Everyone at the Sundance Film Festival is looking for something. Filmmakers are looking for distributors. Distributors are looking for hits. Attendees are looking for tickets. Publicists are looking for good press. Journalists are looking for good stories. Sponsors are looking for stars to take pictures with their products. Volunteers are looking to get noticed. I don’t get to see too many movies at Sundance — sadly, my schedule is so crammed with interviews that I barely have time to see any of the films I’m talking to people about — but of the dozen or so films I saw, nearly half revolved around characters who were looking for truth and finding it in unlikely places.
The idea was most explicit in “Passing Strange” which was, incredibly, director Spike Lee’s first film ever to premiere at the festival (because, according to Lee, he’s never had a film completed in January before). The documentary is a record of the final performances of the warm and funny musical of the same name from July of last year. The vibe is sort of “‘The Last Waltz’ on Broadway” — the air of finality in the actors and musicians’ sweaty faces is palpable, and Lee, like Scorsese, uses a fleet of cameras to take us onto the stage and into the ensemble. The autobiographical story follows an African-American teenager (played by Daniel Breaker as well as the show’s creator Stew, who narrates and provides musical commentary on the action), who leaves his home in middle class Los Angeles for artistic inspiration in bohemian Europe. Stew believes that “normal everyday things are phony,” and he sets off on his journey looking for “the real.” He ultimately comes to the conclusion that “the real” is a construct that can only be found in art, a fine reason to make a film like Lee’s, which makes no attempt to mask the production’s theatricality or expand it beyond the borders of the stage. Stew’s creation and Lee’s filming of it may be highly artificial, but the emotions the filmmakers dredge up are hauntingly true.
Truth is a construct of a much more sinister sort in the scalding British satire “In the Loop,” a production that could best be described as the love child of “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Office.” When British Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) talks out of turn about the “unforeseeable” nature of war during a radio interview, he becomes the pawn of politicos on both sides of the pond on the issue of invasion. “In the Loop” paints a brutally unflattering portrait of the halls of Western power, where decisions are determined entirely by careerism, and those in charge are so wrapped up in their own bullshit — two different characters are unhappy with the way their office is set up — they remain oblivious to the mess they’re making of the world (Steve Coogan has a funny cameo as a man whose mother’s garden wall is symbolically crumbling). Nothing is immutable except self-interest, least of all the truth, which is pointedly manipulated throughout. A U.S. diplomat blatantly falsifies the minutes of a meeting to erase the evidence of the existence of a secret war committee (to reflect “what was intended to be said”); later, a U.K. minister defends his own changes to a document by explaining, “whether it happened or not is irrelevant. It’s true.” When Simon begins to feel the pressure of the manipulation coming from all signs, he wonders if it is braver to resign in protest of injustice or to remain on the job in order to fight it. Should someone sacrifice his principles to keep fighting for them? “In the Loop” has no good answer.