January 21-30 marked the twenty-sixth Sundance Film Festival in the US, and the first under the festival directorship of John Cooper. One of Cooper’s goals was to bring more of an indie feel back to Park City, which over the years has conceded slots to more mainstream fare. The “rebel” theme permeated the psyche of this year’s festival and featured prominently on festival merchandise and in promotional trailers. Of all the festival’s sections – which included world documentary and narrative competitions – two sections most comprehensively embodied the rebel theme: the brand new NEXT programme, featuring low-to-no-budget filmmaking, and New Frontier, which champions innovative cinematic storytelling.
New Frontier is both installation space and film section. The installation space showcases media works that straddle the boundaries between art, cinema, and new technology, with panels tackling current issues such as Web 3.0 and creative ways of financing. Sundance kicked off the festivalwith a press reception at New Frontier, and right out of the gate the biggest buzzword of this year’s festival surfaced: “transmedia”, a word that is pulsing through the indie film world as intensely as iPhones and crowd sourcing are shaking the citadel of traditional filmmaking. The New Frontier film programme shone the spotlight on visionary filmmakers.
A perfect example of a New Frontier film was Double Take by Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez (Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y) which also received the award for the hardest film to categorize out of any I’ve seen in years. Double Take embodies the mantra of New Frontier storytelling, challenging viewers at every edit, interweaving multiple documentary strands, adding narrative elements, creating film art and political commentary that exceed the sum of their parts: doppelgangers, propaganda, nuclear apocalypse, Alfred Hitchcock, even the advent of instant coffee:
It’s 1960s America, and the Cold War is in full swing. Nixon and Khruschev jockey for power in the Kitchen Debate, it’s John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Diana Ross and the Supremes herald women’s liberation while advertisers teach housewives how to keep their husbands happy with the best cup of coffee ever. Grimonprez mashes up remarkable archive footage to convey society’s fears and people locked in duels over power and control. Interwoven throughout are selected threads from Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense-thriller The Birds – which adds point and counterpoint to the doomsday theme, even as Grimonprez invites us to question the verisimilitude of Hitchcock himself through the use of hired actors and reallife doubles.
Double Take is original, it’s artistic, it’s subversive in bringing connections to light that lie buried in our unconscious, which once unearthed invite us to face our collective anxieties – if we dare. Or maybe we want to escape back to the refuge of entertainment, the kind that makes us cringe in our seats, leaving the culture-making to the advertisers and politicians. Grimonprez based the screenplay for Double Take in part on a story by Tom McCarthy, which in turn was based on the essay 25 August, 1983 by Jorge Luis Borges. This complex genesis makes sense for a film that demands our undivided attention for eighty minutes. It wasn’t until about twenty minutes in that I stopped fighting for a clean narrative – what’s going on? Am I missing something? – and managed to adjust my analytical-brain settings – Ok, so there’s something else going on here, something to experience. In this way, Grimonprex epitomizes the “rebel” theme, forcing us out of routine spectatorship, elevating the “art imitating life or vice versa?” conundrum to a conscious level.
Double Take will resonate with anyone who lived through the Cold War era in the United States. It will appeal to those outside the US, as it did to me, (not having lived through that time) as a history lesson and as cinematic art. But Double Take also transcends specifics. Through a dialectic of seemingly disparate story lines, it creates a kind of paranoia – Who is the real Hitchcock? What is this information I’m being bombarded with? – that provokes a continual double take on the truths we are fed by the media and our governments.
Employing dialectics – and rebelling – in surprising and immensely captivating ways was Sam Green, who returned to Sundance this year with Utopia in Four Movements, a standout experience for anyone lucky enough to catch a performance. Yes, Utopia was performed, not just screened. Billed as a “live documentary,” Green integrates documentary footage with live music (composed by co-director Dave Cerf) and his own live narration (he stood up front and was very much a part of the performance). This combination managed to sustain a vigorous flow while underscoring the themes of the film.
There’s no smoke and mirrors manipulation here; the brilliance of Utopia resides in the truth it mines, the exploration itself, laid bare for all to experience together. What is utopia? Is utopia futile? What do we all think, here together in this theatre, of these images and sounds and ideas presented to us collectively? Are we willing to take this on?
Green would make an excellent professor, likeable and entertaining, as he narrates the four utopias found and lost (to be found again?): “Part 1: The Universal Language,” about the fascinating language Esperanto and how it limps on today; “Part 2: The Revolution,” partly about Cuba, partly about an American radical exiled there; “Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall,” the most amusing (and surreal) section, about China’s modern economy gone awry; and “Part 4: Elegy for the 20th Century,” where the work of identifying human remains will surprise you with its invocation of the utopian impulse.
Green is smart, his vignettes may read as separate entities, but they work in concert, layering utopias past with questions about utopia’s future: has the impulse been extinguished? Can utopia exist today?
In an age where transmedia and Web 3.0 is all the rage, perhaps Green was the biggest rebel at Sundance with his old-fashioned stance. He insists Utopia in Four Movements will only be performed live. It is right up there as the best film I saw at Sundance – it’s luminous. The live approach kept it fresh and Green is extremely engaging, the music soothed and energized as required. Although Green laments the “big ideas that turned out to be bad ideas” towards the end, you can’t help but feel hopeful about humanity, optimistic; I for one remain so.