by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5: Pleasure, Strawberry Mansion, Jockey

Credit: Sundance Institute

Pleasure

“Are you here for business or for pleasure?” “Pleasure.” Leaving her Swedish small-town life for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, 19-year-old Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) carries herself with a worldly confidence that belies her delicate naïveté. She has come to seek pleasure in the porn industry, hoping, like every starlet in the city, to make a name for herself. With nary a thing in her possession except twenty-odd tattoos, a stage name (“Bella Cherry”), and much-dignified positivity, Linnéa soon learns the ropes of her profession; a quick learner she might be, but the ropes are quicker to tighten around her. Her first shoot, relatively easy-going and vanilla, inducts the initially wavering amateur into a professional, billion-dollar landscape of cocks, cameras, and casting agents producing cash, consumption, and competition. Soon, however, these latter obsessions will come crashing through the frame, exposing in smudgy detail what its airbrushed layers may try to conceal.

Expanding upon her 2013 eponymous short and filmed largely in 2018, Ninja Thyberg’s debut confronts the socially still-taboo subject of modern pornography with an indelible commitment to illustrating its uncomfortable realities. Pleasure, mostly fictionalized but fashioned from months of research on the ground, has come a long way from the halcyon days of Deep Throat and Dirk Diggler; where sex once found a clandestine outlet in adults-only theatres, incorporating graphic stimulation onto a broader canvas of sensuality and narrative, the deed now flaunts itself any and everywhere, democratized through the Internet and categorized by algorithms. Bodies, once revered by the camera, are substituted for their organs. After a photoshoot marking Bella’s official entry into the industry’s catalog, her housemate and fellow actress records her deepthroating a banana; “I can actually chop this up into different clips and you can sell these,” she offers. This brief hint at financial autonomy, never followed up, nonetheless remains tethered to the medium’s reifying inevitability: sex, detached from intimacy and redefined through fantasy, acquires a transactional quality both in terms of how adult performers valuate their merit exclusively by their audience’s reception, as well as how clinically and cynically the porn market operates: a pound of flesh for a pinch of fame.

While the film hardly shies away from making such an observation explicit, the welcome nuances of Pleasure are foregrounded by its documentarian instincts, explicating the frequently ambiguous ethics of L.A.’s porn network critically and sensitively. Transplanting a hitherto inexperienced Kappel onto the prevailing scene and tapping its existing players — in particular Mark Spiegler, one of the biz’s biggest stars — for credible relevance, Thyberg accords her material a sense of anthropological currency that mirrors, in storyline and stylistics, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon; yet where the latter ended up fetishizing its thematic vacuity, Pleasure concisely dissects the layers of vapidity and fetishization that have been, by virtue of their ubiquity, internalized and naturalized by many. Consent, an issue seemingly resolved through professionalism and pre-arranged consensus, remains a slippery boundary, not just given the nature of business but also owing to the industry’s coupling of its contemporaneous technological and capital prominence with the oldest profession’s primal weight.

At risk of conflating porn with prostitution, it should be clarified that Thyberg does draw such a parallel with her exploration of the former’s darker exploitative corners. As a desensitized audience clamors for more extreme content, both producers and performers rise to meet their demands; those who do not will, for the most part, fall out. The crux of Pleasure is less a question of demand: in the supply chain, producers almost always have the upper hand, and within a medium that historically and presently emphasizes female bodies in service of male pleasure, the power disparity between genders is hard to deny. If left unaddressed, no amount of consummate professionalism may efface its legacy stains of misogyny but will instead reinforce them. That Bella’s respective encounters with a humiliating rough-sex production (coercion masked as care) and a female-directed bondage set (care in the form of safe words and periodic check-ins) yield highly contrasting emotions might qualify as didacticism in some circles, and such a charge is not unfounded; the larger concerns on the occupation’s cutthroat and highly capitalistic model, however, linger unresolved in the film’s eye.

