Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

I don’t make it a point of pride to hate actors. If I don’t like someone’s acting, I generally keep it to myself. I much prefer to talk about things I love, and I always want to be surprised by things I thought I didn’t or wouldn’t like. But, until a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure that British actor Dominic Cooper was never going to surprise me. I had entirely written him off as not my cup of tea, and I was fine with that.

My sister and I used to call Dominic Cooper “Frog Man.” We first saw him as Willoughby in the 2008 miniseries adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and we immediately hated him. In all fairness, by the end of Sense and Sensibility you’re supposed to hate Willoughby, but my sister and I specifically hated Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. We were teenagers, and we were judgemental. “Who would swoon over that baby-faced, bug-eyed guy?” we wondered. My mom, who watched the miniseries with us, agreed that he was no Greg Wise.* We incredulously marveled at the awfulness of Cooper’s shallow bad boy act.

 

Still from Sense and Sensibility (2008): close up of Dominic Cooper as Willoughby
Dominic Cooper as Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

That was in the spring, and by the end of the year, my sister and I had been subjected to two more films where it was clear that we were supposed to find Dominic Cooper hot and sexy. Summer brought Mama Mia!, in which Cooper’s main number finds him cavorting shirtless around the beach. For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I viscerally disliked all of Mama Mia!, but Cooper failed to impress once again.** In the fall, Frog Man showed up in The Duchess, this time as Keira Knightley’s one-true-lover. I don’t recall him setting the screen on fire in that one, either. I haven’t seen The Duchess since it came out, but the fact that Roger Ebert’s very positive review of the film doesn’t mention Dominic Cooper by name in the main text at all seems to reaffirm my initial opinion.

2008 set the tone, and Cooper never recovered in my estimation. Until a few weeks ago, I had yet to see Cooper in a film where I was picking up the sexual charisma that he was ostensibly putting down. And it seems that he’s always cast in roles where he’s supposed to be sexy. There’s clearly something about the man; in real life, he’s dated two of his gorgeous co-stars (Amanda Seyfried and Ruth Negga), and he’s currently reportedly linked with Gemma Chan. Until a few weeks ago, I just never saw that something on screen. Until a few weeks ago, I still thought about him as Frog Man, wannabe sex symbol and sometime Howard Stark.

A few weeks ago, I watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on a whim.

 

still from Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Young, shirtless Abe Lincoln doesn’t know what he stumbled into, and neither do I.

The 2012 action/horror film, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular novel of the same name, pits our nation’s sixteenth president against the slave-owning vampire ring that runs the antebellum American South. I mean, it’s all there in the title. The film got mostly bad reviews and did poorly at the summer box office, and I, too, skipped it when it was in theaters. I’m going to be honest with you, I had pretty much forgotten that this movie existed until it popped up on the HBO Max homepage a couple of months ago.

I vaguely remembered that the film had briefly been on my radar because of Benjamin Walker. Fresh off of the unsuccessful Broadway run of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which he played the titular role, Walker signed on to play the lead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. If it’s possible to be typecast as something so particular, it seemed for a time that Walker might make a career out of portraying outrageous versions of nineteenth-century American presidents. The actor brought Andrew Jackson to life on-stage as a hot, emo rock star—to, it should be said, scathingly satirical effect—so, naturally, Walker seemed like a fun fit for a cool, vamp-slaying version of Abe Lincoln.

I realize that I throw around the word “obsessed” very liberally on this blog, but I am well and truly obsessed with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. If you aren’t familiar with the show, this song will give you a taste of what the whole thing entails. (Popula-jizz-m!)*** I could absolutely talk about this musical for far too long if you let me, but I’ll spare you. I only mention it to say that when I decided to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last month, I did so mostly out of affection for Ben. And, of course, an urgent desire to turn off my brain for a couple of hours.

In truth, the cast of this ridiculous movie is stacked with charismatic actors. In addition to Walker, we’ve got Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson, and Rufus Sewell—none of them A-list stars, but all of them reliable scene-stealers. Not one of them shines in this film, though. The odd but, I would argue, ultimately successful tone of the movie requires everyone involved to play it straight as can be, almost to the point of being deadpan.

I admire director Timur Bekmambetov’s instinct to forgo a self-aware tone and easy jokes in favor of poker-faced seriousness. (Based on his filmography, I’m not sure that Bekmambetov is capable of making anything that doesn’t take itself seriously. But I suppose this inability is what made him the right choice for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) There are few things worse than a film that transparently wants to be a cult-classic midnight-movie and winks at you about it every five minutes. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter works best when the ludicrous premise plays out in the most straightforward manner. For instance, the final action set piece, where Abe Lincoln simply kills a bunch of vampires on top of a train, plays like gangbusters.

In a way, Walker has the easiest job. To make good on the juicy promise of the film’s title and get a reaction out of the audience, all he has to do is be tall, look grave, and axe murder vampires while wearing a top hat. The bizarre visual of Abe Lincoln’s iconic physique engaged in battle with a bloodsucking monster doesn’t need embellishment. Weirdly, it helps that the totally freaky prosthetics Walker sports in the back half of the movie make it look like the actor is literally wearing Lincoln’s dead face as a mask. Most of the supporting characters, however, aren’t given material outlandish enough for the juxtaposition between affectless performance and fantastical action to work nearly as well. This movie is Lincoln-sploitation, and for the most part it doesn’t know what to do with the characters who aren’t Lincoln.****

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, close up of Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln
Big difference from young, shirtless Abe.

But one actor in the film operates in a slightly different register from the rest of the cast and stands out for it: Dominic Cooper, the one and only. I had no idea that he was in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter when I put on the film, so it was a genuine surprise when he popped up. About ten minutes into the movie, young Abe decides that he’s going to get revenge on the man/vampire who killed his mother when he was a child. Abe goes to a bar for some liquid courage, and Dominic sidles up to him as he’s drinking. “A boy only gets that drunk when he wants to kiss a girl or kill a man,” Dominic quips before slapping Abe on the back, knocking a gun out of his coat and confirming which it is. With that, we’ve been introduced to Henry Sturges, the mysterious man who eventually educates Abe about the world of vampires and trains him in the art of slaying the undead. 

Here I must note that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is vampire-sploitation as much as it is Lincoln-sploitation; we all remember the years when every publisher and every producer was trying to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Twilight. Just as Seth Grahame-Smith’s previous book, the wildly successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was a mashup, so is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (the source novel). It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dear America—or any other diary-format historical fiction, take your pick. Lincoln is the vampire slayer, obviously, and the Southern vamps are the unequivocally monstrous enemies that Lincoln must vanquish. [Light spoilers follow, if you’re worried about that sort of thing.] Henry Sturges is our Angel, our Edward Cullen, our sexy, good-guy vampire that the genre requires.

 

Still of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) swinging an axe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) shows Abe how to swing an axe to murderous effect.

I was startled when Frog Man showed up in the film and didn’t immediately prompt an eye roll. I was flat out shocked when he single handedly stole the whole show. Dominic Cooper, it turns out, was born to play a sexy, good-guy vampire. 

Cooper’s screen persona is intensely tied to an artificial sort of over-the-top sensuality which I have previously found uncompelling. In calling the actor’s allure artificial, I mean to say that the come-on is clearly put on; he’s laboring to seduce you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, I want to clarify. Glamour and performative desirability are often part and parcel of being a movie star. But I had always felt that Cooper lays it on too thick, to a “dost-thou-protest-too-much” effect. That is, he works so hard to convince everyone of his hotness that I just had to assume he’s not actually that hot.

