“ASMR For White Liberals” and Other Reviews From Slamdance 2021

by on March 2, 2021

Slamdance Film Review: The Sleeping Negro

John Connor Hammond’s short “ASMR For White Liberals” hilariously razzes white liberals who mistake personal ego-stroking for allyship.  ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) uses relaxing sights and sounds to create in the recipient a sedative sensation from head to toe.  Using a black whisperer, Hammond brings up irritating white liberal behavior towards blacks in a totally non-confrontational way.  The result makes the white liberal behavior described on screen deservedly seem as ludicrously grotesque as that of your garden variety racist.

Yes, it’s nice that white liberals don’t use the n-word as easily as they breathe.   But wanting to feel the hair of a black person you’re not in any sort of intimate relation with raises questions about the liberal’s mental health.  Nor does a white liberal’s skin magically get blacker by using urban slang.  Also, acting like a decent human being towards blacks shouldn’t be a reason for awarding personal trophies.  Finally, claiming that “Green Book” or “Crash” (the one that’s not the David Cronenberg J.G. Ballard adaptation) offer powerful insights into race relations just demonstrates an obvious lack of either taste or social awareness.

Hammond’s short winds up being more entertainingly cutting of these liberal behaviors than a direct in-your-face attack.  If the viewer felt relaxed at the end of Hammond’s short, it’s a good sign they’re part of the problem being lampooned.

***

Quite frankly, Jake Yuzna’s ensemble drama “After America” would have benefitted from cluing viewers on its setups.  The title comes from the conceit that America as the self styled “greatest nation in the world” ended on May 30, 2018.  (For the curious, the date feels arbitrary.  A scan of the major news events of that day reveals nothing specific that can be called a national shark jumping moment.)  However, nothing in Yuzna’s resulting film gives any hint of that context.

In fact, the audience is thrown cinematically headfirst into the lives of its ordinary characters.  Each of them is dealing with their personal struggles and frustrations in the wake of the American Dream’s collapse.  Theresa, a criminal justice de-escalation worker, leaves both her job and marriage to move into a semi-abandoned mall.  Dan, Theresa’s husband, keeps going by alternating between pursuing an acting career and delivering pizzas.  Yvette, an aspiring opera singer, has career troubles worsened by the end of her relationship.  Robert, a bullwhip expert, can entertain people with his craft but not find new students interested in carrying it on.  Eric, a deaf gay photographer’s model, can’t quite give up casual hookups for the promise of a serious relationship.  Wayne, a kindhearted handyman, has an elderly mother whose health and mental capacity is slowly declining.  Ahmed, a Somali poet and teacher, lives a daily uphill battle trying to keep the sparks of Somali culture alive among his fellow community members.

A viewer who feels the film seems generally formless is not imagining things.  Yuzna has stated in an interview that though the ultimate goal was creating a narrative, there was no script that he and his actors worked from.  In fact, the process of creating “After America” depended on heavy levels of trust: in the actors, in personal intuition, and in reaching some interesting and unknown dramatic place.

This deliberate formlessness results in a mixed viewing experience.  On one hand, it’s connected to the general theme of the film’s characters not having any ready made answers for escaping or responding to the pressures of life in an America where the old certainties and answers have lost their effectiveness.  On the other hand, seeing Theresa sit motionless in an abandoned mall store for long periods of time or watching Yvette experimenting with emotionally moving on can try a viewer’s patience.  Viewer confidence isn’t increased by learning Yuzna had filmed 90 hours worth of material and hoped he’d captured a story somewhere.  At least the only interconnection among “After America”’s characters is that they’re all Minneapolis residents.  Having more extreme levels of interconnection would have induced an eyeroll at a dramatic cliche.

So does Yuzna’s experiment in “directed cinema” pay off for the viewer?   Using a documentary filming style to play with how much the actor is drawing from their real life experiences comes off as slightly pointless.  For example, Dan actually is a real-life pizza driver while Robert’s skill with a bullwhip has made him an actual four-time Guinness World Record holder.

Then again, “After America” does achieve occasional moments of unexpected visual beauty.  Robert’s public flaming bullwhip demonstration brings flash to its icebound setting.  There’s something amusing yet slightly melancholy about seeing Theresa wearing a toilet paper dispenser hat or seeing Yvette through the window of a front door that will now be generally closed to her.  Eric’s naked selfies displaying his flaccid tree-trunk-like penis will definitely spark viewers’ penis envy.

Yuzna’s mention of completing “After America” in the week George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police does leave a slightly sour impression in this reviewer’s mind.  If this film is about life in a subtly changing post-America, it feels like a glaring oversight that non-immigrant black Americans are conspicuously absent from the completed film.

***

Using Michael Apted’s seminal “Up” documentaries as a starting point for discussing Nikiea Redmond and Kirsten D’Andrea Hollister’s documentary “Anatomy Of Wings” does the Slamdance documentary a disservice.  True, both films examine its subjects’ personal changes over time and the effects of class on the subjects’ futures.  Yet the Redmond and Hollister documentary gains its power by making the viewer hope the film’s young black subjects escape socially preordained fates.

