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Cinematic Rebels Storm Sundance

Sundance 2010, though attendance felt lighter than in years past, maintained (if not exceeded) their vision of rebellious filmmaking. The four days Michael Aaron and I spent at the festival, and the 216 miles traveled, was certainly worth the time. It renewed my love for the independent cinematic arts, and has helped me grow in the appreciation of a new generation of artistic expression.

 

In between the queer events — the annual Queer Brunch, Queer Lounge’s Homos Away from Home Party and the HRC/Queer Lounge 8: The Mormon Proposition Party — and the CineGlaad discussion panels, Michael and I attended a Nao Bustamante performance piece called Silver and Gold, as well as screenings of several films, both queer-themed and not, and most unprecedented and unique. Following is a brief synopsis and review of each of the films we were lucky and, in some, not-so-unlucky to attend.

8: The Mormon Proposition
This film has had a lot of buzz circling it since its inception last year when writer/director Reed Cowan first interviewed Sen. Chris Buttars, an irritating thorn in the side of Salt Lake City’s gay community.

Backed by local philanthropist Bruce Bastian and narrated by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar winner for Milk), the 80-minute documentary shines a light on the true depth of the Mormon Church’s involvement in the passage of California’s Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage in the state last year. As depicted in the film, Mormon president Thomas S. Monson and the 12 Apostles issued a call-to-action to millions of its faithful flock all over the world via distressed ’80s-style video footage; a low gnarr reverberating like a demon.

8:TMP features one gay couple, Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones — both from Mormon backgrounds — who were married in California before Prop 8. Though their story is definitely emotional and touching, unfortunately most of their footage and the interview segments with Linda Stay, Tyler’s mother, are idolized.

In agreement with Cowan, who said the most gut-wrenching stories in the film are “the stories that can’t be told by those who are dead,” I found the segment on Stuart Matis’ suicide particularly disturbing, infuriating and saddening. “While interviewing people about the epidemic of gay Mormon suicide, I would sometimes catch myself wondering if the spirits of the dead were watching, maybe even cheering us on … for giving them a voice,” Cowan continued.

If you’re a Utahn and haven’t been living under a rock, there will be little in 8:TMP that you don’t already know, but it’s still worth the look as it pays heavyweight, in-your-face homage to the underhandedness, the head-spinning lack of compassion and sensibilities of the LDS Church, and to the heated debate over separation of church and state.

Howl
James Franco portrays Allen Ginsberg, a homosexual American poet whose poem, Howl — an extensive piece written in parataxis form (new to the 1950s) — was considered obscene by many, and subsequently launched a trial in 1957 to have it removed from publication.

who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may, …

Co-directors/screenwriters Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman beautifully and creatively weave three aspects to the film: how Ginsberg’s life experiences led to the writing of Howl, an animated telling of the poem while being read by Ginsberg in a smoked-filled room to other counterculture beatniks, and the courtroom testimonies.

Franco gives a stoic performance, embodies the profound intellect of Ginsberg and movingly becomes the poem in his recitation.

The Kids Are All Right
Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple who, over the past 18 years, have been raising their two children, Joni and Laser. Shortly after Joni’s 18th birthday, she seeks out her and her brother’s sperm-donor father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He’s an offbeat, middle-aged man who owns a hip California restaurant and organic foods co-op, but has no real direction in his personal life.

As Paul begins to edge his way into Nic’s perfect little family structure, it begins to crumple around her, and her evolving insecurity pushes free-spirited Jules farther away.

Co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (High Art), the movie is witty and funny and moving. The simplicity of the storyline, the commonality of the American family unit is brilliant — whether mainstream or alternative, it develops the same way.

However, I was expecting something more (because of the title) with the kids — more development I suppose. But what was there, was dead-on.
The performances were superb all around, but hats off to Annette Bening, who was simply spectacular.

The Kids Are All Right was one of the few Sundance films purchased this year at the festival.

Contracorriente (Undertow)
Javier Fuentes-León’s first foreign feature film is a cinematic triumph. Contracorriente takes place in Peru, where Miguel and his pregnant wife seem to be the pillars of respect in their small fishing village and in their church. But Miguel’s been harboring a secret — one that could destroy his life as he knows it. He’s been having an affair with the village outcast, Santiago — an openly gay painter.

Miguel struggles with his inner homophobia, his responsibility as a husband and father, and reconciling the beliefs of his church in this emotionally-charged story. It’s brilliantly backdropped with sweeping images of the Peruvian coastline and intuitive filmography — as the camera pans in on Miguel’s elation at the birth of his child is probably the most stunning moments in the fiim.

Contracorriente won the Audience Award for World Dramatic Cinema.

Others
The other films Michael and I watched were Diego Luna’s (Milk, Y Tu Mama Tambien) directorial debut Abel, about a young boy who takes on the role of father figure to his family. The film is good, the child actors are so adorable you instantly fall in love with them, but the story development felt stunted.

In The Taqwacores, a young Muslim college student in Brooklyn moves into a house with an unusual group of “misfits” — skaters, homos and skinheads, who share in a Muslim punk-rock scene called Taqwacores. It’s a coming-of-age story as well as a story of spiritual growth. It’s crude, it’s angry, it’s impartial and it’s smart.

Buried, Frozen and The Man Next Door were our least favorite films though admittedly they each had an interesting approach to filmmaking, which is what Sundance is really about, less the star-gazing.

The strangest part of our experience this year was seeing a live performance of Nao Bustamante’s Silver & Gold. It’s a mixed-medium show, using film and live performance. From a tribute to a bedazzled dildo to suicidal tendancies to selling jewelry out of the back of a van, it is a 40-minute menagerie of WTF.

This was my fourth visit to the Sundance Film Festival, and one my best. The festival has gone back to its roots, but has also opened itself to unique new art forms — the combination is a “rebellion” that works.

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