Unexpectedly, everything that normally registers as “too much” about Cooper’s mannered approach to exuding sex appeal—the pouty lips, the intense stares, the carefully mussed hair, the insistence on appearing shirtless in every one of his films—hits precisely the right note in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It all comes together flawlessly. It only took a film where Cooper plays a vampire for me to finally understand his appeal.

 

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) sit at a bar in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The dynamic duo in action.

Henry Sturges is Cooper “playing it straight,” in so far as Cooper always acts like a vampire. (Aha! A revelation.) In this way, the casting is brilliant. Cooper doesn’t ham it up in a way that contradicts the self-serious tone of the film, but his usual modus operandi is already rather exaggerated. I don’t think he could be legitimately deadpan if he tried, and that turns out to be for the best. The dynamics of this film only work if, as previously discussed, stony Abe has something spectacular to contrast with. In the action scenes, that’s the horrible Southern vampires. For the rest of the film, it’s Sturges’s sexy, good-guy vampire bit. 

 

Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
“He smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses.”

And Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really fires on all cylinders during the scenes shared by Abe and Henry, because in the context of this otherwise icy affair, Cooper’s charisma is indeed spectacular. While it’s not revealed until partway through the movie that Sturges is a vampire himself, Cooper’s performance should tip off any observant viewer. He prowls around in the shadows, he entertains lady friends in an empty bathtub (in the middle of his living room in his clearly haunted house), he smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses. And there’s something so, well, vampire-y about the way Cooper strives to be seductive in all of his roles. He’s trying so hard it’s like he wants something from you (your blood). Cooper’s not menacing enough to be a villainous vampire, but the sexy, good-guy vampire is such a natural fit for him that I can’t believe he played a human in Dracula Untold. What a waste.

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I just…

I have to admit that willingness to be seduced may have a lot to do with what works for me about Henry Sturges. I love sci-fi/fantasy fiction, and I’m a sucker for sexy vampire tropes. While I normally find Cooper’s style excessive and off-putting, it’s perfect when he’s a vampire. Sexy vampires are excessive, verging on obscene, and, honestly, a little silly. I dig it. Where vampires are concerned, the more licentious, the better; and Cooper’s performance as Sturges hints at so much that the script leaves untouched. Sturges might only rip the throats out of bad men, Dexter-style, but I guarantee you that he’s into some convoluted sex stuff. (It’s implied that Sturges got turned into a vampire instead of simply dying because his soul isn’t pure, which raises so many questions, seeing as Sturges doesn’t seem all that evil. What is he into? I want to know.) Cooper’s giving me so much as Sturges, and I want it all

So, I never thought I’d say it, but I finally watched a film that made me think, “Wow, Dominic Cooper is HOT.” Surprises await you around every corner in this life if you keep your mind open. Stay curious, my friends, and you, too, might find that your frog was a sexy vampire all along.

 

Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

 

*Now there’s a dashing Willoughby. All three of us agreed that, on the whole, the men in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version were vastly superior to the men in the 2008 TV version—with one exception. I remember that we were all rather charmed by a pre-Downton Abbey Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars.

**If you search Cooper’s name on Twitter, you will find many people who disagree with me on this. Maybe I just missed the point, but I’ve watched the “Lay All Your Love on Me” clip five times over the course of writing this piece and still don’t get it.

***I came to the musical first through the original cast recording (in high school, a friend burned me a copy—yes, I know, my theater kid is showing), but I did get to see the full show on stage when the Salt Lake Acting Company mounted it in 2012. I made my sister come with me, and they did not like it as much as I did, to put it mildly. Your own mileage may vary.

****2009 marked the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and in the ensuing years several projects, both scholarly and popular, set out to capitalize on the small flurry of renewed interest in the man and his historical legacy. Grahame-Smith’s novel was published in 2010, hot on the heels of the bicentennial. In 2012, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter famously wasn’t the only Lincoln-related film release. That fall, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, for which Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar, came out to almost universal acclaim.

 

Selfie of Leah and Keith sitting in a dark movie theater

 

After I booked my first COVID-19 vaccination appointment, I started to let myself look forward to exactly two things. These activities, while certainly not equivalent in importance, were the two most discrete things I had been missing since last March, when the pandemic struck New York. The first thing, of course, was being able to safely travel to see my parents and my sister. I bought a plane ticket to Seattle as soon as I knew the date I’d be inoculated; I practically levitated off the ground with happiness when I finalized the purchase, knowing that I wouldn’t cancel this trip out of safety concerns at the last minute like I had done twice before.

The second activity? Going to the movie theater, naturally. Movie theaters in the city reopened at reduced capacity in early March, after an entire year of closure for public safety. I wanted to wait until I was vaccinated before treating myself to a movie on the big screen, so I could revel in the experience without worry, guilt, or fear. And so, two weeks ago, the day before I left for Seattle, Keith and I went out to see a movie. We saw Riders of Justice. We both enjoyed it. But investing something that was once so regular for us with such a symbolic sense of special occasion—Things will finally feel a little normal again when I can go to the movies, I had thought to myself more than once—made the whole outing a bit overwhelming. 

Going to the movies again undoubtedly filled me with joy. I had missed the immersive experience of sitting in the dark and totally losing myself in a film. I had missed hearing strangers’ audible reactions to sharp jokes and shocking acts of violence, and Riders of Justice provided plenty of both. I had missed complaining about the odd, small screens at the Angelika like the provincial New Yorker I aspire to become. Walking out of the theater, putting together my thoughts on the film so that Keith and I could chat about it on the way home, it did somehow feel like I’d taken a big step towards reassembling my life after spending a year in limbo. It was unspeakably sweet to fall back into a well-loved, old habit.

Simultaneously, going back to the movies at last also felt like no big deal—almost a letdown. It didn’t actually mark much at all. I hadn’t suddenly found my “new normal” and discovered a clear way forward out of one of the weirdest years I’ve ever lived through. It didn’t heal anything. This strange, double feeling of elation and deflation kept recurring over the next couple of weeks, as I did several formerly commonplace activities again for the first time since the pandemic started last spring.

It’s nice to feel like things are returning to normal (as sick as I am of that phrase and the underlying assumption that “normal” was good for everyone before the pandemic hit), and I’m eager to come out of my suspended state of semi-solitude. Seeing my family again, in person, replenished my spirit in ways I can’t fully articulate; for now, suffice it to say that there’s absolutely no replacement in the world for a hug. I love walking outside without a mask on because it means I can smile at all of the cute dogs I see when I’m out in the neighborhood. Going to a friend’s house for dinner, inside and unmasked, brought on a kind of giddiness. The cautious optimism prompted by the rising vaccination rate and dropping infection rate in the U.S. feels, pardon my French, fucking great.

I’m not sure that I’m entirely ready to return to “normal” life, though. I first suspected that the transition might be more difficult than I wanted to admit when I read the March 4th edition of Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study. The short piece was called “No I’m Not Ready,” and it resonated so deeply that I immediately had to re-read it. In the newsletter, Petersen confesses her personal feelings of hesitancy about jumping head-first into post-pandemic life. She writes about how it will be a long, complicated, and perhaps non-linear path for each of us to get back to “normal.” She writes:

 

Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. … And you have had to make it survivable in some way. The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy [to bounce back], but it is not the strategy.

