I am writing this midway through the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance, a competitive festival with juried Grand Jury Prizes for U.S. narrative and documentary films, continues its commitment to independent filmmaking, especially documentaries. It has expanded to include the best of the world’s narrative and documentary films. Within the New Frontiers sections this year, the focus is virtual reality and its impact on storytelling. The new Next program is designed for low-budget and digital films. Here is a peek:
Let’s Go to the Movies
Director: Ira Sachs
Sachs, a Greenwich Village resident and Grand Jury Prize winner, returns with Little Men, set in Brooklyn. His commitment to storytelling here is rooted in human relationships and community. One of the families depicted in this film is a non-traditional heterosexual unit where the father, a sometimes-working actor, is a stay-at-home dad and the mother (Jennifer Ehle) is a psychotherapist who brings home the bacon. The father (Greg Kinnear), along with his sister (Talia Balsam), have inherited the apartment building in Brooklyn where his family lives. They have one 13 year old son, Jake, (Theo Taplitz) with a Modigliani face. Jake becomes best friends with Tony (Michael Barbieri) also 13, the son of a single mom (Paulina Garcia) who is the storefront tenant in the family’s building. Problems emerge when the sister demands a 400% rent increase in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The film focuses on how this unaffordable rent impacts each character. As he did in Love is Strange, Sachs subtly makes the issues of parenting, gentrification, class, and friendship the central theme. Little Men is a beautiful reality check illustrating how economic pressures and privilege can divide a community, disrupt family, and challenge friendships.
The JT Leroy Story
Director Jeff Feuierzeig
Author returns to one of the most highly charged literary scandals of the last 25 years. In 1996, a writer by the name of JT LeRoy burst onto the literary scene with the book Sarah. He had first published in zines and magazines like Spin at age 14. LeRoy’s biography stated that he was a homosexual runaway with a prostitute mom, grew up in a drug-infested environment where he experienced gender identity confusion, and became a truck stop hooker, sometimes as a boy and sometimes a girl. His timely presentation of gender confusion/identity, combined with an ability to tell stories skillfully, led him to become a literary sensation and a pop culture icon. Celebrity fans included Bono, writers Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper, Courtney Love, and Gus Van Sant. Although LeRoy refused to speak to the media, he did converse with these new friends via telephone. Finally, he agreed to do some public readings, appearing as a blonde androgynous figure hidden by large hats and huge sunglasses. LeRoy read, signed, and disappeared as quickly as possible. Pop culture and the literary world were obsessed with this rising star. Then everything changed when LeRoy was exposed as a 29 year old heterosexual female, married, and with a child. Her true identity was Laura Albert, a punk rocker, former prostitute, and phone sex operator living in San Francisco. Rather than being hailed as a brilliant writer and trickster extraordinaire, Albert was castigated and savagely attacked. Literary agent Ira Silverberg led the campaign. The fall from grace was fast and furious. Not all of the famous fans walked away, but those whose public egos were bruised were relentless in their denunciations. Lost in the tabloid fervor was the actual literary value of the author’s work. Enter the director of the 2005 Grand Jury Documentary Prize winner The Devil and Daniel Johnson (Watch it.), Jeff Feuerzeig. A perfect match of outsider talent. Feuerzeig turns away from the tabloid sensation and asks very provocative questions that challenge the notion of creativity and public spectacle. Author: The JT LeRoy Story instantly became one of the most buzzed about films at Sundance 20I6. To me, it also represents a successful challenge to traditional notions regarding the responsibility of authors to their public. (Think JD Salinger.)
