What have you seen? What’s good? What’s sold?
While these are the main topics of conversation at Sundance every January, there are others, like, “Despite all the craziness, isn’t this festival just wonderful?”
Picture us sitting, say, in the “secret” tiki bar at the back of the pop-up Audible Lounge on Main Street, mai tais at hand, and it’s my turn to share about Sundance 2020. Here’s my barstool take:
◍ You gotta check out The Glorias, the new Gloria Steinem biopic by Julie Taymor. I think what moved me and the audience so much was that Steinem gave voice to the voiceless. The film masterfully manages to portray the conscious and unconscious forces that made her able to create Ms. magazine. An optimistic showman for a father, a mother whose own writing voice was stifled, a crucial trip to India, and indulgent fantasy sequences are shuffled together and played by four actresses as Steinem at different ages.
As I said to a newspaper friend about the film, I could pick it apart, gripe about loose ends and a few minutes that could be cut here and there, but I’ve also never seen an audience react to a film with such an outburst as soon as the credits started to roll in a dark theater. Yes, Steinem and Taymor and much of the crew were in the house for the premiere, but stars are often there at Sundance screenings and a whooping standing ovation is the rarest reaction.
“I think I’m smart and can figure out exactly why a movie is having an emotional effect on the viewer,” I said to my friend, “But I have to admit I don’t know how exactly Taymor did to render me a sobbing mess about six times during the movie.” Wow.
◍ Oh my God, you can’t believe what a disastrous mess the new Dee Rees/Anne Hathaway film The Last Thing He Wanted is. I can’t remember when I last saw something this awry.
I get it: Rees, director and cowriter, was going for poetry, a sort of hypnotic melange of magic realism, war flick, journalism critique, the Reagan era, cigarette smoke, politics, Miami Vice, Terms of Endearment, The Flight of the Condor.
In the Q&A after the premiere, Rees, the esteemed director of Mudbound and Bessie, described how the deal for this movie came together over drinks at Sundance or somewhere else a few years ago. Rees saying, “I’ve got this Joan Didion book I read awhile ago,” and an executive saying, “I love it, I’ll buy it, I trust you, let’s do it.”
Sobriety seems never to have arrived.
From the first frames, there is too-small white-type flashing over jungle scenes, to explain where we are and what’s happening except it disappears too quickly for audience comprehension. I suppose this is the fog of war rendered in unreadable white print?
Hathaway is playing a reporter, Rosie Perez a photographer. Analog photos are snapped of charred bodies in a Central American village. Later Perez’s character isn’t taking photos and is a reporter and writer because someone needs to cover the horrors and Hathaway’s character has been reassigned to cover the U.S. presidential campaign, except something happens with her shyster father, played by Willem Dafoe (excellently, as if giving an acting lesson amidst the chaos). Hathaway smokes a lot of cigarettes without bearing any of the astringent effects of the kind of nicotine addiction she’s displaying.
Her hard-bitten reporter’s vocal tone seems to have come from studying TV appearances of my former reporting colleague Maggie Haberman, now of The New York Times. Only thing is, I can understand Maggie when she speaks. (We worked on an investigative reporting team with Jack Newfield, the late great reporter who is mentioned in The Glorias as having given Steinem useful advice on interviewing Bobby Kennedy. I also understood Jack when he spoke.)
At some point a character appears who has something to do with the U.S. Government and appears to be Ben Affleck because it looks a lot like Ben Affleck, except with all emotional range and the ability to move fluidly and speak clearly removed.
Breast cancer figures in, but the audience is too busy trying to figure out how these two people ended up in bed together and—wait, how did this whole thing transition into a story about the Iran-Contra scandal from the perspective of people flying cocaine around? Why didn’t anyone suggest to anyone that the script makes little sense, that the dialog is garbled, or that a Carnival-set chase scene with giant fish floats and samba dancers and speeding cars was last not a cliche when it appeared in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker?
Pour me another mai tai please.
◍ The Assistant is a fascinating companion film to The Glorias. Directed by Kitty Green and starring the ever-brilliant Julia Garner, it portrays the wreckage suffered by those who work subserviently in an office with a Harvey Weinstein-type abuser.
Where The Glorias is a sweeping historical drama, The Assistant makes its point in small spaces with few words and devastating details.
One of them is the thin pink turtleneck Garner’s character wears throughout the story. It is vulnerability in cloth, fabric so thin it seems to protect her from nothing, exposing her small body to the harshness of everything around her.
In a panel discussion during Sundance with a reporter from The Atlantic, Garner said she loves turtlenecks. The one she was wearing in Park City winter was a thick, chunky white Irish-style sweater. That garment seemed to offer protection, neck unexposed, a kind of celebrity armor amidst the Main Street crowds, a contrast to the one in the film.
Steinem’s famous choice of large sunglasses are shown in The Glorias as chosen explicitly to hide her face from the male gaze. (Facsimile sunglasses were a giveaway at a premiere party.) They are a shield that Garner’s character, Jane, in The Assistant does not have. She is constantly humiliated in tiny ways, ignored on elevator rides, forced to apologize for things she should owe no apology for, doing tasks like removing paper jams and making coffee in the office. Steinem refused coffee-making.
Garner’s character is no Steinem but perhaps that’s because the system became more insidious in its repressions, the cuts less overt, the villains more psychologically manipulative. No one asks Jane why she’s not married. Her office mates don’t care enough about her humanity to give a crap.
The Assistant shows how adept the system became at stealing back the voice Steinem gave women.
◍ Sundance runs like clockwork. Movies start on time. And it is as close to live theater as movies get. The actors are in the room. The audience is reacting to something in a kind of real time with everyone present.
◍ Downhill, a sort-of-maybe comedy-slash-psychological drama starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Dreyfuss, feels more like a business enterprise than a project of passion. I said this a few years ago reviewing another so-so Ferrell project. The world needs more great Will Ferrell comedies. Not everything can be Talladega Nights, but can’t I dream?
◍ One of the parties I attended is called ChefDance, and it was a tribute dinner to Alice Waters cooked by the esteemed Mexican chef Gabriela Camara. A friend who arrived early told me that Camara demanded all the bottles of hot sauce that had been placed on the long tables be removed. “This is not a taco joint,” Camara said.
◍ I’m headed off to another screening in a few minutes so the last thing I’ll mention for now are the two documentaries I saw yesterday. The Penny Black was showing at the less fancy Slamdance Festival, which often features grittier fare than Sundance and shows it in places like a hotel conference room lined with folding chairs.
Set in Los Angeles, The Penny Black, tells an impossible-to-look-away-from story about a young man who agrees to watch his Russian neighbor’s million dollar stamp collection. Are these stamps somehow tied up in the Russian mafia? Are they stolen property? Why has the owner failed to come back for them?
It’s great material for an S-Town style podcast, and the filmmakers Joe Saunders and Alexander Greer deserve a lot of credit for showing up with cameras and starting to shoot the day after they heard someone at a party talk about the neighbor who gave them a stamp collection to hold.
◍ The other doc is called Feels Good Man and you’ve just got to see it. It’s about the internet meme Pepe The Frog, how it came to be, how it might have gotten Trump elected in 2016, and how sometimes history comes calling your name and you’ve got to answer. It is chilling, hopeful, terrible, and wonderful—and made with care, gorgeous animation, and prefect pacing.