After making a point to consciously avoid the more navel-gazing fare of Sundance, I plopped down into a theater chair at 11:45 P.M. on a Monday night to take in 78/52, purportedly the first feature-length documentary dedicated to dissecting just a single film scene – the infamous shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (What can I say, I’m only human.) It was movie #5 on a day where I’d already taken in heavy fare about young closeted gay men and watched Cate Blanchett spout off a century’s worth of artistic dogma in 90 minutes. I felt I earned a moment of self-serving cinephilic pleasure, so much so that I was willing to face a 400% price surge on Lyft to get to the distant venue.
I attended this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a significantly heightened awareness of my privilege to partake in this ecstatic celebration of cinema. While an overcharged ridesharing app bore the brunt of my anger that night, millions of Americans faced a scary reality with the changing of the guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I had the choice to look at screens featuring new works by masters of world cinema and emerging talents while most people could not avoid the images coming out of Washington, whether they wanted to or not. (During the inauguration, I was watching Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, a raucous comedy about naughty nuns in medieval Italy.) I scrolled through social media apps looking for the latest hot takes to optimize the next day’s schedule, giving myself the momentary luxury of avoiding an Orwellian phrase like “alternate facts” or planned executive actions. While some of America’s most vulnerable citizens worried about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health, I was considering how Golden Exits compares to the rest of Alex Ross Perry’s formidable body of work.
Yet this retreat into the comfort of my own passions confronted me with larger takeaways about Psycho that pertained to more than just the technical or aesthetic virtues of the scene alluded to in the documentary’s title. Interview subjects testified not only to how Hitchcock’s masterful artistry made the scene linger in the collective memory, but also to how the assault functioned as a release valve for anxieties over post-war social change. Stabbing Janet Leigh to death was an attack on feminist advances, a warning that domesticity was no longer safe and a reminder that murder could always lurk around the corner. The scene is a moment informed by culture that then flipped the script and influenced the culture itself.
So what’s our shower scene in 2017? What moment can serve as a receptacle for our society’s many worries and fear only to spit them right back at us?
I’m not sure that it would come from Sundance. In a piece that stated the obvious so flagrantly, The New York Times reminded its readers on the first full day of the festival that only one festival premiere in the last decade has grossed over $40 million domestically. Though the Sundance laurels still mean the world to film buffs, that world continues to contract. In 78/52, as a matter of fact, interviewee Karyn Kusama (director of last year’s The Invitation) cited a death from the TV show Game of Thrones as the closest contemporary approximation of the Psycho shower scene’s effect. Without re-litigating the ongoing contentious debate over whether television has eclipsed film, perhaps it’s heartening just to know that some version of the shower scene’s moment still exists in our world. Any future instances are likely to be reflected through the social trends of our time: personal rather than communal, micro rather than macro.
I’ve been somewhat haunted in the past few months thinking back to my big piece from last year’s festival, “Hard Bodies, Soft Sells,” which essentially predicted the continued rise of the American beta male. (Little did I know that nine months later, major political figures would try to normalize boasting about sexual assault as “locker room talk.”) Take, for instance, this passage:
“But based on the portraits of masculinity that emerged from this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, one could easily assume that these [social] changes were hardly a cause for concern at all. Like Nick Jonas, men both on screen and off at Sundance choose to embrace the shifting definition of what it means to be a man in 2016 America. These actors, through many different character journeys and genres, showed that what some factions of our society might call the “softening” of the American male can actually prove quiet enriching.”
I made the mistake of conflating the Sundance spirit with American audiences in general – or at the very least, I assumed that the moral arc of the cinematic universe bent towards the Park City slopes. That’s not to say that I give up believing in my optimistic take from the halcyon days of last January or view the lessons imparted in the festival’s films as applicable only to a niche, elite audience. But the role of the writer and cultural commenter can no longer take any assumptions or tastes for granted. We must continue to articulate not just that we see these things and think they are worthy of consideration and emulation. We must also make a compelling, humane case as to why.
It’s relatively easy to have these kinds of collective moments of tension release at a place like the Sundance Film Festival for the same reason that it’s easy for a magician to win over a birthday party of toddlers. These are audiences that want to feel something. They crave the experience of shared sentiment. Many writers – myself included – take this for granted when writing coverage of festivals, using prose that obfuscates or negates the profound ways in which viewing context informs reception. (This might also set up general audiences for disappointment, but again – another piece entirely.)
So rather than make some sweeping generalizations about the films I saw and how they might resonate with future viewers, I just want to conclude my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival by sharing some mini-Psycho shower-scene scenarios that I encountered. In a few months or years, there is a decent chance that I will see these films in an entirely different light when removed from the hyper-politically aware framework which this festival practically necessitated analysis through. For now, however, they were more than just scenes or movies. The total combined effect of the theatrical experience with the cultural climate outside provided a potent reminder of how cinema continues to have relevance in helping us work through important issues rather than merely avoiding them.
