Films From The 2021 Sundance Film Festival & “A Glitch In The Matrix”

by on February 2, 2021

"A Glitch in the Matrix"

One of Sundance 2021’s “Documentary Shorts Program 1”’s most timely selections relies on nothing but archival footage.  But in the footage’s characterization of Mexican workers as an invading horde and the claims of needing guns to protect against “rioters,” the distance between that footage’s origin and present day right-wing talking points feels far smaller than is comfortable.

The short in question (and a program highlight) is Sierra Pettengill’s excellent short “The Rifleman.”  It’s a mini-biography of one Harlon Carter.  As head in the 1950s of the U.S. Border Patrol, he was the man behind the notorious Mexican worker deportation program known as Operation Wetback.  Hearing the type of praise heaped on Carter for his work will make the gorges of non-racists rise very quickly.

But it’s learning what Carter later did on behalf of and to the National Rifle Association that will keep more liberal viewers’ gorges raised to the end of Pettengill’s film.  By the time Carter was through, an organization that once catered to sportsmen and target shooters became today’s notorious “No gun control ever ever ever” advocacy group.  After watching “The Rifleman,” this writer would not look amiss at a survivor of the Sandy Hook or Parkland mass shootings treating Carter’s grave as a portable toilet.

Slightly less powerful but no less intriguing is Nelson Makengo’s documentary “Up At Night.”  It may start out as a portrait of ordinary residents of Kinshasha trying to have some sort of life in the pitch dark despite a lack of access to electricity.  However, these residents’ lack of electrical access, the film shows, has more to do with extortionate pricing.   It’s not clear the Grand Inga 3 hydroelectric dam will remedy their problems.  South Africa already has dibs on half the power the dam is expected to produce.  If Kinshasha’s residents live between the proverbial rock and the hard place, the activities Makengo captures show a people refusing to be squeezed.

The nicely rousing “This Is The Way We Rise” from director Ciara Lacy delivers a portrait of Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio.  Slam poetry, the short shows, became Osorio’s vehicle to interrogate the colonialist legacy that shaped life in Hawaii.  But when the poet is struck by prolonged creative blockage, her participation in protests over plans to build yet another observatory on sacred Mauna Kea kickstarts her writing.  Osorio’s performances prove highlights of the film.  Watching then-President Obama appreciate the slam poet’s performance feels particularly poignant given Obama’s fascist lout of a successor.

An unusual pedagogue is the subject of Noemie Nakai’s “Tears Teacher.”  Yoshida teaches his adult students how to cry.  To Western eyes, this may seem an odd subject.  But Nakai skillfully uses Yoshida’s odd profession to illuminate Japanese society’s social taboos around emotional reactions to stress and related mental health issues.

Providing an offbeat change of pace to this documentary shorts program is “Snowy.”  The titular subject of Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis’ film is a pet.  But it’s not a white dog owned by the comics character Tintin.  Rather, it’s a four-inch green and brown pet turtle cared for by Lewis’ Uncle Larry and kept isolated in the basement of the family home.  The film’s question about whether Snowy is happy with his existence may seem frivolous.  But it ultimately raises questions about the nature and scope of human relationships to the more unusual creatures people keep as pets.  A Tarot card reader and a slightly eccentric turtle intelligence researcher bring viewer smiles.

North Philadelphia may be one of those majority black areas contemptuously dismissed by white people.  Renee Maria Osubu’s “Dear Philadelphia” finds cause to praise the area via the stories of local people doing good and giving back to the community.  Her interview subjects include a barber who provides haircuts to the unhoused, a young man who turned his life around via caring for a horse, and the head of the One Day At A Time drug rehabilitation program.  On the one hand, the subjects’ personal stories are often interesting.  Osubu also works in some nice visuals, such as the sight of a motorbike wheelie.  On the other hand, the film winds up feeling a tad overlong.

***

The plot of Ben Wheatley’s new film “In The Earth” is very simple.  Dr. Martin Lowery has arrived at the outskirts of the Arboreal Forest on a mission.  Deep in the forest is testing site ATU327A.  The site, run by Dr. Olivia Wendle, has disturbingly gone silent.  Martin has been sent to reach the site and find out what happened.  Guiding him on the long hike through the forest is park scout Alma.  But what Martin and Alma don’t realize yet is that they’re pawns in two projects involving something far far older than they are.

What makes “In The Earth” far more than a simple genre exercise are the allusions and metaphors on humanity’s relationship to nature strewn throughout the film.  The setting of Wheatley’s film is a world devastated by a deadly virus.  Zach, whom Martin and Alma encounter on their trek, has managed to live in greater harmony with nature than the hikers…for good and ill.  And of course, there’s the long-standing human fear of getting lost in the woods.  Wheatley’s twist involves making that sense of confusion and directionlessness more than just a physical sensation.

The fate of Dr. Wendle as well as what Martin and Alma eventually do find in the Arboreal Forest will not be spoiled here.  But it can be fairly said that there are a couple of rapid-fire image sequences that will make the unwary viewer feel way too many doors of perception were thrown open simultaneously.  Several viewings of Wheatley’s film may be required to comprehend those sequences’ meaning.

Readers should also be warned that there are a couple of injury sequences that are definitely not for the squeamish.  No, there’s nothing on the order of bloody viscera falling out of a human chest cavity.  However, if you can watch these sequences without either wincing or cringing, you’re a better person than this writer.

