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In indieWIRE's second Sundance Live at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, film critic Eric Kohn offers a quick take on Sundance's opening night film, "Mary and Max," by animator Adam Elliot and Doug Pray's doc about the advertising world, "Art and Copy." Eugene Hernandez covers the premiere screening of Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" at the Eccles, while Peter Knegt gives the lowdown on the New Frontier panel "Creating New Media in the Service of Storytelling."
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: "Art & Copy"
In "Art & Copy," veteran documentarian Doug Pray explores the world of advertisement as a purely creative endeavor. With a slew of talking heads responsible for a series of famous campaigns -- from "got milk?" and "Just Do It" to "It's Morning in America" -- Pray crafts a warm, engaging portrait of the greatest artistic minds of the field from the past fifty-odd years. However, his one-sided focus causes the paradoxical nature of this widely exploited craft to take a backseat when it really belongs in the front row.
While one accomplished designer admits near the end that "brands can be dangerous," there's little in the movie to back up his sentiment. No corporate voices struggle to justify their monetization of art. Instead, much of the running time focuses on the superficial reasons behind certain successful ad campaigns, ignoring the eerie psychological and propagandistic implications behind it all. Meanwhile, in today's media-saturated environment, Pray's portrait seems oddly dated. Ronald Reagan's successful ads worked wonders in the early 1980's -- but what of John McCain's? Only Apple gets the 21st century spotlight, and it's hard not to feel like the movie inadvertently becomes a promotional tool itself. Even with the occasional caveats, the central argument leaves something to be desired. The idea that creative people control the advertising business is unconventional, but it's also unsatisfying. [Eric Kohn]
"Humpday" Challenges Sexuality While Bringing the Laughs
"Lot's of laughs and even a few uncomfortable moments marked the world premiere of Lynn Shelton's high concept indie, "Humpday," the story of two straight dudes (old college friends) who decide to have sex with each other in a low budget porno.
Shelton's idea for "Humpday" emerged from a conversation she had with fellow filmmaker Joe Swanberg who was apparently gushing about some of the gay films he'd seen at Seattle's Hump fest. Similarly in "Humpday," the two guys (filmmaker and actors Mark Duplass and Josh Leonard) decide to shoot and enter their straight-gay porn film in the Seattle festival.
"It's sassy, it's irreverent, it takes risks and it's really smart," Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore said, introducing the upbeat showing today.
After the screening, while sales agent Josh Braun navigated what he said was a positive response from a trio of buyers, folks in the lobby at the Eccles dissected the sexual politics of the movie and its message. The audience response to the film was quite warm as well, stirring lots of laughter and what seemed to be generally positive reactions. One movie-goer wondered whether the movie endorses or challenges homophobia by depicting two straight men who become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of have sex with each other.
"The movie is about relationships," Shelton noted, saying plainly that endorsing homophobia couldn't have been further from her intentions, instead she wanted to challenge such fears. "That's what I'm interested in, identity and relationships."
Shelton added that the movie already succeeded in challenging one perspective, that of the father of a friend, a supporter of California's Prop 8 against marriage equality. After seeing the movie he told Shelton's friend he better understood that being gay is not a choice.
Prior to her premiere, Shelton mingled out front at the Eccles with cast, crew and friends. Sharing her excitement with indieWIRE, she said her greatest anxiety of the past 24 hours was that the digital tape of her film would be de-magnetized en route to Park City.
"This is my third feature," Shelton told the warm Sundance audience today shortly after noon. (Her previous films are 2008's "My Effortless Brilliance" and "We Go Way Back".) "I've been thirsting to stand here for a long time," she added, "I am not taking anything for granted." [Eugene Hernandez]
Storytelling In The New Frontier
"The kind of stuff I make is something that anybody can make," artist John Michael Boling said in a panel today at Sundance's New Frontier headquarters. "And that's what I like about it. It's really democratic. You could just be some guy off the street, go to the library every day for two weeks and you could be as good as anybody else. You can be able to sort of reflect on culture and kind of create things and be able to express yourself in a new language. That's part of the reason I like it a lot and that's part of the reason I got into it."
Boling is a founding member of Nasty Nets Internet Surfing Club and is presenting "endless port of gold cd-rs" at Sundance with three other Nasty Net members. He sat down with four other artists presenting their work at New Frontier, Lynette Wallworth, John Underkoffler, Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, in a panel discussing the topic "Creating New Media Technology in the Service of Storytelling." Moderated by Ruby Lerner, executive director of Creative Capital, the panel is the first in a series put on by the New Frontier programmers.
