Sniffling Out of the Cold: Sundance 2023

Going on about the dispiriting nature of my predicament during this most recent Sundance — technically being able to attend due to my press pass and a robust online platform but losing out on the in-person experience (through both the Press Inclusion Initiative and a visit as part of the USC Gould Entertainment Law Society) that I had planned until literally the day I was supposed to leave — almost would seem to defeat the point of a festival dispatch, but I think some context is in order. In some ways, Sundance was ideal for the at-home viewer who had just suffered a shock at the start of the festival: all the films, and correspondingly most of the buzz, had premiered by the time I was more than half a week into my quarantine, and the presence of almost every film online (save for the notable exception of e.g. Past Lives, the narrative film I was most looking forward to catching up with) could have enabled an even broader viewing schedule than last year, where I was successful in watching all of the films from the NEXT section. But, whether it be the COVID brain fog or an ever-greater disconnect from the festival atmosphere because of the knowledge of all that I was missing, I only caught up with a handful of films in the final weekend of the festival, partly racing, partly strolling against the clock, all from an even more tightly curated selection than before. (I am also obviously writing this long after the end of the festival, so these reviews will unfortunately be much sparser than I had planned.)

The bulk of this viewing came from the resurrected New Frontier section, and I began with Gush, the feature debut of Fox Maxy, whose shorts have rapidly gained recognition over the past few years (which I have not had the pleasure of seeing). Running a slim 71-minute film, it incorporates enough footage to fill several much longer films, drawn from Maxy’s personal archive of a decade of constantly shooting many of her day-to-day interactions. The footage comes fast, often not providing enough to create a context, though several scenes to recur, including a car-bound conversation with two of Maxy’s nieces about a somewhat predatory older man which was apparently filmed two weeks(!) before the festival began.

Coupled with the fast blur of footage is the use of deliberately intrusive animations, especially skeletons shadowboxing, an experimental theater performance that contextualizes some of the more outré images, and specific meta-film devices, including a nifty use of anonymous stock footage with Maxy’s videos playing on the monitor. Though this is the official world premiere of Gush, it has apparently shown before, including at a public work-in-progress screening at the Museum of Modern Art last Halloween, and will continue to be revised in each of its future showings. In this present incarnation and likely all others, there’s a certain shapelessness that the pell-mell, go-for-broke chaos of the haphazard images and editing encourages. This is of course built into the film and remains compelling on a moment-to-moment basis, but the overall experience grows monotonous, and the deliberate placement of the final scene, in which an emcee at a party thanks Maxy for the use of her footage playing on monitors, feels a tad self-satisfied for something ostensibly so communal.

Another selection from New Frontier, Last Things by the section’s most tenured member Deborah Stratman, is the director’s first feature since her landmark The Illinois Parables, and falls into the mid-length category at just 50 minutes. Unlike that film, which from my memory deals with fairly specific instances of folklore, this largely follows intersecting strands centered around the literal evolution of rocks, featuring a heavy use of voiceover by the French filmmaker Valérie Massadian; comparisons have been made with “La jetée” but the science fiction/nature dichotomy made me think much more of the work of Ben Rivers, which has always toed a border between hypnotic and didactic. While the scientific aspect here is more foregrounded, with footage of laboratories, the play between the question of whether the narrated events are the beginning of this world or the next characterizes the pleasingly diffuse nature of the film.

Probably the film’s greatest asset is Stratman’s photography; for whatever reason her 16mm images, which form one of the crucial components of Thom Andersen’s masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself, have always held a certain grain density for me that automatically enliven whatever they capture. It’s especially interesting to see the way she films Petra (footage not shot for the project, it should be noted), revivifying the old stomping grounds of Henry Jones, Senior and Junior. I can’t say much else really stuck with me, but I look forward to revisiting this sometime down the line.

Stratman’s film also played with the Filipino short film “It’s Raining Frogs Outside” by Maria Estela Paiso that premiered in Berlin all the way back in 2021; its title provides the literal backdrop. It begins in enormously promising territory, using stop-motion and voiceover to sketch out its main character’s backstory, but then becomes an interesting yet viscerally unappealing (thanks to some icky CGI) story about evolution in a semi-apocalyptic milieu. One animated moment, which features a very upsetting encounter with a cockroach, came up in my memory when I watched the following film that night and made me think that that feature and this short had been paired, a quirk of film festival viewing happenstance.

That film (whose cockroach scene is thankfully much less graphic) was the first I caught up with in my much-less comprehensive survey of the NEXT section: Fremont, the fourth feature by Babak Jalali. I haven’t seen any of his past work, but it sounds like something of a departure, both in its subject matter — a portrait of an Afghan translator who has moved to the Bay Area city — and its aesthetic, which features a frankly gorgeous deployment of Academy digital black-and-white. Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) lives in a housing complex populated by other immigrants from her native country, many of whom regard her suspicion due to her past work with the government. She instead finds some measure of solace in various denizens of the area, including her coworkers at a fortune cookie factory in Chinatown and a psychiatrist, played in a wonderful supporting turn by Gregg Turkington.