 

Okay, wow. So, going out to the movies again might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. Doing “normal” things again will help me feel normal in the short run, but it won’t help me process the grief, loss, and trauma of the last year. As much as I’d love to pretend last year didn’t happen (wouldn’t we all?), it looks like I’m going to have to face the last fourteen months.

I don’t have much of a desire to reflect for too long on the past year; I want to look forward, towards the good things presumably coming. I want to think about seeing In The Heights on the big screen and paying too much for movie theater popcorn, to keep it film-related. This post was supposed to be about the pleasure of returning to the movie theater, a little light-hearted and tossed-off missive from the front lines of the reopening. I wanted to look forward.

It turned out to be sort of ironic, then, that the film I chose for my first foray back to the cinema should be Riders of Justice. Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy sells itself as a revenge flick, the sort of thing that would sit alongside Taken or any number of other slick actioners about a middle-aged man with special skills who avenges a wronged or murdered family member. The actual film is anything but that, however. Riders of Justice is, at its heart, a story about the necessity and difficulty of acknowledging the senseless nature of loss and trauma directly. It is, among other things, an exploration of the ways that people avoid dealing with their grief, to the detriment of their own mental health.*

 

 

The losses I’ve sustained over the past year are surely an order of magnitude smaller than those endured by the characters in Riders of Justice. I’m not presuming to make a one-to-one comparison; we’re talking about thematic echoes here. But I found it slightly unsettling to be confronted with such a film when I have been so determined not to face my own grief over everything lost, collectively and personally, during the pandemic. Especially when going back to the movie theater was supposed to signify that I was moving on from all of that.

I feel like a whiner when I try to talk about it. I’ve been so fortunate, all things considered. I tell myself that the losses I suffered aren’t big enough, important enough, to merit grieving, for God’s sake. (I don’t apply this ridiculous standard to anyone else, of course, only to myself.) I push forward, forward, always forward. I focus on what I think I can control. Then I sit down to write a quick, breezy blog post about what was a mostly nice afternoon, and it turns into… this.

I’m trying to sit with my feelings rather than brush them away. I’m trying to heed the advice I read again and again: I’m trying to accept my own emotional responses and be forgiving towards myself when I can’t effortlessly “bounce back.” I’m going to publish this somewhat sad, rather uncertain, and decidedly unpolished version of what I probably could have turned into a pat anecdote about the euphoria of emerging from my pandemic cocoon. Yes, the euphoria is real, but so is the lingering gloom. Recognizing that gloom, and recognizing that simply doing “normal” activities again isn’t going to dispel it, is the only way I can think of right now to start truly recovering. I’m not hoping to make sense of it or fix it. All I can do is honor that strange double feeling and give it space, here and elsewhere.

Near the end of her essay, Petersen writes that figuring out post-pandemic life as we process our grief is “going to feel periodically awful in new ways, and it’s going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s also going to be amazing.” Yep. That’s pretty much exactly how I’ve felt for the past month. Going back to the movies was no exception.

 

 

*In his four-star review of the film for rogerebert.com, critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums it up like this: “‘Did a therapist write this?’ is not a sentence one expects to see in one’s notes on a movie where Mads Mikkelsen guns men down with an assault rifle.”

 

 

About half an hour into Danton, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 film about the period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror, the movie’s two main players finally come face to face. Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) has invited Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) to a private meeting over dinner. Danton, the latest target of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, hopes to smooth things over with his one-time ally before Robespierre signs any arrest warrants. This tête-à-tête may be one of the film’s most famous scenes, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. The scene deftly operates on multiple levels, suggesting the contours of the pair’s knotty personal relationship while simultaneously illuminating the stakes of their political disagreements. 

In outlining the men’s political differences, the scene clearly sets out the central historical analogy that defined Danton’s reception upon release and has continued to guide twenty-first-century audiences’ understanding of the film. It’s not much of a stretch to understand Danton as a critique of the communist government that was still in power in Poland in the early 1980s. In this reading, the liberal Danton and his allies (played by French actors) stand in for the Polish Solidarity movement and democratic Western Europe more broadly; the authoritarian Robespierre and his Committee for Public Safety (played by Polish actors, with French dialogue dubbed in) correlate with the repressive communist regime that Solidarity resisted.* It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Danton without running into a discussion of how and why the film links these two points of political change and unrest across two centuries.

The dinner scene functions as a key to the film because it’s the scene that most legibly articulates the historical parallels the Polish director seems so eager to make. The scene fascinates me for the way that it exemplifies the film’s nuanced approach to presenting these connections. It’s here that I suppose I should admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Danton since I first watched it last month. As I struggled to figure out what, exactly, has so thoroughly captured my attention about this film, I kept returning to the proposed historical parallel at its center. I think I find Danton so compelling because I appreciate how Wajda draws parallels that actively destabilize certain historical narratives, which were themselves destabilizations of earlier historical narratives. By making what was at the time a somewhat subversive analogy, Wajda’s film obliquely asks the audience to consider the malleability of historical narrative.

The film’s script is based in part on Polish writer Stanisława Przybyszewska’s 1929 play, The Danton Case, which was significantly more admiring of Robespierre (whom the leftist playwright idolized and imagined as a proto-Marxist) and critical of Danton. Wajda’s adaptation takes the events described in the play but gives the material an ideological twist; the director’s formal choices align the audience with Danton. The dinner scene works as a potent example of how Wajda transforms an episode that shouldn’t, on its face, reflect well on Danton into an argument for the vital importance of Danton’s humanity.

 

 

Depardieu and Pszoniak are, by all rights, co-leads in the film. Both actors receive roughly the same amount of screen time, and both actors give riveting performances.** One can imagine a version of Danton that treats Robespierre, rather than Danton, as the hero. In this version, Robespierre’s cool, detached fanaticism is a commendable commitment to principle, and Danton is a mess, too beholden to worldly concerns to uphold the pure values of the Revolution. And one can easily envision a rendition of the dinner scene, specifically, that is dismissive of Danton. In the scene as it is, both men are allowed room to state their positions openly and rather equally. Danton doesn’t outreason Robespierre and win the argument. In fact, the meeting ends when Danton drunkenly falls asleep on Robespierre’s chest. Danton is a bit of a mess here.

 

 

As embodied by Depardieu, however, Danton is such a glorious mess, and Wajda’s camera is in love with him. The scene begins with Danton as he prepares for the meeting before Robespierre shows up. Danton anxiously tastes all of the food, frets about the flowers, and compulsively fusses with his outfit. A sense of doom hangs over the proceedings from the start. Danton is plainly aware that his life hangs in the balance, that this meeting must go well if he’s to save his own head. Danton goes from giving directions in a hushed whisper to shouting at his companions at the drop of a hat. He’s nervous, and the camera never quite settles, fluidly following Danton as he bustles around readying the room for Robespierre. 

