It’s Monday evening in Park City, and next door to the Holiday Cinemas, me and Anderson Le are sitting in Lorenzo’s, a former Italian restaurant now converted into a Mexican eatery. In many fundamental ways, this scenario is wrong, wrong, WRONG! Monday is the beginning of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Dragon, and on more than one occasion people have mentioned to me that they missed the now-shuttered China Panda restaurant next door, the only such establishment in all of Park City. Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich spanked Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary, the New York Giants and New England Patriots won the right to face off in the Super Bowl, and the Oscar announcements are set for the following morning. World events outside of Park City makes me realize how much a disconnect exists between Sundance and the real world, yet the real world visits here, in a sad, shocking way: Bingham Ray, the recently installed Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, was felled by a series of strokes while here in Park City, and passed away earlier in the day. Friends, colleagues and admirers alike lit up the blogosphere all day expressing shock and sadness for the former film executive and educator, while on the shuttle heading over to the press office, I eavesdropped on festgoers expressing shock and sadness in their own way. I skulk around the rest of the day, lost in the realization that Sundance might be some kind of bubble from any connection from the real world.
As far as this festival goes: me and Melissa Bisagni of the Smithsonian Institute got into what was beginning to be a major disagreement over the merits of THE ART OF RAP (I hated it…remember?), while at the Holiday Cinemas, I visited for a hot minute with John Olivas, who was working the front door and who is a festival mainstay back in Los Angeles. Oh, yeah, screenings: in the midst of this decidedly strange day, I took in a trio of works that took me all over the world, and offered an important counterpoint to the Asian Pacific works I’ve been viewing all week.
Clearly my favorite of the day was VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN, Chilean director Andrés Wood’s cinematically demanding yet extraordinary portrait on the late Chilean folk singer and pop culture icon Violeta Parra, hailed as that country’s Edith Piaf. Using a challenging non-linear storytelling structure, director Wood’s film ranges over Parra life, from a tumultuous childhood, celebrity as a visual artist, flawed efforts at her own childrearing, and above all else an incisive and soulful musician. Framed by a live in-studio television interview and propelled by Francisca Gavilán’s riveting lead performance, VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN took me back through the mid-20th century, as seen through the life and songs of a uniquely tortured South American folk legend.
Compelling though less successful for me was MY BROTHER THE DEVIL from the United Kingdom. Director Sally El Hosaini’s carefully observed look at two Egyptian brother set in the hardscrabble Muslim communities of London felt at times like a Muslim take on BOYS IN THE HOOD — while a side-story that led to an LGBT relationship that bends the trajectory of the story in many fundamental ways had me thinking “Beautiful Laundrette? Really?” as I sat in the theater. A bit commercial, perhaps, but entertaining enough. Question for an LGBT film programmer: How gay is this movie? Hmmm, how gay, indeed?
After an impromptu lunch at Lorenzo’s with ITVS’s Claire Aguilar (Filmmakers, attention! A new call for a fourth season of ITVS’ arresting “Future States” series is in the offing. Details forthcoming on the Visual Communications website), me and Anderson settle back in at the Holiday for a screening of Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER, a return of sorts to the “Brooklyn” stories that his ongoing cinematic legacy is built upon. Anderson’s knee-jerk Facebook reaction to the film — “Spike Lee’s Big ‘Fuck You’ to Tyler Perry and the Medea Machine” — dovetails with my own assessment: RED HOOK SUMMER is a Big, Fuckin’ Hot Mess, but you CANNOT look away because it’s Muthah Fuckin’ Spike Lee putting The Truth up there, goddammit! The story of Flik, a privileged 13 year-old from Atlanta deposited by his mother to spend a hot summer with his fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather in the Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects, intertwines religion (and religious intolerence), community redevelopment, and coming-of-age in knowing, insidious ways, all couched in Lee’s directorial stylings, with a huge assist from co-screenwriter James McBride. In fact, McBride’s contributions can be said to be the catalyst of the narrative, in which Flik’s grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters, of TV’s THE WIRE) uses religion as both an unrelenting key to salvation, and as an escape from dark personal secrets. RED HOOK SUMMER veers wildly from the astonishing to the familiar, and even throws in numerous visual touchstones to never let the viewer forget they are watching a Spike Lee Joint (Look, there’s Mookie from DO THE RIGHT THING! Deng, Spike’s Red Hook is much more live and palpable that Matty Rich’s STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN! Hey look,…well, I think you get the point.). Above all, when things come to a boil, they BLOW UP!!!! And aww, hell yeah, it blows up. But then, I expect that. It’s a Spike Lee Joint, after all. More urgent and knowing that the director’s earlier CROOKLYN, this new film is outrageous yet, thinking about it now, more soulful and though-provoking that other films I’ve seen set in urban environments — even more than, oh, say, MY BROTHER THE DEVIL. Ohhhhh…