Sebastian Pilote's 'The Salesman' won affection in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.

SF360 Live at Sundance: 285 Steps

Susan Gerhard January 28, 2011

The Dream, Deferred via 'Old Cats,' 'The Salesman,' 'The Mill and the Cross'

"For a lot of people, watching a film is to make a dream," French Canadian Sebastien Pilote said, introducing his first feature film The Salesman (Le vendeur) to its 9:00 am fresh-from-REM-sleep crowd at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street Tuesday. Paraphrasing John Cassavetes, he continued, "For me, it's the opposite. The real life is the dream and you have to see the movie to bring you back to the ground."

Though I believe it's good practice to be skeptical of first-time feature filmmakers who quote Cassavetes, I was, actually, brought firmly back to solid ground by Pilote's elegantly structured, richly cinematic, tightly composed and subtly observed film about a car salesman in an economically struggling Québec town. The salesman loves his job, perhaps too much since the death of his wife, and lives for his doting, beautician daughter and hockey-playing grandson, to whom he offers advice when the boy announces he, too wants to be a car salesman. "You have to like people. You have to practice liking people. You have to look into their eyes...." He would be made to grow up himself and own his own words by the end of a film the director described as "more like a chronicle than a drama." Said Pilote, after the film, when asked about his plot design, "I had to get up the stairs slowly."

As much as the Sundance Film Festival experience is about rushing from place to place, jogging through slush and panting with adrenaline in waitlist lines, a recurring theme in my own few days there would be getting down the stairs slowly. Old Cats (Gatos viejos), a new film from Chileans Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva (whose The Maid won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition in 2009), brought time to a standstill in the static apartment of an elderly couple struggling with life's basic requirements: getting food, retaining shelter. Into the picture comes a scheming daughter who wants to gain legal control of the family home. Contrasting the desperate speed of the cocaine-enabled daughter with the glacial pace of an aging mother with hip problems and increasing bouts of dementia, the film climaxes in an act of devotion as monumental as a pilgrimage to Mecca: the older woman's walk down 10 or so steps to the bottom of a staircase.

’Old Cats’ ascended stairs at Sundance, as did the writer. SFF/PHOTO RIGHT, SUSAN GERHARD

It took me 285 steps (but who's counting?) on a snowy staircase to descend from my Main Street-neighborhood condominium down to the festival, and ascend back up under the stars every night. The walk was exhilarating, the way festivals themselves are in their best moments. Like any competitive event, and admit it, Sundance-going is a truly competitive event, they allow us to clear away obstacles and find flow, a throughline, exceptional clarity. I couldn't and wouldn't disagree with The Salesman's Pilote or his mentor Cassavetes in the selling of the film experience. The theater-going experience needs salesmen in the year 2011, when viral videos, home entertainment and reality-divorced cable news shows steal away our attention.

Art and insight via quotidian detail wasn't invented in this century, or its previous four, as the Polish Lech Majewski demonstrates in a film about Pieter Bruegel's painting The Way to Calvary. Ambitious and gorgeously executed, The Mill and the Cross is based on art critic Michael Francis Gibson's book by the same name, an in-depth examination of the 16th-century Flemish painter's depiction of Flemish life under duress. The film utilizes everything the modern world has to offer—computer animation, rock climbers, green screens and Rutger Hauer—to bring Bruegel's painting about milling grain, making love, dancing, singing and the horrors of the Spanish occupation of an ancient Flanders back to vivid life. Hauer, along with Michael York and director Majewski, were present for the Q&A afterward, with the lead actor using audience volunteers to eagerly film the questions. But the filmmakers had more answers than anyone could fully digest in this setting. One: They had apparently located a group of ancient-Flemish speakers in Poland, where they'd been made to flee religious persecution to centuries before, and used their speech and sounds in the film. My last screening of the festival, back again at the Egyptian, it was both elevating and grounding, a trip back in time to a world just as complicated by evil as our own. Then I walked the bracing 285 steps back up into the dream state of real life.

Do What You Love: 'Reagan,' 'Resurrect Dead,' 'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey,' 'Crime After Crime,' 'Homework'

A Nancy Reagan anecdote about husband Ronnie is related near the end of the far-too-fair, epic-feeling Eugene Jarecki film about a former American president who's now a figure of myth, Reagan. He was living his retired life on the ranch, and came into the dining room one day with a wet hand, clutching something. Nancy asked him what had happened; what was he holding? He opened his hand to reveal a tiny ceramic White House he'd pulled out of the fishbowl and said, "I don't know what it is, but I think it has something to do with me."