As the minute of Robespierre’s arrival approaches, Danton suddenly has a moment of paranoia and demands that one of his associates forcibly remove everyone from the adjoining rooms in the hotel where he’s set the meeting.*** Danton’s man Bourdon violently and rudely clears the floor, disrupting a group of aristocratically-dressed people in one room who appear to be gambling, a private party of men watching a woman sensuously dance, and another gathering that looks to be a séance. The aristocrats get the worst manhandling, of course. The medium at the séance, however, gets an almost reverential treatment. Bourdon gently guides her out of her room, and she never seems to surface from her trance. She walks straight towards the camera, which is positioned just outside of the doorway, with her hands outstretched, humming. She turns into the hall at the last second, pitching her hum sharply upward, and the camera cuts back to Danton, inside the meeting room.

It’s a striking interlude that teases what Wajda mostly leaves out of the film. Bourdon’s rough manner acknowledges one of the major criticisms of Danton—that he and his cronies were thugs. Wajda sets up Danton and his opposition to the Terror as an analog for non-violent movements like Polish Solidarity, so he necessarily elides Danton’s involvement in violent actions earlier in the Revolution (like the insurrection of 1792 that led to the abolishment of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI). But Wajda does not totally sanitize Danton’s Cordeliers or change their character to make his argument. Instead, he makes Bourdon’s incivility more interesting to watch. Bourdon’s direct dealings with those in his way stands in stark contrast to the detachment of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, whose members sign orders of execution regularly without ever getting their own hands dirty. None of the members of the Committee ever look as good on camera as Bourdon does after he gets the order from Danton to clear the adjoining rooms. He grins like a fox, then he saunters down the hallway, casually smoking, anticipating violence with the cool eagerness of a Hollywood gangster.

 

 

When we return to Danton, Robespierre is just entering the meeting room. As the meeting commences, the camera finally starts to come to a rest. The camera slowly follows Danton as the pair make their way from the doorway to the table. From the beginning, Robespierre is still while Danton continues to be a flurry of motion. He offers up various dishes and platters. He almost chokes after he tears into a quail breast to show Robespierre it isn’t poisoned. When Robespierre repeatedly refuses food, Danton dumps all of the dishes off the table and onto the floor. He compulsively pours himself glasses of wine. He gesticulates with his hands as he speaks. Danton stands up, looming over the still sitting Robespierre, and physically assaults his adversary. Danton switches seats. He takes off his wig and offers up his neck to Robespierre’s guillotine. Through all of this, Robespierre hardly moves. He’s coiled up, intense but tightly contained.

 

 

Wajda’s framing of Robespierre is also rather static. While the distance of the shots varies slightly, Robespierre is almost exclusively shown from the same perspective: a portrait-like three-quarters angle. When the camera moves to show a side view of the table, Robespierre’s severe profile takes over the foreground while Danton carries on behind him. Robespierre’s almost inhuman immobility and composure stands out all the more in comparison to Danton’s restlessness.

 

 

When Danton moves, the camera follows him, but, for the most part, the camera stays still. The two men’s conversation is mostly composed of over-the-shoulder shots, switching between each man as he speaks. While Robespierre is framed very similarly in each of these shots, Wajda frames Danton in as many different ways as possible in the confined space. Danton can’t be defined by one type of shot; the camera must consider him from all different angles. Depardieu’s performance is the opposite of contained. Danton’s energy threatens to overflow the frame, and the camera constantly adjusts to try to capture it.

 

 

Danton’s argument in this scene boils down to a defense of individuality and praise of exceptional men. Danton accuses Robespierre of “chop[ping] off any head above the rest” and asserts that “all exceptional men are above the masses.” Wajda’s camera treats Danton as an exceptional individual, captivating in all of his unruliness and folly. (And drunkenness.) “You want men to act like the heroes of novels,” Danton admonishes Robespierre. “You forget we’re made of flesh and blood.” Robespierre might act more dignified in this instance, and he is even, perhaps, more articulate in defending his course of political action. But Danton is more relatable. 

Relatability is a key factor at work when formulating a historical parallel. History educators in a variety of contexts are enamored of the idea that if they can come up with the right example, then history will “come alive” for the people learning about it in the here and now. Frankly, it’s simply good pedagogical practice to assume that people aren’t interested in learning anything unless it relates to their lives directly. The majority of historical parallels make the past more knowable by making it more familiar—more relatable

When historical parallels are used to make us comfortable with what’s happening in the present, however, we get into the territory of myth-making. This happened with the French Revolution, particularly in France, but also in other European countries that undertook their own revolutionary actions in later decades and centuries. The French Revolution became an inspiration and a model, a warning and a failure. As each new generation sought to position the French Revolution to suit their own ends, the history underwent reinterpretation. Both Robespierre and Danton only rose in historical estimation in the later part of the nineteenth century, as various political factions reevaluated the legacy of the French Revolution and found new heroes to support their own agendas.

Robespierre’s reputation, in particular, was massively rehabilitated with the emergence of leftist, working-class political movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century Jacobin’s commitment to principles of egalitarianism became a historical precedent for the kind of socialist thought that was gaining currency. As Robespierre’s intellectual contributions were rediscovered and newly appreciated by the European left, his status as the premiere “villain” of the French Revolution shifted. The Danton Case, the play on which Danton is partially based, is a product of this shift.

 

 

So Wajda took what was a popular historical parallel in leftist circles—a parallel that was used to give leftist governments an acceptable, Enlightenment-era intellectual heritage—and flipped it to make it uncomfortable. I find Danton so intriguing not because of the historical parallel it makes but because of how it makes that parallel. Danton and Robespierre used to be friends and allies, and their trajectories in the Revolution only diverged at the very end. Wajda understands that only a slight adjustment needs to be made to mount the case against Robespierre—who, it should be noted, is not necessarily vilified in the film. Danton is a variation on a theme, not a rewriting of the story. The dinner scene expertly illustrates Wajda’s approach. On some level, I think the film is designed to force the audience to think about historical parallels and how they work to reinforce national and political identities. It’s all about the framing, quite literally.

 

 

 

*Wajda denied on record that he was trying to make any such pointed connections, but these denials only came after the socialist French government (which had partially financed the film) reacted badly to the film’s perceived anti-leftist attitude. Robert Darton’s essay Danton and Double Entendre” provides the definitive overview of the reasons for the film’s cool reception in France at the time of its release. See: Robert Darnton, “Danton and Double Entendre.” The Kiss of Lamourette (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

**This is all the more remarkable in Pszoniak’s case, since, as previously mentioned, his dialogue is dubbed in by a French actor.

***I’m not sure what, exactly, to call the place where Danton and Robespierre meet. Their room is private, but the building is not. I’ve seen the location referred to as a “hotel” in other pieces about the film, so that’s what I’m going with. If any historians who specialize in eighteenth-century France are reading this, please correct me if you know a better or more accurate term.

POST SCRIPT: If you are interested in fiction about the Reign of Terror, I would highly recommend Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel’s novel follows Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins from cradle to guillotine; and the book gorgeously evokes the atmosphere of the French Revolution through its many twists and turns. The events covered at the end of A Place of Greater Safety and the events of Danton overlap, but the characterizations of each main player differ significantly enough to make the film and the novel quite interesting to compare.