Without adopting a binary worldview of its characters and circumstances, Pleasure avoids the trappings of both moral prudishness and libertarian hedonism, whose ideological extremes have greatly stymied productive mainstream discourse on human sexuality in general. Instead, Thyberg acknowledges the cultural significance of pornography through the lenses of institutionalized practices and ingrained political mindsets. What motivates young Linnéa to mature into Bella is secondary; in her journey to the top, be it for fame or fortune, the story is all the same — there are rivals and they will have to be met with ruthlessness and steely determination, like any other line of work. The primary difference is that the business of porn is frequently mistaken for pleasure, its brutal machinations dismissed as inconsequential; Pleasure, in submitting us to its unfiltered world of misogyny and money shots, audaciously calls this into question.

Writer: Morris Yang


Credit: Tyler Davis

Strawberry Mansion

In 2017, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney released Sylvio into the world. A 16mm Factory 25 feature based off of a series of vines, the film followed a Gorilla puppeteer as he finds success (and mild exploitation) on a public access television station in desperate need of a ratings boost. This premise — coupled with a DIY approach to costuming and set design — is the sort that likely set off alarms among those who recoil from anything that smells twee, but those that embraced the ape were rewarded with a triumphant work of independent cinema; an authentically gentle ode to non-commercial artistry buoyed by ingenious lead performances from Sylvio Bernardi and Audley himself. 

Now, the duo return with a second feature (each have their own robust filmography apart from the other, both branching into solo directing, acting, writing, editing) and a high profile premiere slot at Sundance. This new film, the evocatively titled Strawberry Mansion, has not only been afforded more visibility than Sylvio, but also a larger budget (that film was likely one of the last to effectively work Kickstarter) that’s been poured into production design. Necessary, as Strawberry Mansion takes Birney and Audley into Very High Concept territory, audaciously setting out to create an expansive fantasy adventure on a modest budget (likely larger than Sylvio’s, though still in the micro range). Audley takes the lead here as a man who audits dreams, an apparently soul-deadening occupation necessitated by technology that allows the human mind to be plagued by advertisements as it dreams. Playing off the likes of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry, Strawberry Mansion sees its dream auditor encounter a mysterious woman who threatens to wake him up to the conspiracy of their world, setting him off on a loopy quest to reclaim his dreams and find true love. 

Undoubtedly another premise that scans as too cute on paper, but unlike their last film, Birney and Audley can’t manage to veer away from the considerable pitfalls of what they have imagined and the influences they draw upon. It must be said that Kentucker Audley is one of American cinema’s greatest contemporary actors, and without the casual understatement of his performance, Strawberry Mansion might be entirely lost, but what he can salvage through his presence fails to outweigh the tedium of their Brazil-esque narrative. The casual sexism of Gilliam’s sci-fi epic is paralleled here in the screenplay’s focus on an elusive dream girl, a MacGuffin in the form of actress Grace Glowicki (doing what she can) who inspires Audley to live for the moment or whatever. These are tired tropes made all the more frustrating by the fact that Strawberry Mansion is otherwise fairly appealing, featuring an expectedly excellent Dan Deacon score, striking, practical set design, and playful uses of in-camera effects and stop motion. Though frustrating, Audley and Birney’s vision is ultimately still worth experiencing, even if they’ve muddled it with an ill-considered screenplay.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux


Mayday

At the beginning of Karen Cinnore‘s Mayday, Ana, a caterer living out of her car and beaten down by the casual misogyny that makes her life miserable, feels called to stick her head in an oven by an otherworldly voice. When she does so, she is transported to a world that resembles the first half of the 20th Century where she quickly falls in with a girl gang hell-bent on waging war on every man they see. Yes, seriously. To borrow a Japanese term used to describe anime, where this sort of plot is extremely pervasive, Mayday is an isekai: a story in which a protagonist is transported to another, fantastical world, most often for the purpose of learning something about themselves and their home world. In this shallow bit of science fiction, the ultimate goal of Ana’s journey to a war-filled afterlife is simply imparting a paper-thin message of “it gets better,” tossing aside its more radical and militant ideas.

Those ideas begin with Marsha, the leader of the crew Ana has fallen in with. It becomes clear over time that all the girls wound up here through suicide, and Marsha has whipped them into a revenge-taking frenzy against all men, training them in gunplay and guerilla warfare. Ana, possessing eyesight beyond the norm, will be Marsha’s sharpshooter, taking out encampments of enemy soldiers from afar with ease. On paper, this all sounds like a successful formula for a bit of entertaining spectacle. As realized, what little action the film sports is slack and dull, as if the film is formally scolding Marsha’s power fantasy. When Ana inevitably wants out of Marsha’s scorched Earth campaign, it’s quite easy for the viewer to align on her side, if only because nothing of any value is being left behind.

