Sundance, In Crisis

The 2012 fest was thick with the anxieties of our times

Simon claims early in the film to have been a neuroscience student specializing in the way the brain relates to the eye, and the gorgeous cinematography is constantly drawing attention to the way eyes—and cameras—work, with extreme focal changes amplifying the tension between foreground and background and pulsing color-field abstractions acting as transitions. Slowly revealed as a pathological liar, Simon might or might not be an expert in the science of perception, but he shows particular aptitude for perception as it relates to women, who repeatedly take him at face value and lose their ability to focus. Sensually rich, Simon Killer embodies cinema's power to manipulate the eye and the brain.

That what we see is up for infinite interpretation is borne out by the most innovative nonfiction film at Sundance, Room 237, filmmaker Rodney Ascher's brilliant work of alternative film criticism—and a critique of criticism—that explores the conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Self-proclaimed experts, who are heard but not seen, make the case that the film is loaded with hidden allusions to the Holocaust and the genocide of the American Indians and includes Kubrick's implicit admission that he "directed" the Apollo 11 moon landing. Ascher refrains from his own verbal commentary and from pushing toward a single conclusion. Instead, he collages imagery from the film (and from other films, most notably Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) against the litany of interpretations offered via voice-over on the soundtrack, allowing the viewer to play filmic detective, sorting out the reasonable from the crackpot based on our own experience of the movie.

'For Ellen'
'For Ellen'

Disappointments? There were a few, including the uncontested "hit" and Grand Jury prize winner of the festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin's thematic sequel to his much-acclaimed 2008 short, Glory at Sea. Billed as wholly original, the film is in fact an uneasy mash-up of Where the Wild Things Are, The Tree of Life and Trash Humpers. Set in a magical ghetto island of outcasts floating off the southern coast of Louisiana, the movie is all fairytale, fantastic wonder all the time. It stumbles in its attempts to anchor that wonder in something real: The film's central apocalyptic storm, its prehistoric beasts (both brought on by global warming), and its subsequent detour into a mainland displacement camp, make the Hurricane Katrina metaphor painfully literal. And yet it's the ultimate example of Sundance 2012's gallery of crises.

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