Old MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Sundance: Weightless Women, Magic Men in Black & White

Sundance 2007: Magic Men, Weightless Women, Drawn in Black and White


This report appeared in the Observer (UK) in a slightly different form – read the original here.

Director/screenwriter Deborah Kampmeier
USA. 2006. 98 min. 35mm.
Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright Penn, David Morse, Piper Laurie, Afemo Omilami.
No distributor information/release date as of Jan. 28
Dir/scr: Craig Brewer
USA. 2006. 118 min. 35mm. Paramount Vantage (In theaters Feb. 23, 2007: Official website)
Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran.

Another year, another programme of great films – little wonder Hollywood’s big shots were stalking chilly Utah in search of the next big thing to fill cinemas (from me – Justine Elias — the original report appears in the London Observer – Jan. 28, 2007. You can read the original, shorter version in print or online.
Independent cinema fans once came to snowy Park City, Utah, in search of obscure films and renegade directors such like Quentin Tarantino or Jim Jarmusch. But in recent years, indie films have gained profile and box-office stature. Now Hollywood suits flock to the festival looking for crowd-pleasers like Little Miss Sunshine, a Sundance hit last year that went on to earn $92m worldwide and four Oscar nominations. Coming into the festival, the movies that got the most attention weren’t light — but they were nearly weightless.
As in tossed around, carried off, like naughty white ladies of HOUNDDOG and BLACK SNAKE MOAN, two overcooked portraits of the American South (Weather forecast: Humid sultriness, lurid lightning. Conditions will deteriorate).

In the former, 12 year old Dakota Fanning commands the screen as Louellen, an Elvis Presley obsessed girl, grooving through a fecund, faux-Faulknerian landscape (Humid, sultry). Though the film’s rape scene made Hounddog notorious before it was screened here, writer/director Deborah Kampmeier keeps the depiction of the assault relatively brief (Lurid, lightning). What’s really risible is the way that the young heroine and her kinswoman “Stranger Lady” (Robin Wright Penn, fluttery) are dumped into the path of their neighbor, a never-too-busy-to-care, near-magical African-American stablehand, Charles (Afemo Omilami (IDLEWILD, GLORY ROAD) — who has impressive connections to both the snake-wrangling and music communities: Big Mama Thornton (Jill Scott) and band rehearse in his hayloft.
Wesley Morris, a film critic for the Boston Globe, attended the public screening and the filmmaker Q&A–he has a far more succinct reaction on this and the Right to Sing the Blues issue: Take it away, Morris.

Louellen, grown up too soon, her Presley-inspired gyrations weighing heavy on her heart and narrow hips (“I can’t shake no more,” she says) guts out her own, soul-deep, little girl version of “Hound Dog.” What comes out is a high, girlish, wide-vibrato lilt that we haven’t heard before: she sounds, for once she sounds like a child. It’s an off note: the otherwise preternatural Fanning’s cri de coeur sounds, just then, too trained. (The film may be set in 1955, but for a moment I thought: Charles! You’re a genius. Thirty five years too early for the Broadway premiere, maybe, but by golly, I think you’ve found the new “Annie.” )

How lucky it is, in Hounddog’s Good ‘N’ Gothic galleria, for all people pink and white on the outside (but feeling licorice on the inside), that African Americans (comparatively few in number, yet remarkably well acquainted with each other) are so willing to share their secret soul-sustaining culture.

“You have to understand,” said one national magazine critic afterward. “A film like this would have no traction outside of Sundance. Because no one would have seen it.” Another, who was sitting by the exit, said he counted thirty walkouts from the press and industry screening — those were the ones who got away.

While not being creeped out by racial politics served with creepy intimations of incest and rape (like, 90 percent of the movie), I was quite impressed by some of the performances, particularly those Fanning and her playmates, (Cody Hanford, who looks and emotes like the kid from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and Isabelle Fuhrmann as a pinafore-wearing princesa.