However, what Marsha represents, an ideology that takes revenge on entire structures rather than individual actors, is much more interesting and radical than Ana’s newfound moral compass which longs for her past life. Even if her methods are extreme and her campaign without end, at least it’s a point of view with backbone. In positioning Ana’s ultimate choice as one between waging Marsha’s war and returning to the life she hated, Mayday privileges the status quo over radical action, as if it is wagging a finger at those who might wish for a better world. Not a single one of Mayday’s ideas is novel or bold, and it instead presents revolutionary possibilities as nothing more than a daydream.

Writer: Chris Mello


Credit: Sean Ellis

Eight for Silver

Why’s it so hard to make a good werewolf movie? As one of the handfuls of enduring horror archetypes, filmmakers keep trying and trying, but tales of lycanthropy seem to have a much lower batting average than the typical vampire or zombie flick. Sean Ellis’ new period-horror film Eight For Silver is a case in point: it has mood and atmosphere to spare, but gets bogged down in bland characters, lazy jump scares, and underwhelming creature design. After a brief prologue set in the trenches of WWI, the film flashes back to the late-19th Century and begins in earnest, as Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), a wealthy gentleman of the landed gentry, massacres a group of Romani immigrants who have challenged his claim to a plot of land. As Laurent watches his band of mercenaries shoot and stab their way through the encampment, a Romani woman armed with a talisman of cast silver teeth curses him and his family. Soon enough, wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), young son Edward (Max Mackintosh), and teenaged daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) are having cryptic nightmares about a particularly creepy scarecrow that stands perched over the unmarked mass grave of the Romani victims. When Edward goes missing and a local boy turns up dead, riddled with teeth and claw marks, Seamus and the other town elders turn to pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), who says he’s encountered these kinds of “wolf” attacks before. Of course, he knows what’s really happening here, as does the audience, and so it’s a slow trek for the rest of the characters to catch up. 

In a way, Eight for Silver functions more as a Golem tale than a werewolf one, as the creatures have been summarily summoned to take revenge for the unjust deaths of the immigrant villagers. It’s the return of the repressed, and the film is at its best when it’s digging into the racism and entitlement of the upper class. There are some effective sequences of the werewolves hunting their prey, and Ellis doesn’t skimp in the gore; present are plenty of dismemberments and much gnashed flesh, as well as a show-stopping setpiece where McBride performs an autopsy on one of the beasts and finds… something inside. But after a promising first half, the film runs out of steam and quickly settles into a repetitiveness. Ellis tries to tweak the standard werewolf design here, but they are uninteresting in both concept and execution, as chintzy CGI leaves them looking rather like large hairless cats. The director, acting here as his own cinematographer, does craft some beautiful images; scenes lit by candlelight and forests covered in wispy fog are quite evocative. But it’s all in service of a foregone conclusion, as every character does exactly what you assume they will at any given moment and meets equally predictable fates. Reilly, in particular, is given little to do, disappearing for long stretches of the film despite its climax ostensibly hinging on her maternal devotion. There are things to like here, but as the pleasingly uncanny gradually becomes more and more familiar, the goodwill evaporates. Chalk this up to a swing and a miss.

Writer: Daniel Gorman


Jockey

While each individual film should be judged according to its own merits, it’s nearly impossible not to recall Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler while watching Jockey, right down to their straight-forward, no-frills titles. The similarities are uncanny: a man of few words, in the twilight years of a dangerous career, receives devastating news in regards to a debilitating medical condition; he is utterly driven by profession, thus doesn’t know what else to do with his life, willingly sacrificing personal safety for the freedom associated with position; an estranged child comes into play, as does the love of a good woman who fears for his health; supporting roles are filled out by non-professional actors who are real-life participants in said profession; jittery handheld camerawork is used to maximize the affect of naturalism. Both films prove fascinating in that they take on the standard framework of a character study yet choose to dissect the careers of their protagonists, as this is what truly defines them. When either film opts for any sort of traditional characterization tactics, both go straight for the clichéd and banal, which is a rather lazy way to highlight that these individuals, no matter how specialized their passions might be, are indeed human, looking for love and a reason to live.