In general, there’s a generosity to Jalali’s approach to his characters, almost always keeping things lightly humorous and leaving him free to pursue tangents powered by the more bit characters. Some of these, especially centering around the affable factory owner, are much more effective than others, including a montage of people receiving Donya’s fortune cookie messages that inexplicably includes Boots Riley in a cameo. But this coasts along well, and if the final passage — following Donya as she drives long-distance for a possible date, encountering a mechanic played by Jeremy Allen White along the way — succumbs to some of Jalali’s weaker/laxer narrative and conversational tendencies, the final punchline is appropriately bittersweet.

The best film I saw at Sundance, Passages directed by Ira Sachs, has its own narrative issues, but largely overcomes them thanks to the powerhouse presence of Franz Rogowski, further cementing his place as one of the best actors around. As Tomas, a film director who — despite being married to Martin (Ben Whishaw) — begins having an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), he largely defines the roiling rhythms of a fundamentally classical story, that of a man whose capricious and wandering eye destroys his relationships. At only 91 minutes, its fundamental issue is its length, moving possibly too swiftly between partners even as Rogowski does his best to sell his seesawing, self-involved ardor for one or the other.

Despite his long career, I haven’t seen any of Sachs’s films before, which only makes me more inclined to see this as a banner entry in the Saïd Ben Saïd catalogue, whose résumé as producer (Verhoeven, Lapid, Garrel, Mendonça Filho etc.) forms one of the most essential auteurist studies of the past decade. Aside from the forthrightly Parisian setting, which makes the presence of both the German Rogowski and the English Whishaw amusingly incongruous, Passages fits in well with the peculiar recurrence of quietly domineering protagonists, people whose force of personality comes out more in pointed barbs than in raised voices. The sensuality and heartbreak emitted helps carry this through the awkward narrative structure, as do a number of quite erotic sex scenes (though Sachs’s disinterest in Exarchopoulos could scarcely be more palpable).

The third and last film in New Frontier was A Common Sequence, co-directed by Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser in their feature debuts; I had seen the former’s short “Figure Minus Fact” but otherwise wasn’t familiar with either’s work. This takes something of a loose triptych structure, all examining the intersection of nature, work, and science: the regenerative potential of the achoque salamander in Pátzcuaro, Mexico; the use of mechanized apple pickers in the Yakima Valley in Washington, the study of DNA in South Dakota. In large part, this adopts a fairly traditional verite documentary form for better or worse, plenty of handheld observation with some interviews laid in via voiceover, but the transitions between parts can be fascinating: in particular, a Mexican worker’s mention of his friend trying to find work in America, specifically Washington, triggers the leap to the apple orchards a few scenes later.

But every so often, A Common Sequence will throw in a wildly abstract image, especially of machines and interfaces, that considerably enlivens the circumstances. The first and last significant shots arguably make the film an overall success all by themselves: they both capture a group of Mexican fisherman in distinct ways. In the first, they are coming back to a lake’s shores in darkness, illuminating the frame with only their headlamps, as snatches of conversations and dogs barking are heard. The latter features the opposite motion, and as the shot stretches out, the slow fade to night and the emergence is stars is so odd on camera that I genuinely thought the background might be computer generated or even some kind of faux-matte painting; I can’t tell if it was just my state of mind at that particular moment, but it was perhaps the single most compelling thing I saw “at” Sundance.

My final film at the festival was in the NEXT section, and a film I prioritized specifically because of positive notices: The Tuba Thieves, the debut feature by Deaf filmmaker Alison O’Daniel. It is difficult to describe the film, other than to point out its structure of stories loosely related by the preeminence of sound: a group of people affected by the theft of tubas from Los Angeles high schools from 2011-13, people living in neighborhood under the roar of jumbo jets flying in and out of LAX, the first performance of “4’33”,” the last performance at the Deaf Club in San Francisco presided over by Bruce Baillie, and so on and so forth.

The highlight is, by design, the open captions, which are exceedingly delightful in their wit: providing humorous descriptions of even the most routine sounds, giving actual decibel measurements, stretching out words as they get longer and longer, and so on and so forth. Indeed, I feel a bit churlish for liking this less than I wish I did; O’Daniel provides a great deal of invention from scene to scene, and I’m not usually one to fault a film for its narrative incoherency. But there’s too much packed into here, and the ending in particular feels like an especially arbitrary note, a return to an already extraneous storyline that sheds little further light. That summed up my abbreviated Sundance in a nutshell: all the films I saw were good and interesting, but none felt free from compromise.