Credit: Fabio D'Orta/Slamdance
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Slamdance Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1: Citizen Weiner, Love and Work, The Death Tour

January 27, 2024

Citizen Weiner

What do you get when you cross the clickbait sensibilities of TikTok with the winking ironies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? A confused predilection for the dopamine high of instant, ephemeral virality which, once achieved, only begets more rushes, more clicks, more highs. If such is the sorry state of contemporary political and social media engagement, then Citizen Weiner embodies it wholesale. Contrary to the pomp and prestige fostered upon it by its titular association with a burgeoning genre of political activism documentaries, this overlong and undercooked skit has neither a cohesive structure nor any self-awareness going for it. Such a description may confound the viewer: after all, hasn’t the film’s incessant staginess in providing and justifying its context of production — New York City Council, early 2021, late-pandemic stage — demonstrated precisely its recognition of what it’s trying to do and what it’s good for?

A closer look at Citizen Weiner, however, puts the endeavor into uncomely perspective. Director Daniel Robbins, known for his 2018 horror feature Pledge, reunites with that movie’s writer and co-star Zach Weiner to document the latter’s run for City Council as a literal novice and nobody. Having dropped out of college and without much in the way of acting gigs, Zach suits up for electoral politics with not much of a pitch, beyond the desire to take some form of action on the ground. He enlists a small team of campaign staff, most of whom we see haranguing disinterested New Yorkers, distributing leaflets while dressed in hotdog suits, and commiserating over their perpetual lack of success, measured both in votes and viewer engagement. The post of Communications Director, going to TikTok influencer Sarah Coffey, offers perhaps the most insight into the psychology and skill-sets of the half-jokingly self-styled underdog team. But even its foregrounding is suspect when, midway through Citizen Weiner, we reach the juicy zenith: anyone terminally online during the Covid years, this writer included, would have likely come across the flashy headline of a City Council candidate’s BDSM sex tape being leaked online. (Said candidate’s name: Weiner.) Despite their best efforts, the team doesn’t really manage to propel their cause or perpetuate their infamy, even as they resort to several underhanded tactics virtually considered scriptural by U.S. media standards.


The punchline, then, is little more than unabashedly narcissistic shilling and a riff on the public fetishization of private kinks — just like how Tarantino enjoys feet, Weiner’s a sucker for dominant women, which raises more than a few eyebrows about his working relationship with a much taller and less neurotic Coffey. If this really is about how identifying political figures by their idiosyncrasies instead of their ideologies stymies genuine citizen engagement, it doesn’t translate in the slightest. On the contrary, Robbins and co. seem to be gunning for cheap laughs and a part-sincere, part-holier-than-thou bit whose ambivalent formula has flourished exceedingly in the post-mumblecore cultural desert of cosmopolitan America. In getting the most bang for the buck with its flashy, quick-bite cutaways, Citizen Weiner also unveils the kind of vanity that’s all-too-easily smuggled under the cover of the shitpost; ever since Borat, comedians have found it ever convenient to flaunt their oversized personalities, and in our case, this comes back to haunt Zach’s amiable but tense relationship with his mother, whom he sometimes treats as a cleaning lady in order to boost his own social image. Regrettably, not much about the election itself gets covered — not Gale Brewer, the incumbent geriatric powerhouse, who’s relegated to a mere face — and when we do see Zach’s grassroots efforts, it’s largely limited to his collaboration with a tween CEO and entrepreneur, whose own image comes uncomfortably close to liberal sob-story sympathy. One almost imagines that a more effective (and entertaining) documentary would ditch the campaign and the self-satisfaction, and showcase Weiner’s weiner video in full: screams, hot wax, and all. MORRIS YANG


Credit: Pete Ohs/Slamdance

Love and Work

Pete Ohs’ amiably idiosyncratic new feature Love and Work is set in a future where jobs are illegal. It begins with Diane (Stephanie Hunt, also credited as a producer and screenwriter on the film, having filled all three roles on Ohs’ earlier film Youngstown as well) seeking a new job. She enters a large warehouse, in which the framing only further isolates the few people present, and announces herself. Her interview with Hank, the boss, comes across not as a formality, but a ritual. He introduces her to her two co-workers, Fox (co-writer Will Madden, who also previously collaborated with Ohs on Jethica) and Evelyn, and she gets to work. Clearly the outlawing of work has simplified it, as the three stand around a large table of old shoes, combining parts into what look more like art objects than functional products. Only after two safety-vested officers shut the operation down, giving Hank his “third strike” and the rest warnings, does a Sam Elliott-esque narrator begin to explain what’s going on.

