January 28, 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

The Comedy

Dudes are fucked up. One of the recurrent themes of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival was the damaged state of young American manhood. Maybe I just happened to pick all the right movies, and tapped into a wellspring of generational critique. But it's hard to argue when films across such a wide generic range leak rancid testosterone as if it were a toxic spill.

The Bro-pocalypse could also signal a kind of counter-insurgency against the archetypal Sundance Event: The It Girl rom-coms, earnest dramas of family dysfunction, and high-concept documentaries about tree-huggers and weirdoes. Yet, in a warped sense, Rick Alverson's The Comedy swallowed all these things whole and vomited them back up, through the PBR-drenched esophagus of Adult Swim favorite Tim Heidecker (and collaborator pal Eric Wareheim in a smaller role; the two have also been making the rounds with Magnolia's Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie). As slacker chump Swanson, the comedic actor is the star of his own urban deadbeat cavalcade of cheap nihilist jollies, riding his beer gut like a chariot through the trustafarian wilds of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His sole purpose in life seems to be cheap antagonism of less-privileged city dwellers (foreign-speaking cab drivers take a lot of psychological abuse), getting drunk with his likewise schlumpen beer buddies in a sophomoric parody of a male-encounter group, and waiting for his invalid father to die—while terrorizing his male nurse with a trench-mouthed interrogation about prolapsed rectums.

The Comedy

Yes, the title is ironic. Or is it? Did I mention this slumming loser lives on a funky houseboat in the East River? The film's unsparing vivisection of a certain kind of hipster caricature is so dead-on it's downright freakish. Strangely enough, the relentless trash-humpty dumpster-isms distantly evoke the situationist antics of old Taylor Mead underground movie vehicles from the early 1960s, with the city streets a surreal playground. Here, however, the tone is not one of spiritual and sexual liberation, but of cultural bankruptcy and jaded disconnection. Assholism is the only currency left in anyone's pocket. Some could react to this manic-depressive wallow with despair or boredom, as if shackled to the radiator in mumblecore purgatory. Instead, I found myself enjoying it as a perverse documentary. By the time Kate Lyn Sheil shows up to give this feckless dude some play, acceding to a houseboat date after complimenting him on his dick cheese, it only leads to an occasion for Swanson to display an utter lack of humanity. The Comedy never strays from its errant ambling path, which makes it either excessively brave or ridiculously foolish. No movie at Sundance was happier to rub its balls in your face.

Simon Killer

Brady Corbet plays a different sort of sociopath in Simon Killer, the second feature from Antonio Campos (of Afterschool and Williamsburg's Borderline Films, whose Martha Marcy May Marlene ruled Sundance last year). On the face of it, he's a recent college graduate with a degree in neuroscience and a specialty in peripheral vision. He's also experiencing some kind of nervous breakdown after breaking up with his high school sweetheart, consoling himself by jacking off to bilingual sex-cam sessions on a laptop and chatting up comely strangers in his beginner's French. A lost soul wandering the streets with his earplugs pumping reggae and synth-pop, Simon finds his raison d'etre—or perhaps just a target for parasitical manipulation—in Victoria (Mati Diop), a slinky, dusky prostitute with a jagged cesarean scar who latches onto this hunky mope when a tout leads him through the door of a Pigalle hostess bar. Soon enough, the needy Simon has taken residence in Victoria's small studio apartment, where boldly graphic sex begins to reveal deep fractures in the lives of both lovers. By the time Simon hatches a blackmail scheme to fleece some of Victoria's rich and married off-campus clients, it's already apparent that things will end badly. The collaboration between Campos and the actors goes to stranger and more disturbing places than the B-movie scenario it first implies. Through a sustained tone of tense ambiguity and abstract visual interludes, the film introduces darkening shades of doubt as to Simon’s real identity, as Corbet gets his creep on. The violence is awful, in act and implication—Diop's performance evokes its own troubling complexities—which along with the raw sexual content insures Simon Killer both some harsh critical reception and polarized audiences. Its sheer risk and bruising commitment is, likewise, exhilarating.


All the nasty stuff is nothing remarkable in a horror flick, so it's a testament to the imagination of the team behind V/H/S that they found new buttons to push on the clunky deck that is the found-footage video genre. The premise: a group of drunk buddies are hired to break into an abandoned house and steal a specific tape. Without giving anything away, they end up sampling several, which gives rising young indie directors Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg and Ti West occasion for a series of shorts built around inherent themes of voyeurism, sex, criminality, violence and the full vault of gnarly horror movie tropes. The formal qualities of degraded image quality, fuzzy scan lines, tracking errors and such, along with an array of defunct cameras used, creates a lot of aesthetic mischief. But certain episodes find a surprising subtext accumulating like dust on the tape head. David Bruckner (The Signal) grooves on the darker impulses of male bonding. In his segment Amateur Night, a "sharking" crew drags two drunk girls from a bar to a sleazy motel to make a sex tape, with harrowing consequences. The savage humor and bracing jump scares spring out of some explosive male hysteria, mirrored in the crazy zig-zagging camera and escalating mayhem. At one midnight show, a young couple both became sick during the sequence and required emergency medical attention (Simon Barrett, Wingard's screenwriting partner, used his volunteer EMT chops to stabilize the situation until help arrived).

They happily accepted tickets to the next show.

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Posted by ahillis at January 28, 2012 11:04 AM