Director Aaron Brookner
Director Howard Brookner died of AIDS in NYC in 1989 while in post-production for his first Hollywood feature Bloodhounds of Broadway. He was 29. His reputation was established through his documentary of author William S. Burroughs (Burroughs: The Movie (1983)), followed byRobert Wilson and the Civil Wars. Howard was my friend and one of the many talented artists I knew that died of AIDS. It took Brookner five years to complete Burroughs. Thousands of feet of out-takes featured a who’s who of downtown artists and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Laurie Anderson (with long hair!). For years, the documentary and footage appeared to have been lost. Enter Aaron Brookner who was seven when his favorite uncle Howard died. The Brookners were a close-knit, loving, and demanding Jewish family that eventually accepted the fact that Howard was gay. Aaron became a filmmaker obsessed with finding and restoring uncle Howard’s work. He eventually succeeded after a worldwide hunt for the lost documentary; Criterion Collection remastered and re-released the documentary. Aaron remained on a quest to confirm what had happened to the five years of outtakes. He enlisted two now well-known filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch and Tom Cirillo, who were young and unknown when they worked for Howard on the documentary. By connecting with Howard’s lover (writer Brad Gooch) and Burrough’s friends (James Grauerholz, etc.), all roads pointed to Burrough’s Bowery headquarters (called The Bunker), now occupied by the poet John Giorno. (The Bunker was a windowless basement within the building.) Aaron attempted to reach out to Giorno to ask if any of Howard’s outtakes were located on the building’s floors. Giorno repeatedly rebuffed Aaron and refused to see him. Persistent, Aaron and his wife Paula Vaccaro kept knocking and ringing the bell at the Bowery building. Finally, Giorno let Aaron in and led him to the third floor where, in a corner, he found stacks of Howard’s film archive—a treasure trove of cultural history and a portrait of a young filmmaker. Reviewing the archive, Aaron eventually assembled the outtakes we now see in his own documentary. Uncle Howard is a deeply moving portrait of a brilliant young filmmaker and his close four-generation Jewish family, mostly based in Miami, and his nephew’s quest to understand and honor his dead uncle. I must tell you that I wept through most of the screening because it took me back to a special time in NYC cultural life and the people who populated my world. See it…and bring tissues!
Directors Josh Kriegman
and Elyse Steinberg
If you want to understand how political media coverage has created the tabloid sensationalism of Donald Trump and the oneupmanship of the Republican presidential candidates attempting to
outdo each other with wild unsubstantiated statements and a refusal to detail their political policy issues, then Weiner is an absolute must-watch. Through this film, you will better understand why political issues are being trumped by pop culture and TMZ-ish sensationalism. Anthony Weiner was a seven-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives known for his strong and fiery refusal to back down on issues he believed in. He publicly castigated Republicans for their refusal to support almost anything proposed by the Obama administration, including healthcare coverage for the 9/11 first responders. The same Anthony Weiner, aka Carlos Danger, also exchanged sexually explicit messages with women on the internet while married to Arab-American Huma Abedin, the Chief of Staff to Hillary Clinton. Weiner used bad judgment as a public figure but he never met the women and used the internet to have explicit sex talk and share provocative pictures. The larger point is that thousands of Americans do the same thing on a daily basis. He broke no marriage vow. Weiner’s biggest mistake was that he lied to the press at first. He refused to resign, saying that this was a private matter between him and his wife. When Weiner lost the support of Obama, he ultimately agreed to resign, disappearing from public life until he announced, with his wife’s support, his entry into the NYC Democratic mayoral race in 2014. Kriegman, the film’s director, had at one time been part of Weiner’s staff. Now a professional TV documentary filmmaker, he proposed that he and fellow filmmaker Elyse Steinberg follow and document the campaign. Weiner agreed. Weiner turns out to be the most important and insightful electoral politics documentary of the last 40 years. Watch it. See how pop culture sensationalism has overtaken political debate and policy and how political ideas have taken a back seat to sensationalism and porn voyeurism. Weiner takes a sad, critical look at how 24-hour cable news’ thirst for ratings, the effect of reality TV, a public saturated in porn, and Murdock-ish journalism have changed the landscape of political coverage and discourse.
(cc) jim fouratt