***

The Argentine indie drama/comedy series “Four Feet High” is quite simply one of Sundance 2021’s must-see items.  Directors Maria Belen Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan reinvigorate teen film genre tropes via a story that isn’t told often enough.  In addition, it’s unselfconsciously pro-queer and openly feminist.

17-year-old Juana Ruiz has transferred to a new high school, albeit not necessarily by choice.  Her single mother Diana has relocated her daughters thanks to her new job.  The only perk for Juana is being in closer touch with her good friend Cami.  Still, Juana faces the challenge of finding and making friends at her new school.

The teen’s task is complicated by a couple of small problems.  Her dreams lately have become more sexual in nature, but it’s not clear which part of the Kinsey scale Juana falls on.  Also, the teen relies on a wheelchair for mobility, and more than a few students aren’t shy about noticing Juana the disability instead of Juana the person.

Poncio and Masjoan entertainingly tackle the ableist othering of the disabled’s capacity for sexua enjoyment.  Being able to walk upright, they show, is not a prerequisite for the sexual act.  Rather, the big challenge for both parties is finding a way to satisfy their sexual desires despite their physical differences.  One encounter for Juana was pre-destined for failure.   Her prospective hookup displayed an ick reaction at seeing her in a wheelchair.

Sadly, as the series shows, that will not be Juana’s sole encounter with ableist prejudice.  A teacher who learns Juana might be a new student in her class suddenly claims that Juana’s “real” class needs to be brought down from a floor accessible only by staircases.  The principal openly offers Juana less punishment because of her “situation.”  The disabled access bathroom turns out to be a partly converted custodian’s storage closet.   Then again, Juana’s special bathroom has the small benefit of providing a private place for Juana and friends Julia and Efe to smoke joints inside the school.

Similar attitudes towards sexual expression and politics provide the mortar for the trio’s bond.  The openly queer Julia and Efe share with Juana a rejection of socially acceptable sexual expression as only available to an exclusive heterosexual club.  Their fight to have real sex education classes taught at their school rather than glorified morality lessons also challenges the use of sexual ignorance as a means of controlling the school’s students.

Animated lines and shapes help convey Juana’s emotional growth.  Not only are they another display of the protagonist’s artistic bent, they help show the protagonist’s feelings in the moment better than words.

Poncio and Masjoan’s series admittedly ends on a satisfyingly rousing note.  But having grown to love Juana, Julia, and Efe over the course of the series, it could not hurt to wish for another story about these teens.

***

In director Rodney Ascher’s hands, pop culture becomes raw material for enjoyably mangling viewers’ minds.  “Room 237,” for example, delivered five very unconventional takes on the meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining.”  “The El Duce Tapes” took viewers into the mindset of the lead singer of The Mentors, a band so jaw-droppingly offensive that its music would probably cause half-a-dozen music rating boards to instantly implode.

Ascher’s new film “A Glitch In The Matrix” sees him cinematically swing for the fences and hit the proverbial ball out of the park.  The Artists Television Access “Other Cinema” alumnus uses (among other things) 3D animation, excerpts from a speech by sf writer Philip K. Dick, and clips from films as varied as “The Wizard Of Oz,” “The Truman Show,” “Blade Runner,” and (of course) “The Matrix” to look at the surprisingly long history of “simulation theory.”  For the uninitiated, it’s the idea that the life we humans currently perceive is fakery.  The media attributed to creating this illusion of the “real world” has ranged from sophisticated movie set facades to a brain in a petri dish being selectively fed outside stimuli.

The popularity of the Hollywood blockbuster “The Matrix” wound up introducing simulation theory to the masses.  Aside from inspiring the title of Ascher’s movie, the film opened many viewers’ minds in a big way to the idea of current reality being nothing more than a sophisticated computer program.  At least the Wachowskis’ science fiction action film was better received than the Dick speech excerpted throughout Ascher’s film.  Two audience members at that earlier event snicker and otherwise display expressions suggesting they think the legendary science fiction writer is seriously off his nut.

Yet simulation theory is far older than even Dick’s discussion of the subject.  Ascher shows how Plato’s idea of people in a cave staring at shadows on a wall could be considered the first iteration of simulation theory.  A philosopher interviewed by Ascher makes a persuasive case for the similarity between seeing Plato’s ideal forms and “The Matrix”’s Neo having blurred vision from exposure to the truth about his world.

What takes Ascher’s look at simulation theory out of both intellectual and pop history and gives it heart is his examination of how people came to believe in simulation theory and how they live with that viewpoint.  These interview subjects, rendered as 3D animated avatars of various types, will have viewers mulling on their stories rather than dismissing them out of hand.  There’s something genial in one interviewee thinking of a trip with his father as involving the erection and destruction of various facades occurring before they get to their destination.

At least none of the interview subjects have absolutist thought processes that would treat the confirmation of simulation theory as a license to murder people left and right without fear of consequences.  On the other hand, one particular interviewee in the latter half of the movie will slowly bring chills to the viewer as he walks through the consequences of his obsession with the Wachowskis’ blockbuster.

Sharp-eyed readers who have seen the Sundance 2021 program may wonder why “A Glitch In The Matrix” is not being discussed as part of the Sundance coverage above.  Ascher’s film is premiering there to sold-out screenings.  But starting February 5, 2021, the Roxie Theater will make the film available on its virtual cinema platform.  OK, San Francisco viewers, get ready to have your minds entertainingly messed with..

(“Documentary Shorts Program One” and “Four Feet High” are still available for streaming online via the Sundance Film Festival 2021 platform through February 3, 2021.)

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