Eckerd goes to Sundance: A report on the filmfest's opening weekend

Virtual reality, horror, flatulence and living off-the-grid

click to enlarge Viggo Mortensen is Captain Fantastic (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) - CATHY KANAVY / BLEECKER STREET
Cathy Kanavy / Bleecker Street
Viggo Mortensen is Captain Fantastic (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Every year in January, thousands congregate in the snowy resort town of Park City, Utah to watch films and ogle celebrities. Almost every year, I take a group of students from Eckerd College to see as many of the latest and greatest independent features and documentaries as we can.

With so many great films to see, I can't possibly see them all. I read the schedule ahead of time, and always come up with a list of 20 or so films I’ll try to see. Then, of course, when I get here I hear about a few dozen more "must-see" films. In the end, I may see a handful.

The range and unpredictability makes Sundance exciting. So far, during the opening weekend, I’ve seen an unexpectedly moving film about an unlikely friendship between a suicidal man and ... a miraculously flatulent dead guy who looks just like Harry Potter (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's Swiss Army Man). I’ve seen a hilarious adaptation of an unfinished Jane Austen novella (Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship). At midnight Saturday, I watched a profoundly unsettling and grotesque horror film about loneliness shot in the most ravishingly gorgeous black and white I’ve seen in a long time (Nicholas Pesce's Eyes of My Mother). My first film of the festival was a realistic fairy tale about a quiet and reserved young woman whose encounter with a wolf awakens her carnal desires and brings her to life (Nicolette Krebitz's Wild).

Virtual reality has an increasing presence at the Festival. It won’t be long before attendees can watch a feature film masterpiece shot and shown via VR goggles. This sort of experience will allow every audience member to have a unique experience based on how they orient their attention. This year, for the first time, there will be a synchronous screening of a 15-minute film called Collisions; someday soon theaters may be crowded with people in their own private worlds, wearing headsets.

I tried on a Samsung headset featuring a short film called Viens (French for "come"); it was an (artful) depiction of an orgy. It was bizarre to feel immersed in a white room with naked men and women surrounding me, beginning to explore each others' bodies, as I stood wearing my winter jacket in a crowded room of film lovers. The technology is still in its infancy, yet can be quite impressive. In the short film Nomads: Maasai that was a series of short immersive clips showing tribal members engaged in dance, play, cooking and conversation. In an early clip, a young Maasai woman walks directly toward the camera. I could look all around at the nearby huts but I kept returning to her. As she got closer it didn’t feel at all like she was approaching the camera but was walking towards me. She stopped and gazed into my eyes. I don’t think anything I’ve ever seen on screen has felt so real.

Perhaps the most distinctive exhibit at the Sundance New Frontier exhibition for experimental multi-media productions hearkened back to an earlier technology: PC computer or game consoles. Tracy Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has created a first-person video game based on one of the greatest classics of American literature: Thoreau’s Walden, about the author’s experiment in simple living. Viewers can build his famous cabin, clear weeds to plant beans, steal pies from his mother’s house in Concord and read books from Emerson’s library. Periodically, you must renew your inspiration by wandering into the woods, or stopping to listen to bird songs.

My favorite film so far? Captain Fantastic, about an eccentric family living in isolation off the grid in the woods, when a tragedy forces them to re-enter civilization. This deserves to be a blockbuster – it received a standing ovation at Eccles theater. It has the feel-good idealism of Dead Poets Society and the eccentric road trip hijinks of Little Miss Sunshine. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, the brilliant and eccentric patriarch whose aim is to raise self-reliant children – children who combine the physical vigor of Rousseau’s noble savages with the intelligence of Plato’s philosopher kings. They hunt deer, covered in mud, and debate the relative merits of Lenin and Trotsky. They are, however, ill-equipped for living in “the real world” and the father begins to question his methods when they cross the country in a school bus to attend his wife’s funeral. It’s somewhat predictable, yet never feels fake; the performances are excellent, and in a culture that seems to celebrate stupidity, it’s incredibly refreshing to see smart kids on screen. 

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