Sundance is festive, vulgar, commercial, unexpected, challenging. It is indeed popular and successful, but is it true, as some people keep complaining, that it has “sold out”? Some of my friends wonder why I even bother to attend. I don’t go there for the parties, the gossips, the hype, the celebs. I go there for the bodies. Not the hopefuls waiting on line who give me a dirty look because I have a press pass – the spectators stomping their feet and telling their neighbors they know the casting director – the agile, courteous, slippery presence of the press agents who carry publicity material and cross my name on their checklists. No – I mean the bodies on the screen. I am, like most of the inhabitants of the planet lucky enough to have electricity, both seduced and terrified by Hollywood. I am aware of the theory – these magnified images on the screen are the vectors of a possible and desirable imaginary identification, that is supposed to suture my sense of self. For a limited period of time, I am Angelina Jolie (1). Well, life was so much easier before plastic surgery, Botox, liposuction, collagen injections, laser body contouring and other cosmetic improvements. I mean – these teeth, this cute little nose, these sculptural boobs, this girlish waist, these fine muscles, this perfectly coiffed hair. I’m not delusional enough to identify with such physical attributes that might even be, on top of that, digitally redesigned for my “viewing pleasure”.
And then you go to Sundance. Forget the designer-clothes clad Gen-Y kids in the latest hit. Let’s go for the real thing. A film shot in Cleveland for less than US$3 million by a team of documentary filmmakers, Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini, trying their luck in an experimental narrative about a pudgy little man with a receding hairline and a boring job who is a chronic complainer married to a manic-depressive woman from Delaware, and can’t even draw. As I can’t draw myself, the fact moves me. Not knowing how to draw, getting lost all the time (which I do) and dropping things (see below) indicates a specific mode of being present to the world – an uneasy, problematic presence (what is my body doing here?), which poses the subject a set of thorny problems s/he has to resolve just to stay alive. Out of sync with each other, the world and my body are no longer abstractions, but heavy, cumbersome realities. That the anti-hero of American Splendor (Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) can’t draw is doubly interesting because the guy, Harvey Pekar, is a cartoonist, author of the cult series of the same title, which earned him a National Book Award, regular invitations to the David Letterman show (which he eventually screwed up by attacking corporate power on the air) and the undying admiration of Ted Hope the (independent) producer of the film. Harvey is no beauty prize and can’t draw, but he has friends who can (such as Robert Crumb), and they take turns illustrating the stories he writes about his unglamorous life. In the film, the real-life Pekar and his wife/collaborator, Joyce Brabner, appear in talking head interviews, are duplicated in the fictional recreation of their lives by two wonderful actors (Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis), and then triplicated in the animated reproduction of the original cartoons. Why do these little two-dimensional figures look more real to me than Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich? Maybe because their physical flaws and body language reproduce those I have seen in myself and the people around me, and not some Hollywood exec idea of what “flaw” is (2).
The strength of The Station Agent (Dramatic Audience Award) by Tom McCarthy is that, instead of being the picture-perfect illustration of its intelligent screenplay (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), it is mostly structured around the physical idiosyncrasies of its protagonists (3). At the beginning of the film, it is impossible to escape the fact that Finbar McBride (played with great wit by Peter Dinklage) is a “little person”. Not because people utter the d-word, but because they can’t help staring at him. And, conversely, he can’t help being pissed off. So, when he inherits a disused train depot in rural New Jersey, he decides to move in, to be alone and in peace. Arrives Olivia, one of my favorite heroines this year: it does not hurt that she is played by Patricia Clarkson (Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance) who was bringing a rich touch of existential ambiguity in her role as Julianne Moore’s best friend in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven. If Finbar does not fit because of his small size, Olivia does not either because of her awkwardness. A public menace behind the wheel, she is permanently distracted, spills coffee on herself instead of looking at the road, and, of course, almost runs Finbar over (not once, but twice), and adding insult to (near)injury, apologizes by saying “I did not see you.” Once uneasily invited into the depot, she drops everything she touches. She’s also a closet painter, a divorced wife, a woman with multiple wounds – some public, some not even revealed by the screenplay – who is so terrified of the gaze of others (well-meaning neighbors, patronizing ex-husband) that she may remain days in hiding. McCarthy does not construct her as a victim any more than Finbar, or Joe, the off-the-wall Latino hot-dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale). The particular aspects of their being-in-the-world is their signature, their chuztpah.
