Two Coats at Sundance: Misery, ambition and the creative life

Guest contributor Jonathan Stevenson / Every January throngs of industry strivers and film buffs congregate in the snowy streets of Park City for the Sundance Film Festival to network, make distribution deals, and watch great independent movies before they reach local art houses. Of course, you roll the dice in choosing the films: however strong the field, not every one of over 100 films is going to be a winner, and you can’t see them all. We were reasonably lucky in our three days at the festival.

[Image at top: The view from the press screening room parking lot. Park City is a cute tourist town, but most of the films are screened at theaters on the outskirts–in strip malls, rec centers, and hotels. Sundance had organized an excellent system of shuttles and buses to get everyone from one theater to the next.]

The Angulo boys: Mukunda Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Bhagavan Angulo, Narayana Angulo and Govinda Artelle.

Perhaps the gem in our sampling – and eventual winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary – was first-time director Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack. In more or less conventional fly-on-the-wall style, it tells the extraordinary story of the six Angulo brothers, all with long dark hair and elegantly buck teeth, whose willful, eccentric, and apparently paranoid father sequestered them, along with their sister and their loving but passive mother, in their Lower East Side public housing apartment for their entire childhood and most of their adolescence. The surprise – and the aspect of the film that makes it so humanistically inspiring – is that there is no tragedy here. Owing substantially, it seems, to the third-oldest brother Mukunda’s indomitably good heart, natural creativity, and quiet force of will, the six emerged from their coerced hibernation decent and hopeful if sheltered young men, determined to overcome their particular strain of Stockholm Syndrome and find their way in the world. (Worries that the documentarian or her subjects might have embellished their plight appear to have receded, though the possibility cannot be ruled out.)

Cinema itself may have been the boys’ salvation: during their virtual imprisonment they buoyed their spirits by making props, assembling costumes, and crafting sets in order to reenact movies they saw on video and DVD – notably Tarantino’s. When they finally hit Houston Street, they donned the black suits and ties and Ray-Ban Wayfarers that Messrs. Blonde, Blue, Brown, Orange, Pink, and White wore in Reservoir Dogs. Their story also involves the kind of reversal that fortuitously affords it dramatic arc. By the end of the movie, it is the father who is compliant, his remaining with the family implicitly conditional on his acquiescence to their coming out, as it were. Clearly the boys have a long way to go. Long may they run.

In Cloro, Italian director Lamberto Sanfelice’s hearty and atmospheric first feature, Jennifer, a teenager played by the terrific Sara Serraiocco, also seeks liberation. She wants to excel in sport but is shackled by family responsibility rendered onerous by her mother’s untimely death and her father’s insanity. As gritty as it is lyrical, the movie explores the challenge, usually first confronted in adolescence, of balancing ambition and duty. Especially impressive is its nuanced examination of the tactical uses and abuses of sex.

 Gregg Turkington in Entertainment

The role of art – or at least artifice – in life also comes up in Michael Almereyda’s droll, theatrical, and compelling Experimenter, starring an excellent Peter Sarsgaard as controversial postwar social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Employing experiments in which subjects thought they were administering electric shocks to accomplices who merely faked pain, Milgram showed that even presumably upstanding Americans could be induced to mistreat others by those in authority. (Motivated by Nazism, his work also seems relevant in light of CIA torture revelations.) Even grimmer is Rick Alverson’s sardonically misanthropic Entertainment, in which a self-loathing, down-and-out comedian (Gregg Turkington), who had fleeting TV success, plays a series of lowlife lounges in the Mojave Desert, his off-color if sometimes faintly amusing jokes (What’s the worst thing about getting gang-raped by Crosby, Stills & Nash? No Young) falling flatter and the consequences of his artistic exile becoming more dire at every turn. This courageously ugly movie, which functions as a kind of interior monologue for frustrated artists, harnesses both Beckett and Bukowski. It isn’t a lot of fun to watch but it does drive home how terrible some kinds of solitude can be.

A number of the filmmakers at Sundance this year seem more interested in murky inner worlds than extensively articulated scenarios. In Gerard Barrett’s equally bleak and emphatically laconic Glassland, a young Irishman (Jack Reynor, who won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting) struggles to resurrect his suicidally alcoholic mother, hauntingly played by Toni Colette. These films, however discomfiting, are more challenging than presumptively right-thinking, neatly-packaged fare like Grandma and Unexpected – two solid Sundance features that, like last year’s edgier Obvious Child, humorously explore reproductive choices. Still, veteran character actor Kevin Pollak’s survey-style documentary Misery Loves Comedy – comprising incisively gleaned testimony from over sixty thoughtful comics like Lewis Black, Whoopi Goldberg, and Marc Maron – is a more agreeable mechanism than the self-consciously obtuse Entertainment for exploring creative people’s demons. As the Sundance selectors seem to understand, while misery may provide fuel for the creative life, it isn’t everything.

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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. For permission to use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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