We didn’t get to fly out to Park City this year for the Sundance festivities (our budget has never allowed for trips to Park City), the rival Slamdance Festival was kind enough to offer us a handful of digital screeners to create a virtual fest in the 366 Weird Movies home offices. So, while I didn’t get the full audience experience watching these underground films—chuckling with fellow patrons at the antics of these onscreen loonies while the scent of popcorn wafts through the darkened room—at least you won’t have to hear me complain about trekking through Park City’s sub-zero temperatures to see them (I watched them via Chromecast in front of a roaring gas fireplace clutching a glass of beer, thank you very much).
Obviously, we focused only on movies we thought sounded somewhat weird, ignoring the vanilla dramas and documentaries that make up the bulk of the programming. All of these films will have debuted by the time you’re reading this, but if you’re in Park City and you still want to catch them, Dollhouse and The Vast of Night play again on the 28th, while “Slip Road” can be seen on the same night in the “Anarchy Shorts” section. A Great Lamp and “Finding the Asshole” play again on the 29th (and “Asshole” is also now available to everyone online), while “Butt Fantasia” encores on the 31st.
So, while “major” critics are salivating over Sundance’s latest dramas about attractive young white people grappling with their mommy and daddy issues, we’ll show you what’s going on in the underbelly of Park City, where the weirdos congregate to screen their latest experimental offenses about unattractive young white people grappling with much weirder mommy and daddy issues.
Speaking of weird mommy issues, first up in our queue is Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity in American Popular Culture (don’t worry, the scary pseudoacademic title is part of the joke). Using an aesthetic borrowed from “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and a sense of humor derived from “South Park,” Nicole Brending tells of the rise and fall of Junie Spoons, a child superstar a la Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, entirely with children’s dolls. This project was a labor of love by Brending, who launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 that failed to reach its goal, but kept hope alive and managed to complete the film (for a reported budget of “no money”) five years later.
Even if it’s unpolished and uneven, that kind of personal passion usually results in something worth watching, and that’s the case here. Dollhouse provides steady chuckles and is frequently in very bad taste—especially considering that its mockumentary subject becomes a washed-up, drug addicted divorcee felon in her early teens. Among the-approved provocations are a pre-teen sex tape (with pixellated doll penis), dolls stuck with syringes, black men voiced by white women, Mapplethrope photos, and a vagina transplant/repossession. The dolls are sometimes grotesque—Junie herself had permanent duck face and pursed lips that appear to grow a tumor as she ages, while her manager’s lips are unfinished, like his face was rolled off of the assembly line prematurely—and the fact that their mouths never move when they’re speaking adds another layer of uncanniness. The main satirical target is obvious—-the exploitation/sexualization of preteen celebs by cynical money-grubbing adults—as are some of the references (to Honey Boo-Boo’s stage mom and the Patty Hearst kidnapping, although I didn’t expect the Blue Is the Warmest Color slam). But the film also takes a controversial swipe at transgenderism when it introduces “trans-Junie,” a middle-aged man who decides to “become” the preteen starlet through extensive plastic surgery. Progressives who laugh along with Dollhouse when the movie’s main targets are misogynist men begin grumbling loudly at this point. Whether this digression amounts to brave equal-opportunity satire, cultural trolling, hateful transphobia, or something else entirely is up to you to judge, but “trans-Junie” totally supplants “cis-Junie” and by the end of the film, and our putative protagonist effectively disappears. This development itself is part of the overarching a metaphor.
Slamdance films rarely make it out of the festival circuit, but I think Dollhouse may have enough outrageousness and controversy to it to get some notice outside of Park City—a VOD release, at least. We’ll let you know when (if) it shows up.
Everyone we meet in A Great Lamp is nice (though admittedly insane). Strangers are constantly doling out unsolicited hugs to them. If there’s an antagonist here, it must be the structure of society itself, which pushes truly kind people to the margins and out onto the streets. The experimental narrative, which begins weirdly enough with a trippy black and white line animation of a fish turning into a man, follows three twenty-something outsiders: an (apparently straight) man who wears a skirt and posts flyers of his dead grandmother everywhere; a man-child with mystical powers who is awaiting a rocket launch between crying jags; and a slacker who’s quit his job with an insurance company but pretends to go to work every day to avoid disappointing his proud father. We follow the first pair through a number of heartwarming street life vignettes as they bond while accepting (or ignoring) each others’ eccentricities. The acting is semi-pro but often touching; cinematography is good, with animations sometimes digital drawn directly on frame, sometimes just as dust or squiggles, sometimes illustrating the action, interacting with the characters, or providing text commentary.
