This was a particularly interesting year at Sundance for people curious about the breakouts: For every person who seemed to think there were no "big" discoveries, a number of critics singled out films that received divided responses as among their favorites.
For example, Mark, you loved "Compliance," Craig Zobel's quasi-psychological thriller about a con man who impersonates a police officer and tricks the staffers at a fast food joint. But "Compliance" famously invited angry responses at its Sundance premiere. What do you think accounts for this mixed reaction? And do you think the controversy at the premiere will play a role in the continuing life of this film, or is it just one of those things that only exists on Planet Sundance? Conversely, are there films from this year's festival that seemed to garner universal acclaim that you felt was undeserved?
MARK OLSEN: I watched “Compliance” ahead of the festival on a screener alone at home. I found it to be a tense, gripping drama about our everyday relationship to power and authority, and the tenuous, panicked grip many have on the merest sliver of stability. No one can afford – emotionally or financially – to lose whatever little piece of turf they have. The commonplace feeling of getting screwed over and having no choice but to accept it ran through the film like a bracing chill or, more accurately within the context of the movie itself, a sick joke. As well, being a fan of Craig Zobel’s “Great World Of Sound” I was intrigued by thinking this was in some sense a response to anyone who criticized his tactics in making that earlier film, in which some people “auditioned” for his cameras without fully understanding the project they were participating in. “I didn’t twist anyone’s arm,” Zobel could be interpreted to be saying here, while at the same time exploring with deep sympathy why someone might be coerced into something that from the outside seems implausible, the small incidents and moments that build and build, how giving all those little inches leave you a mile off course.
What I didn’t get from my initial viewing was the very thing that made that first screening at Sundance such an unexpected event, the powder-keg pressure of a roomful of people watching something so horrible unfold. The explosive audience-response aspect of the film, so apparent in hindsight, was something I honestly did not see coming. The idea that controversy will now follow the film likely won’t hurt it and will probably become sort of calling card, the yell-at-the-screen tension being about as solid a selling point as one could hope for. The only hurdle may be if audiences walk in expecting some kicky exploitation thrills. Zobel, while never losing sight of the emotional and physical consequences of what the film’s main victim is being put through, also keeps the focus on just how much of the film’s action comes from words, people convinced what they are participating in is correct and proper.
Sundance crowds like to keep it positive, which as Eric pointed out in a piece he wrote during the festival, means that films such as “Compliance” or “The Comedy” or “Simon Killer” will always be forced into some sort of second-tier position at the festival exactly because they are going to push a certain sector of the audience toward uncomfortable places where they are reluctant to go. It’s no accident that two of the better-received films at the fest, “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” and “Safety Not Guaranteed,” both ended on notes of triumph and uplift. As well, it’s worth noting that some of the most high-profile praise for “Beasts” came with warnings/premonitions about a backlash built in, as if to suggest it were impossible to respond to the film negatively unless one were modulating or positioning a purposefully contrarian argument.
Karina, I'd like to ask you about "Simon Killer." A couple of us loved it -- you were especially positive -- but reviews were decidedly mixed and it won no awards. Personally, I get the sense that an international festival scene will give it a warmer response, but why do you think "Simon Killer" rubbed so many people the wrong way? Do Sundance audiences bring in a set of expectations that harm films like this? Furthermore, given that "Simon Killer" is brought to you by the same team that dominated Sundance 2011 headlines with "Martha Marcy May Marlene" last year, and that there are obvious stylistic and thematic connections between the two, why do you think the earlier film seemed to garner so much more acclaim?
KARINA LONGWORTH: I'm uniquely unqualified to talk about "expectations," because going into Sundance this year, I decided to attempt to approach the festival without any, to experience the films themselves without influence. I didn't talk to publicists about their slates or read catalog descriptions or preview stories before the festival, and I avoided reading reviews or news stories or having the "what have you liked?" conversation with other journalists during the festival. As such, I'm not totally well-versed in the arguments against "Simon Killer," and I don't want to speculate.
But as for why "Simon Killer" failed to ride the same kind of buzz wave that benefited "Martha Marcy," I think it's worth questioning whether "Martha Marcy" would have been a "hit" in a different year. Every Sundance is exactly the same as the last, except for the one or two ways in which it's completely different. After Sundance 2010 spawned a number of crossover hits/Oscar nominees, including Grand Jury Prize winner "Winter's Bone," the buying climate at 2011 was active, leading to the acquisitions of films which were generally less obviously commercial, almost all of which featured star-making performances for beautiful young actresses akin to the breakout platform "Winter's Bone" gave Jennifer Lawrence. Nowadays the "news" of Sundance is made in its first four days, so by Monday morning the narrative of the festival had become codified: it was the year of the ingenue.
"Simon Killer" has no breakout star narrative to compensate for the fact that the movie is a conceptual character study about a piece-of-shit human being, which is simply not going to be everyone's cup of tea. And even if it did, because most of those 2011 movies failed to cross over commercially, the industry and the mainstream entertainment media likely went into the festival looking for something else.
That said, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" certainly benefited from the sense of discovery surrounding it and its cast of unknowns, particularly the adorable Quvenzhané Wallis. Mark's right on point that the film's biggest fans have positioned the movie as being above genuine critique is an obvious lead-in to the festival's real "problem," which is not even Sundance's fault, really: however "divisive" a film like "Simon Killer" may seem to be, it's shocking how little debate actually happens about the merits of any individual film at the festival, because too many attendees with a "voice" approach the festival as though it's a place of right and wrong answers. The speed at which films are consumed and spat out as "hits" or "bombs" allows no time for digestion, and once the party line on a movie is out in the ether, it almost always seems to stick.
Karina, you described Zeitlin's vision as "both pagan and twee," an apt summation of how its spiritual appeal operates on a rather superficial level. But others have fixated on the film as a "post-Katrina" vision, an allegorical encapsulation of poverty in America and a brilliant evocation of a child's view of the world. Do you think Sundance audiences projected the interpretations they wanted to see or does "Beasts" make a failed attempt at grappling with these profound themes?
KL: I agree that "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a "brilliant evocation of child's view of the world" -- to a fault. It's so locked into a child's highly fantastic point of view that it can only grapple with reality in a cursory and blinkered way. The film's trip to the mainland, and the deliberate post-Katrina references that go with it, feel to me like an attempt to appropriate something viewers understand and are familiar with in order to add gravitas to its cloistered, otherworldly fairy tale. I wonder if sticking in the Bathtub and probing more deeply into the characters and relationships percolating there wouldn't have accomplished a similar grounding trick, without bringing in references to a socio-political reality that the film has no intention of dealing with in a serious way.
That said, I do think the film has merits and is worthy of appreciation. I'll reiterate my earlier point that if we come at this looking for right or wrong answers, we're doing it wrong. I also think enough has been written and said about this movie, while many Sundance films worthy of discussion have been comparatively ignored. Maybe they don't "matter" because their distribution futures are uncertain, but I would love to give this kind of attention to the craft and content of films like "The Ambassador," "Detropia," and "Room 237" -- three films which attempt to redefine the notion of nonfiction filmmaking in three completely different ways.