Sundance NEXTFEST Day 2 @ Ace Hotel: KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (Zellner Brothers, 2014) LISTEN UP PHILIP (Alex Ross Perry, 2014) / by Samuel B. Prime

On Friday, I arrived at The Theatre at Ace Hotel (the newly-restored United Artists movie palace) much too early for the evening's screening of A24's LIFE AFTER BETH, but nonetheless queued up to collect my comp tickets. The line (or lines, as there were multiple) proved much shorter than I expected and so for the second time since arriving, I felt legitimately foolish. Idling in line, a man I met a couple of months ago at a party and screening event waved me over for a chat. I have little trouble recognizing familiar faces, but I have a curious sort of amnesia for names (unless I learn someone's full name). Even so, we had a pleasant - if brief - conversation before collecting our tickets, ourselves, and searching for an open space in the theater. Eventually seated, I watched from afar as Kevin Smith schmoozed with other audience members. His latest feature, TUSK, is coming soon by way of A24. He was hard to miss dressed in his signature hockey jersey and considering his sizable girth. That's not a slight, although it might sound like one. On more than one occasion, I have been told that Smith is my celebrity doppelgänger; this is truer than I would like. I selected an aisle seat near the back. Without realizing it, I chose a row with folks who decided to move in and out of the row approximately every ten minutes. It became quite a nuisance, but eventually the bro beside me offered to buy me a drink as a means of apology. I accepted, saying "surprise me." It tasted like Maker's and Ginger. The next morning, however, I woke up in an alleyway off Broadway and 6th. My pants were missing and my ankles were moist. Lesson learned, I guess.

Day 2 at the festival was far less traumatic, containing two of the films I was most looking forward to seeing in the festival: the Zellner Brothers' KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER and Alex Ross Perry's LISTEN UP PHILIP.

In regards to KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER, by all accounts a rather skilled telling of a gormless woman's quest to will her fantasy into reality, I have a curious sense that Nathan and David Zellner became aware of the Internet-born FARGO (1996) / suitcase full of cash rumor in 2001 (they admitted this much in the Q&A) and despite a perhaps genuine yearning to seek its truth for themselves, to make a pilgrimage in search of the money, they did not and so regret it. This assertion is more a feeling in my viscera than it is a fact I can support with evidence, but if it is even slightly true, KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER then manifests as an intensely interesting exploration (maybe even an exorcism?) of the accumulated grief that goes hand-in-hand with regret. I may be more personally inclined to prefer the video essay / documentary of my imagination about this premise. Even so,  the idea of safely mediating the journey through fiction has its own authentic (if removed) appeal. That both brothers also act in the film seems to support the idea of their desirous complicity in the doomed dream.

KUMIKO and its eponymous star Rinko Kikuchi are at their best when the film is told in purely visual means, with occasional accompaniment by The Octopus Project's score or the natural rhythms of the wind whipping through trees, the urban babble of technology and progress, or the deafening silence that is indivisible from her solitary sojourn. Stunning sunsets, barren wastelands, and sprawling cityscapes force both actor and director to embrace gesture and expression to convey mood or story - although some may compare this to acting in the silent era, it is instead the Zellner Brothers reminding themselves (and hopefully their audience) that cinema need not be dialogue-driven. Somewhere in a Hollywood basement, there is a cigar-munching big wig calling this film uncommercial and dismissing it altogether, but that fella is in a basement for a very good reason: that's where he belongs. And while KUMIKO is mostly a good miracle, the few scenes with dialogue are a bit tonally awkward. There is a goofiness to her interactions once in Minneapolis from Tokyo that feels unnecessary and unsupported. She meets a couple of airport missionaries, a bus driver with carpal tunnel syndrome, a kind old woman with lots of purportedly wise things to say, and more, but these feel inauthentic, a bit forced, as if the filmmakers thought for a moment that Kumiko / Rinko was not enough. There is one such interaction that does resonate, an encounter with a local policeman who takes pity on her, attempts to help her, even though he doesn't much know how. He takes her shopping at a thrift store, because when he finds her she is quite literally dressed in stolen hotel blanket. In the scene, he picks out a coat and boots for her, zips her up and laces her boots. The scene has little dialogue until its end and is appropriately underscored by a light theme that makes it feel like the characters are having a moment together. The moment feels both overwhelmingly romantic and yet infantilizing in that he is taking care of her. The scene is good while it lasts, but unfortunately ends in a cliché. 

I found myself laughing in places where other audience members seemed moved to tears, which is not to draw attention to my repressed cynicism, but rather to point out that not everyone reads a scene wherein a wild dog runs away with a DVD copy of FARGO (1996) in the same way, whether as a loss of Kumiko's guiding light or as what I found to be a silly means to an end. Despite odd tonal shifts and inconsistencies brought on by the distracting and gimmicky characters, KUMIKO is memorable and moving. Plus, Werner Herzog is all in. In the post-show Q&A, he summed it up best in saying, "it is not the quest, but the solitude that is lethal [to Kumiko]."

LISTEN UP PHILIP is similar to KUMIKO insofar as the theme of isolation and solitude continues. Alex Ross Perry's follow-up from 2011's THE COLOR WHEEL (probably the best film of that year), LISTEN UP PHILIP tells the literary tale of a young, arrogant author who having achieved early career success allows himself to spiral downward to become or embrace what he has always been: a self-important asshole. I say that with affection. As Perry describes it, the film "covers the worst period in the lives of every one of its characters." Although the film is chiefly about Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), whether by design or by accident its formal symmetry is remarkable - give or take a few seconds, the segments allocated to the two most important people in Philip's life, his girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss) and author/mentor Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) are identical in length. That is to say the film evokes a balance that feels effortless, but is probably meticulous.

Rich with subtle allusions to and fragments of literature and cinema that capture and idealize a late 1970s or early 1980s New York City, PHILIP boasts a muted and earthy color palette that gives credence to Perry's admission that he "wanted to make the next brown movie." Not the least of these are the stunningly period-accurate book jacket designs for the doubly fictional works of both Philip and Ike. Perhaps as an upcoming feature on LA Ciné Salon, it would be thrilling to have Perry provide access to a complete list of textual and cinematic inspirations as a throwback to his days recommending movies to customers at Kim's Video in New York. Normally, I would not be so concerned with points of origin, but since PHILIP is a film at least partially concerned with bodies of work, authors, and the ability of one artist to inspire another (whether from afar or through a kind of mentorship), it seems very much in line with the reverent sensibilities of the work (its willingness to acknowledge the past).

LISTEN UP PHILIP is probably perfect, a film that is so deeply affecting on a first watch that it cannot help but seem likely to grow richer with time and distance. Philip's journey into youthful success, his pleasure and peril in being a malcontent, feel timeless in a way that makes the movie feel secure as one that will be seen and talked about long after this post and this festival. Onstage last evening with Bret Easton Ellis, a thematically perfect if only partially insightful pairing (Ellis kept saying, "Well, it's a movie."), Perry admitted that it was Ellis' American Psycho that turned him on to adult fiction in his late teendom, that served as a kind of gateway drug into literature after not having read a book for pleasure since his pre-teen years. The daring mentorship dynamic of PHILIP was playing out onstage between Perry and Ellis, all the dangers and excitement that go along with meeting someone whom you respect and who - whether they know it or not - influenced your life's direction in a profound way. Perry had only met Ellis mere seconds before walking onstage and seemed eager to play the pupil and listen to the behind-the-scenes tales of the literati. Like PHILIP's Ike, Ellis was instead coy and careful in deflecting the requests for gossip, perhaps saving his stories for a less public moment amongst themselves.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon