Friday, January 18, 2008

Sundance: Black and White

[Film Fest] Because Sundance is what it is, the festival has issues. And I mean that in the sense that the movies are often either overtly or tacitly about something significant. Last year, you couldn’t swing a dead cat in Park City without hitting a movie about Iraq. And then throughout the rest of the year, you could swing several hundred dead cats in any of the theaters where Iraq movies were showing, and not hit a single person. Go figure.

In one of those odd confluences that seems to happen every year, my day at Sundance revolved around issues of black and white. The Black List, a documentary by director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and erstwhile film critic Elvis Mitchell, is simply a series of interviews with high-profile African-Americans in a variety of fields: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Rock, Colin Powell, Toni Morrison and Slash are among the 20 subjects. Shot a la Errol Morris’ Interrotron – the interviewees face the camera, the questions to which they’re responding never heard – it only grazes the surface of each person in the course of trying to cover a lot of ground.

But it’s positively profound compared to Katrina Browne’s competition documentary Traces of the Trade, in which the filmmaker confronts the revelation that one of her ancestors was one of America’s most prolific slave-traders in 18th-century New England. Taking nine relatives on a tour of Ghana and Cuba, Browne simultaneously takes us all on a journey through breast-beating white liberal guilt, with nary a single stylistic hook or insightful observation. Well, maybe one insightful observation: When a distant cousin comments to Browne that he’s afraid the whole endeavor is becoming “self-indulgent,” you want to hit a buzzer, Groucho-style, and congratulate him for hitting on the secret word.

An entirely different kind of black and white anchors the fascinating Frontier category entry Fear(s) of the Dark. This French-produced omnibus project brings together a handful of talented graphic artists for a series of animated shorts, all focused around horror or the supernatural, and all in shades of black, white and gray. As you’d expect of such a project, the entries are hit and miss, but two of them are stellar: Charles Burns’ chronicle of a nerd with unique girlfriend troubles, and Richard McGuire’s brilliant, dialogue-free story of a man seeking refuge from a blizzard in a haunted house. Creepy and stylistically vibrant, they’re the kind of filmmaking you want to see at a festival like this. And no “issues” are required. (Scott Renshaw)

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