For most of this Jarecki venture (and Jarecki ventures are now a Sundance tradition), and long before he would suffer from the Alzheimer's that would eventually claim him, the ever-amused and sometimes amusing Reagan is utterly unique in one particular way: He embodies contradiction with more earnest flair than anyone before or since. His use of selective memory would be called hypocritical if he were another president; not Reagan. What the film shows is a man representing General Electric to its employees by speaking against the best interests of both; an American president protecting the United States by covertly breaking its most basic laws; a rhetorical stylist protecting the free world by encouraging a policy of personal liberty reduction. He is wrong, impeachable, beloved. And he is proving true the maxim: Do what you love and success will find you. With mixed success itself, Jarecki's film builds an argument against the Reagan legacy as it's currently been customized for Republican election use, using Reagan's own best friends, family members and comrades as talking head testimonials. It's another notch in the belt for this particular Jarecki, whose political profiles and historical docs (Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger among them) are growing with consistency into an auteurist oeuvre.

Doing what you love turns to obsessive pursuit in Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. A could-be Exit through the Gift Shop for 2011, this art mystery about tiles embedded into asphalt streets moves from Pennsylvania, up the East Coast and down through South America, through Larry King Live on the radio to David Mamet's play 4 A.M., and back to South Philly, where three intrepid investigators locate a man obsessed with what he calls the "Toynbee idea" as expressed in the film 2001, to repopulate the dead of planet Earth by reconstituting their molecules on Jupiter. The story moves in circles around its target, with a sophisticated visual palette and cannily plotted approach; the investigators grow as characters when they learn to let go of what they love, their obsession with these tiles and this hopeless idea and move on to the next project. It's an auspicious debut, and one can only hope the director Jon Foy, who said he sent the film to Sundance as a cold submission the night before the deadline and funded it privately, by doing house-cleaning work, offers us another feature doc or film soon.

Perhaps the most emotional screening I experienced in the festival was Constance Marks' Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. From the time that Kevin Clash, in his economically disadvantaged Baltimore neighborhood, cut up the fleece liner of his father's winter coat to make a puppet, he found he actually got support from his family for his obsession, and went on to build a puppeteering career from this most unlikely cloth. Clash would move from local Maryland TV to New York City and Captain Kangaroo, puppeteering for the Muppets in Macy's parade, then Henson's Labyrinth and eventually reinventing Sesame Street with the world-conquering character Elmo. Children lined up after the screening to get a kiss, and the ice melted everywhere.

Yoav Potash (left, 'Crime After Crime') was joined at screenings by Natasha Wilson, Deborah Peagler's daughter, and Joshua Safran, the pro-bono attorney who, with his partner, eventually won Peagler's release. HILARY HART/SFFS

On the topic of labors of love: When two Walnut Creek attorneys take on, pro bono, the case of Deborah Peagler, a woman who was jailed for 26 years for the death of her batterer, a crime that should have received a maximum 6-year sentence, they figure they will spend just a few months freeing her from prison and get back to their work in land use. Seven years later, they find themselves still hard at work in Yoav Potash's moving marathon of an advocacy doc, Crime After Crime (covered from a news angle during the festival by the Los Angeles Times). One of the many impressive films out of the Bay Area, Potash's project demonstrated an extreme level of personal commitment that I had never quite witnessed before—by the filmmaker, lawyers and subject—to finding a just ending to this story.

A post-screening Q&A with lawyer Joshua Safran and Potash had Safran contrasting Peagler's Christian ethic of forgiveness with his own Orthodox Jewish orientation toward results: "Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue." Potash himself overcame obstacles to get the footage; in effect creating a separate documentary out of whole cloth (Life on the Inside) just to gain access to Peagler in prison. (It's apparently illegal to film the stories of individual prisoners.) He would later become the legal team's camera operator to get inside the lawyer-client room and capture footage that would be used in news reports that helped build popular support for the case.

Not present at the screening was the other lawyer, Nadia Costa, who also happens to be an Orinda-based ultra-marathoner. A handier metaphor couldn't have been dreamed up. This race continues with the ongoing advocacy campaign Potash has designed to help other unfairly incarcerated victims of battery.

No Sundance would be complete without at least a one dip into the often disappointing world of American independent filmmaking. Mine came via Gavin Wiesen's Homework, which, too, is about motivation, labor and love in the life of a precociously alienated teen, who, through love/lust of a girl in his class combined with respect for a mother who loses her deadbeat husband, mans up, finishes a year's worth of late homework in a few short days, graduates from high school, and gets the girl. Dialogue heavy, but if you can be charmed by the Holden Caulfield qualities of its protagonist, it's a film that may work for you. It worked for its Eccles audience, who applauded. The director, post-film, offered a sentiment that matched most filmmakers at Sundance, saying, "The enthusiasm of everyone in the audience makes it all worthwhile. The festival is so good for movies." I would have to agree.

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