Sundance: Feeling the economic pinch, 'Push,' 'Humpday,' and 'Art & Copy'

Push_lThe Sundance Film Festival usually has a very go-go vibe — deals being made, movies being consumed like chain-smoked cigarettes, swag being hoarded (and ritually dissed in that oh we’re so above it! way), free drinks being guzzled — so I was curious to see whether that vibe would end up getting turned down a notch or two by the economic crisis, even amidst the official celebration of the festival’s 25th year. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The moment I entered the lobby of the Eccles Theatre on Friday, just before my first screening (of a movie with the confusing but halfway promising title of Humpday — more on that below), the crowd was smaller and less packed, the general buzziness half of what it usually is.

This era of anxiety and belt-tightening would probably calm the ripples of enthusiasm at any industry convention (which is what Sundance has effectively become). In this case, though, what’s been happening to the world of independent film over the last year is at once a premonition and an echo of what’s happened in the larger culture. The shuttering of specialty divisions, the squeezed marketplace of too many films vying on too few screens to reach an audience too easily distracted by too many competing diversions — it all adds up to an atmosphere here that is, to put it mildly, cautious and a bit nervous, measurably less bubbly than it’s been.

Yet there’s a sensation that still looms here, as it has for 25 years. It’s that of new stuff coming down the pike — not just new films, but new ways of doing things. As much as real estate or the Nasdaq, the movie crop at Sundance this year represents a buyer’s market, and so a good number of deals are expected to be made (if perhaps fewer of the $10 million-for-a-comedy-that-looks-mainstream-but-never-crosses-over variety). And I heard happy rumors of at least one new major distribution company being launched, possibly right at the festival. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but a rumor like that one symbolizes what’s percolating just beneath the moderate volume of a slightly-less-high-decibel Sundance. It’s the feeling that you can still carry into every screening here. Call it hope.

* * *

Sometimes, a movie has to take you down — and I mean down, really far — in order to lift you up. Push (pictured), adapted from a novel by Sapphire (the film’s full, rather awkward title is Push: Based on the Novel By Sapphire),
does just that. The picture is utterly merciless in how it presents its
heroine: a teenage girl from Harlem named Precious Jones who is a
stunted, abused, childishly inarticulate, morbidly obese shell of a
human being, with a face so inexpresssive — so utterly locked in — that
it might be a visor clamped down over her real features. The director,
Lee Daniels, shows us the awful circumstances that have caused Precious
to be the way she is (she is pregnant — for the second time — by her
drug-addict father), and the actress Gabourey Sidibe plays her without
a flicker of sentimentality, but with barely visible tremors of emotion
that cue us to everything this arrested girl is holding back. Push
shows us how a young woman who is nothing but a thick, bruised wall of
walking scar tissue slowly emerges, pulling herself out of her living
hell, and Daniels demonstrates unflinching daring as a filmnmaker by
going this deep, this far, this ruthlessly into the pathologies of rage
and dependence that can still linger in the haunted closets of
impoverished African-American life. Push is one of those films
that make you think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but it’s a
potent and moving experience, because by the end you feel you’ve
witnessed nothing less than the birth of a soul.

* * *

When you hear about the premise of Humpday, it sounds like the slightly edgier, sort-of-gay version of Zack and Miri Make a Porno — and that’s basically what it is, though the movie is derivative in other ways as well. It’s Zack and Miri meets Old Joy meets Chuck & Buck,
all done in a consciously meandering indie-improv style that might be
described as mirthful mumblecore. A decade or so after college, Ben
(Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) have taken opposite paths:
Ben is a married, pleat-pants bureaucrat (he and his wife are trying to
have a baby), and Andrew is a bushy-bearded good-time hippie-lothario
who shows up at his old friend’s door in Seattle.

The freshest thing in the movie is director Lynn Shelton’s vision of
the new, communal bohemia of post-grunge bisexual youth swingers, who
the movie portrays, amusingly, as control freaks occupying the role of
free spirits. But when our two heroes, inspired by a local amateur
art-porn festival, decide to make a hardcore video in which they –
avowedly straight buddies — will have sex on camera, they then spend the
rest of the time cajoling, berating, seducing, and fighting each other,
and the will-they-or-won’t-they buildup becomes at once funny and
annoying. Humpday is a comedy about two guys who try to prove they’re not gay by proving they don’t have any fears of being gay. If that sounds convolutedly coy, so is the movie, which keeps trying to prove that it’s more than a calculated conversation piece. It’s not.

* * *

Art & Copy, a documentary about American advertising and
some of its most inspired mad men, is an entertaining movie, and even
sort of a resonant one, if you can ignore one ginormous oddity about it
(and I couldn’t). The director, Doug Pray (Surfwise), interviews
many of the ad-agency visionaries who, beginning in the ’60s, but
really in the ’70s and ’80s, understood that the time had finally
arrived to make advertising hip — to cut through consumers’ bull
detectors by making them feel in on the pitch (which was really a more
metaphysically subtle form of pitch). You get to learn the stories
behind some classic campaigns, from the Volkswagon ads that transformed
an ugly German car into a cool Beetle to Ridley Scott’s 1984
Macintosh spot, to the selling of Ronald Reagan and Tommy Hilfiger.
Here’s the oddity: The film not only sees these ad guys as secret
rebels; it buys into the utterly specious notion that when advertising
is great, that’s because it’s true. Excuse me? By the time Pray gets to
the “Just Do It” Nike spots (a phrase inspired, according to the
executive who invented it, by Gary Gilmore’s final words), he’s making
an athletic-shoe company sound like the world’s greatest
self-empowerment therapist. The advertisers showcased in Art & Copy are brilliant, all right — they pitched Doug Pray on their hidden “morality,” and they sold him.


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