing the melodrama as tragedy and ending with a simple-minded view of how race and gender relate to privilege and power. And the sound design continually reaffirms and repeats the same strategy over and over with little variation.
While you were checking out the new documentary/performance by Travis Wilkerson, I caught one of my more anticipated films of Sundance, Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person. An anthology of barely connected stories, the 84-minute film has around ten main characters and four primary plot lines, each one small, quirky and deceptively wise: a reporter and his trainee investigate a potential murder and attempt to retrieve a watch that could be important evidence in the case; a bearded hipster with a polka dot shirt tries to buy a rare record from a goofy fraudster; the hipster’s roommate who is afraid to leave his apartment is confronted by his ex-girlfriend's brother after he posted nude pictures of her online; and the friendship of two teen girls is tested by their difference in values and personality, one sex-crazed, the other depressed and cynical. In some sense, Person to Person is strangely similar to Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, both of which examine lingering communal trauma in New York City. And instead of directly referencing 9/11 or drawing a clear cut relationships between that event and how the characters behave, we get a sense of a larger ecosystem of people, with the history of the city always underlying as subtext. Person to Person’s “Sudancey” sheen is perceptively undercut. The characters try on tropes as identities without perfectly fitting in them. The editing is poignant and deliberate in this regard, breaking expectations and observing detailed gestures with patience and delicacy. There’s something very powerful about the exact moment Defa choose to cut from one scene to the next, sometimes right before a sequence climaxes, other times it’s a few seconds after. In almost every case, the cut is unexpected and re-interprets what came before. It’s a small film that manages to pack multitudes within itself.
Today, an interviewee no-showed, the festival’s Wi-Fi networks were cyberattacked, I got stuck on a bus for an hour because of the Trump protests, and I stepped in a puddle that soaked through my socks. It never ends. And it's 6PM. And I still haven’t seen another film. And I only ate breakfast. But from now on, here’s to the good movies we’ll see and the bad ones, the good sentences we’ll publish and the not-so-good ones, the images we’ll remember from this trip and the ones we’ll want to forget. May our socks stay dry and may our criticism aspire to the level of the best cinema we see here.
All the best,
Josh
Glad you made it - and it's Travis Wilkerson ;)
owen
chairs to the good movies!

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