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Notes on Subjective Cinema at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Editor's note: Kyle Burton is one of six recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2014. The scholarship meant he participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.


If ever you hear a filmmaker claim that their project is objective, he or she is mistaken. Nothing in cinema is more unavoidable than subjectivity. Even the most vérité of films and observational of documentaries have been cut and arranged. Someone turned the cameras on and off. In this case, three of those someones ended up in Park City, UT for this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Technically speaking, a subjective point-of-view in film is traditionally thought of as being shot from the perspective of a character, in which the camera functions as a surrogate pair of eyes. (If a movie about a blind woman was shot in this way, we'd have audio but a black screen.) It's a classic slasher movie ploy. Think of the famous shower scene in "Psycho," or of "Halloween" and how John Carpenter repeatedly places us behind the mask of Michael Myers. All of a sudden, we're the madmen.

Of course, subjectivity extends beyond a camera technique. When John Harkrider submitted his film, "All the Beautiful Things," to Sundance he gave them free rein in categorizing it. The festival's programmers chose to run it in its easiest billing: as a documentary. The film is structurally simple: Harkrider and celebrity photographer Barron Claiborne, a childhood friend, meet up to hash out, over swanky liquor and jazz, the unresolved fissure that drove them apart. Yet the last thing the film is from the start is straightforward.

For "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter," David and Nathan Zellner, filmmaking brothers and Sundance regulars, likewise focus on a real life event. In 2001, the body of a Japanese woman was found in the Detroit Lakes area of Minnesota. She had been searching for the million dollars buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi's character at the end of "Fargo." The film may open with the title card—"This is a true story"—from the Coens' film, but the Zellners embark on something very different.

In Eskil Vogt's directorial debut, "Blind," thirty-something Ingrid has lost her eyesight to a genetic disease. She rarely leaves her apartment, spending most of her days trying to remember what the world looks like. "She was ill-prepared," Vogt says. Before long, she knows, her ability to visualize memories will fade.

Like all of these films, the scope "All the Beautiful Things" reaches beyond the world seen by its characters. But because the personalities and hardships of the protagonists, to various extremes, shape the worlds of these films, there is a live dynamic between character, setting, and action. "I understand," Harkrider says, "that documentaries are usually about things of historical significance, in some regard." Harkrider's challenge, then, was to present his personal conflict as worthy of an audience. He sees his and Claiborne's fight is an extension of grandiose cultural abstractions—race, gender, politics, etc. A conversation about one is a conversation about the other. And just like issues of race and gender, "All the Beautiful Things" is all murk, progression, digression, and little resolution. "That's the part that is the real documentary," he says, "I didn't answer the question because I couldn't." The film hinges on us accepting that perspective.

Harkrider used reality casting to fill the extra roles—a bartender, a cab driver, a jazz trumpeter, bar patrons. He gathered professionals in these fields to play their profession and vetted their opinions on politics and culture. He needed people who could incite and carry relevant conversation. With these recruited bystanders, Harkrider and Claiborne talk about race, responsibility, forgiveness, truth. All of it serves to deepen the personal strife between the pair.

Harkrider also stylizes the film to reflect the rocky ambiguity of his relationship with Claiborne. "It's trying to embrace, not deny, the uncertainty and lack of clarity that exists," Harkrider says. Ten years earlier, a female friend of Harkrider's accused Claiborne of raping her. Entanglements knot up the old friends in many other places, but Harkrider does what he can to focus the pair's burden of personal baggage on the rape accusation. Claiborne wasn't convicted, but there's still the he-said-she-said. Harkrider calibrates the film's tension on the questions that made this project one of the hardest he's undertaken: Did his friend do it? Should Harkrider be furious? Should he have been more loyal?

It is strange territory for a "documentary." The film begins with an ambiguity, meditates on it, and ends without clarity. Equipped with animated intercuts, background dialogue, and scenes that would be impossible to shoot spontaneously, "All the Beautiful Things" looks like a fiction film. But its use of the actual subjects and their authentic interactions say otherwise. "I don't believe in the distinction between forms," Harkrider says. For him, hiring actors is a form choice. It's arbitrary. Likewise, he lights his sets with ghostly blues and reds, disconnecting the film's setting from reality. It's a fabricated world, synchronized with the subjects' enflamed, discontent want for truth.

By contrast, in "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter," filmmaking brothers (and Sundance regulars) David and Nathan Zellner, truncate the truth. There were a few local reports on the real woman's death, but the Zellners discovered the story in message forums. Virtual word of mouth turned the story and the cult-ready peculiarity of her treasure hunt into a sort of urban legend. Urban legends afford their tellers freedom. They circulate not so much for the bones of their story, but for the theme or moral they carry with them. Each teller of a legend is in some way attracted to the story—some ideal, or, if of the campfire variety, some anxiety. They're a means of societal coping. Subconsciously, they at once validate something in us while reassuring us that we are not alone in feeling that way.

For the Zellners, the tragedy was a reminder of the spirit of an adventurer. "People don't look for treasure anymore," says David, who directed and co-wrote the film. "There's not as much unknown in the world." To them, it wasn't a story of suicide, but one of wonder and a desperate attempt to find newness. "Growing up," David says, "we really liked adventure films and Greek mythology, and stories especially from the age of exploration." Nathan, the film's co-writer and producer, adds, "Your interests kind of seep into the work whether you want them to or not." As more concrete details trickled into the mainstream over the years, the brothers decided they preferred their version of the story and stuck to it.

Their affection for the character and her quest shows itself in the generosity they afford Kumiko. The titular adventurer opts out of life in Japan. Her job confines her. Her mother, boss, and coworkers, in their own ways, exert on her a culturally attuned set of expectations. When she meets a friend at a café, the squeal of a barista frothing a latte and The Octopus Project's droning score crescendo into an uncanny, urgent wail of dissatisfaction. The Zellners cut to and slowly zoom in on her zoned-out face. She flees.

Other than two late visual tricks and the POV inserts of "Fargo" scenes, the Zellners minimize intrusion. They let the sadness of Kumiko live on the faces of those whom she meets along her journey. The camera lingers after she exits the frame, waiting for her to return, which she sometimes does. The camera does not dictate where she must be. The sound design and score (which the Sundance jury awarded) change with the location and Kumiko's disposition (notice the melodic, almost magical variation later in the film). Always, Rinko Kikuchi embodies the complex interiority of this fated adventurer.

The construction of "Kumiko," in this way, does two things to you: 1) You never lose sight of the film's naturalism, which draws all the more attention to the absurdity of Kumiko's search, yet 2) Because the Zellners are so sympathetic to Kumiko, we hope, all the way to the credits, that she will indeed find a treasure we know doesn't exist. Hell, the film opens with magical-surrealism, but what makes it stand out is not its logic but its sense of awe. The Zellners craft a realism impervious even to the film's most surreal moments. The whole thing's a trick—not a "gotcha," but the type that has you believe you're watching one sort of movie when, truthfully, you're watching another entirely.

Similarly, Vogt establishes the impression of realism in "Blind." "When her husband comes home, he has to turn on the electric lights," Vogt says, noting some of the practical details. "Those things, the electric and natural lights, certainly have a 'normal' effect." However, the film's screenplay, which took a writing prize at the fest, immediately obliterates any boundaries between fantasy and reality. Vogt introduces fictional characters as if they are real. Certain characters bleed into others. Ingrid's husband shows up in what we had started to understand as fantasy, disorienting us again and leaving us awaiting more direction. Throughout, the depictions of fantasy and reality are identical.

You're blind. Your need for stimuli intensifies; our senses connect us to the world. As someone who's newly handicapped, you're self-conscious about your sexuality. You approach your partner. He's typing something—working, he says. Do you wonder if he's working? Already self-conscious, can you help but consider how easy it'd be for him, right there next to you, to redirect his libido? You're there. He is too, but so is a chat room.

The point is not to know. In fact, though we can differentiate between what on screen is real and what is Ingrid's fantasy, Vogt plays everything in equal measure. "It's not important what's real," Ingrid says early in the movie, "as long as I can visualize it clearly." Most of the film's action never happens. It's manifestations of Ingrid's suspicions, insecurities, or desires. Her husband starts to have relationships with Ingrid's fictional characters. The crossover goes both ways: After a day of imagining her husband lying about his location and what he could be doing instead, she smells his gym bag when he returns.

"The imagination sort of takes control over the character," Vogt says. "[It] becomes your last connection, visually, to the world." And so, the imagination becomes the world. This isn't necessarily a unique interpretation of sense-impairment, but what sets "Blind" apart is its conviction to compound the real and the imagined into an experience completely of Ingrid. Vogt plays reality and fantasy in equal measure because, to Ingird, they are two indiscriminate parts of one whole. If we feel confused, it's not because of the screenplay's twistiness, but because Ingrid's state of experience is at least just so. If anything, here, the emotional reality is more important than its physical counterpart. Is that so unfamiliar?

These depictions give us process, not just insight—understanding, not just empathy. Some may fear these sorts of films can veer toward manipulation, particularly in documentaries. Vogt describes style as changing the experience of the character. Remember that Hitchcock and Carpenter wanted us to squirm. So a distinction must be emphasized: Any sort of film can manipulate, and every sort of film is subjective. With either, it's simply: For how far are we willing to follow a filmmaker?

Harkrider says searching for truth is like "walking around without having your glasses on, and still having the clarity to make the right decisions. It's almost like you're agnostic. You need to skim over some pretty inconvenient facts in order to believe in god, and maybe you need to do the same in order to be an atheist." To him, as in each of these films, truth is an effusive thing—we bring it to the table. Maybe someone else will find it appetizing.

A Brainerd policeman stares, bewildered, at Kumiko as she pleads, in near unintelligible English, for some help in finding her treasure. He knows, like us, that she's lost it a little, and it crushes something in him. "The treasure!" she shouts. "The treasure!" Her voice seems both to shriek and buckle at the insistence that the world, her world, as she sees it, does not exist. He helps her. He does not believe her. He knows she's wrong. But he realizes: She doesn't believe him.

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