January 21, 2009
First they took you to Cuba. You were in a cab more than likely a 1953 Plymouth or one of its ilk. Once the lights dim they have their way with you. You have turned over the controls. They set the tone and the agenda.
Next you found yourself in an "Indian car" bouncing across an Oklahoma byway. Then you were in a well-upholstered backseat with a rock star on your way to a meet up with others of a similar persuasion. The day wrapped up riding next to a somber attorney on his way, first, to a Chicago courtroom and then on to Attica and Wounded Knee.
They, of course, are filmmakers celluloid poets as it were. Even when it’s only a mall blockbuster the images astound. But when the production has been fashioned from the passion of an independent storyteller and the finished work of art selected for the Sundance Film Festival, well, then, it’s quite another slice of motion picture altogether.
If you had forgotten the sheer amount of magic involved, once re-immersion into this annual film showcase gets underway it doesn’t take long to get back your sea legs. You swoon! You have no other choice.
Take the stop in Havana, for example. Although only seven minutes had transpired outside the theater once the ending credits rolled on "Trece Años," that was more than enough time for filmmaker Topaz Adizes to weave his spell.
You meet the returning prodigal son who as a young boy journeyed to the U.S. on a raft with his father. His sister and mother explode in exuberance upon his arrival. The vibe is short-lived, however, once they sit down to a celebratory dinner and his brother’s long-simmering anger surfaces.
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As the title suggests, the absence of any contributions from the father and son over the "thirteen years" they have been gone has given rise to angst among those left behind. Excuses are quickly rebuffed by the "more Cuban" brother who storms away from the table and later, in private, from the mother.
Tensions rise along with ethnic aromas from the stove. In a matter of seconds, characters are developed more fully than you could ever imagine with a "short" film. As the two brothers silently gaze out across their once shared neighborhood from the stucco of the veranda, the sense of the gulf between them becomes apparent. For the family to heal, there is much work to be done. Seven minutes has seldom been more richly spent.
The immersion into hearts and souls and very personal stories continued with "Barking Water," a road trip across the "Indian Territory" shadowland of Oklahoma. Irene is at the wheel, taking her now dying ex-partner Frankie to see his daughter and grandson before his trail ends.
There are stops both along the road and within their collective past as their noble steed negotiates the somewhat skeptical arc of their journey. You feel honored to have been allowed into these lives. In fact honor and dignity, as well as grace and humor, both subtle and otherwise, play out as if part of the principal cast.
This is not Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. The waving wheat still smells sweet, but only after it’s been made into fry bread. Residual tribal ways are everywhere. That said, the film portrays a most human story. The closer pain cuts to the bone, it seems, the more diluted the ethnicity.
It has been said that nothing defines Sundance more than the diversity of its fare. A first-rate example would have to be Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, "It Might Get Loud," the story of the coming together of rock guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White.
With back stories, archival footage, and subtext aplenty, you immediately get the sense that they don’t know each other all that well personally and that’s what makes the film work so well at the level it does. They know of each other, of course, but they are not cut from the same cloth other than maybe "the blues."
The now-white-haired Page has been around the longest, having come out of The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. But it’s not like The Edge (David Howell Evans) of U2 hasn’t been marauding the stage for quite a spell himself. Jack White of the White Stripes and The Raconteurs is the young kid on the block and complements the blend most perfectly actually, he, not that surprisingly, steals the show.
"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," a documentary of the iconic legal figure made by his daughters, Emily and Sarah, served as the perfect windup to this one-day cinematic stew. What a passionate life he led holding his country’s feet to the fire. This is a film all Americans should see and let the chips fall where they may.
A little radicalization never hurt anyone. Especially in these times with paradigm shifts manifesting themselves at most every turn. Such a small sampling and such a huge return. What a joy this festival can be!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.