“How was your day?” you ask. Hmm.
Well, we’ve just past the halfway mark of the festival, and I’m only now in step with its routine and rhythm: wake up at 6:45, drive through the blizzardy Canyon between Salt Lake City and Park City, run to the press office, sprint from the headquarters to the first screening of the day, and so on, and so on. Film festivals are hardly work yet they’re hardly a vacation either, and at this point, I’ve lost almost all the ecstatic anticipation I had on the first day. My Sundance has been a constant negotiation of two competing impulses: gratefulness and cynicism, excitement and exhaustion, depression and fulfillment. So, to answer your question, it’s complicated.
Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits is one of the festival’s most perceptive films about the ambivalence of human behavior (the most would be, as you noted, Luca Guidagnino’s Call Me by Your Name). Seven tenuously connected characters deliberate between what is logical and what is desirable, what is right and what feels good, what is satisfactory for themselves and what is considerate of those they love. A lonely Australian woman, Naomi (Emily Browning), moves to New York for an internship with Nick, an archivist organizing the documents of his deceased father in law. Meanwhile, his wife, Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), grows skeptical of the nature of their working relationship, especially because her husband has been unfaithful in the past. And there’s the possibility of another extra-marital affair between Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) and Naomi, who are re-connecting after meeting once when they were children.
Where Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth are direct and abrasive, Perry’s latest is assembled in a subtler and gentler register. As the director noted in his post-screening Q&A, Golden Exits is a deliberate reversal of his previous work. Made under a different set of rules and limitations, hand held camerawork is traded in for static shots, and deranged, self-obsessed characters are now solemn and sympathetic. While his two previous films can be gluttonous expulsions of id, Golden Exits does away with almost all overt conflict, internalizing fantasy in texture, image and performance: sunlight filtered through green and red stained glass, characters emotional distance evoked in graphic matches of spacial distance in the frame, or the frequent fades to black which conjoin these disjoined stories.
Another film about suppressed desire, Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats chronicles a Brooklyn teenager’s sexual awakening. When the film opens Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is browsing a gay webchat site populated mostly by older men, his only outlet for his bourgeoning sexuality. But Frankie represses this and almost every other non-normative aspect of his life: popping prescription drugs to forget about his terminally ill father, spending time with his belligerent, macho friends to deny his sexuality, and pursuing a relationship with a girl he met at a nearby amusement park to preserve an appearance of hyper-masculinity. If we go to the cinema to acquire knowledge, take in new images and understand different perspectives, Hittman has very little wisdom to offer, adopting conventional beats present in most mainstream queer cinema. Beach Rats is made in an established aesthetic mode and narrative schema and does little to rejuvenate or complicate these ubiquitous forms.
Altogether more fascinating is Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, a stagey, slow sci-fi film, which was proclaimed by its director (who was presumably responding to some lame-ass reviews) as “a movie” and not “a meditation.” The film is, however, based on the Pulitzer Prize nominated play by Jordan Harrison, and the theatrical influences remain all too in place. Sometime late in the 21st century, androids have been invented that replace deceased family members. Shaped by oral descriptions of memory, the more the androids learn of “themselves,” the closer they come to fulfilling their purpose—developing to a point where they are indistinguishable from their human counterpart. The film’s opening is the best sequence, dropping us in the middle of a familiar but peculiar world (the production design of not-so-distant future is one of the film’s strongest elements). Marjorie (Lois Smith), old, frail and forgetful, is seen alone talking to her much younger man, Walter (Jon Hamm). Walter is not Walter, but a replication of him, formed by Marjorie’s fading, idealized memory. He is young because that is how she chooses to remember him; he is as she remembers not as he actually was. Marjorie lives with her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins), who also shape Marjorie’s history by implanting memories in her. The director’s previous film, the polarizing and fun as hell Experimenter, meticulously built a labyrinthine puzzle of deception and hidden meanings, whereas this film is less assured and more wrought; the android’s choice of pronouns, the theme of how memories change over time, and the structural arc emerge out of dialogue, not detail.
As the days meld together and Sundance becomes nothing more than a snowy blur, the fruits of our mutual experience will live on well after the screenings and our discussions of them. While I venture further and further along my cinephilic journey, I’m learning to value the art form for not only aesthetic experiences, but also a bridge between people. A lot of our time here is spent standing in line with strangers, driving together early in the morning and late at night, eating meals on-the-go, and rushing from one film to the next. But in the middle of all this, the off-shooting point for our conversations are the films we see, whether we’re gushing over the good ones or complaining about the bad ones. It’s easy to let it all slip by. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad day.
Off to you, my friend.