Sundance 2015—of love and rape

Posted on January 27, 2015

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BY ERIC RADDATZ

“All you need is love” (Beatles). “God is love” (Bible). “What is love?” (Night at the Roxbury.)

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Love.

In human experience, an unsurpassed feeling. A reality both true and pure that we struggle to express in ways either obvious or subtle — but that we also show in destructive, weird and sometimes altogether perverted ways. Absurd as it seems, while love has not totally escaped us, we probably haven’t figured it out yet.

Sundance Film Festival’s 2015 programming is giving it a shot, however.

The proliferation of films about love unveiled in the snow-capped mountains of Utah in this year’s programming seemed to create an unofficial theme, or at least an unavoidable question: how do we show love?

And the unofficial answer might be, in ways that are unique to each of us.

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“I loved him, and that’s why I felt it was okay we were having sex,” cried a female subject in the documentary, Perverted Park. Seems a reasonable statement, doesn’t it?

Well, no. She was speaking about her father, who would molest her frequently at a young age.

But the logic and force of it invaded her.

“Do you love me?” she would later ask her 8-year-old son, before molesting him.

Perhaps this is an intergenerational way of expressing love, something incomprehensible to the rest of us. And it has consequences. When her son told friends his mom was having sex with him, she was arrested. Now, as a registered sex offender, she details the gory history of an abusive environment, one that she felt was filled with … love.

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Stockholm, Pennsylvania

“Is this how you show love?” asks Leia, a girl abducted and kept in a basement for 17 years. She pops this question after developing deep feelings for her abductor in Stockholm, Pennsylvania, a story punctuated with excellent performances by Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon and Jason Isaacs.

Stockholm syndrome, by definition, occurs when a victim develops powerful feelings (love?) for her or his abductor.

And at times, as in this film, the abductor also believes that he is showing (you guessed it), love.

Is it loving to provide physical and emotional support with safe protection and kind affection? Sure, we can agree on that. But what if the protection and affection comes — with intelligence and understanding and empathy and warmth and even charm — in the basement where the lover has imprisoned a kidnapped girl? Uh, woah.

But that’s exactly what you’re left to think about in this, one of my favorite films of the festival.

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What happened, Miss Simone?

The festival opener this year was about legendary jazz musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who battled for years with an abusive husband who beat her so regularly that she wanted to die. He would insist — first, that she wanted such treatment, and second, that he loved her. Is that really love’s true expression? Maybe he thought so.

The film gave me goosebumps with footage I’ve never seen of her before, performing what may have summarized the festival this year “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” John Legend played this same song on stage to a delighted and indie-star-studded cast, directly after the premiere at the Eccles, to pay tribute to Miss Simone, the other legend.

 

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One thing that remains indisputably love, is, well, Courtney Love, wife of the departed grunge rocker Kurt Cobain.

Ms. Love arrived at Sundance not just on the wings of love, but in the company of her child, a grown Francis Bean, and at least 1/3 of the remaining rockers from the 1980s and early ‘90s band, Nirvana. She came, of course, for the film, Kurt Cobain: Montage of a Heck.

Directed by edgy and intense Brett Morgen in a dysfunctional, distressed and disorderly fashion, we get an intimate glimpse into the troubled upbringing of a young Cobain, through his rise to the top of the charts, his family life and his drug addiction. All that is juxtaposed with his art — with brilliantly animated sketchings and raging music covering never-before-seen footage. In a poignant remembrance, the footage ranges from a 1-year-old Kurt all smiles, blowing kisses to his end-of-days bath scenes with wife and daughter.

(Naked pool scenes were also something I saw a lot of this year, from the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind to The Overnight to The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Maybe a sub-theme?)

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Polyamorous love seems like love for a while in The Overnight, starring Jason Schwartzman, Adam Scott and Judith Godrèche. But whether or not you think showing sexual love outside of marriage seems right, at least one a question has to be asked: is it loving to a partner to whom you’ve made a commitment?

The ending will surprise you in a boldly honest look at what seemed like a swingers movie at first glance. But both the director, Patrick Brice, and Schwartzman were on the same page at the film’s post-showing Q&A. “It was about love,” they insisted. Nobody was winking.

 

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In The Diary of a TeenageGirl starring Kristen Wiig, Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård, we enter a world where a 15-year old falls deeply in love with her mother’s boyfriend. The relationship gets very sexual and both affirm their deep love for each other. But is this love or just plain rape?

Again, it depends on whom you ask.

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Sleeping With Other People is a love story for the ages, in a way. Director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) called it a version of When Harry Met Sally, “but for assholes.” Stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie play characters that lead cheating lifestyles with a need to find trusting relationships. They make a pact: to love in a non-sexual relationship while they continue to be sluts with others. The outcome? (Caution spoiler.) They fall in love.

But love without sex? I mean, is that love?

 

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In the film, Hot Girls Wanted, a movie by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus about the perpetuity of 18-19-year-old girls who enter the porn industry in Miami Beach, we meet Tressa Silguero, who dives deep into the amateur porn market. She makes about $800 a shoot doing almost every kind of sexual thing a viewer can imagine, and look up, if anyone wants to. Online porn sites are viewed more than 41 million times a month — more than most movie, media and news sources combined. So she and her boyfriend agree, it’s just a job to pay the bills. After all, they are in love and love means supporting each other no matter what.

Right?

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All of this might seem troubling, or inconsequential, or even silly at first glance. But the power of art, especially the art of independent film, with such diverse voices and points of view, is to bring unsuspecting or confidently assured viewers to a crossroads where they re-evaluate their notions about living or, in this case, loving.

In great cinema, at least some level of discomfort is a given, as Robert Redford has always recognized. (I love Robert Redford—don’t let me be misunderstood.)

“You’ll see a lot of films that are going to upset some people, but that’s ok,” he said at the opening press conference at the Egyptian Theater, acknowledging some of the issues that artists tackled this year, with a nod to freedom of independent expression. “Independence is basically the framework of our country,” he concluded.

This kind of honesty — and Redford’s own lifelong, legendary insistence that we look squarely at reality, including love in its many and sometimes darker forms — makes Sundance one of the world’s greatest film festivals, if not the very best.

“There are so many voices out there claiming the truth. Where do you find truth anymore?” he asked expressing with so many media capacities nowadays, very few take their time to really tell the story the way documentary films do. “It’s like an extension of long journalism.”

Long journalism with a lot of love — and plenty of mine, made this one of the best years I’ve ever experienced at the festival.

Along with the lovefest at Sundance there was also a steady beat of very wildly relevant films you will hear plenty about in the coming months, from the The Hunting Ground, which explores rape crimes on U.S. campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and brutal social toll to DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon, by Douglas Tirola— an exploration of founders Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman , with their passionate, genius approach to doing something no one else had ever done before, in very constitutionally-protected, albeit offensive ways. I loved watching a young John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray in clips I’ve never seen, when they performed pre-SNL.

And I loved Sundance this year.

Loved it.

 

—Eric Raddatz is the Presentation Editor of Florida Weekly, co-founder of the Naples International Film Festival and director and founder of the Fort Myers Film Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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