"Ira Glass, of 'This American Life,' says that great stories have three components," Lerner said. "The anecdote, the bait or the questions being asked and answered, and the reflection point, or what [Glass] calls 'the bigger something that we're driving at.' So how would each of you characterize the 'bigger something that you're driving at' in your work?"
Wallworth, an Australian artist who works in video, photography and short film, is at New Frontier with "Evolution of Fearlessness," a work where the viewe enters a dark room to learn the stories of women who have survived war zones.
"Most of my work creating a space that is somewhat communal," answered Wallworth. "It also involves a work that isn't complete until the visitor is finishing the work. I think my biggest concern is the idea that we are this together. How do we move from the stories that were being fed to the stories we want to tell each other? In terms of this work, the storytelling I'm interested in is to find the anecdote to the stories I was reading or the stories I was hearing."
This form of storytelling, according to Wallworth, "requires us to tell each other our stories and standing in front of each other." "[It's about] not having them mediated for us so much by large corporations or big companies that have an investment in something other than communal joy, communal experience, and communal life."
Kamvar and Harris, who worked together on New Frontier installation "Universe, We Feel Fine," combine elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling in their work.
"I was actually feeling a lot of what Lynette was feeling in that we're all in this together," Kamvar said. "I think one of the things we really try to cultivate in a lot of our work is a feeling of productivity. This notion of how we might be feeling or whatever we might be going through... there are other people around that might be the same."
Harris referenced Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" to explain his work. As the story goes, the protagonist Billy is abducted by the Tralfamadorians, taken to their planet and put in a zoo. "At one point [Billy] asks for a book to read and they said 'well, we don't have any Earth books we just have Tralfamadorian books," Harris said. "And he says, 'well that's cool I'll try and read them anyway. What do I need to know about them? And they say, 'well, Tralfamadorians consist of very short vignettes and anecdotes and the order of these anecdotes don't really matter.' But after reading the whole book, you realize that the collective ofthe anecdotes was very carefully chosen and collectively this image starts to emerge that is a very specific thing... I think there are some similarities with that in what we do."
Underkoffler, founder of Oblong Industries and one of its chief scientists (he served as science advisor on the films "Minority Report" and "Iron Man"), is participating in New Frontier with "Tamper," a "g-speak spacial-operating environment" directly influenced by the gesturally driven information systems designed for "Minority Report."
"I don't want to gainsay Ira Glass because he's a tough and dangerous man but I think I think it's a kind of narrow definition of story he has there," Underkoffler said. "Even without technology, there are cultures here on Earth that don't deal with Foxes and Warners but they tell stories that are geography based and have other sorts of flow to them. So, personally I'm interested in stories that can tell us new ideas. Peter Greenaway in his kind of grumpy way talks often about how all we've done with this first hundred years of cinema is to illustrate 19th century novels. While grumpy, it's also true... There's a couple ways out of that at least, and I look to many more being discovered. One of them is that Tralfamadorian approach. To just sort of build up stuff that might seem incidental taken in the small but which comes together into something really coherent."
All of the artists' work can be seen at New Frontier headquarters, in the basement of the Park City Mall on Main Street. [Peter Knegt]
9:27 am MST
SNAPSHOT REVIEW: "Mary and Max"
Sundance's opening night feature, the moody claymation character study "Mary and Max," makes sense as the first movie screened at the festival because of its flaws. Australian animator Adam Elliot -- whose Oscar-winning short "Harvey Krumpet" played at Sundance several years ago -- creates a unique mixture of darkly playful and bittersweet vibes with his quixotic visual technique, but lacks the ability to make the whole thing jive together as a single package.
Less fluid than sequential, "Mary and Max" tells the story of a lonely young Australian girl (voiced Toni Collette) whose only friend is her unlikely pen pal, a vehemently anti-social New Yorker named Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, with a delightfully exaggerated Bronx whine). Individual scenes exploring the lives of these alienated personalities have an addictive quality, given Elliot's spectacular knack for creating a fully formed universe by using the painstaking, centuries-old technique of movie magic yore. Perhaps because the filmmaker's style has such remarkable individuality, the movie beats out other recent claymation ventures -- including the Israeli feature "$9.99" and Henry Selick's upcoming "Coraline" -- for constructing an entire world with its own special brand of absurdity. At the same time, Elliot could benefit from a rigorous script doctor: While the simplicity of the narrative reflects an intentionally morose tone, it also hints at the filmmaker's room to grow. [Eric Kohn]