The festival environment is drastically inconsistent, shifting quickly from the mild sun to a dark cold in the evening, a slight sprinkle to an intense blizzard. Sundance can be friendly and inviting or distant and chilly. When most of your days are spent either standing in line or seated alone inside a dark theater, your interactions with colleagues and strangers can heavily impact your festival experience. There are times where attendees connect over a common hatred for a film or through an interesting discussion of a movie’s meaning, but sometimes your lineup neighbors pretend to be busy on their phones, actually be busy on their phones, or stand awestruck by the dots on the ceiling. On this third day, an overarching melancholy consumed the festival inside and outside the theaters, as the melancholic subject matter matched up with the damp weather that left us all a little grumpy.
Although its earnest themes lie underneath erection and fart jokes, Swiss Army Man (6/10) takes its protagonist’s depression and alienation seriously. Within the first few minutes, Hank (Paul Dano), who is stranded on what appears to be a desert island, is preparing to hang himself when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the shore, sporting a generic business suit that has been drenched by the ocean’s tide. The dead body begins to pulsate frantically from the force released by the passing of gas. The dead man’s butt becomes a muffler, releasing enough gas to become a jet ski, and spring for the audience’s seats. The film, perhaps not surprisingly, is best known here for the mass walkouts by less than impressed critics and audiences. Maybe they had a stick too far up their asses to notice their own.
Swiss Army Man begins like Cast Away, if Wilson (Tom Hank’s beach ball) were a talking corpse, but as the film begins to peel back the subjectivity it fails to take on the fable-like qualities of a relatively similar but vastly superior film like Where The Wild Things Are. To evoke the complexity of the sadness that was already entrenched underneath most of the humor, the film relies heavily on montages, ham-fisted explanations and a few very misguided dramatic choices. Paul Dano, who has been typecasted with in the role of oddball crazies, brings a gentle comedic touch while also maintaining the subtlety that made his unstable portraits of Brian Wilson and the minister in There Will Be Blood so transfixing. A world without social taboos, where anyone can fart as they please, is the utopia to which Hank and the directing duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert cling. As long as nobody does it while I’m in line, I’m fine with the movie’s message.
Todd Solondz’s latest film, Wiener-Dog (7.5/10), similarly, points to an underlying sadness with laughs, except with greater pathos and success. Solondz, who is best known for making bleak and miserable films like Dark Horse and Welcome To The Dollhouse, is surprisingly light and compassionate here. The film, admittedly a little thin and slight overall, still moves along briskly and warmly. It might be the first and last of Solondz films to garner an echoing “aww” from nearly everyone in attendance.
Starring Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn, Danny Devito, Kieran Culkin and Tracy Letts, the ensemble is distinctly separated between four episodic storylines which feature the same wiener-dog as a throughline between them. Each episode progresses through different stages of life, the protagonist of each story growing in age consecutively. The segments reflect on loneliness and mortality, the seeking of a genuine connection and companionship before we die. It’s light but nihilistic, bleak but also incredibly beautiful.
Wiener-Dog starts with the loss of innocence in a child and traces the life of the titular animal until he is acquainted with an elderly and lonely grandmother. In between, Solondz and his excellent actors examine the entrapment of human life while simultaneously representing it through the wiener-dog. Imprisoned by the bourgeois narcissism of his parents at a young age, the boy in the first story is as trapped as the dog in the cage. Ending the film as a memory in a kennel-like installation, ultimately, the only thing that remains after the death of the dog and characters are the memories trapped inside others’ heads.
While inches of wet snow penetrated through the souls of my shoes, the films inside the cinemas were soaked with the coldness of alienation and mortality. It’s the connections between strangers and the shared love for cinema among some of the attendees that makes the freezing Park City radiate with a kind of tropical warmth.
Tomorrow: Love And Friendship, Goat, Manchester By The Sea, Operation Avalanche. And if I have time, maybe a full-length review of Werner Herzog’s masterful new documentary.