Core Samples, Jan. 28, 2009
As mentioned previously in this space, there’s something about the lazy wielding of a snow shovel that stimulates reflection, or daydreaming, or just spacing out. And with close to a foot of white arriving with the end of the Sundance Film Festival, it seemed a good time to clear the back walkway and ponder a few more of the screenings I encountered.
The film I really can’t shake, the one that most stuck to my cinematic ribs this year, would have to be "Sin Nombre," which ended up earning the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category for Cary Joji Fukunaga and the Excellence in Cinematography Award for Adriano Goldman.
In that I’ve become a rather snobbish "doc head" over the years, having my favorite come out of the "Dramatic Competition" rather than the "Documentary" couldn’t have been predicted. It was a long shot. But, then again, so was this film. For that matter, so are most all Sundance selections.
The teenage girl who reluctantly follows her estranged father north from the poverty of Honduras encounters a still harsher reality in the form of a trio of gangbangers from a quite violent Mexican offshoot of the Mara Salvatrucha. As she grips the tops of railroad cars with others seeking the same dream, filmmaker Fukanaga sets the hook. For the record, it is not barbless.
You get to know the backstory of both the immigrants and gang members and you are along for the ride. There is no choice. With thugs after whatever money you might, inexplicably, still have in your possession, and your position atop the train growing ever more precarious by the second, you find yourself awash in a coming-of-age road-trip thriller with a huge heart.
For reasons of his own, one of the young gangsters changes sides and a bonding ensues with the girl. The narrative focus narrows to their survival as the gang-as-a-whole takes the manner of his departure personally. The plot thickens along with the tension as the train and its "passengers" continue their journey north.
Suffice to say it’s a gorgeous film that honors the audience both with its quiet subtlety and in-your-face harshness. And the fact that it was in Spanish with English subtitles didn’t hurt either.
As one who has always felt that it’s all about the writing, whenever I enter into the ticket-acquisition process for the festival I make sure to grab one for the screening of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner which, since the inception of the award back in the day, has shown on the final Sunday.
That said, what I always end up doing is hoping against all hope that none of the films that I actually laid eyes upon ends up winning in that category, no matter how much I loved it to wit "Sin Nombre." Naturally, a small amount of guilt comes with this attitude. But, in the end, it’s all about me and I accept that.
What was most interesting about this year’s winner, "Paper Heart," is that, as far as I could tell, there was no screenplay, as it were. The flow and aura, for the most part, had the feel of a documentary. The storyline seemed to be made up as the filmmakers went along.
This is not to say that "Paper Heart" is not a total joy of a film. The camera follows filmmaker, performer, co-screenwriter Charlyne Yi, playing her quite quirky self, as she attempts through interviews and seemingly chance encounters to get a philosophical and personal grip on love whatever that is.
She meets actor Michael Cera ("Juno"), playing you’ll never guess his quite quirky self, and a relationship of sorts ensues. Maybe a screenplay is just whatever doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor. I could live with that. I really don’t need resolution or closure on this point.
If the truth be known, however, I oftentimes end up relatively perplexed by the Waldo Salt Award winner. Which is why I am obsessed with seeing it each year. I would give anything to be a fly on the wall during those deliberations. What I love about it is that, and this is no small feat, it makes me think something with which I’m not all that comfortable.
I also caught a couple of films which checked their depth, if not their "fun" component, at the door. Again, this is not to say that "Adventureland" and "Victoria Day" didn’t have their own attractions Kristen Stewart ("Into the Wild," "Twilight") in the former and a mess of Dylan references and hockey footage in the latter.
And "Art and Copy," the ad-agency documentary, also flaunted a worthiness, of sorts. It proved quite interesting to finally meet, on film, many of those who raised demographic manipulation to a minimalist art form. Who would have thought there existed a thread of continuity from Gary Gilmore’s last words to "Just Do It!"
As opposed to many of my mates, I continue to find Sundance a wonderful gift, a moveable feast of the highest order. But what do I know?
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.
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