Park City, Utah—Given the rowdy frat-boy vibe to which so much Sundance fiction has seemed to cater, it came as scant surprise that the first ever documentary to appear on Opening Night was a tender ode to kewl dudes and their rock-hard boards. Riding Giants, wherein big-wave surfing is “not just a sport, but a statement” (per the film’s way-stoked narrator), elicited nearly as many “Oh, shit” audience exclamations as it unleashed shots of killer swells. (Mother Nature aside, it’s more than an hour before a female is allowed to make herself heard.) For some of us, Stacy Peralta’s latest extreme documentary may be indistinguishable from ESPN, although the popular kids—including Peralta’s buds at Sony Classics—thought it even gnarlier than the director’s Dogtown and Z-Boys.
But enough about that. My point is simply to say that Sundance’s nonfiction roster is no less subject to the curators’ commercial balancing act (and inevitable wipeouts) than its fiction was in the year that the low camp of Wet Hot American Summer helped fund the high art of The Sleepy Time Gal. And as it happens, the festival’s athletic department did foot the bill this year for some worthy scholarships in documentary studies.
Made with the Mac’s iMovie for a mere $218.32, Jonathan Caouette’s thoroughly obsessive autobiography-cum-therapy workout Tarnation ranks right up there with Kids among classic Park City provocations. (Coincidentally or not, both films bear the imprimatur of executive producer Gus Van Sant; Tarnation comes with the additional support of John Cameron Mitchell.) Telling mainly of his difficult relationship with a mother who suffered shock treatment and other abuses as a child, Caouette draws on two decades of diaristic home video whose starkly confessional tone is made even more intense through digital recoloring, copious split-screen effects, and jarring interjections of printed text and unlicensed pop. The artist’s self-diagnosed depersonalization disorder appears to manifest itself in his periodic use of third-person narration (e.g., “Jonathan was placed in a foster home . . . “), along with the odd dramatic re-enactment of odd dramatic re-enactment. But there’s nothing the least bit distanced about the son’s poignant attempts to connect with Mom, whose unconditional love is reciprocated through one of the most generously affectionate characterizations of a mother in all of movies.
The 31-year-old Caouette, whose immodest montage includes the Lana Turner-esque soliloquy he delivered in drag at age 11, was hardly the only ham among documentary protagonists this year. In fact, Screaming Men—Mika Ronkainen’s howler about a choir of Finnish caterwaulers—could have lent its name to more than half the nonfiction at Sundance. (Notable exceptions included lively portraits of Shirley Chisholm and Imelda Marcos, both bound for PBS.) Variously gifted though they appear, the agonized artists of Overnight (bartender tapped by Miramax), Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (headbangers in analysis), and DIG! (indie-rock frontmen in a feud) are alike in their use of the camera as a frustration receptacle while the larger projects linger. All three of these superbly entertaining docs wring humor and pathos out of creative torture, while The Yes Men—whose eponymous prankster duo brings Mr. Show aesthetics to trade policy in the impersonation of WTO reps—goes further as a nearly unfathomable portrait of political performance art. Shot guerrilla-style by Dan Ollman along with American Movie co-creators Sarah Price and Chris Smith, this situationist comedy contains what has to be some of the funniest material ever projected on a movie screen—including a scene at a Plattsburgh university where the “WTO” proposes solving world hunger by routing recycled “food” from first-world toilets to third-world McDonald’s restaurants.
You might say Ronald McDonald took a beating at Sundance. In Super Size Me, the fest’s most popular doc, director Morgan Spurlock embarks on a month-long McDiet and videotapes its fouler effects by way of proving that a Big Mac attack is as real as cancer. The question is whether this relatively little movie will manage to reach the type of folks whom Spurlock captures largely from the waist down, his occasional shots of their faces blurred in post-production so as to obscure the issue of consent. No doubt the bulk of these super-sizers lack the slumming filmmaker’s close medical supervision, and Spurlock, who plays his repeated blood and cholesterol tests for big laughs as much as statistical evidence, doesn’t seem to include the awareness of de facto corporate food poisoning as being among his many privileges. Important nonetheless, the film may be most effective in convincing time-crunched visitors to the Golden Arches that, on a short lunch break, it may be preferable to starve.
As if to suggest that home-style cuisine carries its own risks (as well as rewards), Matt Mahurin’s I Like Killing Flies takes an aptly quizzical look at Shopsin’s proprietor Kenny Shopsin, who brings such a personal touch to his work that he actually exterminates insects with one hand and flips pancakes with the other. Mahurin’s curiously tasty dish could leave even a vegan with a burning desire to order Shopsin’s lamb chops, whereas I suppose some viewers would beg to differ with my reading of Control Room as a highly effective recruiting film for Al Jazeera. (Where do I send my résumé?) Jehane Noujaim, who co-directed Startup.com, secures amazing access to both the Arab news network and to the U.S. military’s Central Command. Cataloging countless distinctions between last year’s coverage of the Iraq war’s victims and the coalition’s “victory” by Al Jazeera and CNN/NBC/ABC/E!, Noujaim’s film shrewdly exposes the myth of journalistic impartiality during wartime. How will Big Media review the movie if and when its “indie” subsidiaries acquire it for distribution? Stay tuned.
“Feeding Frenzy: Stunts, moguls, buffed-up people, and sharks—fitting for a film festival at a ski resort” by Joshua Rothkopf