Before I get to know someone, I am awkward, distant, and some might say pretentious. I’m constantly concerned with what others think of me. I try to impress rather than connect. Before embarking on a 20-hour trek with another Vancouver critic, who is very well-established and articulate, I made sure to put on my intellectual cap.
This acquaintance, who I would now consider a friend, has discussed cinema with me over the course of the last seven days, including the road trip to Sundance and the festival’s many, many lineups. We have had fascinating conversations about our love for cinema, our religious conversion to it, and what makes the medium special. One question with which I’ve wrestled: is our experience here a form of artistic hedonism where the program of films are nothing more than a smorgasbord of pleasures, or is there something more?
Children are rarely respected in movies. Their complex feelings are condescended by adult filmmakers, their untainted sincerity looked down on as ignorance, and their delicate fragility used for shabby plot devices. Children are degraded as characters, insulted by the subject matter in the films targeted at their age group, and viewed as unable to understand any of the world’s big problems. Ira Sachs’ Little Men (9/10) deals with the gentrification in New York, the complexities of differences between class and race, yet in every moment it is an accessible morality play for children (the movie is also free of perversion or foul language) that unfolds slowly but delicately.
After the death of a family’s patriarch, Brian and his sister inherit a family building in New York with an apartment above a clothing store run by a single mother. Brian is a struggling actor; his wife is the breadwinner. When they inherit the property, they raise the rent, knowing that it would be impossible for the shop owner to stay open. Two boys from either family, with a very thin but crucial class divide, become friends despite the prejudices of their parents. The tragedy is in the impossibility of their doomed friendship.
Didacticism is the opposite of cinema. When films place their importance over the feelings and psychology of the characters, they are useless and insulting, attempting to make comments about humanity while completely ignoring it at the same time. If cinema could change the world, it would be with tangible empathy, not abstract thought. Words are better for debate; images serve feelings. The ideas in a film should amplify pathos, not the other way around.
Little Men is a film where the political is inseparable from the personal. It doesn’t wag its finger; it extends an open hand to all involved. The gentrifier is viewed with the same honesty as the gentrified. The parents aren’t demonized. The children aren’t misguided in their open love. The characters are all flawed and don’t always act with nobility and altruism, but even as they undercut and condescend each other, the director Ira Sachs maintains a moral high-ground, treating his characters with respect even when they don’t.
Werner Herzog’s Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World (9/10) is a film lost in mathematical formulas, digital technology, and scientific discoveries, all of which seem to be alienating us from each other. Most of the time Lo And Behold is speculative science-fiction that is open to its limitations. Herzog, with the same adventurous spirit that made him drag a cruise ship across a Peruvian jungle in Fitzcarraldo, and bush-wack his way through the Amazon in Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, gets lost in the labyrinth of the internet’s history and the incomprehensible models that guide it. On his hike across cyber space, Herzog examines the immediate and long term implications of an internet-dependent culture on human interactions. He ponders: what will happen to the communities created by religion, identities that are entirely predicated by virtual reality, and human accomplishment in the context of a slowly dying solar system?
After the world premiere, during a post-screening Q&A, a man asked Herzog about the film’s “interviews.” Correcting the man, the great filmmaker said, he doesn’t perform interviews; he is not a journalist. Rather, Herzog is more concerned with the feelings and impact of the digital age, the insight provided by conversations with the original creators of the internet, an infamously brilliant hacker, and those with health problems who have escaped to a haven devoid of radio and internet waves. Each talking head is a person, not a robot to mechanically spew out information. Although they may provide insight and contribute to the narrative of the internet’s history, what’s more important is the portrait of their psychology created in their telling: a hacker’s loneliness, a business man’s hubris, and an early internet pioneer who feels like a tortured artist.
Oddly but fittingly, perhaps the festival’s highlight was not any particular film, but a social gathering. To celebrate a documentary about Richard Linklater’s films, an invite was sent out to journalists for a Texas BBQ at a house overlooking the illustrious Park City. No matter one’s status, background or outlet, journalists and filmmakers mingled, discussing the films, the festival and anything else that came to mind. The graciousness of the environment was like a scene from one of Linklater’s films.
After the BBQ, a live commentary of Dazed And Confused was held at the historic Egyptian theatre, an old movie house that resonates with every creak of the seats and peel of plaster on the walls. Many laughs were had at the expense of Ben Affleck and a few humorous backstories of the film’s production were revealed, none more poignant than the explanation of McConaughey’s iconic line, “You just gotta keep livin’. L-I-V-I-N.” A few weeks prior to shooting the scene, the actor’s father had passed away, and the dialogue in this moment was completely improvised. The director’s love for his actors and the characters they embody always shines through.
Linklater seems to understand that cinema isn’t just an art form; it’s a worldview. It implies an open-mindedness, a desire to discover, and a willingness to see the world from multiple perspectives. It requires empathy. It is compatible with other philosophies, in so much as they are willing to offer forgiveness, to identify with other worldviews regardless of their epistemic worth. Cinema is at its most powerful when it’s not about philosophical or scientific truths, but the people impacted by those politics and philosophies. Film has the potential to humanize ideas and debates.
One of my favorite quotes that my new friend mentioned is from an experimental filmmaker, Isiah Medina, who said “cinema started with a cut.” I would also add that cinema started with human feeling, which seems to also be engraved in this cut, the moment the art form’s language was conceived. There is something about juxtaposing close ups of faces with tracking shots of human behavior, or any other combination of formal traits, that creates friendships, manufactures empathy and allows us to come together at BBQs, on film sets, and in front of a screen, regardless of our different backgrounds, ages, races and classes. Cinema demands that we be less concerned with ourselves and how others see us. It creates friendships and has the power to influence and change.