A full slate of films in my first two days has me dizzy and unfocused; So many friendly faces, so many movies… It has been a very productive start for us since the Press and Industry screenings began, but not all of the good news has been coming from the Sundance films themselves; While one of the best films I’ve seen in Park City was a special screening in our condo (a film we’re very excited to bring to Sarasota… more when we announce the program), we’ve also been fortunate to run into colleagues and finish up some other programming business in between screenings. So far, so good.
I’ve been to eleven films in the first two days, and while I haven’t yet seen a dud, there are two movies that stand out from the crowd; Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a tremendously engaging look at Polanski’s trial for illegal sexual activity with a 13-year old girl, and Lance Hammer’s beautifully realized Ballast, which puts Bressonian techniques to use in the rural, impoverished Mississippi Delta. The films couldn’t have been further apart in their tone, techniques and concerns, but they provided the perfect bookends to a decent day at the movies, with some electric moments that affected me deeply.
First up was Polanski and I couldn’t have started the day on a better note; I was regretting skipping the Magnolia karaoke party, but my absence was in good faith; This was a movie I had to see. I rolled out of bed at 7:15 am to be sure I made it to the 8:30 screening; No regrets. I have been dropping hints here and there that one of my ideal film making projects* would be to create a Roman Polanski biopic with Matthieu Amalric in the role of the director, so I came to Zenovich’s film with a good deal of understanding about Polanski’s life and career. None of my own internal curiosity and expectations mattered when the lights went down and the screen lit up; Using archival footage, modern day interviews with most of the surviving players (the subject himself is only seen in archival interviews) and clips from Polanski’s films as visual punctuation to the real-life events unfolding on the screen, Zenovich deftly tells the story of Polanski’s notorious crime and his subsequent punishment. Polanski’s story is really two stories; The story of a brilliant artist whose life is shattered by a series of tragedies (the death of his mother in a Polish Concentration Camp, the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family) and the story of a manipulative playboy whose outrageous desires run him afoul of American law. Polanski is both men at once, and Zenovich understands the fractured relationship between Polanski’s dark, creative impulses, the horrors that he endured in his personal life, the charming smile he wore for the cameras and his seductive qualities as a brilliant artist living in hard-partying Hollywood. As Zenovich paints him, you’d think Polanski is capable of doing something terrible while also sensing he couldn’t hurt a fly.
Which, unfortunately, wasn’t the case in real life; One night in 1977, Polanski gave drugs and alcohol to a 13 year old model and, let’s talk plainly, raped her. The girl, now a woman, is named and interviewed in the film, and despite her magnanimous presence, there is a tension in this film which, on the surface, appears to downplay the severity of the victim’s charges. But on closer examination, Zenovich follows the facts and the record in coming to her conclusions; Polanski was never formally tried for rape, instead pleading guilty to a reduced charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.” This discrepancy, between what I believe are the conditions of rape (the victim repeatedly saying no, the fact that no law will allow for sexual consent from a 13 year old) and the court’s ultimate compromise, allowing Polanski to plea bargain, are not tackled as political issues in the film, and that decision ultimately presented a conflict in my mind in terms of the film’s portrayal of Polanski as the victim of Judge Laurence Rittenband, who never saw a news camera whose lens he didn’t covet. Clearly, Rittenbrand’s own ego and refusal to allow the conditions of a fairly negotiated plea bargain to stand put Polanski in an untenable position, but the judge’s refusal to consider the best interests of the victim in the case was even more infuriating. I wouldn’t say that Zenovich has made some sort of omission, but her recognition of the humanity of both Polanski and his victim, her understanding that, despite his guilt, Polanski deserved to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system (as did the young woman he victimized), presented a complex dilemma for me; I couldn’t help drawing some sort of parallel in my mind between the two of them when, in fact, what Polanski’s victim endured is far worse than what Polanski, who put himself in the situation to begin with, has had to bear. But this is what makes Zenovich’s choice so important; Without clearly expressing the humanity of everyone involved, the story would be a cliché crime story. Zenovich’s film is something else entirely.
