Final Report From Sundance/Slamdance 2016

by on February 4, 2016

dark-night-poster

Great sex stories will never go out of style.  Brian Bolster’s entertaining documentary short “The Tricks List” delivers many such tales from a New York City gay man.  The source is his list of every person he’s had sex with over the years.  An anecdote about a sexual encounter in the Empire State Building on Christmas, among others, shows how its subject used his list of 749 sexual encounters to collectively memorialize his tricks beyond a night’s pleasure.

***

Brian Golden Davis’ warmly entertaining documentary “The Million Dollar Duck” demonstrates how to make an engrossing film about competitive duck stamp painters.  Instead of ridiculing such painters a la the Coen Brothers film “Fargo,” Davis captures the very human needs motivating these artists.

For the uninitiated, duck stamp purchases by hunters and philatelists have for decades raised money for federal wildlife preservation.  A nationwide annual contest seeks the best painting of one of a particular year’s selected duck species.  Davis’ film follows an assortment of contestants participating in the 2013 contest.  They include the owner of a successful blind painting dog, a man whose family depends on his painting income, and a contestant happy to submit decidedly non-representational duck painting.

The sketching “The Million Dollar Duck” does of its characters’ compelling motivations (e.g. independence, personal honor) delivers enough detail to make the viewer care which subject’s painting survives the three rounds of judging.  But the beautiful footage of ducks in the wild reminds viewers why these birds are feathered muses to the film’s artist subjects.

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A Florida suburb provides the setting for Tim Sutton’s masterfully disturbing ensemble drama “Dark Night.”  Yet despite the suburb’s sun-drenched environment, the shadowy potential for violence threateningly lurks among the film’s characters.

The film’s title references several things.  It’s wordplay on the movie shown during the Aurora, CO theatre shooting.  It’s also the title of the film being shown during Sutton’s fictional cineplex massacre.  But it’s also a challenge to the flaw in America’s soul which allows these shootings to happen.

The director has little interest in throwing to the audience either the red meat of cinematic violence or pre-fabricated homilies regarding the roots of American gun violence.  Instead, his film follows a handful of individuals from the suburb where the shooting occurs.  Certain basic details about the various characters are sketched in.  A vet has trouble transitioning from military to civilian life.  A teenager fondly enjoys taking underwear selfies.  Yet Sutton’s ultimate cinematic model is not the closure of narrative but the ambiguity of artistic photography.  Are the two skateboarders friendly rivals?  Does the teenage artist character’s encounter with the news media represent his mental disintegration?

Sutton’s film provides plenty of haunting images from its manicured nature setting.  Particularly disturbing is one prolonged shot of a pair of women doing a guitar lesson, unaware of the gun muzzle pointed at them.

Sutton’s film can’t be called an “anyone has potential for violence” film as its female characters appear incapable of violent behavior.  Yet by not directly fingering any particular behavioral trigger for violence, the viewer disconcertingly wonders whether any innocuous action will lead to violent death.

***

Yao Huang’s sensual romantic drama “Pleasure. Love.” offers object lessons regarding good things and long waits.  Those lessons begin with the 12 years Huang struggled to raise the money to realize his cinematic vision.

“Pleasure. Love.” consists of two similarly structured stories.  A man and a woman of different ages meet at a dance hall and fall in love.  The younger lover displays impetuousness; the older lover displays patience.  “Auld Lang Syne” and a Chanel perfume bottle play roles in both stories.  But what connects these two stories besides repeated tropes?

The lovers in both tales emotionally complement each other so well, yin-yang provides the best description of their relationship.  The younger one’s honesty is paired with a ready assumption of the older partner’s worst behavior.  The older lover cherishes the younger lover’s spirit but is sometimes ignorant of the younger person’s feelings.

“Pleasure. Love.” delivers plenty of sensual moments in such mundane settings as a coffee shop’s private room or the interior of a jeep.  Onscreen full frontal nudity may still be off limits, but artistically bared flesh gets generously supplied.  The film’s ultimate emotional relevance will not be revealed here.

***

Joey Skaggs is a countercultural national treasure.  His pranks remind the public that media professionals should never be blindly trusted, particularly given their gullibility.

Andrea Marini’s documentary “The Art of the Prank” offers a hilarious portrait of Skaggs.  Over many decades, Skaggs pulled off such media hoaxes as a Celebrity Sperm auction and a Cathouse for Dogs.  Age has not stopped Skaggs’ concocting media pranks.  Marini captures the media hoaxter planning a fake documentary.

Viewers whose trust of the professional media has been undermined by the snark of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” will not find Marini’s film a blind trust rebuilder.  Key to Skaggs’ repeated success has been his intuitive ability to graft outrageously plausible lies onto existing prejudices.  Suburbanite gawking at and belittling of hippies got the reverse prejudice treatment via Skaggs’ hippie tour of weird suburban lifestyles.

Marini’s film does fall short in several minor respects.  Showing the pranks is entertaining.  But not explaining the reasoning behind some of Skaggs’ odder exploits undercuts the points of the pranks.  For example, why target film festivals for mockery?  More importantly, the film’s structure of interviews with friends and vintage clips feels far more conventional than its decidedly unconventional subject deserves.

But these minor cavils are outweighed by both the entertainment and informational value of learning about the jester who checks journalists’ power.

(“The Art Of The Prank” took an Honorable Mention for the Slamdance Jury Best Documentary Award.  “The Million Dollar Duck” took both the Slamdance Best Documentary Audience Award and the Slamdance Jury Best Documentary Award.  The duck stamp documentary will be broadcast on the Animal Planet Network and will receive a theatrical release later this year.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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