I was a bit peeved to learn that Netflix owned the rights to Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery after I had blown a portion of my precious ticket allotment to see the film at the festival. (It launches globally on March 31, when plenty of other films playing Sundance won’t have even played their next festival engagement!) Most people will experience this film from the comforts of their own living room. That’s their loss.
McDowell’s follow-up to his audacious debut, 2014’s The One I Love, works from a similarly complex setup. Robert Redford’s Thomas Harber discovers proof of an afterlife, leading masses of people worldwide to commit suicide to get there. A few years later, his son Will (Jason Segel) navigates a Children of Men-like world so substantially depleted of human energy that a hashtag campaign using #nomoresuicides and #discoverlife exists. As Will encounters the suicidal Isla (Rooney Mara), his knowledge of rapidly changing attitudes deepens substantially. We get out of this world what we put into it, and neglecting our imperfect existence in favor of some distant fantasy can only lead to ruin. It was nice to know, too, that audiences still respond to the shock of suicide. Too bad that Netflix can’t include the audible gasps of a stunned crowd at many moments in The Discovery as some kind of supplemental audio track.
I’ve already spilled some ink about David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, by far the most stylistically audacious film I saw at the festival. Doubtless that no matter how I encountered this unique work, it would still beguile and puzzle me. But there was something special about being in that Library Center auditorium, taking it all in with hundreds of curious viewers who also had no idea what to expect. Unlike The Discovery, where noticeable reactions punctuated important plot points, the audience stayed mostly silent throughout A Ghost Story. We were all in awe of the tone poem cryptically unfolding before our eyes, the formally and thematically exploratory likes of which we have not seen from a relatively green director since Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Quite often, I felt unsure of myself and my own reactions to what I was seeing. A quick scan of the crowd, whose eyes were largely glued to the screen in wide-eyed wonder, reminded me that we were all taking in this delicate cinematic communion together. We were all in the same boat, unsure of our destination but confident in our commander’s ability to take us there.
I talked to a few friends after Craig Johnson’s Wilson who claimed to have trouble getting into the film because they found Woody Harrelson’s titular character “unlikable.” He’s definitely a prickly pear, to be sure, cut from that same curmudgeonly cloth as so many Daniel Clowes’ characters are. I, on the other hand, had no such issue giving myself over to the episodic adventures of the peculiar Wilson. In fact, I’m not even sure I would use the word “unlikable.” He’s not some kind of anti-social miscreant. If anything, his most awkward and uncomfortable moments are caused by trying to connect with people – not to distance himself from them. Wilson does not fear crossing well-established boundaries or violating social norms to chat with others or broadcast his feelings to them. At a moment in time where we feel so much anxiety about talking to people who come from different backgrounds or viewpoints, it strikes me that the problems is not the Wilsons of the world. It’s people like the unsuspecting victims of his ramblings, unable or unwilling to break out of their conventional modes of communication to hear him out.
I don’t know that I can ever separate Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman’s assured sophomore feature, from the pointed and often contentious Q&A that followed the film’s premiere screening. Hittman faced tough questions from gay men in the crowd, several of whom found the journey of the closeted protagonist to reinforce dangerous tropes of queer suffering. Others, however, spoke up about how authentic they felt the story rang. Hittman had an answer for all of them, striking a balance between defending the film she fought so hard to make and empathizing with the very real concerns that each of these viewers brought to the table. I had taken the film mostly at face value and was totally on board with the struggles of working-class Brooklyn teen Frankie (Harris Dickinson) up until a somewhat dubious third-act turn. Their perspectives voiced in the talkback are worthy of consideration alongside my own, and it was an honor as well as a humbling reminder to be in the same space with a room full of people who viewed the film through a very different lens. How do we reconcile these opinions – if we can? I think this question, more than the movie itself, is what will stick with me.
And speaking of Q&As, there might not have been a more special moment at the festival than the outpouring of applause following Mudbound. I was not at the film’s premiere in the thousand-seat Eccles Theater, but the next morning’s screening at the Library Center did not let a smaller auditorium dampen the enthusiasm. As director Dee Rees walked up in front of the screen, it was impossible not to recognize just how special this was for women, women of color and queer women of color. Her film tackled race relations in the post-World War II America with a special eye towards how black progress tends to inspire white resistance, and even outright animosity and violence. It’s likely that all of us in the theater knew that the historical atmosphere depicted in the film was depressingly relevant again. But just for that brief instance, I felt hope and renewal from knowing Dee Rees’ perspective was out in the world and that the overwhelming enthusiasm shown to Mudbound could only increase the size of her megaphone when we need her voice the most.