At Sundance you sometimes find yourself doing things that sound like the ravings of a madman. In a four hour span today, for example, I portrayed the planet of Jupiter for a Sean Lennon video, got a nifty free coat from Diddy and watched the world’s most advanced robot dance and play soccer. It felt less like film festival shenanigans than a waking dream, one I didn’t particularly want to wake up from.
Then I started watching movies and everything got a whole lot less interesting. Ah, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My Sundance experience began last night with a program of short films introduced by Sundance Fuhrer Robert Redford. Redford gave a deliciously schizophrenic opening address, hailing short films as a vital and important artform while deriding short filmmakers as the worst kind of human garbage. Redford repeated the phrase “human garbage” repeatedly while glaring at the filmmakers in attendance and punching his open hand menacingly. It was most peculiar.
But it was all just an appetizer for the marquee event: a new short film from Spike Jonze. I walked past Jonze on the way in, who looked surprisingly preppy and sharp in his khakis and buttoned up shirt. Jonze’s film, I’m Here, was a melancholy mood piece about a sensitive young man, ostracized by society for being different who finds love and acceptance with a beautiful young woman. She’s a fragile creature, however, and the young man makes the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loves.
The twist? All the lead characters are robots. In that respect, the strangely affecting, beautifully made, oddly haunting half-hour film, which Jonze also wrote, resembled Where The Wild Things Are, another bittersweet drama about fantastical, anthropomorphized creatures who somehow manage to be more human than human beings. It was a minor triumph that hopefully will find an audience beyond film festivals.
With the popularity of Youtube and DVDs, short filmmakers now have more outlets than ever for their work to be ignored. Shorts programs tend to be uneven by design but this group was surprisingly strong, with solid shorts about the fence separating U.S and Mexico (The Fence), a gleeful animated romp called Logoland about a deranged crime spree perpetrated by Ronald McDonald and Seeds of The Fall, a deadpan, very wry Swedish comedy.
Ah, but who cares about short films and the human garbage that makes them when there’s so much ridiculous spectacle to distract us? For the second year in a row, I made a point to stop by the House of Hype “Gifting Lounge” to drink free booze, eat free food and try to finagle as much free crap as humanly possible. It's my solemn duty as the A.V Club's resident wild card.
I made a pretty good score this afternoon. The etiquette of a “gifting lounge” can be tricky; push too hard and you’re likely to turn potential gifters off with your overbearing aura of pushiness and desperation. Play it too cool and walk home empty-handed.
Thankfully, I lurked around the House of Hype with a fellow journalist who was much better at playing the game than I was. As we perused racks of sharp Sean John winter jackets he politely but firmly inquired, “So, are you gifting today?” That is a very nice way of saying, “Can you give me some free shit?”
Gifting is such a nice euphemism; who doesn’t like giving or receiving gifts? The ploy worked. We each picked up sweet-ass jackets. Later, the fellow journalist confided that “gifting” was the magic word: it allows you to ask for free shit without being too gauche about it. We were much successful with the next purveyor of free shit however. When my colleague inquired if they were gifting or not, the woman replied that they were, but only to celebrities. Folks at Sundance are never afraid to put you in your place or remind you exactly where you stand in the great show-business hierarchy (near the bottom).
I’d like to think I can accept free shit without compromising my journalistic integrity, though I do plan to retroactively give all of Diddy’s albums A+ reviews on account of him being such a gifted lyricist. After imbibing many a Stella Artois along with my omelet (breakfast + beer, so wrong, yet so right), I headed over to the New Frontier pavilion to check out an exhibit by Joseph Gordon Levitt’s hitrecord.org.
At the entrance, we were greeted by Levitt’s older brother, who looks so much like his more famous sibling that I briefly wondered when exactly Gordon-Levitt grew four inches and started rocking dreadlocks. Gordon-Levitt’s brother animatedly explained the whole concept of hitrecord.org in a way that didn’t really explain anything.
Essentially, hitrecord.org is a multi-media company/quixotic creative experiment/way for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to lose a lot of money pursuing noble goals. The website allows users to upload stuff—songs, photographs, haikus, videos—that other users can then remix or alter or tweak however they see fit. For example, say I uploaded a video of my cat flushing the toilet. A high school kid in Fresno could then set the video to a homemade death metal song, then a dockworker in China could add lots of star-wipes to my video that will make it even more magical. If my star-wipe-heavy cat video set to a heavy metal song is released theatrically, then my collaborators and I will split the proceeds fifty-fifty with hitrecord.org.
