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Sundance 2011: “Septien” and “The Woods” and 90s Sundance Nostalgia

Sundance 2011: "Septien" and "The Woods" and 90s Sundance Nostalgia

The 2011 Sundance Film Festival has barely begun, and I’m already sensing a trend. Maybe it’s not a big one and maybe it won’t be consistent. Probably it’s all in my head, inspired by my feelings about covering the event for the first time in six years (and really the first time as a legitimate press professional — last time it was for a zine). But here it is: a nostalgia for the pre-Internet era/criticism of Internet dependency. It is not surprising but it’s also pretty appropriate that more than one outlet has already accidentally used a still (the one above) from Matthew Lessner’s “The Woods” in a write up of Miranda July’s “The Future,” since they both are about people who attempt to live without the net. Also, I guess it’s easy to confuse the titles when the latter is written out fully on the Sundance press page as “The Woods (or The Future is Golden).”

Neither film is set in the past, so the nostalgia is not so much a literal reach to that time (though “The Woods” features a moment entailing all-’90s karaoke, including Spin Doctors and Counting Crows) — more like either a yearning to go back to the time before the web infiltrated (and ruined?) every facet of life or a desire to move forward with a return to that era’s sensibilities. In my preview of this year’s documentary selections, I speculate that “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” will also evoke the memories of a pre-digital time. Meanwhile, a history of an analog meme and how it (favorably?) compares to modern viral sensations figures into the amusing doc “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure.”

I’m particularly fond of the ’90s recall, whether it’s truly there or not. Fittingly, as Cinematical’s Erik Davis noted, the fact that religious groups are protesting a Kevin Smith movie (this time “Red State”) definitely feels like the later part of the decade. But mostly I’m thinking of the period in which I became interested in Sundance and indie film in general. When I had to wait for print issues of Entertainment Weekly and (better/later) Film Threat to find out what was good, and what I therefore wanted to look for in time — a long time, usually, because I lived in the suburbs and had to wait for the VHS rentals to hit Blockbuster.

Two of my favorite films so far made me feel like I was there, back in my teens seeing my first Hal Hartley (it was “Simple Men”) and second Tom DiCillo (“Box of Moonlight,” which I prefer to “Living in Oblivion”), movies I loved just because they are different and weird and kind of surreal (well, from the perspective of that age). The funny thing is that I really thought I had outgrown odd stuff like “The Woods” and Michael Tully’s “Septien,” the latter of which is more reminiscent of those ’90s movies for me with its unreal story of three dissimilar brothers living on a farm. Maybe it’s just always the trio of brothers thing that gets me, and “Septien” would be enjoyable even without the bizarre tone and over-the-top third act, if it was closer to “Coupe de Ville” and “Bottle Rocket.” Regardless, I love it, and I think I might be the only one.

I also don’t see a whole lot of people loving “The Woods” as much as I do. But I also wouldn’t think I’d love a movie about idiotic idealistic hipsters living rebelliously and ironically in the woods — somehow, fantastically, with electricity and Internet (until the end of the world, which also seems to be a running theme at the fest this year) — staged like an arty alternative theater production of “Swiss Family Robinson” mashed up with “Lord of the Flies” starring 20-somethings whose drama school degrees are still fresh with wet ink. I very vocally despise Improv Everywhere for doing much of what this movie does, and yet I will very vocally champion it.

Just imagine a remake of the part of “Badlands” where Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are living in their awesome tree house, but instead of those two its a group of Urban Outfitters models (one of whom overly narrates the film with certain Malick influence) and they’ve just come from a Costco shopping spree. And it’s 90 minutes of that, satirizing both classic counterculture films of the ’60s and ’70s (with gorgeous Super 16mm cinematography to boot) and the youth of today spoiled by microwave meals, video games and Facebook (and Chatroulette, which also figures heavily and datedly into another good Sundance ’11 film, “Uncle Kent”). The film’s point definitely wears thin over time, and I kept being suspicious that it was made by hypocritical hipsters. I see it being embraced by the very kind of people it mocks, like how “Saved” was so good a satire that its target similarly embraces it.

Well, I’m stoked to find someone else who appreciates it, even if as conflictingly as I do, so hopefully that description turns someone on. July’s film will likely be better and more accepted by the crowd here. If only I could go back and see what Sundance ’96 thinks.

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