Baltimore’s Dunbar Middle School has gone from academic prestige to a place where graduation marks the end of quite a few students’ childhoods.  In 2008, Sheila, Quandra, Cami, and three other Dunbar girls were given the opportunity to join Wings, an afterschool program which would teach them how to use video equipment.  They would not be the last girls to join Wings.  Yet over the years, Wings’ mission changes from teaching video filming to the equally important mission of creating a support network for girls forced to live adult lives in kids’ bodies.

Take how the Wings participants discuss teen pregnancy.  Brittany, one of the students, talks of a friend who doesn’t believe in abortion yet has no idea what to do with a newborn.  Nikeia’s experiences in helping raise ten kids has been a disincentive to having her own baby.  Even Kirsten talks about the effects of having a child at age 32.

Yes, the Nikeia and Kirsten mentioned here happen to be the directors of this film.  That revelation ties into the fact that for Nikeia in particular “Anatomy Of Wings” happens to be a personal documentary.  Redmond’s on screen reminiscences show how what began as something she volunteered for turned into an influence that would shape her future.

Other issues the Wings participants discuss over the years include street killings, HIV infections, and even the experiences of transitioning from female to male.  In a particularly poignant moment, one student appreciates Wings’ providing a space for a person to acknowledge the realities of “living in a s**thole” neighborhood instead of pretending it’s not a problem.  An equally touching moment comes from another girl’s confession that Wings created a safe space for her to talk about and find support for personal difficulties she didn’t feel comfortable discussing with her parents.

To talk about the safe space aspects of the Wings program may make the video equipment education seem like an afterthought.  And indeed by about 2011, the girls have stopped filming themselves.  Yet it could be argued that the lesson of “your lives are worthy of being recorded because your lives matter” has already been internalized by the Wings girls.  Indeed, the new dynamic of inviting Hollister to record the girls’ life milestones is both a declaration of trust and a way to continue sharing their lives with her.

As the years pass, there are some disappointments.  The promising Danisha doesn’t flourish in art school.  Some of the Wings girls do indeed get pregnant in their teens and have babies.  But the sense created by “Anatomy of Wings” is that being in the program gave these girls the autonomy and support they needed to avoid having their lives foreclosed.

***

Doug Roland’s “Feeling Through” thankfully tones down its setup potential for excess sentimentality.  It’s after 1 AM, and houseless black teen Tereek is trying to find a place to crash for the night.  However, a chance encounter with  the deaf/blind Artie leads the teen to help the handicapped white man catch the bus that will take him home.

Roland’s short drama ultimately tells a story of two invisible people who find companionship with each other.  Tereek’s invisibility comes from being black and homeless.  Artie’s invisibility comes from being deaf and blind and relying on others’ kindness and help to function in society.

Yet what keeps “Feeling Through” from being utterly moving is the feeling of its being ready made Oscar bait.  Artie himself comes off as a stereotypical saint who believes in only the best of people.  His lack of reaction to learning Tereek’s name could have warmed the heart of a conservative Republican who loves uttering the phrase “the content of one’s character” as unassailable proof of their lack of racial prejudice.  Tereek in turn also seems more a stereotype than a real character.  He seemingly doesn’t worry about being accosted by cops assuming the worst of him given that he’s with a “helpless” white man.  When the black teen secretly helps himself to some of Artie’s change from a bodega purchase, how is that not playing into the “black people are thieves” trope?  And when Tereek learns the real reason why Artie’s in the area at that hour, not even the shadow of an “ick” reaction flits across the teen’s face.

To be fair, the brief encounter between Tereek and Artie does show the teen that he can live for something beyond hour-to-hour survival.  Yet the film’s suggesting the black teen’s redemption comes only after he helps a white person leaves a sour mental aftertaste.

***

Jaden Stevens’ dry comedy/drama “A Family” begins with several enigmas.  Why has the hangdog-faced Emerson hired some very low grade actors to pretend to be his family?  What spurs him to create fake family moments such as a Christmas dinner or watching TV while eating ice cream?  And what happens when Emerson’s fake sister Ericka wants him to create fake family moments with her real-life family?

Stevens deliberately avoids giving any direct answers to these questions.  Instead, any conclusions need to be teased by the viewer from the context of the characters’ actions.  Emerson’s refusal to say anything about his real family suggests his relationship with those relatives was strained at best.  He pointedly doesn’t notice or care about the skill of the actors playing his fake family.  His handling writing/photography/acting/directing responsibilities for these scenarios suggest a desire for personal control long missing from his life.  That desire for control could also account for why he reacts so badly to fake Ericka’s attempts to deviate from the script or to her suggestion of his becoming subject to her scenarios.

There’s a feel of Jim Jarmusch-like deadpan humor in the first part of the film, where Emerson’s creating his fake family scenarios.  In the second part of the film, where Emerson becomes a fake father to Olga (fake Ericka’s real name) and a fake husband to Olga’s mother Christina, Emerson’s motives turn enigmatic.  He generally maintains an at times oppressing silence and his face’s expression seems apparently frozen in a Grumpy Cat-like glare of disdain.  Did he resent being treated by Olga like a fake father rather than a possible lover?  How much does his hatred of regularly wearing an ill-fitting blonde wig affect his mood?  The viewer can only guess.