 

 

Day 7: February 3, 2021 / Wrap Up

Well, friends, we finally made it to the end of the festival! Before I get into my wrap up, I want to mention the three awards winners that I made time to catch up with on day seven. Animated documentary Flee (World Documentary Competition Grand Jury and Audience Award winner) is a stunner. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his longtime friend (whose name is changed in the film for safety reasons) about his friend’s experience as an Afghan refugee. Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury and Audience Award winner) will make you get up out of your seat and dance. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson directs this joyful ode to the Harlem Cultural Festival concert series that happened over the summer of 1969. The festival showcased a wide range of Black musical talent, and the documentary frames the festival’s lineup as a snapshot of what was happening in the Black community at the end of the 1960s. Ma Belle, My Beauty (NEXT Audience Award winner), written and directed by Marion Hill, takes us to the south of France, where a couple of newlyweds are suddenly reunited with their ex. The film explores the power dynamics of their polyamorous relationship in sensitive and intriguing ways, and the beautiful French countryside provides a lush and sensuous backdrop for the proceedings.

By the end of the final day of the festival, I was pretty exhausted.* I watched 29 feature films and one shorts program over seven days. I think that’s a new record for me, even at the longer, in-person festival. Out of curiosity, I did a little category breakdown to see how widely (or not) I sampled.

 

U.S. Dramatic Competition: 7

U.S. Documentary Competition: 5

World Dramatic Competition: 2

World Documentary Competition: 4

NEXT: 5

Premieres: 5

Midnight: 1

Shorts Programs: 1

 

My fiction/nonfiction split ended up being exactly 50/50, with fifteen fiction films and fourteen nonfiction features (plus the documentary shorts program). I’m really happy with that ratio; Sundance is a great festival for documentaries, and I try not to neglect the documentary categories in favor of the buzzier narrative films.

Overall, I think that Sundance did an exemplary job of putting on the virtual festival. The programmers still put together a solid lineup, all of the technical aspects of the platform worked seamlessly for me, and the whole experience still felt like an event. I think keeping the screening windows short really helped create a sense of temporal unity among festival goers, even though we were spatially scattered. In addition, the design of the festival’s centralized web portal created a nice sense of virtual space. I felt like I was “entering” the festival when I pulled up the website. While the in-person festival experience is irreplaceable, I hope that going into the future Sundance continues to use the virtual festival platform that they’ve built. I would love to see certain programs, films, or categories made available virtually in concurrence with the in-person festival. It could be an excellent way to increase the reach and accessibility of the festival going forward.

I’ll leave you with a list of my favorite films from this year’s festival. I will say upfront that I saw a lot of decent to good films this year; just because a film isn’t on this list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.** But these were the standouts for me, especially after a few days’ distance from the whirlwind of the festival.

 

All Light Everywhere, dir. Theo Anthony (distribution TBD)

Censor, dir. Prano Bailey-Bond (distribution TBD)

Cryptozoo, dir. Dash Shaw (purchased by Magnolia Pictures, release date TBD)

El Planeta, dir. Amalia Ulman (distribution TBD)

Flee, dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen (purchased by NEON, release date TBD)

Passing, dir. Rebecca Hall (purchased by Netflix, release date TBD)

Together Together, dir. Nikole Beckwith (purchased by Bleeker Street, release date TBD)

 

And that’s a wrap on Sundance 2021! I’ll be back with the monthly essay in a couple of weeks! It’s been fun trying out the festival diary format, and I hope you’ve enjoyed following along. If you’ve been into the recent influx of reviews on the blog, with the one-two punch of my favorites of 2020 list and my Sundance diary, let me know. I still envision this blog as a space primarily for essays about whatever films I’m currently thinking about, regardless of their current relevance, but I am open to periodically writing some reviews of new releases if that’s something my readers (you!) would be interested in seeing. 

 

 

*Sorry for the slight delay on these last two diary entries! I just needed a mental break. And the blog is called Delayed Responses, to be fair.

**I also want to say that while I would highly recommend catching Judas and the Black Messiah, it felt weird to put it on my favorites list because its premiere felt sort of outside the festival to me. It felt more like a special screening or something. But the film is well worth your time! It will be available in select theaters and to stream on HBOMax for thirty days, beginning this Friday (February 12).

 

 

Day 6: February 2, 2021

I made it to my final full day of screenings! I’ll be catching up on a few awards winners on the official last day of the festival, and I’m also working on a short wrap up post; so keep your eye out for one more dispatch after this one. Thanks for following along.

On day six, I explored the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, choosing three films I had heard positive things about after their premieres. First up, I watched Nikole Beckwith’s surrogacy comedy Together Together, starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison. Helms plays a single man in his forties who wants to have a child and start a family, in an inversion of the usual stories about ticking biological clocks; Harrison plays the twenty-something woman he chooses to carry his child. This thoughtful little situational comedy explores the (platonic) relationship that develops between the two main characters. I found the film to be totally lovely and emotionally honest, and Helms and Harrison shine as two lonely people who strike up an odd-couple friendship under unusual circumstances.

Marvelous and the Black Hole (written and directed by Kate Tsang) brought me back into coming-of-age indie dramedy territory (after CODA on day one). Delightful newcomer Miya Cech plays Sammy, a rebellious thirteen-year-old who’s struggling to deal with her grief over her mother’s death. Through happenstance, Sammy meets Margot (Rhea Pearlman), a whimsical children’s magician. Over the course of a summer, Sammy and Margot become unlikely friends. The story hits familiar beats, but, as with CODA, the particulars are charming. 

Jockey also traces a familiar story arc, that of an aging athlete coming to terms with the end of his career and facing his own mortality. Clint Bentley, who wrote and directed the film, grew up in the horse racing world and brings a sense of authenticity and specificity to his portrayal of it. Character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. gives an excellent performance as the titular jockey; his work elevates the whole film to the next level.

My least favorite film of the day had to be First Date (NEXT), Manual Crosby and Darren Knapp’s early-Tarantino homage. The program notes describe the film as “Superbad meets True Romance,” and that about sums it up. Although the teenage leads add that coming-of-age element, the film is otherwise very much of a piece with the many, many Tarantino knock-offs from the late ‘90s. I suppose that the ‘90s are far enough past that this kind of movie counts as a throwback now, but Crosby and Knapp didn’t introduce any fresh or unexpected elements to liven things up. I wanted to like this one more than I did.

I only watched one documentary today: Egyptian filmmaker Ali Al Arabi’s Captains of Zaatari (World Documentary Competition). This understated film follows two teenagers, Syrian refugees living in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, as they try to get out and become professional soccer players. They get scouted by a Qatari sports academy, and the movie goes from there. This observational, subdued film allows many of its largest thematic concerns to flourish in the margins and remain almost unsaid. This restraint ultimately makes the film more powerful, subtly commenting on the way that real life doesn’t hit the triumphant beats of Hollywood sports movies. Similarly, the difficulty of life in Zaatari is implied through the boys’ fervent desire to transcend their circumstances, but the film doesn’t revel in misery. The film is ultimately a delicate look at the power of hope.

That’s all for day six! Check back in for my final Sundance 2021 diary.

 

 

Day 5: February 1, 2021

On day 5, I got to play catch up with a few films I had heard excellent things about over the past few days. I started with Fran Kranz’s Mass (Premieres), one of the best-received films of the festival so far. This chamber piece features knock-out performances by Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney as the parents of a victim of a Columbine-esque mass shooting and the parents of the shooter. The film consists almost solely of the conversation that this set of parents has with each other—a conversation that seems to have been set up in an effort to help the victims’ parents heal and find closure. The film is heavy and highly charged, but the script and the performers hold onto emotional and moral nuances and contradictions that could easily have been glossed over in a less thoughtful version of this story. Kranz’s film will no doubt be a conversation starter.

