December 18, 2018, 13:26

Three Inspired Movies from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival |

Three Inspired Movies from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival |

Courtesy Sundance Institute

The 2018 Sundance Film Festival started on Wednesday and runs through
January 28th; it’s the main showcase for independent films, but, because
of its proximity to the industry and its efforts to serve as a sort of
minor league to find and place Hollywood talent, it has missed, for
years, many of the best independent films. In recent years, its
programmers have done a more open-minded, less timid job and brought in
some work of daring, inspiration, ingenuity, and idiosyncratic
originality. That’s true, to say the least, of the three extraordinary
films from this year’s edition of Sundance that I’ve been able to see in
New York—one dramatic feature, and two films that are unusual hybrids of
fiction and nonfiction.

Among its other astonishments, Josephine Decker’s new feature,
Madeline’s Madeline,” which premièred today, does something very
simple: it dispels the shibboleth that movies spotlighting strong and
original performances differ from ones that innovate at the level of
cinematic style. “Madeline’s Madeline” does both, with equal intensity.
Decker’s film, in its dramatic contours, is an utterly clear and
classical drama about a Queens family. Miranda July plays Regina, an
excessive, boundary-challenged, somewhat out-of-control single mother of
a sixteen-year-old girl named Madeline (Helena Howard). Madeline, who is
confronting mental illness, is an acting prodigy and the youngest member
of a Manhattan-based experimental-theatre company run by a director
(Molly Parker) who is emotionally vampirizing Madeline to sustain her
own artistry.

Decker’s first two features, “Butter on the Latch” (2013) and “Thou Wast
Mild and Lovely” (2014), marked one of the most notable débuts in the
modern American cinema; the films’ scathing emotional realms were
matched by a freedom in the creation of images and the shaping of drama
that suggested a complete reimagination of moviemaking. They were also
produced on micro-budgets, in very limited locations, with just a handful
of actors. “Madeline’s Madeline,” which has somewhat more substantial
funding (though likely just cab change for a studio production), ranges
extensively among indoor and outdoor locations and features an ample
array of actors young and old, a varied spectrum of tones, a sense of a
city that’s infused with its heroine’s creative passions, intimate
tensions, personal histories, and medical troubles. The closest
comparison is to Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” with its fusion of a
teen-ager’s private life and the life of New York. But where Lonergan’s
Upper West Side film was framed on the vectors of power and the romance
of bourgeois connectedness, “Madeline’s Madeline” is a drama of furious
disconnection, a cinematic gear-grinding of a working-class family of
modest means who seem hardly at home in their own neighborhood and are
relentlessly abraded by contact with the deceptively welcoming milieu of
art. Decker’s film, which is shot (by the cinematographer Ashley Connor)
in jagged angles and torn edges, with physical energy and piercing
clarity, is filled with the urgent drive for artistic creation—as well
as with the practicalities and pitfalls, the sincere ardor and the
manipulations, deceptions and delusions, that the worldly ways of art

The central triangle of women in “Madeline’s Madeline” offers stringent,
fierce, yet delicately detailed performances, extracting new twists and
deep furies from classic coming-of-age tropes. Howard, in particular, is
among the most original and creative performers I’ve seen in years. In
the role of Madeline, she seems like a teen-age version of Gena
Rowlands; Howard’s impulses and inclinations, her stride and her
silences, have a presence that owes nothing to simulation and everything
to character—even as her technique is revealed to be that of a virtuoso,
as in a scene where she imitates July with a ringing precision that’s as
comedic as it is pain-seared. It’s one of the great recent début

“Madeline’s Madeline” is a story of race as well as of class. Race,
here, is presented as unexceptional but also unforgettable, a matter at
the center and the foreground that’s a permanent part of the background,
like ambient sound that’s only familiar when it passes unnoticed. The
tense, tangled relationship between Madeline, who is black, and Regina,
who is white—and, for that matter, between the two older women engaged
in a sort of tug-of-war over Madeline—spans matters of appearance,
culture, history, and identity that run throughout the film with no
simple expressions and no easy resolutions.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