What is certain is that Olga, Christina, and Emerson aren’t a real family either thanks to their different agendas.  Christina wants a family mired in the past, where she has a husband to have sex with and a daughter she can still keep under her thumb.  Emerson wants human companionship but prefers a situation where he’s calling the shots.  Olga wants to break free and establish her own identity, particularly one where she’s not treated as a child.  These tensions play out in flashes of conflict such as Christina’s offense at Olga’s sexy dance performance.

If “A Family” doesn’t appear to tie things up neatly, there is at least a hint that Olga at least has found a solution to her family conflict.

***

“Exquisite Shorts Volume 1” offers a cinematic version of the Exquisite Corpse game.  A group of filmmakers are brought together by director Ben Fee to each make a short film.  Each film begins from an assigned word and ends with another assigned word.  The word may be spoken or somehow visually referenced in their short.  None of the filmmakers know anything about the plot or style of the other filmmakers’ offerings.  All the shorts get linked together in the final film thanks to having the ending word of one film be the word that begins the following short.

The playful results seen on screen has been described as a cinematic stream of consciousness.  Yet this writer would amend that description to say that consciousness was enhanced by more than a few recreational drugs.  In the course of “Exquisite Shorts,” a viewer will see someone’s hands turn into boots, a twisted version of “Survivor” where an unlucky contestant gets turned into ooze, and a man’s head opening up like a garage door.  Then again, what else can be expected when the filmmakers were presented with such word pairings as “snake, cherries,” “ladder, basketball,” or “gyration, crown?”

Part of the fun of watching “Exquisite Shorts” is seeing just how far out the filmmakers decide to go with their segments.  So the viewer gets treated to something that seems to have come out of a bizarre foreign film, low-budget filming on the back porch, and even an animated flying saucer abduction.  Admittedly, not every short is a standout.  But the films are short enough that a good segment does eventually come along.

***

Skinner Myers does triple creative duty as lead actor, writer, and director of the drama “The Sleeping Negro.”  Its subject may be racial prejudice in America and how an aware black man should react to its prevalence in American society.  But the film’s use of magic realism, polemic, and irony makes it one of Slamdance 2021’s more disturbing entries.

An unnamed black man (Myers) seems to live an incredibly successful life.  His home is a very expensive loft.  His very well-paying job gives him the freedom to set his own hours.  The pretty white woman (Julie Mc Niven) he’s engaged to happens to be his boss’ cousin.

Yet strong discontent lurks in his heart.  Just how much of this material success he’s enjoying has been paid for by his benefitting from America’s long history of oppressing blacks?  And who’s the man who mysteriously flickers in and out of his awareness?

Myers clearly is not interested in presenting a “Green Book”-level comforting inquiry into American race relations.  Shots of Myers’ character walking along an upside down street or sleeping while floating in mid-air are visual clues that the world his black character inhabits is not the same one as that of the white characters.

The racial contours of the world Myers’ unnamed character inhabits get outlined in two confrontations passing as conversations.  In the first one, the unnamed protagonist meets an old black friend who has deeply drunk the “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” Kool-Aid.  Unsurprisingly, said friend parrots other right wing talking points which lays responsibility for black community hardship solely on the black race’s personal failures.  The second confrontation, with the white fiancee/girlfriend, sinks even lower if such a thing were possible.  She seems more interested in remaking the protagonist into her version of a black man instead of acknowledging him as a justifiably angry individual.  More damning is her denying white privilege even exists in 2020.  Given the white racist support that inflicted the Orange Skull on the White House, the white woman’s denials will have the aware viewer repeatedly screaming “F**k you” at the screen.

The mysterious flickering man turns out to be the protagonist’s doppelganger.  That duplicate criticizes the protagonist’s racial awareness for its disconnection from a willingness to act on such knowledge.  Instead of being ready to burn his life down for the sake of personal freedom, he goes along with implementing his boss’ plan to defraud a grandmother (Rae Dawn Chong) out of her home.  What makes the protagonist’s decision worse is that the grandmother in question is black, ill, and has little in the way of personal resources.

It was famously said by artist Francisco Goya that “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”  “The Sleeping Negro” ultimately raises for viewers the disturbing question “What does the sleep of righteous anger produce?”

(“A Family” took an Honorable Mention for Best Narrative Feature.  “Feeling Through” took an Honorable Mention in the Unstoppable category.  The previously reviewed “Full Picture” also took an Honorable Mention in the Unstoppable category.  The previously reviewed “Opera” took the CreativeFuture Innovation Award.  The previously reviewed “Taipei Suicide Story” took both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, as well as an acting award for the film’s star Tender Huang.  And the previously interviewed Chelsea Christer won The George Starks Spirit Of Slamdance Award for her documentary “Bleeding Audio.”)

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