While I doubt it will be as widely seen, Amalia Ulman’s autobiographically-inspired El Planeta (World Dramatic Competition) should also start conversations. Ulman’s film might be one of the best depictions of middle class economic precarity I’ve ever seen; Leo (Amalia Ulman) and her mother (played by Ulman’s real mother, Ale) struggle to get by after Leo’s father dies and leaves them with nothing. Leo’s mother has never worked, and Leo was a student studying abroad. They don’t qualify for social benefits, but they can’t find jobs in Spain’s depressed economy. So they skate by, running small-scale scams to get what they need and maintain appearances. The film is funny, but in a “what else are you supposed to do but laugh” kind of way. It’s a breezy film about a tragic situation; the tone of the film expertly evokes both Leo and (especially) her mother’s fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude about their misfortunes. The more I sit with this one, the more I like it.

Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s Cusp (U.S. Documentary Competition) has gotten praise for its sensitive depiction of teenage girlhood. Like El Planeta, although operating in different ways, Cusp addresses serious topics without being an Issues Movie. Bethencourt and Hill follow a group of three teenage girls in a small Texas town over the course of one summer; the girls party and hang out, wasting time in that distinctly teenage way. One of the film’s most disquieting through lines becomes the way these young women must constantly deal with the consequences of pervasive, gendered power imbalances; the idea that women are “scared to say no” to men (to non-consensual sex, to controlling boyfriends, to abusive fathers) crops up again and again in the film. Bethencourt and Hill don’t neglect to honor their subjects and show the joyful moments, too, making sure to document the girls’ lives beyond just their trauma.

At the last minute, I decided to squeeze in Sean Ellis’s Victorian werewolf tale Eight for Silver (Premieres). I thought I needed a little burst of good genre fun in between all of my serious movies, and I was definitely right. Although the film could use a tighter edit (its runtime is too long for the amount of story it’s trying to tell), I got a kick out of Ellis’s grimy, gothic monster movie. The creature design for the werewolves could have been more creative, but the mechanics of how a person turns into one of these monsters delighted me. (One particularly gory reveal might be the highlight of the whole thing.) This one is worth catching for fans of monster horror.

The world premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah (directed by Shaka King) capped off my day of screenings. Warner Brothers chose to use the Sundance festival as a launch pad for the film’s awards campaign; the film certainly feels like a glossy studio production in a way that made it stand out from the much smaller films I’ve been watching all week.* King’s film follows William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who ultimately enabled the assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (an unbelievably good Daniel Kaluuya, standing out even in a film packed with strong performances) in 1969. The film is primarily about Hampton’s assassination, tracing O’Neal’s journey as he gets closer to Hampton and ending with the police raid on Hampton’s Chicago home that served as the pretense for his murder. The film works as a powerful indictment of the FBI’s COINTELPRO project, and it’s encouraging to see a movie with such a radical (and thoroughly anti-cop) heart get made by a mainstream studio.

Day six will be my last full day of screenings! Check back tomorrow for another review roundup.

 

 

*Judas and the Black Messiah will be released in theaters and on HBOMax (WW84-style) on February 12. Because of the pandemic, the Academy lengthened its eligibility release window, so Judas will be eligible for Oscars at this year’s awards. If I didn’t have the Sundance pass, I wouldn’t have seen the film at the festival since it’s being released next week; but I’ve been looking forward to the film, and I thought I might as well get into the premiere if I could.

 

 

Day 4: January 31, 2021

I stayed busy on day four with six movies, a new record made possible by the increased scheduling flexibility of the on-demand second screenings. By the final movie, I had surrendered and decided to watch on my laptop in bed. (I did not fall asleep during the film, though, which is more than I can say for myself at some of the late screenings at the in-person festival.) Six films in one day might be my limit, but never say never.

My favorite film of the day was probably Theo Anthony’s All Light Everywhere (U.S. Documentary Competition). Anthony describes his films as “documentary essays,” which aptly captures the way that All Light Everywhere weaves together thematic threads to make an argument. The film interrogates the idea of objective vision, particularly with regards to photography and cameras, asking the viewer to consider the subjective frame that’s constantly present. I don’t want to spoil where the film ultimately goes or flatten the sense of its scope, but suffice it to say that Anthony grounds these theoretical and philosophical musings about observation in the history and current practices of surveillance and law enforcement. As an art historian and an advocate for visual literacy, I will admit that this film was of particular interest to me; of course I’m down for a two hour meditation on the way cultural and social context frame any image if you know how to look. Your mileage may vary.

In the morning, I made time to catch up with On The Count of Three (U.S. Dramatic Competition), Jerrod Carmichael’s suicide pact buddy comedy. The film pulls off a tricky tonal balancing act, managing to be genuinely funny without undercutting the seriousness of the characters’ decision to mutually self-destruct. Co-leads Christopher Abbott and Carmichael both give great performances, although Abbott’s got the showier part and has received the bulk of the praise so far. Some of the filmmaking choices and bits of dialogue felt clunky, but the film balances its tone so deftly that I couldn’t write the film off entirely. I’ll be curious to see how this one plays outside of the festival.

I also saw two biographical documentaries: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (U.S. Documentary Competition) and My Name Is Pauli Murray (Premieres). The Rita Moreno doc (directed by Mariem Pérez Riera) celebrates the life of the iconic actress, singer, and dancer; the film focuses on her status as a trailblazer of Latina representation in Hollywood, as well as her remarkable resilience as she navigated the sexist and racists systems of the industry for decades. My Name is Pauli Murray (co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen) works to elevate its subject into the mainstream historical consciousness. West and Cohen first heard about Murray when they were working on their previous documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Murray, it turns out, was the legal mind who came up with the framework for using the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution to argue against the legality of discrimination on the basis of sex. Previously, this amendment had only be used to legally battle discrimination on the basis of race. The documentary tries to tell the whole story of Murray’s incredible life, but 90 minutes doesn’t quite seem to do Murray justice. The film is a good introduction to an under-recognized civil rights hero, however, and made me want to learn more about Murray.

For my last two films of the day, I took a dive into the weird. First up was Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland (Premieres). The film’s maximalist, post-apocalyptic, East-meets-West aesthetic is the best thing about it; and, indeed, the production design was so fabulous that I found myself disappointed that the rest of the movie didn’t live up to its promise. The film also inexplicably loses steam in the last fifteen minutes or so, right when I wanted things to get peak batshit. (This is a film where Nic Cage’s character gets one of his balls blown off while trapped in a tight leather suit programmed to self-destruct if he fails to complete his mission, so I’m not really sure what I mean when I say “peak batshit.” I just know that I wanted the film to accelerate right when it took its foot off the gas.) I’m glad I made time for this one, but it didn’t quite do it for me. While nestled in bed, I finished off the day with Strawberry Mansion (NEXT), Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s lo-fi sci-fi. I appreciated the film’s inventiveness and easily got on its surreal, Gondry-inflected wavelength. Strawberry Mansion isn’t going to change your mind if you aren’t into that kind of thing (if you hear the term “dream auditor” and roll your eyes, this film isn’t for you), but I enjoyed it.

See you back here tomorrow for day five! I’m really, really looking forward to the premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah, so look out for thoughts on that one.

