January 22, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 4.

Sundance 07 Craig Phillips has been up to all sorts of things over the past couple of days.

I wanted to get away from the usual "I saw Alec Baldwin in the men's room and he was looking sort of paunchy" sort of Sundance gossip, so on Sunday, I gravitated towards a few people who are tuned into something very near and dear to my heart - the environment - and found it more fulfilling to fixate on that for a bit.

At Ed Begley's Project Greenhouse HQ, I told the very affable and eco-eager Ed that my stepfather, a "green" architect based in Santa Barbara, greatly respects what he does and is trying to spread the green home gospel locally (think global, etc.). Ed was very excited to hear about this, and, as everyone knows, to talk excitedly in general about all his eco-contraptions. Got a picture of him on his now-famous bicycle that stores household energy created by pedaling. I remarked that this invention could kill two birds with one stone - since Americans are also a generally overweight lot.

Freedom Fuels

Photo by Craig Phillips

On a more grassroots level, the guys behind Freedom Fuels, winner of the 2006 Environmental Preservation Award at the '06 Artivist Film Festival, were pushing their documentary on biodiesel fuel by screening it in a school bus on Main Street. It's also available for free online - free! - so go here to see it. The well-made "little" doc features appearances by Daryl Hannah and Willie Nelson, and a lot of recycled fuel.

At Project Greenhouse, I also ran into two of the people behind the Slamdance film Bangkok [site] - which is probably more enjoyable than many of the films at Sundance this year.

Speaking of Slamdance, the night before I saw the fascinating if slightly raw documentary Ganja Queen, which will air on HBO at some point this year. The doc tells the rather unbelievable - if it weren't true - Brokedown Palace-ish story of an Australian girl who travels to Bali and gets arrested by customs for smuggling the largest freaking bag of marijuana I've ever seen - we're talking the size of a boogie board. Which was where it was found - in a boogie board satchel under the board. It quickly becomes (mostly) clear that the girl is innocent, a victim of a frame-up - whether it was by baggage handlers in Australia, someone she knows or another person is part of the story here. The other part is about the girl's trials (in both senses of the word) in a Balinese jail while awaiting the verdict from a judge who has convicted 600 drug cases out of 600. The story is mostly told via video interviews and footage, much of it shot in secret, in the jail with the increasingly distraught young woman.

Ganja Queen Her family falls apart. The case is investigated. A "savior," a wealthy Australian cell phone magnate, helps fund the defense before harming the case with his mouth. Revelations arise. The clock ticks. It's all very disturbing and compelling, but the film could definitely use another big edit; it feels about 20 minutes too long at least, with one (or three) too many scenes with the girl's older sister freaking out, and the time it takes to finally get to the verdict we're all waiting for dragging out. Still, it's an incredible story and, assuming they fix a few sound glitches (the director assured us she will) and cut it a bit, it will definitely be worth a watch.

We attended a seminar in the "New Frontier" series which brought together a panel of five artists who had works - both installations and films - at the festival to talk about using new media in film and art. Or something. I'm still not sure what the point of this talk was except to debate the challenges of creating an artistically viable film in (quoting Being John Malkovich) "today's wintry economic climate," but there were a few choice moments. Much pretentiousness and laughter ensued.

Speaking of puppetry - well, Malkovich provides a weak segue - Jessica Yu's Protagonist is a fascinating, ambitious if not always fully successful documentary that brings together four unrelated men to tell the stories of making major transitions, or transformations, in their lives. The film asks the question, "When does a man become his own tragedy?" Besides being about the roles we play in the stories of our own lives, it's also about storytelling itself, and the film cleverly mixes things up by using Greek theater, specifically Euripides (whom Yu said was initially the inspiration for the film), in puppet form. The classical puppetry, by Janie Geiser, is impressive and brilliant, while Jeff Beal's hypnotic score matches the mood of the film. But the film's success hinges on how well these men tell their stories and each of them - particularly author Mark Salzman, who is a wonderfully engaging presence here, both funny, self-deprecating and astute - get our attention.


Protagonist reminds me a bit of Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap, Out of Control, as it's an ambitious film with a quartet of subjects that don't always fully connect with each other but fascinate anyway. In Protagonist, the cuts between each story sometimes feel abrupt - the German who was once a member of a terrorist group before becoming disillusioned with their twisted politics, tells an increasingly interesting story that is more often than not disturbing; a cut from him to a lighter moment in one of the other stories, for example, could use a bit of a segue, even if just a fade/black out. (The two other subjects are a gay man who was once a staunch evangelical tormented about his sexuality, and a Latino writer who gravitated from a life of crime to writing the amazing stories of his life.) And if the film doesn't completely knock it out of the park, it's a most illuminating work nonetheless. The puppets and Salzman are the real stars here.

I'm still not sure what the New Frontier is or means, but if there is one, may Jessica Yu be a part of it.

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Posted by dwhudson at January 22, 2007 11:27 AM