The details aren’t especially important: essentially, an overabundance of objects has led to a ban on further production and eventually all work, as the film is less concerned with exploring what work is than in abstracting it for allegorical purposes. Once they’ve both been questioned and released, Fox agrees to help Diane, who has lived an itinerant life in order to avoid accruing more than two strikes, search for another job the next day. The ensuing search, perhaps inevitably leading them into a sting operation, combines hints of various genres — particularly noir and Western — as does the black-and-white cinematography. The set design is impressively cohesive for a film of the budget level that plays Slamdance; clearly the surplus that prompted the banning of production is a thing of the distant past, as locations are barren both of people and things. Diane and Fox’s relationship drives most of the film, as they begin to question if a relationship can be defined purely by work — as its banning has driven them to do with their lives. When they visit JB, the narrator, he relays his grandfather’s memories of a time, presumably ours, when work was all anyone did. A metaphor for drought and flood ties into the amusing code with which they speak of work, and though the eventual middle-ground resolution is a bit pat, the film isn’t and doesn’t need to be a rigorous political treatise.

Where the film excels is more in its details: the Frankenshoe Diane produces on her one day at Hank’s workshop and his genuine appreciation of it; the playfulness with which JB dispatches the obvious contradiction between the banning of work and the labor of the bright-vested enforcers of the ban; the way in which Diane and Fox circle each other, framed wide, as they begin to discover their feelings. The light stiltedness of the dialogue recalls some of the stronger voices of the ‘90s indie boom, and some of the rougher edges are admirable when compared to the gauzy nothings that are assuredly playing down the street (or, if you’re online, at a substantially higher price point) at Sundance. In that light, a high-concept piece of modest ambition with compelling characters and a locked-in aesthetic is quite refreshing. JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER


The Death Tour

The worst thing a film — or any other form of art — can do is work too hard to be about something. This is especially true of the documentary, where artists and filmmakers too often fail to trust in the observational, presentational, or aesthetic, defaulting instead to producing films that are easily digestible in narrative, discursive, and moral terms. At best, such self-consciousness results in works that are cursorily engaging but functionally indistinct from written accounts; more often, they arrive as reductionist texts that flatten all nuance to crêpe depth.

The Death Tour, co-directed by Stephan Peterson and Sonya Ballantyne, initially seems equipped to clear some of these fundamental hurdles of form. Documenting the titular weeks-long wrestling tour across Indigenous communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the film’s early focus is aimed at capturing the culture and personalities of indie wrestling, demonstrating a keen understanding of the sport’s essential appeal: the long-form, near-mythic approach it takes to storytelling. It also takes care to document the twinned truths of wrestling: art and pain. Where recent hit The Iron Claw proved bafflingly incurious about pre-match wrestling, the choreography, physicality, and psychology that motivates its participants, The Death Tour makes no such mistake. And saturated as we all are in our hyper-digital present, there’s a distinct analog appeal to the industry’s roots and continued massive appeal, and The Death Tour’s behind-the-scenes look at this phenomenon on a small scale holds a curious nostalgic appeal despite its contemporaneity. It’s in these smallest moments that Peterson and Ballantyne’s film is at its best: a whispered “sorry,” set against skin slapping skin, after an ad-lib gone too far; or the camera lingering on a clearly impatient promoter’s face as motivational speeches are delivered by wrestlers.

But partway through, The Death Tour fully gives into the dual meaning of its title, to its considerable detriment. Matches are increasingly canceled due to local deaths, and the film fully turns its attention to the epidemic of youth suicide in Inuit communities. This focus in itself is no flaw, but the film’s integration of these two threads feels entirely artless, offering no more substantive throughline than the wrestlers’ — many of whom are Indigenous themselves — desire to bring joy to suffering communities. There are nods to the ways that capital’s colonizing force — and the insidious tendrils that continue to pollute all that isn’t white homogeneity — have directly led to this present moment and crisis, but it’s offered only in declarative rather than interrogative terms, the filmmakers seemingly unable to engage beyond superficial acknowledgment. It’s ultimately that lack of a why that proves to be The Death Tour’s essential, fatal absence. In trying so hard to locate what the film is about, there is no sense of why these wrestlers do what they do, beyond the same surface-level motivations trotted out in all media narratives of sports culture. There is no sense of why this sport in particular is or should be so important to the communities the film documents, or how its presence works to mitigate the tragedies we observe there. What’s abundantly clear is that this is all close to the wrestlers’ hearts and their human decency is distinctly felt, but The Death Tour itself lacks a cogent perspective or thesis to elevate the film above mere tour to others’ miseries. LUKE GORHAM