Another great thing about Clarkson being touted “girl of the year” is that she is clearly a woman with some life experience. In two other films shown at Sundance, she is the mother of grown-up children, but does not flaunt how great her gym-toned body looks, as does Holly Hunter (the recipient of a Tribute to Independent Vision) who also plays mother in the dismal opening night film, Ed Solomon’s Levity and the interesting Thirteen by Catherine Hardwicke (Dramatic Directing Award). For his second film, All the Real Girls (Special Jury Prize for Emotional Truth), David Gordon Green cast Clarkson as Elvira, who makes a living by performing in clown’s costume for sick children. As her son, Paul (Paul Schneider), seems to be stuck in his lack of ambition and a love affair with a young girl (the excellent Zooey Deschanel), she confronts him, wearing her professional make-up: “Look at me! This is what I have to do to make a living! I used to be beautiful…” Clarkson does not fall into the (misogynic) cliché of the drag queen with too much lipstick or the aged diva looking at herself in a mirror. She’s a working-class woman, in a North Carolina town where jobs are scarce and the future blocked, who is trying to teach her son what life is: work + the passing of time.
Another stellar performance involves Clarkson playing a cancer-ridden mother betrayed by her own body in Peter Hedges’s Pieces of April (an audience favorite). Having suffered the indignities of a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, she knows – she thinks – that she is loosing the final battle. On her way to visit her older daughter (Katie Holmes), against whom she nurses an unexplained resentment, she lets out her anger, bitterness, mood swings, with a pungent cocktail of wit, grandeur and self-pity, until the surprising reversal of the end.
Hollywood bodies are beams of light that live forever, over our heads, like the “glorious body” of Christ after Ascension. Yet, our own bodies are perishable, and two remarkable documentaries tackled this difficult truth. For A Certain Kind of Death (Special Jury Prize), Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock spent hours in the coroner’s office of LA County, following the minute operations of workers who collect, process and ultimately bury the unclaimed bodies of those who died alone. Film does not smell, but odors can be suggested. The intimate way Hadaegh and Babcock held their camera in these cramped, untidy rooms, restores, even through the artificial medium of video, a sense of the heaviness of these bodies, the dirt, the cold rigidity of the skin, the smell of decomposition at work, of the blood and feces that sometimes cover them. Yet these bodies – these remains – in their apparent abjection, are not things, they are sacred. To pick them up and wrap them in plastic sheet, the municipal workers’ gestures are efficient, matter-of-fact, clinical, but surprisingly tender, like those of a nurse. And when everything is over, the ashes of the people without next of kin are finally scattered in a common grave: the “ceremony” is performed without pomp or witness, but a real gravity. Ultimately, A Certain Kind of Death poses the question: what is a body? Is that all there is to us?
It is also around the picture of a dead man, the wobblie Frank Little, that Travis Wilkerson’s experimental, political documentary, An Injury to One, is structured. This image (the only portrait we have of the man) is connected to a shot of other dead bodies: hundreds of wild geese floating in the contaminated water accumulated in the open pit of a former copper mine. Little had arrived in Butte, Montana, in 1917, to help organize the miners on strike against the copper barons. In the middle of the night, he was kidnapped and killed by unknown parties. At that time, young Dashiell Hammet was working for the Pinkerton agency, whose services had been contracted to break the strike, and what happened in Butte after Little’s death (the submission of the miners, the taking over of the city by the mob) inspired in him the plot of Red Harvest. Wilkerson shows that reality is worse than fiction. After the closure of the mines, Butte became an ecological disaster; cancer cases abound, cats and wild geese die. And the suppression of the strike opened the way for the systematic destruction of the labor movement in America, brought to an apex by MacCarthysm.
Independent, low-budget films in the purest sense of the term, A Certain Kind of Death and An Injury to One were financed by the filmmakers themselves. There were also some Public-Television found-footage documentaries that recontextualized the images of the dead. Sam Green’s and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground; Stanley Nelson’s heartfelt deconstruction of one of the tragic icons of the Civil Rights movement, The Murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in the South for having whistled at a white woman (Special Jury Prize). The one that moved me the most was Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, for it reinserted in the history of the Civil Rights Movement a cumbersome, resistant, unassimilated body that had been eliminated from it. Born in 1913, Bayard Rustin was a handsome, flamboyant, promiscuous gay man and a charismatic Civil Rights leader. He went to jail three times, first as a conscientious objector. During his jail term his (white) lover wrote to him – tender letters he signed as if he were a woman… The second time, Rustin was sentenced to a chain gang for organizing the first “freedom ride” through the South. His passionate articles upon his release were instrumental in abolishing this barbaric punishment. In 1953, he was jailed again – for being caught having sex with two men on the back seat of a car, in Pasadena, one of the most conservative communities in Southern California. Rustin, who had been an adviser to the younger Martin Luther King, had to step down from most of his political responsibilities, due to the pervasive homophobia within and without the Movement. In 1963, though, he was back with a vengeance, to organize the March on Washington. He died in his 70s, having spent the last ten years of his life in a relationship with a white man young enough to be his grandson. Why weren’t we told that it was a queer subject, a courageous hero and sexual outlaw that had organized the March?
