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Peaks and Valleys at a Flat Sundance Film Festival

by Steve Ramos on January 28, 2014

Sundance 2014 festivalgoers outside the main box office Photo by Steve Ramos

Sundance 2014 festivalgoers outside the main box office (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

PARK CITY, Utah — It feels slightly unfair to label the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped Sunday after a ten-day stint, flat and underwhelming due to the lack of a breakout, buzzing, hit movie along the lines of last year’s Fruitvale Station or the preceding’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. No offense to the audience-friendly Whiplash, filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s coming-of-age drama about a young drummer that won both the U.S. Dramatic jury prize and audience award. To be honest, by the close of the frenzy-free 30th edition of Sundance, no one was predicting Beasts of the Southern Wild-like success for Whiplash. It just doesn’t look to be one of those talked-about, history-making Sundance movies.

One thing was clear as audiences smiled and clapped for actor/filmmaker William H. Macy’s likable musical melodrama Rudderless, the Sundance Closing Weekend premiere featuring Billy Crudup as a father using music to overcome a horrible tragedy involving his college-age son. But the more artistic films from Sundance 2014 were screened away from red carpet spotlights and celebrity sightings.  These truly impactful movies from Sundance 2014 were somewhat hidden and slightly subversive, which added to the fun of their discovery.

Actress Kristen Stewart may have looked sweet embracing Sundance Institute Founder Robert Redford before the premiere of her Guantanamo Bay drama Camp X-Ray, writer/director Peter Sattler’s drama about a young female guard (Stewart) trying to survive the infamous prison’s harsh conditions. Camp X-Ray is meant to be Stewart’s Hurt Locker, meaning an explosive drama that pivots her career in a new direction but it ends up being just a notch above cinema mediocrity.

In fact, it’s the disappointment of high profile Sundance movies like Stewart’s Camp X-Ray, as well as Michael C. Hall’s bloody, Texas-based crime thriller Cold In July, Anne Hathaway’s musical drama Song One and the spy thriller A Most Wanted Man (boasting no less than Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, and Robin Wright), that help form the opinion that Sundance circa 2014 is “flat” and “buzz-less.” There’s a sad trickle-down effect when the films featuring celebrity casts are letdowns.

The key with most Sundance festivals, but especially true this year, is to seek out the gems lying off the beaten path.

'52 Tuesdays' filmmaker and artist Sophie Hyde outside her interactive photo booth

’52 Tuesdays’ filmmaker and artist Sophie Hyde outside her interactive photo booth

Australian director Sophie Hyde won a well-deserved directing prize for her feature-length drama 52 Tuesdays, the heartfelt story of a teenage girl coping with her mother’s plans for a gender change, inventively filmed every Tuesday over an entire year. Hyde’s movie is fresh and innovative, but the Adelaide-based artist achieves incredible scale by complementing the feature-length film with a photo booth-inspired installation titled My 52 Tuesdays and a parallel digital app that poses a question every Tuesday to participants over the course of the next year.

It’s more fun waiting in a long line at the festival’s New Frontier multimedia space to get one’s photo snapped at the My 52 Tuesdays photo booth than fighting the crowds outside the Eccles Theatre to watch Ryan Reynolds share scenes with a talking cat and dog in the black comedy The Voices.

‘My 52 Tuesdays’ interactive photo booth from artist and filmmaker Sophie Hyde

“I really do like the idea of a classic, theatrical release for 52 Tuesdays,” Hyde told Hyperallergic. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited about the app and interacting with this growing community. But I also like the festival experience where someone comes up to me in person and telling me how much they like the movie.”

In terms of razzle-dazzle both on-screen and off, Ricardo Rivera and his creative team from Philadelphia-based media shop Klip Collective return to Sundance to break new ground in 3D projection mapping courtesy of their Egyptian Theatre installation, What’s He Projecting In There?, as well as crafting a short companion film running before each festival program.

Klip’s festival short is vibrant and beautifully shot, a digital celebration of movie going as seen through the eyes of a patron outside the Egyptian Theatre ticket window.

Still, Klip’s greater contribution to Sundance 2014 and all its visitors is its 3D projection mapping that combines footage of actors shot on-location last summer in Park City and scenes from past Sundance breakouts from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Hoop Dreams to tell a story that zigzags across the Egyptian Theatre exterior.

Using custom-built 4K digital projector housing installed atop a vacant building across Main Street, Rivera and his Klip team create an outdoor cinema running all night every night throughout the festival.

For fans familiar with their work for Nike’s M8 NYC Flight Event, featuring a gigantic projection of Knicks star Carmelo Anthony dribbling and dunking across the Hudson River, What’s He Projecting In There is a natural next step to their creative risk-taking. Still, when compared to so many of the so-so titles in the festival program, one really appreciates how Rivera works hard at finding a new medium of cinematic storytelling through 3D projection mapping.

3D Projection Mapping on the iconic Egyptian Theatre by Klip Collective

3D Projection Mapping on the iconic Egyptian Theatre by Klip Collective

“I love hearing the crowds of people laugh at just the right moments,” Rivera tells us, standing in the nighttime chill across from the Egyptian Theatre. “People may not realize it as first but they’re watching a story. That’s what we’re pursuing, new forms of storytelling at a scale never attempted before.”

Somewhere between What’s He Projecting In There and a conventional Sundance screening venue is “The Source (Evolving),” media artist Doug Aitken’s newest installation, a two-thousand-square-foot pavilion designed with architect David Adjaye that continuously displays Aitken’s six-channel documentary movie to passersby.

“The Source (Evolving),” a recreation of the pavilion Aitken installed at the Tate Liverpool in 2012, features Aitken’s short interviews with various artists including Jack Pierson and Jacques Herzog. Passerby can watch the footage via the pavilion’s transparent panels but the more powerful experience comes by visiting inside and immersing oneself into the multiple viewing chambers.

Doug Aitken, "The Source (Evolving)" (2014)

Doug Aitken, “The Source (Evolving)” (2014)

Like much of the art at Sundance this year, “The Source (Evolving)” also has a digital parallel, an online community that archives Aitken’s interviews with the promise of more artist talks to come.

And back in cinemas, if one carefully steers clear of the festival’s more mainstream fare, there are movies that turn out to be anything but flat.

White Shadow director Noaz Deshe collaborates powerfully with his East African cast to tell a powerful drama set in the albino body parts trade. Deshe tells an unflinching drama that’s honestly brutal and horrifying but there’s no looking away.

Directors Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin collaborate on the festival’s liveliest documentary, The Notorious Mr. Bout, an enthralling look at the life story of Russian arms dealer and war profiteer Viktor Bout, the inspiration for the Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War.

'The Notorious Mr. Bout' directors Tony Gerber (l) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (r)

‘The Notorious Mr. Bout’ directors Tony Gerber (l) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (r)

“We had to bootstrap this movie,” Maxin Pozdorovkin tells Hyperallergic, sitting alongside Gerber near the close of the festival. “None of the traditional funders would touch this movie. So it’s extremely gratifying to have audiences embrace the movie. It’s a ‘I-told-you-so’ moment for us.”

If Incredible Mr. Bout is larger-than-life storytelling, director Jesse Moss reveals the emotional power of intimate, handheld, singular P.O.V. moviemaking with his incredible documentary The Overnighters, a fascinating look at the oil boom in North Dakota and the terrible toll on the locals as well as the transplants seeking a piece of the American dream.

The festival movie that offers the most fun is Frank, director Lenny Abrahamson’s sly and sweet tale about a young musician joining an art band based on the real-life artist Frank Sidebottom. Abrahamson casts Michael Fassbender in the Frank Sidebottom role, which keeps his famous face hidden behind a cardboard head for most of the movie.

Veteran actor John Slattery steps far away from his role as misbehaving ad exec Roger Sterling on AMC’s Mad Men for his feature-film directing debut, the gritty, blue-collar drama God’s Pocket, featuring Sundance veterans Philip Seymour Hoffman and Richard Jenkins as well as Slattery’s Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks as working-class folk getting by day-to-day in their South Philly neighborhood.

I enjoy watching Slattery in Mad Men more than most people, but I liked watching his blue-collar melodrama God’s Pocket even more. At Sundance, Slattery takes advantage of the risk-friendly landscape to showcase a new artistic chapter for all the world to see.

Rose McGowan

The same self-transforming spirit is embraced by Rose McGowan, who sidestepped red carpets and “Sexiest Woman Alive” photoshoots to premiere her short film Dawn at the festival’s highly competitive shorts program.

McGowan took the stage opening night alongside a soft-spoken Chinese filmmaker making his first visit to America and a Canadian animator to discuss her love of period dramas and a desire to take an honest look at a teenage girl’s sexual awakening.

“I’m starting a new chapter from scratch,” McGowan said, speaking the morning after her premiere. “Yes, this is Rose McGowan 4.0: a complete transformation.”

Perhaps what McGowan was describing is the new Sundance dream, something different and somewhat more inclusive than past festival mythologies built upon Paris Hilton sightings and over-capacity venues. More importantly, these are Sundance aspirations that tumble out of the hidden corners and fringes of the festival. These are discoveries, not celebrity vanity projects, and it’s that novelty that continues to make Sundance worthwhile even in those years that industry pundits deem it “flat.”

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