Credit: Zoe Eisenberg/Slamdance

Chaperone

If it ever gets proper distribution, Zoe Eisenberg’s new romantic drama Chaperone will surely generate several cycles of enervating discourse on Twitter; it’s rare that a film highlights a complicated character like Misha (Mitzi Akaha) without judgment or audience hand-holding. A realistic portrait of aging millennial ennui, Misha is an aimless 29-year-old who enjoys her low-stress day job at the local movie theater and lounging around her (inherited) house with her elderly cat. The film begins with Kenzie (Jessica Jade Andres), Misha’s boss and friend, begging her to accept a promotion. She knows the theater, seems to genuinely care about it, and could do more good as a manager than a lowly box officer. Misha repeatedly says no, not wanting the responsibility that would accompany such a position. Her parents beg her to sell the house, which is too big for her and in dire need of repairs, but to this she also says no. Misha has carefully cultivated a kind of stasis, and has no desire to disrupt it.

But this simple life becomes infinitely more complicated when she meets Jake (Laird Akeo), an 18-year-old high school student. He’s charming, and Misha likes the attention he lavishes on her. After their meet-cute in a grocery store, Jake assumes that Misha is a student from a different high school, and she makes the first of many mistakes when she chooses not to correct him. It’s all fun and games, at least at first; Eisenberg isn’t after the complicated, post-modern dynamics of something like Todd Haynes’ recent May December. Smartly, the director makes Jake an adult (technically), taking questions of legality out of the equation while still tiptoeing around whether such an arrangement is a good idea or not. Indeed, rather than screwball comedy or anguished melodrama, the film allows its narrative to unfold in the same languid, unfussy manner as Misha’s demeanor. Shot on location in Hilo, Hawaii, Eisenberg avoids picture-perfect postcard vistas in favor of more quotidian, off-the-beaten-path environs. These are real people who live and work in this place, and there’s nothing particularly glamorous about it to them. It’s a lovely portrait of a particular milieu, even as this burgeoning relationship is constantly threatened by one monumental secret.

Of course, a film needs some kind of dramatic shape, but it’s almost a shame when the necessities of a plot intrude on these vibes. As Misha loses herself in this new relationship, her already tenuous grasp on adulthood erodes even further. First, her brother and Kenzie find out about the age gap between her and her beau; later, Misha and Jake break into her brother’s ice cream shop in the middle of the night. He assumes it was one of his employees, and promptly fires them. Misha, fearing confrontation (and consequences), doesn’t admit to her involvement, allowing the employee to take the fall. The situation finally comes to a head when she throws a house party for Jake and his friends’ graduation. Pretending that she has a really good fake ID, she even buys a mountain of booze and passes it along to a bevy of underage partygoers. Things spiral out of control, and suddenly Misha is suffering the consequences for her many, many poor choices.

In fact, the film arguably goes too far in punishing her, piling up the abuses as she navigates the fallout from multiple disasters. It’s sad to see, particularly because Akaha is so charming in the role, commanding the screen with a casual, almost effortless charisma — it’s a star-making performance. The film never comes right out and calls her a bad person, and despite some selfish actions, it seems clear that Misha never intends harm. She has no avarice in her heart, but is instead just mostly confused and aimless. At least there’s a nice ambiguity to the film’s ending; Misha takes steps to redress those she has wronged, but there’s a tantalizing suggestion that maybe she hasn’t “learned her lesson” after all. Does love make us do stupid things? Or is it something else entirely? Maybe we’re all still figuring that out. DANIEL GORMAN


Brando with a Glass Eye

The artifice of acting is almost always an unwelcome thing: draw too close to metafiction, and risk divorcing the spectator from the comforts of realism. Likewise, committing oneself to the bit at all costs — the purview of method acting — poses the related problem of pulling the viewer too close to the stage’s subjectivity. Artifice and authenticity, thus two sides of the same coin, work hand in hand to situate the reader in friendly, jousting distance with the text, allowing intimacy whilst also supplying recourse to some meta-textual understanding that what we’re seeing could be real, but isn’t. In Antonis Tsonis’ feature debut, however, both qualities of modern storytelling find themselves juxtaposed in deliciously enervating ways. There’s a discomfiting tone to the proceedings of Brando with a Glass Eye, titled so in homage to the American screen legend and with due metaphorical consideration of both the emptiness and fixity that inhere in an all-looking but non-seeing point of view.