Max, the skirt-wearer, earns the most screen time, and it becomes clear early on he may be more than just an odd drifter when he hallucinates a man in the toilet stall next to him. Scenes like this make the movie seem like it’s probably intended either as a dream (several dreams are actually recounted) or as the scattered impressions of a young homeless madman. There are other bouts with magical realism, such as when Max and pal Howie pick up pennies from a fountain and are able to hear the wishes of those who cast the coins away. The third character, Gene, the man shirking his insurance job, creates an interpretation problem, since he never directly interacts with the other two. Are they just two facets of his own personality (an interpretation perhaps obliquely suggested by an amateur dream analyst in another scene?) And there are lots of loose symbols—the fish (connected to childhood innocence), the rocket (hope), and a lamp—but meaningful connections are hard to come by. Why are there occasional scenes showing both Max and Gene bombing at (the same?) open-mike standup? Most of the individual scenes work as character sketches, and the relationship between Max and Howie is at times touching, but overall I couldn’t figure out whether the script was underthought, or overthought. Like everything at Slamdance, it’s not for general audiences, but it is well made for an experimental drama, and does generate genuine empathy for the nice but mentally ill hoboes it introduces us to, which is likely its most important message. After watching A Great Lamp, you might want to give Max, Howie and Gene hugs, too. And maybe save one for director Saad Qureshi, too, who said he made this film to help him get through some “very very sad times.”
Festivals like Slamdance are full of low-budget features made by talented people, and you want to like them all, but… Such a one is Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, the tale of weird space noises intercepted on a lonely night in 1950s New Mexico, when the entire town is away at a basketball game. Pluses include the acting by the young leads (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz), some surprisingly fluid camerawork (there is an impressive long tracking shot through a forest, into the basketball gym, and down the street to the radio station), and an excellent sense of place and time. But… Vast of Night substitutes talk for action. There is so much dialogue—much of it admittedly snappy—that at first I thought it would work better as a play; later, the monologues become so prominent that I wondered if it might work better as a radio play. For a feature pitched as a “Twilight Zone” episode (actually as an episode of the fictional “Paradox Theater”) it’s poorly paced, and lacks the sense of irony, tension and wonder we expect from the genre. Which is a shame, because there is a lot of talent involved here on both sides of the camera; unfortunately, The Vast of Night is not the best showcase for that talent.
As for the couple of shorts I checked out… “Butt Fantasia” is pretty much what it says on the tin, a series of fantasy skits enacted by nude buttocks—fat, slim, smooth, harry, pimpled—to classical (and some original) music. The butts do things like frolic through a bubble-filled disco, get executed by firing squads, or grow to Godzilla-esque proportions and knock down cardboard skyscrapers. Some actors are credited as “anonymous butts” (I would have demanded my IMDB credit, personally, e.g. “Gregory J. Smalley, cigarette-smoking butt”). “Butt Fantasia” is so slim, silly and short that’s it’s hard to see how anyone could dislike it. My only real complaint is that director Mohit Jaswal missed the opportunity to use the title “Fantassia.”
Staying in anal mode, “Finding the Asshole” is a satirical web series; the vibe is sort of like a more absurd “Portlandia,” but set among arty upscale Los Angelinos rather than Northwestern neo-hippies. The asshole usually isn’t hard to find in these sketches; it’s everyone on-screen. Only the first five-minute episode screened at Slamdance; it takes place in one of those white-on-white fashion boutiques, where a clerk wears, and tries to sell, her own designs (she designs “things for individual souls,” which in her case inspires an unwieldy hoop skirt and a headless Siamese twin rag doll attached to the dress). The second episode involves an avant-garde dance-off (à la Sharks v. Jets) that breaks out on a sidewalk. The third segment is the most ambitious; a slasher movie parody that, at ten-minutes, is twice as long as either of the previous entries, with more dancing (I think the cast must have been recruited from a dance troupe) and ending in a sing-along. The project is the brainchild of comedian Melissa Stephens, who writes, directs, and acts; she calls it “a Lynchian romp,” though it’s not nearly as dark and surreal as that description implies. The episodes are amusing and short and to-the-point enough that you don’t feel like your time has been wasted. The recurring cast have good comic timing and all seem to legitimately hate the assholes they embody, so I could see this series getting better if it continues, or even sparking a spin-off if they luck upon one brilliant sketch or character. All three episodes are now available for viewing at https://www.findingtheasshole.com/chapters.
“Finding the Asshole” series trailer
Finally, “Slip Road” is a short, surreal horror in which a man drives down an (initially) deserted country road to deliver a mysterious package. It’s short, but effectively eerie, with some nice lighting effects. Unfortunately, the five-minute short is so brief that it’s impossible to discuss particular events without raising spoilers, but it’s worth the time if you get the chance to see it. It’s a good calling card for director Raphael Dubois’ ability to set a mood, if nothing else.
And so ends our couch-bound coverage of Slamdance 2019.