Critic's Diary: Quiet Revelations, No Gimmicks, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "DIG!" Probe Troubled Relationships
by Stephen Garrett
As copies of Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures" filter their way through the film industry here at Park City, the book's 15-year chronicle of independent film is a potent reminder of how movies like "Clerks," "El Mariachi" and "Reservoir Dogs" set off a slew of early-to-mid '90s imitators that relied heavily on overwritten, too-hip dialogue or over-the-top violence for dramatic effect and provocation. What's arresting about this year is that, despite a dearth of groundbreaking selections this year, the films have earned their keep with original takes on familiar stories. Histories, both personal and political, were the topics of the day, and they were tackled with insight and wit instead of cheap thrills and gimmicky devices.
Take, for example, dramatic-competition infidelity pictures such as Alan Brown's "Book of Love" and John Curran's "We Don't Live Here Anymore." The solid but somewhat disappointing "Book," in which a young married couple befriend a teenage boy who then starts an affair with the wife, overcomes flat direction and an occasionally clumsy script with strong acting and a potent ending that sidesteps predictability in favor of quiet revelation.
The much more accomplished "Anymore," which tracks the double infidelity between two best-friend couples, enjoys Curran's confident directorial hand as well as some stunning performances, particularly a heartbreakingly clear-eyed one from Laura Dern. The script -- based on two Andre Dubus short stories -- fumbles with its depiction of the couples' respective young children and how they're caught in the emotional crossfire; but, again, the film avoids easy emotional crises and pat scene resolutions in favor of powerfully insightful depictions of ordinary people silently suffering. Even the Special-Screening misfire "Marie and Bruce," based on a Wallace Shawn play, still manages to present in a highly artificial, stylized way, just how difficult it is for married people to find a way to communicate -- let alone the resolve to change their situations.
Ondi Timoner's documentary "DIG!" also expertly probes the corrosive relationships between people, in this case rock groups The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. While the pair start out touring together and scraping for label contracts, their friendship starts to fall apart as BJM's self-destructive creative force Anton Newcombe keeps his band from taking the professional route to success. Dandy frontman Courtney Taylor narrates the film, which follows the bands' rivalry with eye-opening access, and never wavers from his admiration for Newcombe's talent. Timoner directs and edits her doc with great pacing and a keen eye for the drama that unfolded; the film mines some forcefully convincing ideas about jealousy, ambition, focus, discipline, and respect.
Another personal history that strictly speaking is fiction but has the force of documentary in its drama is the American Spectrum film "Lbs." Matthew Bonifacio's movie takes a self-deprecating but never self-pitying look at a man's struggle with weight loss that lacks a strong cinematic vision but retains an unpretentious emotional power. Modestly made, "Lbs." succeeds by avoiding its potential as an Oprah-fueled experience of willpower, instead offering a very human story of self-realization.
Jonathan Caouette's experimental docudrama "Tarnation" transforms personal history into abstract expression, recycling home movies and family photos of a broken, psychologically damaged childhood into a mind-bending collage of sounds and images. Compromised by an ending that feels forced and self-conscious -- as though the filmmaker needed fresh footage for a climax to his painful, poetic reverie -- the film undeniably delivers a transformative experience of cinematic narrative's still-untapped potential.
Caouette's gay orientation makes "Tarnation" a political doc of sorts, which harmonizes well with some of Sundance's more memorable works. Kevin Wilmott's American Spectrum picture "CSA: The Confederate States of America" is a Ken-Burns-inflected reimagining of America if the South had won the Civil War and maintained slavery into the 20th century. Compromised by overindulgent comic pacing and an uneven production value, CSA nevertheless packs a wallop, if only for the wildly original and rigorously thorough elaboration of its potent hypotheticals as well as its discussion of how the deep roots of racism still persist today. And another American Spectrum offering, Jehane Noujaim's "The Control Room" takes a sobering look at the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera and its coverage of the U.S. invasion/liberation of Iraq, with equally prejudicial Americans and Arabs fiercely resisting the other's interpretation of events while trying hard to maintain objectivity. Diversity of opinion is a staple of Sundance, and this year's selections never wavered from showing just how difficult -- and rewarding -- it is to listen to all voices and to find a way to tolerance.