Putting the issue of equivocating the victims to the side, the film itself is a gorgeously assembled record of the era and it features some incredible footage put to brilliant use; The stand out for me was an amazing archival tracking shot of Polanski leaving the courthouse, mobbed by the press, set to Led Zeppelin’s thundering Immigrant Song. There are grainy interviews with Polanski himself, from 60 Minutes and the BBC, which allow the eloquent Director to argue for the totality of his life’s work against the darkness of a single indiscretion, but the heart of the film is Polanski’s devastation when confronted with the loss of his wife at the hands of the Manson Family (who, surprisingly, only get a passing mention… another film, perhaps.) Zenovich recounts how, in the immediate aftermath of Sharon Tate’s murder, the press drew parallels between Polanski’s films and the crime, some going as far as to implicate Polanski himself (drawing ridiculous parallels between the satanic cult in Rosemary’s Baby and the Manson cult’s bloody messages.) In the film’s most moving moment, one I have never seen before, Polanski addresses the press in the immediate aftermath of the murder, fighting to hold back tears as he expresses both his own personal loss and the pain of being somehow implicated in the death of the woman he loved. In moments like these, which are plentiful and beautifully constructed, Zenovich paints a complex portrait of a very complicated artist whose troubled life lead him to a crucial, painful mistake.
At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum, Lance Hammer’s debut feature film Ballast is a slow-burning revelation. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) discovers his brother’s suicide and is so shattered by the experience, he attempts to take his own life while a concerned neighbor looks on. James (JimMyron Ross) is a latch-key kid who owes money to some local thugs; Instead of asking his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) for help, James decides to take matters into his own hands. That ill-advised decision sets off a series of misadventures for he and Marlee which lands them in an abandoned house right next door to Lawrence and into a new set of complicated relationships. It would be a shame to give away too many plot points in the film, because one of the true pleasures of watching Ballast is allowing the Hammer’s story to unfold in its own unique way. Visually, the film is a stunningly photographed series of cramped, impoverished interiors, tight tracking shots and close ups which bring to mind Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta and L’Enfant or, say, the empty fields and silences of Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité but which feel absolutely American in their tone and texture. The use of first-time actors also lends a feeling of down and dirty realism to the film, especially because of Hammer’s choices in both framing and editing; His camera often observes these characters from a doorway or over a shoulder, collapsed in exhausted sleep, or silently grieving in an empty room. The film’s copious silences and perfectly timed cuts bring a truly haunted sensibility to the film and especially to Lawrence’s character, who Hammer shoots in a series of brief, silent moments, his dead brother an almost physical presence that can do nothing to alleviate Lawrence’s inarticulate, physically tangible suffering.
As with the Dardennes, Hammer’s film ultimately focuses on an emerging, makeshift family born of tragedy, but the film never feels derivative because of its regional sensibility and outstanding performances; The dilapidated trailer homes, the frozen fields where crops never seem to grow, the piles of detritus that line the sparsely populated roads, the small town ambition to have some modicum of control over one’s own life all feel like timely reminders of the reality in 21st century America. And while Hammer’s film gradually builds toward forgiveness and redemption on a personal level, the tragic circumstances that set the story in motion provide a constant sense of tension throughout the film. Will the thugs finally catch up with James? And what of the gun that Lawrence hides under his couch after he fails at his own suicide attempt? Hammer brilliantly uses sound and the margins of the frame to keep things simmering; The pop of every tire against the shallow gravel could bring trouble, the reflection of oncoming headlights on a dark and stormy road might mean the end. And yet, Ballast is nothing if not hopeful, and in a perfectly executed (if unexpected) final sequence, Hammer delivers enough possibility to satisfy our best wishes for his characters. What a relief to find an American filmmaker telling a compelling story, telling it so assuredly and in such a way as to invite comparison to greatness. In a festival that promised us more than its fair share of quirky families in crisis, Ballast feels like a genuine discovery; A film with the courage and ambition to treat its audience like adults and to bring American cinema the serious, compelling voice of a fully developed artist.
Off to bed. More soon.
* All of my “film making projects” are ideals, since I have no plans to ever make a film and no experience at all… but I digress.