Continuing perhaps the national tradition of strange, off-kilter filmmaking, but also diverting significantly from the trends and themes of the Greek Weird Wave, Brando with a Glass Eye follows Luca (Yiannis Niarros), a washed-up actor and reluctant car mechanic who delivers lines from Marlon Brando and Al Pacino with unnerving poise, dreaming of ditching Athens and making it big in New York. To finance his residency over there — having been provisionally offered a scholarship, but ostensibly granted neither money nor the permission to work for it — Luca and his brother Aleko (Kostas Nikoulis) decide to pull off a nighttime heist. Luca carries a paper gun around the city to test his resolve and the wits of the policemen loitering near him; Aleko possesses a real one. When the heist goes south and a bystander is injured, almost fatally, Luca spirals into narcissistic madness and, in a state of near-constant paranoia, visits the hospital, where he ends up getting acquainted with the unsuspecting Ilias (Alexandros Chrysanthopoulos) and his depressive issues.

If its counterparts at Sundance and the larger contemporary indie scene feed into the masochistic self-aggrandizement of the actor’s vocation, Brando with a Glass Eye — making its bow at Slamdance — quickly calls this enterprise into question. Confined to Luca’s tortuous POV (though not literally, an aesthetic one-trick beloved by most gimmicky productions) as he wends his way around his brother and lovers while jutting into Ilias’ personal demons (involving a simpering mother and overbearing uncle), the film materializes the perils of method acting in its many delusions spawned: tussles with law enforcement, rendezvouses with expired lovers, and unaddressed traumas coated over by inane squabbling. Running slightly lengthy at just over two hours, Tsonis’ brazen and confident repudiation of pop postmodernism belies the insecure, bravado-ridden Luca (who forgoes sleep for three nights just to better impersonate a corpse) and locates genuine empathy for him in his gradual moral turn. Keenly mindful of the hermeneutics of suspicion at large in our urbane social relations, Brando with a Glass Eye remains nonetheless a comical, breezy affair insofar as farce and fervency harmoniously meet. When, at the film’s denouement, Luca sacrifices personal for artistic freedom, it’s not merely a solipsistic gesture, but a selfless, learned one. MORRIS YANG


Credit: Lily Lady/Slamdance

Sam’s World

In his books Cinema 1 and Cinema 2, Gilles Deleuze draws a distinction between the movement-image and the time-image. The movement-image is concerned with linear cause-and-effect; the events on screen are driven by outward action, a kinetic energy that skips the action atop the psyches of the characters producing it. A time-image, on the other hand, uses a character’s moods, thoughts, and feelings to dictate the measure of time; it is driven by the potential energy of re-ordering the past to find meaning in the present or future. Both modes are concerned with rhythm. Their differentiation is dictated by the location of the metronome.

In Lily Lady’s debut featurette, Sam’s World, that metronome is planted firmly inside them. The film follows roughly 24 hours in the life of Sam (Lady), a mid-20s non-binary sex worker navigating the fraught dynamics of their social milieu: creatives and writerly types beyond the periphery of heteronormative culture. Sam lives with their partner Rex (Annie Connolly), a photographer and editor who shows a desperate support for Sam that is equal parts loving and enabling. The film is rife with tension: Sam is secretly pregnant, and Rex’s more traditionally corporate ambition sees them diverging from one another on the topic of Sam’s sex work.

Of course, the concern for public judgment is a rationalization of a deeper emotional insecurity; when Sam and Rex run into one of the former’s much-older clients at the park, Rex becomes visibly tense, saying, “I don’t want to have to think of you being intimate with someone else.” In fact, from their first interaction, Rex mentions Sam applying to a café across the street to get a “real job.” But Rex is much less an aggressor than an active participant in a relationship Sam seems largely indifferent to. Worse than rejected, Rex’s excessive concessions and depleted efforts to support Sam — to reach out and touch her — are treated with an apathy that invalidates the partnership of the pair. Sam’s most expressive moments around Rex come when Sam is either diminishing the feelings of Rex, or when Rex is coming to the comfort of an inconsolable Sam.

Sam’s World’s overall approach to broaching the broader implications of sex work is refreshing in a film environment that readily fetishizes or prods the trade voyeuristically, and from afar. In the park, Sam’s client isn’t portrayed as exploitative, and neither is Sam; the two share a courtesy, as two colleagues would, both cognizant of the mutual benefit — and exchange — of one using the other to remedy the respective scarcities in either of their lives.

