‘Love Free or Die’ among movies seen by Franklin Pierce students at Sundance Film FestivalBy BLAKE WOOD Correspondent
Sunday, February 12, 2012
With Spike Lee’s Q&A rant about studio execs, hard-to-come-by film tickets and documentaries (consistently stronger than dramatic features) proclaiming our current collective zeitgeist, Robert Redford’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival, held Jan. 19-28 in Park City, Utah, appeared to be independent film business as usual.
But that wasn’t entirely the case. Indeed, some extraordinary events transpired that could be considered divine intervention, certainly testaments to the power of cinema.
Consider the subtitle of this piece – a simple (one letter, in fact) yet profound twist on our New Hampshire state motto.
“Love Free or Die” is the documentary honoring Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be elected bishop in the Episcopal Church. It begs the moral question of the church’s position regarding an array of gender issues. A schism between liberal and more conservative factions still threatens the church as a result of Robinson’s 2003 ordination in Concord.
The film, deftly directed by Sundance honoree Macky Alston and winning the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize of an Agent of Change, follows the series of challenges, some life-threatening, this “most controversial Christian in the world” and his husband, Mark Andrew, face by daring to be truthful and inclusive at all cost.
In response to my question, “Who would have thought this would happen in New Hampshire?” Robinson responded, “Right? But actually, we’re more libertarian than conservative. A fierce defense of individualism, that’s us at our best.
“If you live with integrity, the people of New Hampshire will support you. If this had happened in New York, we’d say, ‘Of course.’ But to happen in New Hampshire, well, I think God had a hand in it.”
Although Redford’s eye is continually focused on the craft of storytelling, his appearance on the documentary panel, The Power of Story, was a rare treat. Redford said that in his youth he saw the drama in something real (in Pathe newsreels) and wanted that edgy feeling in his own films.
Although inevitably some highly anticipated premieres proved disappointing – Stephen Frears’ “Lay the Favorite” featuring Bruce Willis and Rebecca Hall and Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon – others, including some solid comedies, received standing ovations.
Jamie Travis’ “For a Good Time Call,” with Lauren Ann Miller and Ari Graynor, would top my list of funny films. Two 20-something enemies start a phone-sex business with even funnier results. Raunchy and totally satisfying.
In Josh Radnor’s “Liberal Arts,” a story about “age non-appropriate” collegiate attraction with Elizabeth Olsen, Allison Janney and Radnor, Janney steals the show as a Romantic lit professor sans romance.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever,” Lee Toland Krieger’s romantic comedy starring (and cowritten by) Rashida Jones, with improvisational Andy Samberg and Elijah Wood, prescribes divorcing one’s best-friend/spouse before realizing the love can endure.
Christopher Neil’s “Goats” with David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga and Justin Kirk requires breaking away from an alternative lifestyle involving trekking with goats to see who you might be. It’s great fun to see Duchovny so comfortable as a long-haired, laid-back wandering hippie.
In Lynn Shelton’s delightful romantic comedy “Your Sister’s Sister,” starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass, a young woman drops in unexpectedly on her sister and her good friend who are recuperating from personal issues at her family’s retreat.
Sean Penn’s envelope-pushing, big-haired, aging rock star on a road trip to self-discovery in Paolo Sorrentino’s character-driven “This Must Be the Place,” featuring Frances McDormand shining brilliantly as his wife, defies description. Although several walked from the press screening, this writer found the film thought-provoking and compelling to the final frame.
Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” winner of the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary, enters a state of grace with the courageous telling of personal stories of rape in the military, resulting in an anonymous audience couple offering to pay the $60,000 medical expenses to mend the broken jaw of one subject of the film.
The military assumes little to no responsibility or apparent compassion for these acts of violence, choosing to ignore the incredibly high statistics reported in the film. Estimating that 80 percent of military sexual assaults go unreported for fear of physical or professional repercussion and given 3,158 cases recorded in 2010, that suggests the probable total of more than 19,000 for that year.
Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Excellence in Cinematography for the U.S. Dramatic category, tells the magical story of a 6-year-old named Hushpuppy in a fight for survival amidst rising waters of the southern Delta.
“Searching for Sugar Man,” Malik Bendjelloul’s musical revelation, follows two South African fans hell-bent to unravel the mystery of Rodriguez, “the greatest ’70s U.S. rock star who never was.” Winning the Documentary World Cinema Audience Award, it also nabbed the Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit;
“The Surrogate,” Ben Lewis’ re-creation of poet Mark O’Brien’s autobiographical writings, tells the tender story of a man (John Hawkes) confined to an iron lung who is determined to lose his virginity and the surrogate sex worker (Helen Hunt) who comes to know him. Winner of the Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic category and Special Jury prize for Ensemble Acting, the film is a poetic awakening.
There’s always one disaster at Sundance. This year, Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” compelled the seven Franklin Pierce University students from my course on independent film with a study trip to Sundance – Grace Ames, Pat Ballantyne, Mariama Bonetti, Lydia Bucklin, Nick Emmons, Chloe Rodriguez and Robert Valente – to rant about its inclusion in the festival.
The final highlight shines on Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis.” This 150-minute documentary, produced by Peter Jackson, among others, develops the evolving saga of three men finally released for wrongful incarceration for the murder of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993.
Damien Echols, one of the accused, stood on the red carpet before the film’s premiere with his arms around two of his accusers, the parents of one of the victims, in a moment of grace demonstrating what must be the hardest kind of forgiveness.
As so many of the 112 Sundance feature films exemplify, the courage of heroic characters inspires us to believe, as Barbara Harris – the first woman Anglican Bishop – announces in “Love Free or Die”: “The times, they are a changin’.”
Perhaps, in the movement from the singular “i” to the inclusive “o” – from “live” to “love” – is the meeting of the human hero and the divine.
Blake Wood is a lecturer of film studies in the mass communications department at Franklin Pierce University. She visited Sundance with a group of students this year.
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