Jay Meehan: Sundance lovers and tree huggers
The long-held axiom in this space – that total immersion is the way to best enter the Sundance Film Festival rabbit hole and walk out of the other end with a jaunt and a smirk – didn’t get much of a test this time around.
Although it remains a favorite cultural interval as far as this old mining camp’s annual social calendar, intervening variables reduced personal involvement to that of a stone skimming across the surface of a pond – a dipping of a toe as it were. The blame for that, of course, lay at the foot of the “festivarian” himself. My bad!
Not that the films weren’t every bit as enthralling to your humble scribe as they invariably prove to be or the assaults by friends and peers on the spectacle as a whole any less strident than usual. No, it was just a year where the quality of participation was called upon to hold up its end of the affair in the face of a distraction-driven lack of quantity.
Film-wise, three exhibits from the second half of the fest – two documentaries and a dramatic narrative – are offered to the court of public opinion. As an addendum, it should be noted that the time spent in a darkened venue for the selections in question turned out to be time quite well invested, indeed.
Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer and his “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Took us back to a historical period equally as dark as our own – the early red-baiting days of Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. As Niccolò Machiavelli once said: “Politics have no relation to morals.”
Darkness loomed over America back then just as the absence of any real light rules the land these days. Attorney Roy Cohn entered the collective consciousness of America first as a proponent for the dual executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (a couple executed after espionage convictions in 1951, though the charges are disputed) and stayed there for a quite elongated spell.
From the McCarthy-era witch hunts and blacklists, the nefarious agendas of J. Edgar Hoover, and the election of his protégé, Donald J. Trump, master manipulator Roy Cohn provided the connective tissue of demagoguery.
As Tyrnauer put it in his director’s statement: “Roy M. Cohn would have been but a bold footnote to American history, most remembered for his role in the Rosenberg spy case, his conspiratorial whispering in the ear of Senator Joseph McCarthy during his 1950s witch hunts, and the monumental hypocrisy of his own life as a closeted gay man who helped McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI destroy the lives of other gay men.”
The interesting thing about the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” had to have been the manner in which filmmaker Stanley Nelson skirted the five years during the ‘70s when Miles played the recluse and never picked up his horn.
That timeframe had already been covered, albeit in a fictional setting, by Sundance veteran Don Cheadle’s brilliant “Miles Ahead,” a 2016 Festival selection.
I’ve never been able to get enough of Miles, warts and all. Possibly, no one sits more at the head of the “genius with demons” class than my man Miles Davis. Hopefully Nelson’s documentary gets picked up and distributed widely. Not that it should be mandated as homework, but this cat lived one profound existence.
And the music, all Miles and edited most beautifully with the film sequences involved, played a large role in the “soundtrack of my life,” as they say.
“This Is Not Berlin” (Esto no es Berlin), a wonderful entry from Mexico in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, proved to be a most refreshing film especially considering its dark coming of age thematic structure. Again, its use of the rock music canon of the ’80’s became a character every bit as much as the club habitués.
Identifying with a foreign culture and space-time has never been easier. Every moment of screen time, including the rampant, often ill-advised, consumption of drugs, added to the narrative. Filmmaker Hari Sama and his team should feel proud.
Actually, it is not a difficult proposition to recognize why so may of my cohorts and running mates detest the 10-days in January annually occupied by the Sundance Film Festival. There’s the traffic, of course, and the dearth of available barstools. I understand.
I would feel the same if, say, an inundation of NRA types took over our town to honor the latest in the art of chemically discharged projectiles. We film geeks are really nothing more than a bunch of peacenik tree huggers with time on our hands, you know. That’s a wrap!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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