For the bodies we are born with may not be the ones we live with. Rustin obviously loved his own body, but some gay men don’t. They strive to change it, no matter the price. One of the surprising entries of the Festival came from an unlikely place: a Showtime-produced film, directed by Frank Pierson (of Cat Ballou fame). Yet, due to the fantastic performance of Lee Pace as Calpernia, the pre-op transvestite singer who captures the heart of a young private, Barry Winchell (Troy Garity), Soldier’s Girl is an honest, moving film (based on a true story) of evolving sexual identities, self-discovery and brutal homophobia. In the macho surroundings of the barracks, Winchell was both courted and victimized by a troubled and repressed fellow GI, who lured an enlisted teenager to bludgeon him to death. While Garity is excellent as an unsophisticated man who gradually opens up to his desires, Pace steals the show, finding the gestures, the voice, the motherly concerns of the woman in him.
Another resistant body appears in Karim Aïnouz’s Madame Sata (from Brazil), based on the memoirs of Joao Francisco, a black drag queen from the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Having spent 25 of his 75 years in jail for theft, prostitution, murder and various offences, Joao kept emerging every time, as a flamboyant street performer, dressed, adorned and feted as the diva he fantasized to be. A tribute to these unsung heroes of gay history – how easy could it be to be black, poor, illiterate, queer and the son of former slaves in a Third World country in the 1930s? – the film has the guts to show a drag queen whose sweat is visible, whose body is tough and masculine, whose transformation is entirely performative. And the main actor, the splendid Lazaro Ramos, is powerful, bold and versatile enough to carry it off.
Yes, the bodies we are born with may not be the ones we want to keep, and teenagers are particularly keenly aware of this. The most telling aspects of Thirteen (whose screenplay was co-written by 13-year old Nikki Reed, who also plays in the film) are the self-inflicted mutilations perpetrated by the young heroines: piercing, tattoos, cutting with a razor blade, bruising. In another desperate effort to change his life through physical transformation and sought-for abuse, in Todd Graff’s Camp, Michael goes to his Prom night in full drag (mini-skirt and fishnet stockings), only to be beaten by some of his schoolmates. Jenna’s parents wire her jaw shut so she’ll lose weight. Acted by non-professional teenagers who clearly identified with the parts, the film recounts the gathering of these misfit kids in a summer camp where they are trained to perform musical comedy classics – as their only hope for emotional survival. It may just marginalize them even further, as the alcoholic teacher/counselor/has-been composer reminds them, but there is indeed a saving grace in performing along rather than against one’s flaws and insecurities. Michael learns that sexual identification is ever shifting, and Jenna that a singer needs not to be thin: her big body is the echo chamber from which her splendid voice originates.
Then, Mathew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (presented in the “Frontier” section) reshuffles the cards once more. A baroque, claustrophobic, paranoid universe that owes as much to genre films (horror, musicals) than to the New York art world, the film expresses a fascination for the mutant body, the tortured, castrated body, the body as cipher, pure sign, ideogram. Barney makes an intelligent, sensitive use of the beautiful Aimee Mullins (a below-the-knee double amputee, a fashion model and an award-winning disabled athlete), casting her as a cyborg with transparent bakelite legs (an homage to Metropolis), half-naked panther woman (an allusion to Cat People), and enigmatic, malevolent, object of desire on high heels. Barney himself appears as an apprentice, whose teeth are knocked by the members of a mysterious Free-Mason-like group; then he is tied to an operation table, until his intestines prolapse through his rectum. Half-naked dancers appear in a Busby Berkeley-like formation, kick their legs high and frolic in a pool. Cremaster 3 weaves an uncanny dialectic between the body and the architecture (the Chrysler Building, the Guggenheim Museum) in which it is housed and that functions as a metaphor for it. Body and architecture are equally subject to veneration and desecration: vintage cars are destroyed in the Chrysler lobby, while mortar is poured down the wall. Barney’s world rests on the impossibility of being both within and without the body – castration/mutilation expresses the desire and the horror to be detached from our body, while architecture shelters and suffocates us. It is, indeed the conceptual separation from our body that once made language, and consequently the unconscious, possible.
- Identification is, of course, much more complex than this. Depending on my gender and sexual identity, I can be simultaneously Angelina and the one who possesses her.
- The US press reported that the real Erin Brockovich claimed that she would never (like Robert did in the film) have the straps of her bra showing, even when wearing a leatherette bustier. That was Hollywood version of “working-class sexiness”.
- Spending my formative years reading Cahiers du cinéma, I am indebted to their distinction between mise en scène (the basis of the auteur‘s style and language) and screenplay (on which a certain academic cinema relies).