It’s the kind of cool, innovative thinking that lost dotcoms a fuck-ton of money back in the day. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a supremely hands-on presence in the hitrecord.org exhibit. Like Jonze, he looked surprisingly studious and preppie with his bookish glasses, skinny tie and yuppie ensemble.
Sean Lennon had sent a song to hitrecord.org about the solar system the night before and asked hitrecord.org to make a video for it. So trippy, psychedelic images of stars and planets were projected onto a wall. Then volunteers stood in front of the wall and portrayed the planets in Lennon’s song.
It was all very Andy Warhol. As Gordon-Levitt bopped happily around from computer to computer, giving instant feedback and tossing around ideas I felt like I was in some strange cross between Warhol’s Factory in the sixties and mission control at NASA. The volunteers who played planets each had marvelous faces rich in character, from a Samoan-looking individual whose visage looked like one of the Easter Island statues to a model-handsome gentleman and a cute red-haired girl with an ingratiatingly sour expression.
Then came my time to impersonate a planet. I chose Jupiter because it’s a lot like me: giant, gassy and old as fuck. In the Lennon song, Jupiter is depicted as being very sleepy so I was instructed to look like I was asleep. So I closed my eyes and shifted my folded hands to the side of my face in a crude pantomime of slumber. It felt utterly ridiculous and super-fun. It really is sweet and admirable that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is using his money, fame and power to do something so risky and inclusive.
I jetted off to see Living With Robots, a super-short, Joe Berlinger-directed, Honda-funded film about the creation of Asimo, the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. I could give a fuck about the film. I just wanted to see a cool robot. The program got off to a sleepy start, with Berlinger delivering a wooden speech that felt like it was paraphrasing a Honda press release. Berlinger spoke extensively about Honda’s “corporate philosophy” and how his film dramatized the core values of the Honda brand. From the way Berlinger spoke you’d imagine that Honda’s philosophy was taught in college classes alongside the philosophies of Plato, Marx and Socrates. Sundance is a magical place where the pioneering spirit of independent film makes hot, sweaty, passionate love with its benefactors in corporate America but this was taking it entirely too far.
Then came the highlight of the evening: Asimo! Oh, but he was a robotic charmer! Asimo wowed the crowd by dancing, kicking a soccer ball, running and climbing up and down stairs. Alas, there wasn’t a Q&A afterwards so I wasn’t able to ask the two questions racing through my mind. They were, in no particular order:
1. How long until Asimo turns on his human oppressors and kills us all?
2. How long until Honda builds a functional sex robot?
But enough foolishness: onto the wholly forgettable films!
Southern District: This almost unwatchable Bolivian melodrama boasts one of the stupidest, most distracting gimmicks in recent memory: pretty much every scene is shot as a 360 degree pan, so the camera never stops circling around its characters. It’s a good thing I don’t have motion sickness, or I would have projectile vomited about fifteen minutes in. Sadly, this sad stylistic stunt was all the film had going for it, beyond copious nudity (mmm, copious nudity).
The film chronicles the decadent doings of a once wealthy and prominent Bolivian family whose fortune has dwindled away to next to nothing. The mother’s a shrew, the older son’s a glib playboy, the sister’s a rebellious lesbian and the youngest son is a spooky little boy who talks to an imaginary friend based on Steven Spielberg, though not even the legendary filmmaker’s Mexican non-union equivalent would want to be a associated with a sordid, unedifying and stylistically obnoxious enterprise like this.
HappyThankYouMorePlease: Finally, a movie about vaguely bohemian twentysomethings in New York living and loving and learning life lessons! HappyThankYouMorePlease marks the writing and directorial debut of How I Met Your Mother star Joshua Radnor, who is not John Krasinski or Zachary Levi but rather an astonishing simulacrum of both. Radnor stars as an aspiring writer (red flag 1) who ends up befriending an adorable African-American foster kid (red flag 2) while wooing pretty barmaid Kate Mara (who I thought was Anna Kendricks throughout the film).
Also, living, learning and loving: a surprisingly not-terrible Malin Akerman, as an alopecia sufferer who must choose between her sexy ex-boyfriend and sweet-natured suitor Tony Hale; and Zoe Kazan as a sensible young woman whose boyfriend wants her to move to L.A. Just about every element of HappyThankYouMore feels familiar and derivative, from its man-child protagonist to tremblingly earnest montage sequences set to indie-rock songs. Yet it’s an oddly winning endeavor all the same thanks to a likable cast, especially Hale, who nearly redeems the film with a lovely monologue about existing to adore Akerman. It’s the kind of passable time-waster that will enjoy a rich second life on pay-cable channels throughout the decade.