Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, L.A. Weekly film critic Karina Longworth and L.A. Times freelancer Mark Olsen discuss some of the provocative films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which concluded last weekend. Details on films opening this week follow the conversation.
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.
And thus you can’t offer a mixed assessment of a film like “Beasts” without being accused of artificial contrarianism. Meanwhile, films which demand digestion/reflection (such as “Compliance,” or “For Ellen,” a film which I walked out of with mixed feelings but which stuck in my head over the next few days while other films receded) don’t get it.
We all seem to agree that Sundance fever can be a very misleading thing. What, then, do we make of “Beasts,” which seemed to inspire near-religious fervor from its most devout fans during the festival? Few doubt that director Benh Zeitlin has a strong, energizing vision unlike anything else at this year’s festival (or set to hit U.S. theaters this year). I was floored by movie’s visual majesty but found its emotional core less accessible, and I have to wonder if others will feel the same way. It’s probably unfair to say that “Beasts” was designed to win the Grand Jury prize, but certainly the context that Sundance provided the film helped boost its appeal and bring it to the attention of Fox Searchlight, who bought it.
Mark, do you think you would have experienced “Beasts” in the same way had you watched it alone on a screener, as you did with “Compliance”? You point out that most endorsements of “Beasts” ended with the expectation of a backlash. What is it about this film that makes people so defensive of it? And is it even possible to address its flaws without facing the intense and immediate fury of the fans convinced of its perfection?
MO: Due to the vagaries of my personal setup as an intrepid freelancer, I didn’t actually arrive at Sundance until Monday, when the festival was already well underway and for some even already over. So I experienced the big first weekend as essentially a regular person, reading articles and reviews and, yes, obsessively checking my Twitter feed for the latest word on the latest film. And it is hard not to get the impression of a rampaging herd of critics and journalists lurching from one screening to the next en masse, kicking up a dustcloud like Pigpen from “Peanuts.” The pressure to be first, pithy and definitive, to somehow nail each movie to the wall before moving on to the next target becomes a dispiriting thing as a reader and consumer and especially once I myself tag in. Festival coverage can be a full-contact sport, but it really is a drag when it becomes a matter of gamesmanship more than discourse and the coverage of any festival too often just starts to seem like so much noise to anyone trying to make sense of it from outside the immediate bubble of the experience.
Which may be exactly why supporters of “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” have gone into a defensive stance so quickly, knowing full well that there will always be someone out there looking to take the contrarian/opposing position for the sake of simply staking out fresh turf. In some sense fans of the film are simply trying to hold onto the immediacy of their enthusiasm without some joker putting a damper on it. Real feelings can be hard to come by, especially in the rush of a film festival like Sundance, and so the impulse is understandable. But again, the idea of having a conversation or attempting to unravel complicated feelings — pro, con or in-between — too often gets swept away in the undertow.
And to answer your initial/actual question, yes, I do think my response to “Beasts” would have been the same if I had seen it ahead of the festival. (Sidebar: I like to think I have become especially adept at monitoring my own response to things I am allowed to see ahead of a festival, sometimes having to cosnciously dial back my enthusiasm knowing that it tends to rise for things I am shown under secretive/exclusive circumstances.) “Beasts” is nothing if not cinematic, so it definitely benefits from being seen on a big screen with loud sound, but one of my own issues with it is how it is art directed within an inch of its life, every bit of junk and detrius chosen and placed just so, such that the film was for me a far more calculated and cerebral exercise than the piece of wild, raw expressionism it seems intended to be.
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.