Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sundance Wrap-Up - Unforseen and GWS

My favorite films at Sundance this year were Laura Dunn’s The Unforseen and Craig Zobel’s Great World of Sound. Both were films that made me glad I attended the festival, and that reminded me why I keep working in the realm of indie film. They are very different films, but similar in one key way – they are both artistic, small films about big ideas, with a lot of heart and apparently little chance of being seen by the masses.

Laura Dunn is one of our Fellows, but I don’t think I need much of a disclaimer – we’ve never met, she received her fellowship before I started working for Renew Media and it was for a different film. So half-hearted disclaimer aside, I think The Unforseen is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen at any festival in at least two years. It helps that it was shot by Lee Daniel, the cinematographer for Rick Linklater among others, and that her graphics (no small part of the movie) were done by Kyle Cooper, who has done the opening credits of Seven and Spider Man. Daniel’s footage is ethereal - a combination of old super-8 (from the looks of it) and modern footage which is always well-lit, beautifully framed and gorgeous to watch. Laura’s style evokes Terrence Malick, who was an executive producer of the documentary, and leaves you mesmerized – not an easy task for a film about urban sprawl, politics, the environment and a vanishing way of life in the Southwest. This is not a sensibility seen in many docs today, which often eschew visual style and an attention to form to focus solely on interesting subject matter. It’s one of the biggest problems facing documentary today, this lack of attention to form, and Dunn firmly establishes herself as one of the smartest documentary filmmakers precisely because of her attention to it. This film could have easily been much less of a movie, but through her attention to the craft of filmmaking, Dunn has styled an important film about a weighty subject. It is nuanced – you feel real pain for the “big, bad” developer - without striving for some mythical journalistic “balance.” It is important – urban sprawl and its effects on our environment shown for the political choices they are - without putting the weight of the world on your shoulders, like a powerpoint film. It is also beautiful, an aesthetic choice made not to save money and get it done fast, but to do it right. It is also, unfortunately, doubtful to be seen at a theatre near you anytime soon. It’s not easy to market, too long for most and while it has a star (Reford), he’s not the focus of the film. I never thought that the effects of a developer on little Barton Springs in Austin, Texas could have such an affect on me, but Laura Dunn’s treatment of the subject gives me new hope for documentary film.

Craig Zobel has been trying to make Great World of Sound for many, many years. I remember him pitching it years ago at the Atlanta Film Festival when he was working the fest scene affiliated with David Gordon Green. Zobel shows there truly was something in the water of North Carolina where he went to school with David (and Tim Orr and Lisa Muskat among others), because GWS is another little gem of Southern filmmaking, bigger by far than such a little film would at first seem. Manohla Dargis and Stu Van Airsdale have already beaten me to the punch with pointing out what a great little film this is, and that it hasn’t yet sold (rumor has it that some little distribs are looking into it), and that it is one of the only films that represents all that Sundance used to mean. It’s an accomplished film, with little in the way of budget or stars – although damnit if Kene Holliday wasn’t the best PI that Matlock ever had! But it does make a big ol’ lump well up in your heart with its beautiful, brutal honesty and bravery. Zobel’s story is ostensibly about a record production company that steals people’s money selling them the dream of getting famous quickly by helping to produce the record of their dreams and market it to the masses. You’ve seen the ads before in real life – let us help you make your record and become a star, but the producers here are just salesmen, and the company just a shell account for a get-rich-quick schemer. The brilliance of the film is that the two principal characters are dupes themselves, thinking at first that they really are helping discover talent and helping others realize their dreams. As these two slowly realize they too are pawns in a bigger racket, they actually warm to the game - becoming better salesmen even as they lose their faith in what they are doing. Zobel smartly, albeit painfully, keeps this film from coming around to a cheery ending – the characters aren’t redeemed, life hasn’t gotten much better by the end. But the film is as real as I could find at Sundance this year, and I learned afterwards that it was both more real, and more false, than I imagined.

Zobel approached GWS as an art experiment, in a way. The movie contains numerous scenes of talent auditions – actors, presumably, playing the role of really bad (and some good) singers, trying to get a break and make their dreams come true. After the film, I learned that most of these people weren’t actors, but had answered an ad in the Charlotte paper not unlike the bogus ads in the film. They would show up at the recording studio, which was really a production office for the film, with cameras hidden behind mirrors, and audition for two supposed record producers from LA – the principal actors of the film. The actors would improv their roles, in effect trying to sell their services – and some people would fall for it, while others didn’t – but all were filmed. These “reality” segments thus bringing an eerie sense of truth to the film. Of course, it’s not real – and quite problematic in many ways - but it also brings another dimension to the film, when these same people find out that they have been misled. They know they won’t get famous for their music, but hey, the film might play Sundance, and that’s somethin’. According to one producer, very few people got upset, and while some people knew elements of what was really going on, none knew the whole story. Yes, the great singer at the end was a “plant,” and yes, the parents of a little girl in the movie knew she wasn’t really auditioning, but for the most part, the people in the film are real folks, trying to get discovered. While I haven’t put my head around all of this yet, I’m pretty sure it’s no more misleading a practice than what we see on American Idol, and it’s definitely been put to greater artistic use, and commentary.

One of the lead characters, Martin (played superbly by Pat Healy), has a recurring line in the film about how there’s so much talent out in the world that deserves to be discovered, which is why he initially takes the job. I couldn’t help but find lots of parallels with the film world converging at Sundance, something that Zobel confirmed was on his mind as well when we spoke after the film. Sundance received over 5000 submissions for their 150 something slots this year. Festivals across America subtly tout the possibility – come play our festival, find a distributor or show on the big screen in front of an audience and maybe get discovered. Distributors come up to some of the “lucky” ones with an advance to buy their film and make you a big star – and yes, much like the shady producers in the film, all that some require is that you show a little faith and deliver a few items (like a print) that may cost as much as your advance. And yes, like the characters in this film, many of the employees of this film world have fallen for the hype, and truly think they are helping some talented people to get discovered.

Yes, there are many exceptions, but as almost any honest person who has been to Sundance more than once can tell you – there’s more than a little snake oil in Park City each year, and more than enough people willing to fall for the sales pitch in the hopes of being discovered. Zobel has smartly tapped into this dynamic with GWS, and ironically enough, is having a hard time selling his vision. I think it’s one that each of us can relate to, so some weird part of me has been hoping he finds a buyer and makes it big. Another part, of course, hopes he runs for the hills and takes the DIY approach of many a musician and does the hard work of taking himself on the road, being his own salesman and connecting to the millions of us with a dream of being discovered and a history of getting burned. In the process, he just might find an audience and get discovered as the artist he really has become.

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