In Robert Greene’s previous feature, “Kate Plays Christine,” the actress
Kate Lyn Sheil both portrayed the broadcaster Christine Chubbuck and
conducted an investigation into Chubbuck’s life, while Greene himself
entered the state of mind of a filmmaker attempting to dramatize
Chubbuck’s on-air suicide. In his new film, “Bisbee ’17,” Greene again
takes as his subject the construction of identity through performance—
the central one of modern documentary filmmaking—but with a vastly
expanded scope. Greene heads to the town of Bisbee, Arizona, a former
center of copper mining, where, in 1917, miners who were members of
Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union, planned a strike
against the leading mine. The town’s sheriff organized a posse of more
than two thousand deputies to round up thirteen hundred strikers and
their sympathizers, force them onto boxcars, and deposit them in the New
Mexico desert. (That state and the federal government rescued and
sheltered them.) Greene spends time with current-day residents of
Bisbee, some of whom have ancestors on both sides of the event—known as
the Bisbee Deportation—and discovers that, because of the town’s longtime domination by mining interests, the subject was hardly
discussed publicly. Only recently, with the mines shut down and the town
struggling to sustain itself economically, has the subject come to the

Greene, meeting a small group of residents who hope to commemorate the
deportation on its centenary, organizes a reënactment of it—but the
reënactment itself, which does in fact come off, is secondary, in
Greene’s project, to the organization of it. In effect, Greene is
impersonating a Hollywood filmmaker of historical dramas, a Steven
Spielberg or an Edward Zwick, in order to film a documentary about the
town of Bisbee today and the still-powerful traces of its stifled
history—to film a behind-the-scenes and making-of documentary about a
film that he would make if he were such a filmmaker. As they prepare to
play the roles of real-life people involved in the deportation, the
Bisbee volunteers (and there are many, some of whom even have a legacy
of family connections to the 1917 events) confront both the history of
their town and their own perspectives on the conflict and its stakes, as
they relate to the time of the events themselves (during the First World
War) and as they reflect present-day conflicts.

In “Bisbee ’17,” Greene peels the layers of oblivion off history like so
many layers of paint. (One of my favorite shots in a while is a long
tracking shot—the cinematography is by Jarred Alterman—following a young
man into an abandoned theatre like a spelunker through time.) The film
is a large-scale study of political psychology, an expedition of
historical archeology, and a form of drama therapy for a community that,
in crucial ways, reflects the pathologies and the conflicts of the
country at large. With microcosms of microcosms and reflections of
reflections, Greene offers a passionately ambitious, patiently
empathetic mapping of modern times.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Shirkers” is the director Sandi Tan’s first feature—sort of—and
it’s also a blend of documentary and fiction, in ways that she had
originally not planned. The title actually belongs to another movie—the
one that she and her friends made in 1992, when they were teen-agers.
Tan, who is from Singapore, was an artistically ambitious girl, and she
wrote the script for “Shirkers,” a sort of metaphysics-and-murder road
movie centered on a free-spirited and vengeful teen-age girl (played by
Tan). (Tan and her friend Jasmine Ng thought of themselves as “the Coen
sisters.”) Their passion for movies was sparked by a local workshop run
by an enigmatic American man named Georges Cardona, who encouraged Tan
to make the film; as she and her friends (Jasmine, along with Sophia
Siddique, today a professor of film at Vassar) organized it, Cardona
recruited the crew and directed it. The vastly imaginative and ambitious
“Shirkers” would have been one of the earliest independent films made in
Singapore, but, after the entire film was shot, Cardona vanished with
the footage. Tan and her friends got on with their lives, albeit with a
sense of loss and missed opportunity; then, two decades later, the
footage resurfaced.

The new “Shirkers” offers copious samples of the film that was shot in
1992, and it’s gloriously, gleefully idiosyncratic, a blend of punk
energy and local documentation, a sort of antic reflection of Tan’s and
her friends’ extremes of imagination and their sentimental attachment to
their families, their friends, and their city. It’s raw and spare,
colorful and filled with ingenious sight gags and bright touches of
cheap costuming. It also, paradoxically, shows Cardona to have been a
capable, even inspired, director—yet, as Tan recalls and reconstructs
the events surrounding the shoot, she recognizes warning signs of his
unreliability. Tan interviews the film’s participants to re-create the
joyful, troubled, turbulent production, as well as their lives and the
state of Singapore at the time. She also documents her own adolescence,
revealing Ng’s and her own artistic precocity, plus the extreme measures
that these artistic young women had to take in order to gratify their
aesthetic passion. The loss to Singapore, and to the movie world, of the
original “Shirkers,” as well as the sense of loss that has marked Tan
and her friends’ life and work (despite their notable accomplishments),
links “Shirkers” to Greene’s film as an exemplary work of counter-lives
and alternative histories, intimate self-portraiture and cultural
reconstruction, hard-won empathy and painful reconciliation.


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