 

 

Day 3: January 30, 2021

Day three, and we’re still going strong. I’ve managed to increase the number of movies I can fit into my schedule day over day; today I watched five, and tomorrow I’ll be attempting six. I think my brain said, “Eight hours of sleep? During Sundance? Get outta here, watch more movies.” And I willingly complied, because I’m greedy.

Before I get into the film roundup, I have some notes on the chat function in the virtual premiere screening room. I had initially written off the chat function as unusable, but I’ve come to realize that this really depends on the film. The chats for the buzziest, busiest films do quickly become hard to follow and difficult to use for conversation; however, in the waiting rooms for some of the documentaries and smaller films, I’ve had some nice interactions in the chat with fellow festival-goers. As the festival has gone on and people have seen more films, the chat has also become a place for people to swap recommendations about what movies are worth catching. As I start to view more on-demand second screenings, which don’t have the live chat function, I think I might start to miss it. 

I will also say that it’s been lovely chatting with some of my friends on social media who have also been doing the virtual festival. We’ve mostly found each other through our Instagram stories and swapped stories in our DMs. It’s not the same as seeing each other in line at a screening and waving, but it’ll do.* I’ve also done several screening parties with friends and family over Zoom, which has been great. I almost always do the festival with my mom, and we’ve kept up that tradition this year. And one of my dearest friends, who lives in Denver and has never done the festival in person, decided to take the virtual festival as an opportunity to Sundance for the first time. (She’s a horror aficionado, and she’s stretched me to venture into the Midnight category; we watched Censor together last night, which we both loved. More on that later.) This is my shout out to all of you who have connected with me over the past few days and helped remind me that the virtual festival is still a communal experience.

Today’s films were more of a mixed bag, but, happily, I ended the day on a strong note with three films I enjoyed. I’ll start the roundup with the documentaries: Sabaya (World Documentary Competition) and Searchers (NEXT). I don’t think I could have purposefully picked two documentaries more opposite in tone or subject matter. Sabaya (directed by Hogir Hirori) follows a group known as the Yazidi Home Center that rescues kidnapped Yazidi women from sex-slavery in an ISIS camp on the Iraqi-Syrian border; Searchers (directed by Pacho Velez) captures impressions of a swathe of New Yorkers as they look for love—or sex or connection—on various dating apps. Sabaya’s subject matter is harrowing, and the people of the Yazidi Home Center (as well as the crew involved with making the film) routinely risk their lives to do the work depicted. The film can’t quite decide, however, whether it wants to be a portrait of the rescued women’s trauma or a heroic account of the incredibly brave people who run the rescue missions. It splits the difference to its own detriment, ultimately. 

Searchers proved to be a sweet, surprisingly moving little treat. In an effective move, Velez positions the camera behind a computer screen and puts a crew member in charge of clicking, typing, and inputting information into the computer. Participants in the documentary look directly into the camera as they look at the dating app up on the computer screen. They must verbally communicate what actions they want to take so that the offscreen crew member can execute them on the computer. This choice doesn’t come across like a gimmick; rather, this interruption allows the viewer of the documentary into the decision making process that goes on when someone’s absorbed with a dating app on their phone. This deceptively slight doc thoroughly charmed me. (Tickets to the second screening of Searchers on February 1, 2021 are still available as of this writing.)

From the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, I saw Wild Indian (directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.) and Passing (directed by actress Rebecca Hall). Wild Indian didn’t connect for me, despite an intriguing premise and strong lead performances. Of the two lead characters, the film focused much more on the enigmatic—and likely sociopathic—man (Makwa, played ferociously by Michael Greyeyes), who felt like too much of a blank slate for the film to really kick into high gear. I kept wondering if I would have found the film more successful if the balance had been shifted to focus more on the other lead (Ted-O, sensitively brought to the screen by Chaske Spencer).

The much buzzed about Passing worked best as an acting showcase for Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, who are always powerhouses. In the film, which is set in the 1920s, Thompson and Negga play old acquaintances who accidentally reconnect when they run into each other in a New York City tea room. Since they’ve last spoken, Negga’s character has passed the color line to live as white, hiding her racial identity from her husband and her new social circle. The racial passing aspect of the story has gotten the most attention, but the film investigates various ways that people choose their identities (often at the expense of their authentic selves or true desires) to “pass.” Hall’s directorial debut is an admirably restrained and surprisingly queer psychological thriller shot in delicate black and white. I want to sit with this one to see if the emotional impact deepens or lingers, but I think I liked it.

I rounded out the night by catching up with Censor, which had accumulated great word of mouth buzz since it premiered on opening night. My horror-loving friend, aforementioned above, had singled this film out from the beginning of the festival as one she was excited for; so we were both pretty ready to be taken for a ride by director Prano Bailey-Bond. Both my friend and I really dug this one. Enid (NIamh Algar) works as a censor for the British government, banning “video nasties” to protect the public from their immoral and depraved excesses. (In the 1980s, when the film is set, Britain did censor and ban ultra-violent, low-budget exploitation horror films in a burst of moral panic over these films circulating on VHS.) In an excellent twist on the fear that violent horror films would negatively influence the public’s behavior, Enid slowly loses her grip on reality over the course of the movie, confusing events and unresolved issues from her own childhood with the films she watches every day for work. Bailey-Bond clearly loves the aesthetics of ‘80s horror, and her excellent film pays homage accordingly. 

That’s it for day three! day four marks the halfway point of the festival, and I still have so many films I’m looking forward to. Tune in tomorrow for more!

 

 

*I tried to work out an on line/online joke here, but that seemed too regional. Also, after only two years in New York, I don’t actually say “on line” instead of “in line.” Sorry, this footnote is basically the equivalent of that lazy “insert joke about [x] here” tweet format. I’m writing these dispatches in a hurry, I don’t have time to be witty!

 

 

Day 2: January 29, 2021

Welcome back! I had a successful first full day of screenings; I enjoyed three out of the four films I watched, which is a pretty good average.

In the morning, I watched President (World Documentary Competition), Camilla Nielsson’s documentary about the 2018 presidential election in Zimbabwe. Nielsson follows Nelson Chamisa, the candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change party, and his campaign staff as he runs to unseat the candidate of the ruling party (ZANU-PF). Although Zimbabwe’s democratic constitution provides for free and fair democratic elections every five years, in practice, the military leaders of ZANU-PF have refused to concede control of the government and run truly transparent elections. This urgent film highlights the MDC’s tremendous uphill battle to hold ZANU-PF accountable to the will of the people. Chamisa and his staff refuse to succumb to a feeling of futility as they fight against a truly corrupt system, holding fast to the promise of democracy and risking their lives to do so. This film isn’t uplifting (ZANU-PF still rules in Zimbabwe), but Nielsson’s film provides an intimate look into an important struggle.

For my afternoon screening, I checked out the animated head trip Cryptozoo (NEXT), written and directed by Dash Shaw, with animation by Jane Samborski. Cryptozoo tells a globe-trotting action-adventure story about a woman who rescues and shelters cryptids, giving them a home at the Cryptozoo and ostensibly providing them with a better life. (All of the cryptids depicted in the film derive from different global folklore traditions, and the creature design here is top notch.) The film, which is set in the 1960s with an aesthetic to match, explores the allure of counter-culture idealism and dreams of utopia; but the film’s thesis might best be summed up when, early in the film, a character says under her breath, “Utopias never work out.” I don’t think this movie would succeed at all without the vibrant, creative, and psychedelic animation (the plot follows a familiar arc); however, I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, since the art should be integral to the success of an animated film. I really took to the film on first viewing.