As they have stated in interviews, Sam’s World is Lady’s first attempt at filmmaking, a fact that is evident throughout: the color-grading is at times inconsistent, and extended dialogue seems to dilute the already short film, a fact that isn’t helped by awkward timing from actors who seem to share in Lady’s inexperience working with moving image. Yet despite Lady’s inexperience, there are lyrical moments that approach the transcendental when Sam is by themself. These abstract scenes cohere what one could call the film’s prosaic “Brooklyn New Wave” aesthetic with a lush emotional energy that makes its viewing worthwhile. The use of textural sound in Sam’s World (particularly in one scene, where she lays contemplative in the bath, nails scratching her stomach), displays a sensitivity to an oft-underemphasized component of filmmaking that is perhaps benefited by Lady’s lack of formal training or experience.

In Deleuzian parlance, Lady is at their best when operating in the time-image, and the scenes that function as the film’s interstitia end up functioning as its muscle — its heart. The other scenes more preoccupied with the dynamics of Sam’s social sphere, on the other hand, create friction with the film’s emotional momentum and already begin to feel repetitive by the end of the featurette’s one-hour runtime. After viewing Lady’s debut, it should be of surprise to no one that they come to filmmaking with a background in poetry, and one would hope that their future work will lean into that tradition of concision. Behind the camera, Lady’s aptitude for lyrical beauty is clearly there. CONOR TRUAX


The Complex Forms

Fabio D’Orta’s The Complex Forms opens with a long pan over a burning car, set to an audacious classical piece, that slowly flips 180 degrees until the frame is completely reversed. It’s an intriguing and foreboding opening that signals many elements of what is to come later in the film. Immediately, however, it dials back, and we are suddenly presented with a conversation played out between our central character, Christian (David White), and an unnamed priest-like figure. It’s a bureaucratic conversation about forms and contracts, but at the heart of it is the agreement that Christian will be paid €10,000 in exchange for letting a mysterious entity possess his body for 12 days. Who this mysterious entity is, and what the possession entails, is unclear to both Christian and the audience. Christian is not alone, however, in this contractual agreement; before the possession takes place, he and the other participants — who all happen to be middle-aged men — will live communally in a rural villa, not knowing what is going to happen next. D’Orta spends a good amount of time building up suspense to the events that we think might unfold, via small chattering amongst residents and the mysterious claims made by the staff working there.

Viewers don’t have to wait long, though, as the film runs at a briskly paced 75 minutes, packing a great deal into this short runtime. Roughly a third of the way through, loud thunder crashes around the villa and a mass of towering monsters arises, menacingly slowly, from the misty forest surrounding. Revealing the design of the creatures so early risks overplaying the film’s primary scare and reducing the ominous dread that comes with the unknown; however, D’Orta does an effective job of keeping an air of mystery despite revealing them in full to the audience. In fact, this only prompts the characters in the film, and by extension, us, to raise more questions about what is going on and who exactly these creatures are. It’s through both this enigma and the designs — reminiscent of Bloodborne mini-bosses, except that their flesh is encrusted with jewels and gold — that the film comes to feel heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. Looking like ancient beings from an old world, these Lovecraftian entities appear seemingly out of nowhere; throughout The Complex Forms, they materialize in rooms despite not being previously visible. They never speak and don’t seem to communicate at all, and only prowl around the villa, appearing at any given moment. This mystique manages to inject each scene with a tangible terror.

It’s hard to tell if the austerity of The Complex Forms is the result of a supremely low budget or a stylistic choice on D’Orta’s part (this is his feature debut). It’s a barren film with a minimal number of characters and locations, taking place almost entirely in the haunting villa where the characters wait out their days. But its restraint also comes from the way D’Orta’s camera glides through the mysterious walls and gardens of its central location. In many ways, the formal and even narrative style feels much closer to the type of cold European arthouse cinema that one might expect from Michael Haneke than a typical Italian horror, often known for its maximalist set pieces and gauche, sometimes incomprehensible, narratives. D’Orta’s film feels devoid of emotion and sentiment, with the characters feeling more like Bressonian chess pieces than fleshed-out characters who have clearly defined personalities and goals. But while willful ambiguity can often prove frustrating in unsure hands, it thankfully never hinders proceedings here, and in fact, becomes the film’s strongest feature: it’s undeniably refreshing to watch a film that feels genuinely consumed in the allure of its own narrative.

Disappointingly, The Complex Forms doesn’t manage to develop an effective ending, as D’Orta doesn’t seem confident in how to bring things to a close: the brisk pace quickly cuts to a denouement, resulting in a cluster of exposition about the origins of the creatures and the experiments the characters have gone through being crammed in during the final few minutes. Still, despite the superfluous load of information offered here, the film still manages to leave a lot of questions unanswered after the credits roll and provides a generally satisfactory conclusion. The Complex Forms is a promising debut that is plenty worth watching, especially for anyone enamored with horror of the celestial variety, and hints at grander things to come from D’Orta. OLIVER PARKER