Sundance Wrap-Up: The Invisible Hand of Politics
We cannot escape the moment. That’s a line that probably sent half of my readers scrambling for another of their dozen open tabs. And that’s a problem facing not just criticism and op-eds and thought-pieces, but also confronting film itself. In an ever more connected world, we cannot ignore current events. But how do we – how does film – acknowledge and even interact with the world around us without letting the moment subsume the stories we tell? After all – the timeliest films rarely age the best.
The 2017 Sundance Film Festival played host to the Park City iteration of the worldwide Women's March. Fast forward three years, and every filmmaker whose creation I had the pleasure of witnessing is still clearly grappling with this existential question. The conclusion, of course, is that there is no single conclusion, no one-size-fits-all approach. Each storyteller took a different path, from willful blindness to purposeful insularity to a lean-in and flip a giant middle-finger to the patriarchy. And in their own ways, each approach succeeded. Because every single film is “political.” It’s truly impossible to be otherwise. As Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. And this train’s moving fast. I won’t recap every horrendous act perpetrated by the current administration, but suffice to say, as if to underline the looming presence of the political landscape over the world of film, the U.S. Senate acquitted President Donald Trump just three days after the end of Sundance and four days before the 92nd Academy Awards. Though the ideas that led to the 118 films at Sundance may have spawned during another era, these films were written, directed, and edited during this unique political moment. And yet, Sundance has always been an escape – a secret hideaway in the mountains for industry and press in the midst of a busy awards season. And while conversations on Main Street, in lines, and in the omnipresent shuttle buses may have been informed by the outside world, there was a very noticeable dedication to avoid explicit discussion of current events. Some of the best films mirrored that approach, treating news of the day as an invisible but powerful external force, sitting just off-screen, clearly affecting the world and the characters. In Minari, director Lee Isaac Chung offers a memory piece of his childhood in a Korean family that moves to rural Arkansas. Eschewing the cliché scenes of the family encountering the racism of many Deep South (and elsewhere) communities in the 1970s (and elsewhen), Chung brilliantly keeps his focus on the Yi family. The obstacles thrown in their path are very much connected to the world around them, but in leaving those impediments mostly off-screen, Chung places the focus on the tensions and the beauty inherent to a multi-generational immigrant family. It’s a powerful rebuke to the current President’s depiction of immigrants, but it doesn’t try to be – which makes it even more effective. In Shirley, Josephine Decker’s off-beat story of creative frustration facing famed horror author Shirley Jackson, the power imbalance between the women and the men drives the action from start to finish. And yet, it’s rarely front-and-center. The constraints put on Shirley and her live-in companion, Rose, force them into daily contortions just to achieve any semblance of independence or any true act of creation, yet the film chooses not to overtly contextualize their struggles with the gender politics of the moment. Those forces are pressing in tight on Shirley and Rose, but they exist mostly off-screen. In Save Yourselves!, on the other hand, writer-directors Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson portray a Brooklyn couple who literally flees from the overly interconnected world around them, seconding to an upstate cabin moments before an alien invasion hits New York City. It’s a parable about modern-day relationships, but it just as well could be an analogy to the stick-our-heads-in-the-sand attitude that certain Hollywood regulars take toward politics. Once again, the tension bubbles up internally, through the characters’ relationship, while the outside world exists only to stoke it from afar. If all this subtlety left any Park City moviegoers craving more, they need only to have wandered into a screening of Emerald Fennell directorial debut, Promising Young Woman. Following the meticulously explosive revenge journey of Carey Mulligan’s Cassie Thomas, the film sates every last drop of thirst for patriarchal comeuppance. It leans, hard, into the lived experiences of every woman in its audience, and is creative and honest enough in its script that the invocation of real world politics adds to its power rather than distracting. It’s also the only film I saw at Sundance to get a spontaneous round of applause long before the credits rolled. Most people see politics and movies like portions of food at Thanksgiving dinner. For many, letting their turkey touch their mashed potatoes is akin to a mortal sin; they are different things that serve different purposes, and are best consumed that way. For others, the two go well together, their tastes blending and enhancing each other. The reality is likely different: the world around us is the gravy, and whether we like it or not, it covers both our movies and our politics, infusing them all with a specific flavor and tethering them to this unique moment. Some work to hide it; others display the connection proudly. At Sundance 2020, there is no escaping the gravy – most people just didn’t talk about it much.