My third film of the day, Brazilian drama The Pink Cloud (World Dramatic Competition), was my least favorite. Written and shot entirely before the COVID-19 pandemic, writer/director Iuli Gerbase’s film imagines a scenario in which the appearance of a toxic pink cloud forces everyone into an indefinite quarantine. Ten seconds of exposure to the cloud results in instant death, so everyone must stay inside, trapped wherever they happened to be when the cloud showed up. The movie follows the relationship of a man and a woman who are forced to live together; they were having a one-night stand when the cloud descended and confined them in the same house. The film felt like a thought experiment more than anything else, and very little about the movie struck an emotionally resonant chord. Gerbases’s script hints at other (more interesting, absurd, tragic, horrifying) things happening in different corners of the world she’s created, and I kept wishing that she had given more room to these stories. Lead actors Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça carry the film well, but the whole thing didn’t add up to much for me.

I closed out the day with Rebel Hearts (U.S. Documentary Competition), Pedro Kos’s documentary about the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and their experiments in the 1960s as they sought to modernize their religious order. These women made headlines as they clashed with the archbishop of Los Angeles, becoming a flashpoint in the larger conversation about how the Roman Catholic Church should operate in the twentieth century. These women were feminists, activists for social justice, and artists; they wanted to be engaged with the world in a way that nuns had previously been forbidden from doing. Kos’s documentary combines interviews, archival footage, and animation to create a warm tribute to the revolutionary women of IHM. This inspiring, moving film tells the historical story in a crisp, engaging manner and links the social justice movements of the ‘60s to the social justice work going on today.

As of publishing this post, tickets are still available for the on-demand second screenings of President, Cryptozoo, and Rebel Hearts on January 31, 2021. Like I said in my intro post, if you have an internet connection and $15, you, too, can get in on the festival action!

 

 

Day 1: January 28, 2021

The festival has officially started! I kicked off my 2021 schedule with a documentary shorts program, and then in the evening I joined the premiere stream of CODA, one of the opening night selections. 

For context, the festival organizers have set up two types of screenings. Each movie gets one premiere screening that consists of a three hour slot with a live Q&A afterwards; then, on a subsequent day, each film gets a second screening, which is a 24-hour on-demand window. The shorts programs are an exception to this model—the shorts programs have no premiere screenings but are available on-demand throughout the whole festival. (I love this idea, because it encourages people to try the shorts programs since they’re constantly available.)

First, I checked out the shorts on-demand screening format. I appreciated that the shorts on-demand stream included a programmer’s introduction, the Sundance introduction, and the category information card before the films started playing. After the shorts program concluded, a pre-recorded Q&A with the filmmakers followed as part of the stream (there was no need to click to another page to find the Q&A). Having all of this packaged together helped preserve that “screening” experience; I didn’t feel like I was watching a playlist of shorts on YouTube or something. Including the Q&A at the end of the stream, rather than putting it on a separate page, encouraged me to watch it and spend some time with the filmmakers. One big positive about the pre-recorded Q&A: the festival programmer moderating the discussion had very thoughtful questions that elicited interesting answers. The pre-recorded Q&A also ran a bit longer than an after-screening Q&A normally would, which allowed all of the filmmakers to speak for an equal amount of time. The Q&A consisted of a recorded Zoom call, so it didn’t feel overly polished or worked-on, but I found the quality of the discussion to be much higher than you’d get at a standard after-screening audience Q&A at an in-person festival.

I opted to watch the Documentary Shorts Program 1, which included the short films Tears Teacher, Up At Night, This Is The Way We Rise, Dear Philadelphia, Snowy, and The Rifleman. Snowy and The Rifleman were the standouts for me in this program. Snowy, the most playful of the films in the collection, is about the filmmaker’s family’s pet turtle, Snowy. Snowy lives in the basement, tended to mostly by the filmmaker’s dad. The short investigates the question of whether or not Snowy is happy. The Rifleman succinctly exposes the links between the modern NRA, resistance to gun control laws, and xenophobic violence at the U.S.-Mexico border. The film, composed entirely of archival footage and photographs, focuses on Harlon Carter (who is considered the father of the modern NRA) and his personal history.

My first premiere screening also went smoothly. Fifteen minutes before the screening begins, a virtual waiting-room opens up. You can click in to join the waiting room, and you’re taken to the screening landing page. This landing page functions as a virtual space; a countdown banner ticks down at the top of the page, the video player below that displays the pre-screening content (ads and music), there’s a live chat feed where everyone in the virtual screening room can say hi, and there’s a little tracker bar in the shape of a row of theater seats to show how full the screening is.* The chat, while a good idea in theory, quickly became unusable due to the number of people typing at once. I followed the feed for a few minutes before the messages started coming in too fast for me to read them. Mostly, it was people saying where they were tuning in from and adding their Twitter or Letterbxd handles for others to follow. I did notice, however, that festival programmers and staff were in the chat answering logistical questions, and useful announcements (like how to access the live Q&A after the film) popped up in the chat periodically. Overall, I liked the idea of the screening room page and appreciated the effort made to create a virtual space. The chat function could be tweaked to allow for actual conversation, but the flurry of comments reminded me, in their way, that this screening was a shared experience. I sort of liked the way that the crazy chat signaled the busyness and crowdedness of the virtual screening room.

Once the countdown clock got to zero, the screening started automatically. (Well, it should have. I had to refresh the page in my browser, but then it worked.) The premiere screening also included a programmer’s intro, the Sundance intro, and the category information card. After the film, there was a live Q&A, which was on a separate page. When I clicked through to the Q&A page, it looked similar to the virtual screening room page. The video player displayed the Q&A (a livestream via YouTube of a Zoom call with a programmer and the filmmakers), and below the player there was a space for audience members to submit questions. Although this Q&A was live and questions were being submitted in real time, the moderating programmer could smartly pick and choose between submitted questions; so, again, I felt that the Q&A in this format was much more interesting than the after-screening Q&As usually are.

CODA (directed by Siân Heder) turned out to be a pleasant opening night pick. The film, part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, is a classic Sundance crowd pleaser; I’d put it in top contention for the audience award at the end of the festival. The movie follows high schooler Ruby (a fantastic Emilia Jones in what should be a breakout role), the hearing daughter of two deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). Ruby helps her parents and her brother (Daniel Durant), who is also deaf, navigate their fishing business, often acting as an interpreter. But Ruby possesses a talent for singing, and as she realizes how good she is with the help of an interested teacher, she decides to apply for music school and think about leaving her family. The particulars of the movie, especially the way it portrays deafness and deaf culture with warmth and care, set the film somewhat apart from the countless other indie coming-of-age dramedies that have premiered at the festival in years past. Personally, I was delighted to see Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (such a stand out in 2016’s Sing Street) pop up in the film as Ruby’s love interest. He’s not given too much to do, but he is so charming anyway that I didn’t mind. (The second screening of CODA on January 30 has already sold out, but I’m willing to bet that this one will get distribution and a decent release.)

That’s a wrap for Day 1! Cheers to a good start to the festival; I’m looking forward to my first full day of movies tomorrow.

 

 

*Please note that “pre-screening content” is the term used by the festival staff in the chat. It’s weird and corporate sounding, I know.