Jan 24, 2008

Park City Dispatch #3 - "A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy" & "Ballast"

Fest screenings after the first weekend of films is always my favorite treat in Park City. As word of mouth builds for little known titles and arguments erupt over headlining films, a new intensity starts to grip the experience of watching some of these movies. As the hordes of starwatching partygoers begin to leave town, one can really begin to "focus on film", as Mr. Redford would have us do. A few gems came across my radar early in the week, while the most disappointing film was of course the first to sell.

A groundbreaking film, Dennis Dortch's "A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy" is, despite its provocative title, getting only a smidgen of the notices that Lance Hammer's "Ballast" is when people begin to talk about so called "Black" films in Park City. The films exist on almost completely opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum - "Black and Sexy" is a frank, joyous, aesthetically alive comedy of manners, where "Ballast" is an oblique, joyless superimposition of the Dardenne Brothers style on the overwrought concerns of tragedy stricken Blacks living in the Mississippi Delta.

Dortch opens with a card that reads "A 1976 experience" and a title logo that suggests the blaxploitation era. Given theses early indicators and title of the film, one immediately assumes they're in for another reductive series of colonial gazes at the black body. Yet over the course of six wonderful vignettes among the young, black middle classes in LA, Mr. Dortch's film is as earnest and consistently amusing about the sexual behavior of post millennial Los Angelenos, black or not, as any filmmaker has been in a long time. Full of jump cuts, naturalistic camera work, and situations never before glimpsed in narrative films , "A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy" exorcises the demons of Toms, Coons, Mammies and Bucks that honest black cinematic representation is constantly attempting to dislodge from the American psyche. Never salacious or mean spirited, the vignettes don't shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of modern sexuality and maintain a healthy irreverence in their sexual politics. Mr. Dortch is quite a find and we'll forgive him for siting the consistently bubbleheaded Melvin Van Peebles as an influence during his Q&A, his film's style closer in spirit to Paul Morrissey and the French New Wave.

"Ballast" is a closed system. It's long take, diagetic sound heavy style, borrowed from any number of films on the European fest circuit, isn't so ill suited to black stories; its just that it feels so unnaturally imposed on these particular people, who find themselves in a situation so grim that the film doesn't know how to treat it other than with a stiff upper lip and a style that's better at suggesting meaning than actually finding it.

A pair of twins attempt suicide. One, whose child and ex-lover live next door, is successful. The other, despite using a gun instead of pills, is not. What follows is a depiction of how he, his nephew and his brother's ex-lover (we're never sure if they were married) come to grips with these dire circumstances, amidst the poverty and boredom of lower Mississippi. Only the milieu and the characters' behavior rarely ring as authentic in a film that is positing its authenticity from frame one. Save the struggling mother, no one laughs or cries, emotion having been drained completely from the men's visages. None of the down home, aw shucks humor that has sustained oppressed, poverty stricken southern black since the Middle Passage can be found in this vacuous movie. Like most films working in this mode, we are given next to zero exposition up front, having character information parsed out to us piece by piece over the course of the film's running time. Hammer is certainly a talent, and "Ballast" will appeal to a liberal, largely white art film constituency that has very little connection to the representational issues the film isn't really aware of. For a film taking place in a seat of African-American culture, it has little to say about these matters, it being so cloistered and locked off in its pretensions to resonate as anything other than a failed and not especially noble experiment.