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Strange Fates at Sundance

This year’s outsiders and short filmmakers offer hope to a believer; two 2012 Sundance features surprise a skeptic.

V/H/S

Sundance omnibus V/H/S offers hope for horror.

1. (Hope) Mad genius: Brent Green’s To Many Men Strange Fates Are Given

Looking like a hybrid of odd appliance and futuristic earth art, Brent Green’s newest sculpture, To Many Men Strange Fates Are Given (with help from Stevie Smith and Nikita Khrushchev), consists of nine hacked LCD screens arranged on the three separate planes of display. Circling the piece, one sees luminescent windows suspended in space on curved metal. Voluptuous wooden arcs reminiscent of gramophone horns reach out like handles. Equally noticeable in the piece are iron frames, leather harnesses and electronic circuitry, making transparent the wildly disparate elements composing the piece. Serenely beautiful and slightly menacing, it feels like the work of a mad genius toiling in a high tech garage. And perhaps it is if one considers Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at the Rensselaer Center, where Green developed the work, such a place.  Two “viewing positions” beckon viewers to place their heads between the horns. With faces pressed against one of the windows (due to the polarization of light emitted by the screens) otherwise invisible images emerge and through the horns, otherwise inaudible sound can be heard.

On the separate screen-planes Green’s unmistakable hand-drawn animations overlap while his trademark manic-lucid narration tells the story of the launching of the Sputnik satellite. Specifically, the story is about the way Sputnik spurred creativity and hope while galvanizing industrial production across multiple levels. Or, perhaps one should say on multiple, interacting planes. At every point this piece presents the trace of Green’s own hands: in the illustration, the hand polished wood, the tangled iron, the electronic pathways. The animated narrative’s primary character, a woman commissioned to sew a spacesuit for Sputnik’s occupant, the famous space-dog Laika, encompasses the interchange between the “grand project” and handiwork, an oscillation between the big idea and the everyday.

When pressed about this theme, Green gives a characteristically rangy response. “All the information is out there, but you need to have your attention directed to see it. The space race spurred innovation. Sputnik was made out of tin foil, and people understand things. They can use their hands. Obama got it all wrong. Why are we bailing out Henry Ford’s great grandson? If Obama stood up and said, ‘We’re curing cancer in ten years,’ we’d do it. Someone would manufacture agents to attack cancer cells from within the blood stream. Those are the kinds of statements we need.” (Sean Uyehara)

2. (Surprise) A Happy slap in the face: Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate

Ben Lewin’s 1991 feature The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish struck me as precious and glib, so I cringed at the thought of a Lewin-directed story of a polio-struck man discovering his sexuality courtesy of an ever-obliging specialist. And yet the movie won me over, thanks to a spectacular performance by John Hawkes, who suggests endless vibrancy dwelling within a tragically immobilized body. As his sex coach, Helen Hunt not only goes back to the glorious level-headedness of her memorable single-mom Oscar-winning turn in As Good as It Gets, but also allows herself the giddy effrontery of spending most of her screen time completely naked (think how many Hollywood actresses of her stature would decide to do it). The movie is frank and sweet (but never cloying), tenderly focused on a disabled body being driven by a supreme mind and craving the most earthy of pleasures. It never feeds you bromides of overcoming what cannot be overcome; instead, it allows you to feel the infuriating unjustness of nature, offering a happy slap in the face in the end. (Michal Oleszczyk)

3. (Hope) Real outsiders in indie-ville: Zellner brothers’ Kid-Thing

The Zellner brothers (David and Nathan) have consistently created some the most absurd, uncomfortably funny films over the last decade. And, for all of the hype around the misnomer “indie,” it is in fact quite rare for filmmakers to continuously produce films outside of mainstream funding and distribution sources. The Zellners are real outsiders. Their newest feature, Kid-Thing, is a matrix of dark and pleasingly confusing themes. Those familiar with their films will recognize the adult characters in the film, played by the Zellners themselves, as the typically disappointing, borderline mentally handicapped social miscreants we have come to expect in the Zellner world. What’s entirely new and tilts the film toward an uncomfortable exploration of malice is the constitution of the film’s primary character, a ten-year old child named Annie. That she is hell bent on destroying her environment is no surprise, given her ostensible father’s thorough neglect and alienating sloth. But, when Annie happens upon a woman stuck at the bottom of pit, stakes are raised considerably, and Annie’s reactions to the situation produce a sort of nervous laughter usually reserved for your asshole friend at house parties. In Kid-Thing, no one is unsullied. As the Zellners pointed out following the world premiere, this story is part fable. But, whereas fables generally present a moral, this one does not. (Uyehara)

4. (Surprise) Another horror milestone: V/H/S

First Super 8, and now V/H/S! Does nostalgia rule the day…? The new omnibus horror flick (harkening back to the good old tradition of Dead of Night) presents itself as an artifact: a supposedly recovered VHS tape containing several tales of garish terror embedded into a makeshift narrative frame (by Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Ti West). Electronic distortions of both sound and image abound; one half-expects the tape to pop out from under the screen after the whole experience is over. And yet the movie is amazingly well made, with some imaginative use of special effects and overall sense of each filmmaker striving for an original approach. V/H/S marks another milestone in merging horror tropes with the “real life” as seen in the viewfinder of your personal camera. Next to it, both The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity look relatively straight. A triumph of supreme craftsmanship disguised as a random case of hand-held ineptitude, it may be the best horror movie of the year. (Oleszczyk)

5. (Hope) Long story, short: This Is It’s Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared

What has come to be my favorite Sundance party is the awards ceremony for shorts filmmakers. Held in a bowling alley with pool tables, pinball, drink tickets and honest-to-God actual food that you could legitimately call “dinner,” this party also features filmmakers from the festival who are excited and open to talking. It’s a really great night. Sundance employs a cadre of shorts programmers. I don’t know all of them, but the ones I do know I adore. Mike Plante and Kim Yutani lead the way and incredibly knowledgeable and engaging sorts like Emily Doe, Jon Korn and Landon Zakheim each add to the kickass quality of the night. Fandor faves Ben and Josh Safdie took an award for their newest short The Black Balloon, an homage to classic The Red Balloon. Perhaps the most prolific short filmmaker in history, Kelly Sears was on hand, being her undeniably awesome self as was Don Herzfeldt and a sizable crew from England’s This is It art collective. If you haven’t seen, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, you should do so now.  I bowled with the various This Is It peeps and Emily Doe, and there were only a few minor skirmishes. I finished the night watching Brent Green play pool with Donna Kozloskie, and I can safely go on the record as saying he’s really not very good at it. (Uyehara)

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