Old MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Neverending Story: Another Thursday at Sundance

I should have more to show for Thursday, I know, but this place is totally starting to depress me. There’s just too much space and fewer and fewer people want to be here and my ghetto Internet hook-up at Reeler HQ West makes posting about as pleasurable an experience as circumcision. The parties become insufferable; the oily Hollywood douchebags scurry through the snow like rats. And when Jeff Lipsky’s ham-fisted Flannel Pajamas turned out to be the only New York feature I could catch all day, my spirit crashed somewhat violently and I wound up having to watch two hours of C-Span just to help flush the immediate memory.
Commonly referred to as a contemporary stab at Scenes From a Marriage, Flannel Pajamas yields none of that film’s insight or intensity. Lipsky (above) showcases a relationship from first date to last goodbye, but showcasing is all you get; the drama surrounding lovers Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) features tenderness and turmoil as clinical as integers on a number line. The film’s raves–and there are plenty, including Roger Ebert’s breathless outpouring of praise earlier this week–attribute an unblinking honesty to the couple’s rise and fall, but there is nothing remotely honest about the events accelerating Stuart and Nicole’s demise. With few exceptions (a powerful, long take of Nicholson standing self-consciously naked at a window overlooking Manhattan, for example), everything that happens in this film happens verbally; as opposed to real unraveling marriages, nobody shuts up long enough to convey any sense of alienation. Think of Liv Ullman’s expressive close-ups in Scenes, or the space Bergman uses to convey Johan and Maria’s fragmentation in that film. In the end, the viewer discovers, an indestructible love–not each other–is their burden.
Not so in Pajamas. From the lovers to their friends to their families and beyond, it is the individuals who dissolve this relationship. There eventually is no love, which does not automatically imply a dishonest portrayal (Pajamas is its own film, after all), but the execution leaves such an inauthentic, forced chronology that even the romance cranks along like a machine. For something that purports to be so real, the characters speak with an over-the-top, almost allegorical self-awareness that mirrors Lipsky’s own clumsy direction. Worse yet, especially in light of the Bergman influence, Lipsky gives you no one to loathe. Stuart’s younger brother’s mad, tragic genius excuses his impetuousness, and the viewer cannot hold Nicole’s mother’s anti-Semitism against her because of its roots in some early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Infidelity is implied fleetingly, but we are denied even the implication’s consequences for Stuart and Nicole. Nothing about this film is honest or complex or challenging. It is simply a bloodless, obvious Saturday-morning cartoon version of a landmark.

But as Lipsky noted when we talked a few weeks ago, Pajamas might be part exorcism as well. “Is it based on a true story?,” Lipsky said during yesterday’s post-screening Q&A. “The impetus for me to write this script was my own marriage in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I was involved in a mixed marriage–Irish Catholic wife and me, Jewish–and it was, to this day, still the most important relationship of my life. It lasted about as long as it did in the film. And it’s not that I wanted to tell my story or tell her story, but I thought that if I used that as a foundation … I thought I could create really interesting characters to support what I think are some of the most major themes that anybody in any country endures or encounters or goes though in their lives. I think that we have a story about two people who fall in love each other at two completely different times. I think they have two different reasons for getting married, and I think they both learn a great deal from the marriage.”
That same didacticism confronts the audience throughout the film–all two hours of it, virtually shouting, “Relate! Relate! Relate!” But neither Stuart nor Nicole are relatable. They are annoying, humorless bourgeoisie lifers for whom you have neither sympathy nor antipathy. You just want them and their director to leave you alone.

Before Dawn director Bálint Kenyeres on the short circuit, flanked by NYC filmmakers Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa (left) and Madeleine Olnek (Photos: STV)

So after a trip to the festival headquarters, where I encountered another interlude of benign press office stonewalling (this time about Saturday’s awards ceremony), I returned home for a sandwich and that C-Span lobotomy. I eventually summoned the motivation to check out Sundance’s Shorts Program V, featuring Madeleine Olnek‘s Hold Up and Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa‘s La Muerte es Pequena–neither of which disappointed. Overall, it was a remarkably strong set; both funny (Hold Up, One Sung Hero) and poetic (Aruba, The Beginning of the End) while clearing room for the most profound film I have seen at the festival so far: Bálint Kenyeres’s Before Dawn, a 12-minute, one-take wonder illustrating the breakdown of a human-smuggling operation in rural Hungary.
As dazzling in its logistics as in its blue-hued beauty, Kenyeres told the audience he had about 40 minutes of “magic hour” light each day for shooting–20 minutes at dawn and 20 minutes at dusk. He finished the film in four tries. The result is a masterpiece that recalls the climactic house-burning sequence at the end of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice; about seven minutes in, you can barely believe what you are seeing, and you fall in love with the cinema all over again. I do not know what is with all these great shorts about human trafficking; I also remember the best film I saw at last year’s New York Film Festival being Cary Fukunaga’s tragic Victoria Para Chino (which also appeared in Sundance earlier in 2005). Anyway, you can (and must) view Before Dawn and dozens of Sundance’s other shorts here on the festival’s Web site.
Now I guess I should try to restore some faith in the feature-going process, assuming I can get into Wristcutters: A Love Story in the next hour or so. Wish me luck; with two days left, I need it big time.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon