Day Two: Dave Grohl Debuts Sound City, Dirty Wars Shocks Audiences

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Sundance Institute is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for round-ups from the previous day’s events.

New Frontier
By Eric Hynes

You’re lying down, looking up at the underwater. You’re watching a volcano cascade electric lava onto a grayscale mountain range. You’re living four lives at once. Also, you haven’t left Park City, and it’s not even 10 o’clock in the morning.

This year’s iteration of New Frontier, Sundance’s annual showcase for vanguard works of new, immersive and interactive media, was unveiled on Friday morning at The Yard, a nondescript warehouse complex that has been turned into the grooviest crib in Park City. Seven installations are spread out over a space liberally outfitted with couches, chairs, floor mats and beanbags. According to curator and senior programmer Shari Frilot, there’s a method to the chillness. “The venue is designed to engage and relax the body—as is the work,” she said. “It’s a physical cinema that is intended to bring the body along.”

That is certainly the case with Lynette Wallworth’s Coral: Rekindling Venus, where you can slip into what looks like a canvas igloo and drift into the sea. But instead of looking down at the wonders of DP David Hannan’s footage of the ancient and endangered coral reef, the work unfolds overhead via full-dome projection. Being that it’s a format normally employed by planetariums to evoke outer space, your prone body feels simultaneously below and above the water, cocooned and disoriented.

In two works from the European collaborative AntiVJ, flat gallery walls are transformed into three-dimensional environments via processes that at once dizzyingly complex and as simple as proto-cinematic shadows on the wall. Both pieces start not with video but with (deceptively) simple drawings, which are then animated and transformed by projected digital imagery.

In Cityscape 2095, you look through hotel-like windows at a futuristic urban tableau, the surface of which is constantly vibrating and shifting, with pixilated clouds casting drifting shadows on the rippling river below. And in the two-wall installation Eyjafjallajokull, named after the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010, a mapping grid mountainscape becomes a surprisingly transporting environment, with the frisson between static and active lines creating illusions of space and movement.

With the four-wall projection installation North of South, West of East, filmmaker Meredith Danluck puts you in the center of four feature-length narratives that coalesce into one symphonic experience. Consistent with this year’s theme of physicality, Danluck said she came up with the idea when laid up with a broken leg. Duly trapped and newly addicted to episodic television, she wondered what would happen if TV’s narrative momentum were paired with durational cinema, such as the avant garde experiments of Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman, where quotidian tasks take precedence over drama.

“I tried to combine this idea of these archetypical characters—the cowboy, the actress, the underdog, the immigrant—into a narrative that was very conventional,” said Danluck, “in order to make this otherwise unapproachable, and sometimes insufferable cinema, digestible.” To various degrees, it’s a strategy employed by each of the New Frontier artists: transfer ideas and technologies from the theoretical realm to the experiential one—connecting mind and body via new mutations in cinema.

Sound City
By Eric Hynes

First-time filmmakers don’t usually receive spirited and sustained applause during the opening credits of their movie. But first-time filmmakers aren’t usually Dave Grohl. “I’m a director!” exulted the multi-instrumentalist mastermind of Foo Fighters, his enthusiasm mixed with a healthy dose of disbelief. “It’s shocking really. Next thing I’ll be flying your plane to Dulles.”

Though his work with Nirvana helped define a generation of rock music, and Foo Fighters have been one of the most successful and beloved bands of the past twenty years, Grohl told the raucous Friday afternoon crowd at the MARC Theater that Sound City is “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

A passion project from first to last, the documentary recounts the storied history of Sound City Recording Studios, an unkempt dive in the Los Angeles Valley district of Van Nuys that Neil Young says, “looks like the Enterprise on steroids, from a long time ago,” and which Grohl more plainly recalls as being, “a little bit more fucked up than I thought it should be.”

Yet Sound City was the birthplace of some of the greatest records ever made, from Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album and Neil Young’s After the Goldrush to Nirvana’s Nevermind. In addition to interviews with musicians and producers like Tom Petty and Rick Rubin, the film visits with less heralded players such as proprietor Tom Skeeter and production manager Paula Salvatore, the crush object of pop stars and metal heads alike. Grohl also dwells on the studio’s legendary Neve mixing console, on which he, alongside compadres like Trent Reznor and Paul McCartney, record new music inspired by the studio.

There were nearly as many rock legends in attendance for the film’s premiere as there were on screen. Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen took an aisle seat sporting a puffy Siberian hat and trademark bowtie, and nearby were none other than Stevie Nicks, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins, punk legends Pat Smear and Fear’s Lee Ving, Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk, Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme, ageless heartthrob Rick Springfield, and evident popcorn fiend John Fogerty.

Grohl clearly enjoyed playing the role of Sundance auteur during the post-screening Q&A, but wasn’t sure if he’d be making any more films. “I can’t imagine ever doing anything else like it, because of the people involved and because I was so close to the meaning of the movie,” he said. “I couldn’t make a fucking movie about Whole Foods, you know? If there was something else that was as important to me as Sound City, then I would probably consider it.”

Dirty Wars
By Jeremy Kinser

If the success of a documentary is measured by its ability to incite feeling in an audience, Dirty War is an unqualified success, having premiered with a stunning impact at the Temple Theatre as part of Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition. Richard Rowley’s searing film follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as his exploration of a deadly U.S. raid in a remote corner of Afghanistan becomes a global look into the secretive and powerful Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which reports only to the White House and the startling revelation that some U.S. citizens are included on the group’s “kill list.”

As he joined Rowley onstage to take questions from the audience, Scahill admitted to being overwhelmed by the sustained applause and that so many people had stayed for the Q&A. Scahill, who will also publish a book on the subject in April, offered the lingering crowd found a respite from the tension as he related a phone call he’d received from Sheikh Saleh Bin Fareed, former member of Yemeni parliament and leader of the al Aulaq tribe in Yemen.

Scahill recalled a telephone call he’d received from the tribal leader who was getting medical care in the hospital after he heard Dirty Wars had been accepted into Sundance. “He called me up and said, ‘Robert Redford’s going to see this movie?’ He didn’t know what Sundance was, but he Googled it on his Blackberry in his hospital bed. To him the idea that Robert Redford might see his film meant that it was real.”

Asked about the inevitable backlash he and the film will eventually encounter, Scahill remained optimistic about his work. “If someone wants to say this film is anti-American I question their patriotism,” he said. “If we’re not willing to be self-critical, if we’re not willing to look at the extremes of what we’re doing and what they say about us as a society, that’s not a democratic process.

Scahill expressed his belief that Americans need to be strong enough in their own values to be self-critical. “I love this country and I love the idea that we can change it,” he offered. “If you stop believing that then you stop believing in a struggle for change. The moment you cede you conscience to a politician is the moment you’ve stopped fighting. We live in the most powerful country in the world and we all have a responsibility. While the film seems to end on a sad note, I see a lot of hope in stories of people.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes
By Nate von Zumwalt

As credits rolled to perhaps the most artistically liberated film in U.S. Dramatic Competition this year, two salient themes lingered among Library Center Theatre’s nearly 500 audience members. The first involved the utterly complex nature of the script for Francesca Gregorini’s Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, about which the director was quickly prodded during the screening’s Q&A session.

Gesturing to her head, Gregorini explained, “It’s pretty dark up here. I figure I’d try to get it out, make it a little lighter, give some of my darkness to you.” The dim humor struck a chord with a giddy Park City audience, but one could sense a haunting sincerity in the young director’s revelation.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is suffused with that murky ambiance throughout its 96 minutes of gorgeous cinema and mind-warping storyline. The film centers on Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), an emotionally insular teenage girl who strikes a relationship with her new neighbor, a young mother named Linda, played by a mesmerizing Jessica Biel. Initially intrigued by Linda’s uncanny resemblance to her own late mother, Emanuel begins a chilling descent into a surreal world rife with unexpected discoveries about her new neighbor and her newborn. As Emanuel becomes more cognizant of her complicit role in Linda’s out-of-touch world, she resolves to take a plunge to rescue her from the confines of her mind.

Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel both expressed their immediate affection for Gregorini’s script upon first reading, and the pair expertly inhabit the complex world’s of their respective characters.

“The script was one of the best I’ve read in a really long time,” said Biel. “This was so complicated and so, kind of, haunting. I just fell in love with it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, but the kind of thing I’ve been craving to do.”

After Tiller
By Jeremy Kinser

Although there aren’t many issues in this country that are more polarizing than abortion, you wouldn’t know it from the overwhelmingly positive response to the premiere of After Tiller, a gripping documentary about the remaining quartet of U.S. doctors who perform late-term abortions in the aftermath of the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller. Audience members at the Temple Theater gave directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, a lengthy standing ovation.

Ticket holders who were caught by surprise by the increased security measures (bags were checked, guards scanned patrons with metal detectors, and armed officers were stationed at exits) understood the precaution while watching the film and seeing the hazards faced by the four, which include constant protests and frequent death threats. As one doctor notes in the film, “Every job has risks to it, but I’d rather have a job that means something.”

The youthful pair of first-time collaborators, who as one audience member remarked were both born after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, were joined on the stage by the four doctors of their film —Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Shelly Sella, and Dr. Susan Robinson.

Hern, who had been a close friend of Tiller, commended the filmmakers for their sensitivity and described the documentary as “an historic film.” He added,” This is the first time someone really listened to what both the doctors and the patients are doing.”

In one of the more surprising moments in the film, Sella admitted to occasionally feeling doubts about her work. Asked about the statement, Sella says she was struck by what she’d said, but that it’s true and it depends on the context of the situation. “We are seeing incredibly desperate women in very, very difficult situations and we are all here to help them.”

As there are currently only four physicians in the U.S. who perform third-trimester abortions, audience members asked what will happen when the four—all senior citizens—retire. “Susan and I are currently training someone,” Sella revealed. “She is absolutely wonderful and she’s only 35 years old.”

Although the film shines a positive light on the physicians, Kern took a moment to address the protesters who murdered his friend, Dr. Tiller. “The anti-abortion movement is the face of fascism in America,” he offered.

Considering the divisive nature of the subject, audience member asked the filmmakers about the commercial prospects for the film. Wilson says she hopes the film will appeal to the vast majority of people in the country who are conflicted about the issue.” It’s not about the black and white polemics you see portrayed in the new media,” she said. “It’s about that vast gray complexity in the middle.”

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