Indiewire called HOUNDDOG the “Showgirls” of Sundance, which makes it sound like far too much fun: There is no room for Crystal Bernard in Deborah Kampmeier’s movie (though there were, according to a Variety review, three cinematographers—one of whom was sent outside into the “lightening”). All the “darlin’s” and shotgun-toting grannies are deadly serious. Indeed, some non-ticket buyers who stayed for the full experience actually hissed, as though — why? They wanted their free back? How could it be shock, when Hounddog had been so thoroughly pummelled prior to Sundance?
Weirdly, the press and industry screening for the slightly more accomplished but still sucktastic BLACK SNAKE MOAN drew a hearty round of applause. And I don’t believe that 8:30am, Thursday audience was clapping in a “thank you, movie, for finally ending” way. This was high altitude, oxgyen-deprivaed love. Director Craig Brewer, who made the pimp-friendly HUSTLE & FLOW — and in doing so gave the dashing Terrence Howard his overdue breakthrough role – has built up so much critical goodwill that his not even the trampsploitation/swamp-o-delic trailer for his second film (lurid, humid, sultry) can dissuade some from believing that that movie, too, isn’t crap.

In Black Snake Moan, bitter bluesman turned farmer Samuel L Jackson makes a Pygmalion project of nymphomaniac Rae (Christina Ricci) — a tweaky, scrawny gal whose motor runs too hot for her infantile soldier boy husband (Justin Timberlake) — by chaining her to the radiator of his house. ‘Why do you let mens treat you like that?’ one man character asks, before the truth becomes apparent: the hero, a never-too-busy-to-care, mystical African-American — is merely offering avuncular aid to a bruised, raped, sexually transgressive white woman.

On the plus side, sort of, there emerges, amid Brewers’s bizarre vision a compelling, even entertaining character for Jackson to play. Gradually, Jackson frees Lazarus of his familiar snapping-turtle mannerisms and embarks on a tentative romance with a local pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson) — convenient, that, with all Rae’s aches and bruises. who’s been interested in him for a while. Because the pharmacist is played by Capt. Van Buren from LAW & ORDER, who always knows what time it is, it’s hard to imagine that she doesn’t notice the pecular goings on at Lazarus’ house. She gets an eyeful, finally, of the unchained Rae and goes “Is that your niece?”–Funny! That niece/knees joke kills me every time. Because Rae’s often on her knees, setting her weary head on Lazarus’ knee as he sings, bluesily, about the mean, straying woman who brought him to his knees; Lazarus gets down on his knees to bathe poor “rutted and beat on” Rae after she’s been scrabbling about in the corn field, half naked and detoxing.

Most of the kneecap-cracking ordeals – spiritual and physical – in Black Snake Moan, though, are Rae’s: Ricci’s mucho-naked, grovelling toward grace performance is something to behold and will become, no doubt, a formative and repeat experience for shy men interested in one day venturing outdoors and meeting a real, live woman whom they can abduct, chain to a radiator and share their mix CDS with.
Though Brewer begins the movie with a freeze-frame that suggests a reclamation of the drive-in era, what unfolds seems slightly more punitive those of long ago. (I could be misremembering those Corman / American International movies. Were they ever this nasty? It’s possible I can’t get this movie – at all. We see the world as we are, and my blues are not The Blues, more like Major Clinical Depression. Ah, a man in uniform.) There is, in this story of Lazarus’ rising and Rae’s Blues Mama boot camp endurance training, a grinding, lies an unpleasant echo of an old familar theme: that African-American people (comparitively few in number, but well acquainted with each other) can be relied upon to share their private soul-sustaining culture with hurting non-African Americans. And there will be those who deride or perv on Ricci for doing this role. She’s earned her Blues Mama shoes at the end, all right, but Black Snake Moan ends with one hell of a punchline about about who’s her weepy little blues baby.

Listen close. When Black Snake Moan hits cinemas, the appreciative audience — and there will be one — might be cheering to conceal manful tears.

Paramount Vantage: Black Snake Moan film website
More BLACK SNAKE MOAN reviews from Sundance.
Film Comment, by Nathan Lee.
Screen International/Screen Daily. by Patrick Z. McGavin.

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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