PARK CITY, UTAH: It’s not surprising that the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker case would be an irresistible story for a documentary filmmaker. After all, it’s got a celebrity wrestler, a shock jock, a sex tape, and a rabble-rousing website – oh yeah, and fundamental questions of celebrity, Internet privacy, and freedom of the press. Unsurprisingly, when it was happening in Florida last year, most of the ink and pixels focused on the more sensational aspects. Brian Knappenberger’s extraordinary new documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday, seeks to reframe that case, and place it within the context of an institution that’s already under siege five days into the Trump administration.
Knappenberger initially uses the trial as the structure for his film, and it is a riveting chronicle of the case and the assortment of sleazy players surrounding it; this is the kind of documentary that gets better the deeper it goes into the weeds, and the more it focuses on the intricacies and details. But the verdict arrives roughly an hour in, and it turns out the movie is just getting started. Knappenberger digs into the man who funded Hogan’s case, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel (and the racist, sexist, Randian worldview that motivates him). He takes a deep dive into the purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by the Adelson family – for good reason, as these are the kind of “real,” respectable journalists that rich people manipulating the media can wipe out.
And then, of course, there is President Trump, who made the mainstream news media one of the chief targets in his campaign of complaint, promising to “open up the libel laws,” calling the news media “the most dishonest human beings,” and deeming outlets who don’t report his “alternative facts” as “fake news.” And that, sadly, is where we are right now: under the thumb of a president who can limit the press’s ability to investigate, report, and criticize. Nobody Speak ends as a chilling alarm siren. It was edited, apparently, right up to its unspooling, as it arrives complete with images of Friday’s inauguration that land with the force of Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But it’s also a call to arms, a reminder that, after all, a free press is “part of the bedrock of democracy.” It’s an upsetting movie. But it’s an increasingly necessary one.
The flatness of the opening dialogue scene in Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime is more than a little off-putting – particularly since so much of it is coming out of the mouth of Jon Hamm, who is capable of being more than a stiff actor. But the more he talks with Marjorie (the great Lois Smith), the more it makes sense; they’re discussing when he proposed marriage, but he’s several decades younger than her, so maybe he’s a memory? And then, at the end of the scene (and past it), it finally becomes clear: he is a hologram recreation of her late husband. She, understandably, chose the younger, handsome version of him to stick around in faux form. The hologram works off artificial intelligence, so the more she tells him about himself, the more her memories become shared ones – or, even better, mutually accepted exaggerations. “And then,” he tells her, “by the next time we talk, it will be true.”
This could’ve been the starting point for a fairly loud and dumb sci-fi movie, but Marjorie Prime isn’t like that at all; Almereyda is adapting Jordan Harrison’s play (Smith played the role on stage), and most of the film is comprised of two-person dialogue scenes. The storytelling is purposefully elliptical (underlined by the slow fades to black between scenes); the big events happen off-screen, and we’re left to piece them together from dialogue context and visual hints.
So it’s a movie of ideas rather than effects, which make for the best science fiction anyway. It asks big questions, about the nature of memory, how we choose to consider those we love, how we choose to handle our own grief. It’s not an easy movie to engage with – the antiseptic settings and anthropological approach (as well as the slightly off-putting photography, which seems weirdly cheap and garish) can keep the viewer at a distance. But those who can tune in to its wavelength will find it strangely satisfying.
“People never make films about ordinary people who don’t do anything.” So says Naomi (Emily Browning), the sorta-protagonist of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, and she’s not exactly right – Perry makes movies like that, and this time he really goes for it. It’s a very loose story, of two couples in Brooklyn, their friends, and Naomi, who vacillates between them. But it’s not one of those trite ensemble movies where it turns out “we’re all connected”; it’s mostly informed by the idea that these social circles tend to be very small. (Another Sundance ensemble comedy/drama, Person to Person, works from the same idea.)
In his earlier films The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, and Queen of Earth, Perry exhibited a flair for writing complicated people who aren’t exactly bad, but willingly plunge into the act of doing bad things. He’s not being smug or provocative – he’s just honest about these people, and about their dishonesty. (There’s a terrific moment here, in which Analeigh Tipton tells husband Jason Schwartzman “You’re such a good guy,” immediately after he’s lied to her for no reason whatsoever.)
He’s exploring real concerns in Golden Exits, questions of solitude, freedom, honesty, satisfaction, and desperation. His characters are a specific kind of young New York intellectual, who have been taught to talk their way through their woes, yet often end up talking around them. The dialogue scenes aren’t as snappily written as in most indie films, and I mean that complimentarily; they have the rhythms and circularity of real conversations, ones that wander, hypothesize, analyze, and presuppose. These thoughtful people are paralyzed by their ability to look at their lives, and the lives around them, from too many angles. It’s enlightening to listen to them, and perhaps a little too familiar.
Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52 begins and ends with a woman you’ve probably never heard of. Her name is Marli Renfro, and she was a pinup model and onetime Playboy cover girl – oh yeah, and one week late in 1959, she went down to the Universal lot to be the body double for Janet Leigh while Alfred Hitchcock shot the shower scene for Psycho. 78/52 is a laser-focused examination of that one sequence (the title is taken from the total number of set-ups and cuts in it), which seems a little extreme, until you reflect that it changed horror movies, theatrical exhibition practices, film editing and scoring, and mainstream moviemaking forever.
The film’s first half is more about the movie than the scene, a kind of extended set-up that’s all about context: the context of the movie, in terms of its place in Hitchock’s career, and within the recurring visual and thematic motifs of his filmography; the context of the moment, the literal end of the white-bread ultra-innocent 1950s; and the context of horror cinema at the end of the atomic monster era. And then, yes, it’s on to the nuts and bolts: breaking down the scene’s evolution (from the novel to script to storyboard to screen), examining the significance of the tiniest details (for example, the painting Norman takes off the parlor wall to peek in on the bathroom), and, most gloriously, a shot-by-shot and edit-by-edit breakdown of the scene itself.
Expertise and commentary are provided by a deep bench of filmmakers, writers, academics, actors, and relatives, and while there is some overlap with last year’s Hitchcock/Truffaut (particularly in the broader sections, like the illustrations of his theories and preoccupations), much of this is new even to a Hitch freak like me. 78/52 is thoughtful, verbose, and very funny, but more than anything, it’s a celebration of film, and what it’s capable of. It’s hard to think of a better reason to program that kind of movie at a festival like this.