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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Sundance 2006: All Over But the Flying (and Maybe Some Hardware)

Well, that was fun. A four-film marathon closed out my Sundance viewing experience Friday, with Dito Montiel’s uber-hyped A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints occupying The Reeler’s closing-night slot. Festival staff outside the Library screening venue stopped handing out wait list placeholders around No. 200, and inside the theater itself, the Saints buzz bounced from seat to seat, aisle to aisle, wall to wall. Anyone who was not chatting about the film’s sales potential was yammering about its front-running candidacy for a festival prize. All in all, even as the lights dimmed at 11:34 p.m., the Library may have been the only place in Park City where adrenaline seemed to have overtaken fatigue.
Of course, that has as much to do with the quality of Montiel’s (above) quasi-coming-of-age film as the bloodrush associated with scoring a ticket to see it. Saints is a lightning bolt of a movie, brilliant in its kinetic vistas of Astoria, Queens, and smoldering aftermaths of violence and chaos. Granted, it is nothing you have not seen in one fashion or another before; Montiel leans unapologetically on the cinema of Scorsese, Lee, Cassavetes and (in one especially odd, derivative sequence) even P.T. Anderson. But in its hybrid of family drama and urban mystique, Saints inhabits a space wedged between total control and total inexperience. You know what you are watching, but nevertheless have no idea what is coming next.
No idea, that is, unless you know Montiel’s life story, on which Saints is partly based and which The Reeler broached here a few weeks ago. In the post-screening Q&A, the filmmaker noted that finding that balance–as well as that between the past and present he breaks up with flashbacks–came down to a certain… well, flexibility. “Once we started filming, the script kind of went in the garbage can,” Montiel said. “I’m not going to teach 15-year-olds how to curse, you know? So I’d just sort of go around and make sure the heart of the scenes would happen, and then it was like, ‘Go crazy.’ And they went crazy, and it just sort of worked in this weird way.”
Some scenes’ histrionics will no doubt be trimmed when–not if–the film gets its distribution deal. Saints lives and dies by its emotional ebbs and tides, which currently leave too little to the imagination–especially as young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) wrangles with his father’s (Chazz Palminteri) desperate clinging. As present-day Dito, Robert Downey Jr. returns to Astoria for a series of tight-lipped interludes with old friends Nerf (Scott Michael Campbell), Antonio (Eric Roberts) and his ex, Laurie, whom Rosario Dawson imbues with a completely unexpected, heartbreaking honesty. Montiel said the film and its cast came together after Downey’s early producing commitment–not that his attachment as a star totally reassured the director. “It terrified me to have him play the role because we didn’t really have any idea if it was going to work,” Montiel said in his usual mile-a-minute, hand-waving style. “I was never even really much of a fan of his, you know? I know him, and I love him in this movie, but I never saw Chaplin or all the movies that people go nuts for. I’d always be like, ‘Oh. Breakfast Club.’ And he’d be like, ‘I wasn’t in the fucking Breakfast Club.’ ”

Earlier in the day, I had the chance to catch Wristcutters: A Love Story at the Eccles Theatre. All 1,270 seats were filled to watch Goran Dukic’s quirky tale of a young suicide (Patrick Fugit) who travels the afterlife (which looks an awful lot like the Mojave Desert) with two acquaintances in search of his lost love, who also killed herself. The resulting story features Tom Waits as a sort of God figure and a final scene that non-verbally says more about love in 60 seconds than Jeff Lipsky’s offensive Flannel Pajamas conveys with two hours of dialogue. MCN’s David Poland noted that Wristcutters is likely this year’s Garden State or Napoleon Dynamite, a fairly appropriate analogy that might overlook the film’s more inaccessible tendencies; the metaphysics of suicide (and Dukic’s shrewd indictment of cults, cowards and its other, less idealized practitioners) and a muscular sense of irony do hijack the narrative from time to time. And though the film is also in the running for an audience or scriptwriting award, Wristcutters seems a more likely lock for DVD cult-classicdom than any sort of Earth-shattering theatrical surge.

