I've been enjoying editing and reading Adi Robertson's coverage of the massive amount of VR at this year's New Frontier section — even if you aren't here at Sundance, I'd highly recommend checking her stuff out. My enjoyment is partly vicarious, as it's nearly impossible for me to fit any of the installations and demos into my schedule, and partly because she's doing such a great job at distilling what the manifold priorities on display in the chaotic Wild West of the format. I particularly enjoyed her most recent column, in which she talked about the more psychedelic, abstract experiences on display. What she's getting at is contradictory, but makes sense: sometimes the experiences with the least direct human-interest missions (aka engendering empathy around a social issue or doing documentary-like coverage of a place or person) can come off as the most pro-human experiences. You can learn something universal about what it is to have a physical body by spending some time in an insect's.
New Frontier was launched ten years ago to showcase "filmmakers who expand, experiment with, and explode traditional storytelling." The VR explosion has meant that most of the projects in the section are now interactive or otherwise non-linear, and experimental films often get bumped to the NEXT section or the other competition categories. This means higher visibility, but sometimes unfair expectations from a crowd looking for capital-M Movies. Tim Sutton's Dark Night is an 85-minute film that premiered in the NEXT section this weekend, but I'd hesitate to call it a movie. The director's look at a Florida community in a day leading up to a movie theater shooting is something more like a motion picture photo essay.
Life is lived — maybe not always perfectly or happily, but it is lived
The film has drawn some high-level praise, but in the 8:30AM press screening I attended there where many impatient sighs and walkouts. Maybe it was the early hour, but it seemed Sutton's elliptical approach was not doing it for some people. Sutton employed a similar technique as he did in 2013's Memphis, casting unprofessional actors and shooting them in a loose, intimate documentary style, oftentimes without their knowledge. There is no plot to speak of in Dark Night, but as we cycle through the diverse cast of characters — taking selfies, vaping and playing video games, doing handstands in the shallow Florida waters — a portrait starts to emerge, of a time and place in America that feels both invisible and ubiquitous, delicate and volatile.
Sutton's approach to his setting is similar to video artist Kahlil Joseph's approach to Compton in his installation Double Conscience, a fifteen minute film projection that's currently on display at New Frontier. The project is not particularly new — it premiered at MOCA in Los Angeles last year (you can read Eric Ducker's full review of it here) and features music from Kendrick Lamar's 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city. But the only place one can currently see it is in installations like these, where the two simultaneous projections fill up your field of vision as Lamar's music plays. What Joseph shows us is an entire spectrum of life in a time and a place — a marching band practices on a high school field, women read magazines under salon hair dryers, a baby rolls around on a colorful carpet. Life is lived. Maybe not always perfectly or happily, but it is lived.
Violence haunts the corners of both films, but it isn't given real estate on screen; it is not the star. This is used to powerful effect in Dark Night, which never shows the act we all know it's circling around. It doesn't get to be in the film, just as we never see anyone get shot in Double Conscience. Guns are present, but our attention is on the humans holding them. This isn't a whitewashing of gun violence; on the contrary, it puts everything gun violence threatens to destroy front and center, making it impossible to ignore.
These are films that treat human bodies with reverence, if for no other reason then that they are the carriages of human experience. They make for striking companions with Werner Herzog's documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. The peerless director's latest film delves into all the ways we've been separating our minds from our bodies as the internet has become increasingly woven into our lives. Herzog admittedly approached the vast subject from the point of view of a barely connected individual; he told the audience at the premiere screening that he hardly even uses email. In his review, Chris Plante found his lack of background to be an issue when talking about gaming addicts, for instance; but I liked that Herzog didn't take any aspect of the connectivity for granted. The only thing that appears to have blindsided him was how enormous the subject was; he may as well have decided to do a film about talking or air.
Herzog isn't impressed by the robots, but he has empathy for their creators
But I can't think of a director I'd rather have look at the human mind under the almost incomprehensible influence of the internet. For Herzog, the dark heart of the connected world isn't limited to harassment or addiction, but everything that lies in that gap between our physical human selves and the way we manifest ourselves digitally. It's a film that can look at gaming cafes in South Korea and the rise of the Internet of Things and essentially say "wait, guys, what are we doing here, exactly?" Scolding or alarm-sounding isn't really in Herzog's toolkit; he comes from a place of empathy as a fellow human. He's not entirely impressed by a team of soccer-playing robots, but he appreciates the love their creators have for them.
It's strange to be made to think so much about our relationship to the physical world in a week where so much of our time is staring at screens or typing on other screens about the stuff we saw on screens. But the emotions brought up in film's like Sutton's, Joseph's, and even Herzog's feel like vital reflections, even if we're experiencing them alone in the dark. That hunger to feel something in the theater is still there. But some of Sundance's nicest moments are on the long walks home, after your phone has died, and the moon lights up the snow covered hills.