Naturally, such films live and die by the performances of their lead actors, and Clifton Collins Jr. is certainly up to the task in Jockey, gifted as he is here with the rare opportunity at a starring role in a career defined by mostly character work. There’s a soulfulness in his performance, the recognition of a man whose younger years are long past and who is confronted with a next generation looming and ready to replace him, here represented by Moisés Arias as a young jockey on the rise. Collins affects the mannerisms of a man beaten down by life, his voice soft and tired, his walk more a mosey than a stride. Director Clint Bentley films most of his scenes at twilight, an obvious visual metaphor for the state of his protagonist’s career, all golden hour pinks and oranges. He also prefers naturalistic lighting, oftentimes casting his actors in shadow or complete blackness, faceless men explicated by their surroundings. The photography is gorgeous, to be sure, but after a while, all that backlighting and shots of beautiful vistas becomes numbing, which arguably could be the very point: what is special to one person could be another’s everyday experience, the thrill that once existed suffocated by routine and mundanity. The only time our titular jockey feels alive is during those 30 seconds on the back of a horse, dirt flying in his face, the taste of victory heavy on his lips. It’s not the least bit surprising that the race sequences focus on him instead of the horses, as they are merely a means to an end, an end that is heartbreakingly in sight. In this way, Jockey is certainly effective when it needs to be; one just wishes its familiarity wasn’t quite so obvious and, ultimately, tedious.

Writer: Steven Warner


Credit: Asterlight

Searchers

If there’s one all-too noticeable thread running through this year’s Sundance slate, it’s the presence of an unofficial COVID-themed lineup set apart by their incidental, and intentional in some cases, alignments of setting, scope, and content. An obvious outcome, perhaps, but more pressingly a sign of standards to come, given the continued dissipation of anything resembling shock or confusion toward developments in our increasingly surreal and fractious current climate, and with it the need to edge real-world trauma into the more pliable realm of fiction. It also necessitates some kind of foil, so there’ll always be demand for a film like Searchers (produced during the pandemic), whose mixture of youthful swing and preciousness seems almost calibrated to the fancies of an indie crowd jostling to see their proxy representations on-screen, while everyone else basks in its simple charms.   

Pacho Velez’s latest trades the experiential angle of his Sensory Ethnography Lab fare for a more street-level perch, claiming the human face, in its many manifestations, as a site of study. As if gazing into a mirror, we take in the countenances of interviewees, by turns expectant and forlorn, as they cruise the highways and byways of the online dating scene looking for love. The subjects chosen differ almost invariably in age, race, gender, and sexual orientation, with city-dwelling viewers almost certain to find an analog (or discomfiting reflection) in one or two of these folks. And whether we’re pointed to maverick documentarian Caveh Zahedi, 74-year old Cathleen, or a young woman negotiating allowance rates with a would-be sugar daddy, their insights into the multifarious utilities of dating apps are articulated engagingly. Pacho even turns the camera on himself on a number of occasions, and his endearing mannerisms render these sequences highlights in their own right. 

Still, charisma only goes so far; without a more thought-provoking or interesting thesis beyond ogling a group of oglers, hearing about their romantic encounters and nominally transcribed fallings-out, livened by stray shots of post-pandemic New York, Searchers never pushes past low-key noodling. While such an optimistic view of the hidden potentialities and vibrant personalities nestled within the often blustery world of online dating is refreshing, one can’t help but look to scraps that hint at a more nuanced discourse on the rampant opportunism and predation it has abetted. Zeke, 32, relates a sexual assault at the hands of a Grindr date, and later on, we enter the abode of 29-year old EJ, a galaxy-brained pickup artist who keeps a listing of his previous partners’ details in order to narrow down future companions by background. There’s also a cute visual jab at the absurdity of being able to match with someone, possibly even a soulmate, through icebreaking prompts and superficial similarities in taste. Beyond this, though, any closer scrutiny of the very ordained nature of matchmaking and the disorientation felt when expectations collide with physical reality, and its infinite faults, is shunted off. For all the images of first-discovery summoned by its title, Searchers feels divorced from the visceral and profoundly unflattering, pacing around a framework of second-hand recital.

Writer: Nicholas Yap

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