Same goes for Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, another New York indie that netted a domestic distribution deal with Films Psilos yesterday just before its early-evening screening at the Library. I had spoken with Bahrani about his film before heading to Sundance, but had been looking forward to seeing it since reading rave reviews following last year’s Venice Film Festival. That Bahrani, actor Ahmad Razvi (both pictured at right) and Man‘s tight crew had reached the ultimate goal of their multi-year journey last night was some of the best news I had heard all day; that I finally discovered for myself that it deserves every accolade it received just added to the overall excitement. Unless Saints or Half Nelson wins big tonight and leaves town with a Fox Searchlight logo in front of its titles, Man Push Cart might actually be the New York story of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
And by “New York story,” I mean a story genuinely about New York–about being in the city and making a life here for better or worse. Bahrani related the story to Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, but he reflected the hero’s urban ordeal humorously as well. “Some of the horror parts, like where he’s dragging the cart and he falls?” Bahrani said following the screening. “That’s not scripted. The guy was about to get run over. Not only was he about to get run over by a taxi, but we made him run after the cart. We had no budget–we had no rights for that thing. (Cinematographer) Michael Simmonds always said we’d like to have a crew that’s small enough that when the actors walk past us they don’t realize it’s the crew. The good thing about shooting from across the street is that magic stuff starts to happen. Like when he’s selling pornos to that guy in the (delivery gate)? And that other guy says I get pornos really cheap in the Bronx? That guy has no idea we’re filming. But now we know he can get two pornos for less on Fordham Road.”
In his first-ever film role, Razvi labors in moving, prolonged silence as the tormented push-cart vendor Ahmad. “I was very nervous, but I had confidence in myself,” Razvi said during the Q&A. “Ramin had a lot of confidence in me. In the beginning I was acting too much–I was doing Hollywood and Bollywood style–and he was like, ‘Hey, calm down. This isn’t a Brando movie.’ I finally calmed down, and he helped me to be more silent and still and to give the same expression as if I would be speaking about it. … There were a lot of things that were somewhat similar to my life and made me feel a little more about it, but in the beginning it was too much, and I had to slow it down.”

Filmmaker Alan Berliner shuns the Sundance spotlight following a screening of his new documentary Wide Awake (Photos: STV)

Over at the Holiday Village, New York documentarian Alan Berliner accelerated his own self-referentiality with his latest film, Wide Awake. Not like that is anything new; the guy made his name with two decades of personal documentary filmmaking. But you really have to be into Alan Berliner to get the most out of Wide Awake, which deals with the director’s perceptions of sleep and, more specifically, his lifelong battle with insomnia. Berliner’s musings run from clever to cloying; his family interviews and too-cute archival orgy of sleep-related clips overwhelms his more revealing subjection to the science of how we sleep.
As a successfully converted early riser (the time of this post notwithstanding; the Western time zones always fuck me up), I lacked a certain sympathy for Berliner that I probably would have felt when I used to slam my head on the wall while attempting to write at 3 a.m. But I like Wide Awake in theory, especially in the terms Berliner used to describe it in his introduction. “My film is sort of like a Trojan Horse,” he said. “You read something saying it’s about insomnia, and that’s why I guess you’re here. Now that I’ve got you here, let me tell you that it’s about insomnia, but it’s also about a lot of other stuff, and that’s the point. The film’s about sleep and sleeplessness, of course, but it’s also not about those things. I can’t tell you all the things it’s about, because I hope it’s about more things than I’m even aware of or that I want it to be. But certainly, it’s about how sleep functions in our lives in ways that we understand and ways we don’t understand. It’s about love and family and responsibility and filmmaking and choices that we make in life and contradiction, and somehow, an idea about making a film about insomnia led me to all that stuff.
“And to give the film a chance and stay with it, I hope the Trojan Horse concept works for you as the film kind of opens up, and all the weird things I just illustrated sort of march out and touch you with a warm shot of recognition. That, for me, is what this kind of personal filmmaking is all about.”
Berliner also invoked cinema as a way of representing sleeplessness–a device in whose service the filmmaker utilizes those overbearing sound and clip montages as well as frequent digressions about his work habits. He obsessively bestows the gift of sleep on his infant son as though breaking a long cycle of abuse. He is either in front of his camera or speaking from behind it for virtually the entire film, which, like I said, can be a little Berliner overload if you do not buy his premise or predicament. But the film is both engaging and informative enough for viewers to overlook its self-indulgences; just try to avoid confusing it with Haskell Wexler’s own pro-sleep documentary, Who Needs Sleep?, which somewhat brilliantly precedes Berliner’s film alphabetically among this year’s Sundance titles.
Even more genius is to see the films featured during a week when 45,000 people travel to Utah and get no sleep at all. Later, guys, we promise–especially if it turns out tonight’s awards are anything worth writing about. Stay tuned.

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One Response to “Sundance 2006: All Over But the Flying (and Maybe Some Hardware)”

  1. marc says:

    hey dude, nice coverage from sundance, sounds like you had a good time. i’ve not yet made the trip myself but i hope to some day. till then the daily updates from you and your old friends at indiewire kept me feeling plugged in the past week. safe passage home and take it easy–

Quote Unquotesee all »

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