In the American Grain: Debra Granik, Matthew Porterfield and the “Sundance Problem”

(origially written for Cargo 9, March 2011)

While it represents sloppy thinking to place too much faith in critical commonplaces, in film criticism as in all other fields of endeavor, there’s also no getting around the fact that truisms are frequently true. For example, the Weinstein brothers are soulless capitalist bastards who don’t give a rat’s ass about art. (It’s just been announced that, following Oscar season, they’re pulling the original version of The King’s Speech from U.S. theatres, to be replaced with an expurgated, family-friendly version with all the curse words taken out. They’ve decided to serve as their own in-house subsidiary of Utah’s CleanFlix service.) Similarly, something critics have been griping about, privately and in print, really has has been true for years: Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners are crashing bores, or just flat-out atrocious. (And if the films go through the Talent Labs, it’s even worse.)

While the 1990s may have been a somewhat different story, the aughts were generally the period when Sundance’s legitimate claim to represent “American Independent Cinema” seemed tenuous at best, delusional at worst. Like many rituals, the festival has become something a certain segment of the film community just does, even though the results it produces are often so highly dubious. Granted, no major competitive festival (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Locarno) should be judged solely by its grand prizewinners. Almost without fail, the best films are in secondary sections, and as far as jury deliberations go, well, as the saying goes, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. But Sundance’s Dramatic award just has a lousy track record over the past decade and change, even as compared to Berlin.

For every brash, on-time new arrival, such as Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), there are multiple mediocrities that are already deservedly forgotten – Girlfight (2000); Personal Velocity (2002); Quinceañera (2006); Padre Nuestro (2007). During this ignoble period, the best results have been middling-to-okay films notable mostly for the breakout performances they featured: Ryan Gosling in The Believer (2001); Paul Giamatti in American Splendor (2003); and Melissa Leo in Frozen River (2008). That leaves only two relevant years unremarked upon: 2005, when the prize went to Forty Shades of Blue by Ira Sachs (a decision I respect, although I have personally disliked each of Sachs’ three features); and the rock-bottom of Precious in 2009.

Why all this history? It seems that there is widespread agreement that some unique energy is bubbling up within American independent cinema for the first time since the Sundance heyday of the late 80s and early 90s, and we can see that Sundance itself, lumbering dinosaur that it is, has not been its wellspring. Everyone has a different point of departure: the post-“mumblecore” set (Joe Swanberg, the Safdie brothers, Kentucker Audley, Todd Rohal, the Duplasses); the “new realists” (Ramin Bahrani, Kelly Reichardt, Lance Hammer, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray), the “old realists” (Sachs, Larry Fessenden, Christopher Münch). But strangely enough, last year Sundance got it right. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is not a perfect film. However, unlike any Grand Jury Prize winner since Primer, it is relevant, it engages directly with meaningful problems of cinematic representation, and operates in dialogue with the larger universe of filmmaking. Granik, like a number of her fellow independents in the U.S., is a regionalist at heart, but this has allowed her to ground both of her films to date within the material experiences of daily labor and the specificity of place. By doing so, Granik overcomes parochialism where so many of her less-astute colleagues succumb to it.

Winter’s Bone is a high wire act of sorts, a film that is all the more impressive because, by dint of its very project, so many things could have gone so terribly wrong. It’s a close-up look at a dirt-poor family in backwoods Missouri, rudderless because the matriarch is fried-out from the drugs the patriarch has spent years cooking with his lowlife friends. Now he’s gone missing, and the de facto head of the household, 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), has to find him. Otherwise her family will lose their house, since dear old dad the crank-cooker used it as collateral the last time he posted bond.  Granik’s film is part character study, part mystery, as Ree is forced to delve deeper into the hidden recesses of her lawless, ultra-violent extended clan in order to discover the whereabouts of her father.

The search takes her up into the hidden hills of Ozark territory, which Winter’s Bone depicts as America’s own Southern Pakistan, a place where grizzled men with guns hole up and the authorities won’t touch them, where old-boy tribal law obtains. But of course the physical investigation is also a proto-feminist gathering of self, as Ree summons up strength she didn’t know she had or even needed in order to survive. (These “relatives” are clearly the folks Ree’s spent her short lifetime fortifying her psyche against, and while Granik wisely leaves the worst of it unspoken, it’s obvious that if she fails to provide for her siblings by securing the family home, there’s only sex work in her future.)

Granik’s first film, Down to the Bone, was an impressive debut that demonstrated the auteur’s ability to gaze unflinchingly at women at crisis points without any hint of condescension. Garnering notice primarily as Vera Farmiga’s breakout vehicle, Down to the Bone was another deft portrayal of a person shaped but not defined by her material circumstance. As Irene, a drug-addicted mother of two struggling with the ups and downs of the recovery process, Farmiga displays a spark of working-class anger and determination similar to Ree’s; the frozen, economically depressed wasteland of Upstate New York served as a set of parameters that could not simply be transcended but wasn’t a life sentence either. In both films, Granik’s approach to place, community, and even mise-en-scène are deeply materialist in the Marxist sense, without ever becoming didactic or ethnographically smug.

We can see this in Winter’s Bone’s cinematography, which tends to organize space and landscape in multiple recessive planes while simultaneously flattening them, allowing Ree’s movement through the Z-axis to be the arbiter of depth. In a way, one could argue that this is an objective correlative to Granik and Anne Rosellini’s highly literary screenplay, which tends to favor soliloquy and precise, extended sentence structure over the clipped monosyllablism that stereotypes would dictate as appropriate for this geographic region and socioeconomic echelon. This is part of what makes Winter’s Bone such an unusual marvel within American independent cinema. These characters would have been so easy to either mock, or to subject to well-meaning but arrogant liberal “concern.” Instead, as she did in Down to the Bone,  Granik allows her protagonists to shape their destinies, but not under conditions of their own choosing. However, with Winter’s Bone she takes this impulse to a new level, introducing aestheticism and abstraction, the “making strange” that lends the film’s subjects an actual dignity  -- complexity, intelligence, ambiguity – instead of the usual, misguided liberal shorthand.

Whether Granik’s triumph (four Oscar nominations, but no wins) will result in the director being spirited away to Indiewood, we don’t yet know. Nevertheless, I would like to think that her work might serve as a harbinger of a more sophisticated independent cinema in the U.S. in this still-young decade, one that sheds easy categories and marketing hooks in favor of the kind of attention of form and abstraction, alongside materialist specificity, that has been reflected in the best of international cinema over the last ten-plus years – the bevy of activity seen in Romania, Thailand, Malaysia, The Philippines, mainland China, and, yes, Germany.  There are certainly a few promising signs here in the States, although they are few and far between.

The two feature films to date by Baltimore’s Matthew Porterfield are unusually exquisite examples of formalist regionalism, works that, like Granik’s films, explore the lives of the U.S.’s rapidly expanding lower classes with a sense of poetry and purpose. His first film, 2006’s Hamilton (named for a lower-middle class neighborhood in Northeastern Baltimore), is a free-form mood piece held together by equal parts anxiety and natural awe. There is not much in the way of a story. Rather, we observe a few key days as 17-year-old new mother Lena (Stephanie Vizzi) and her friend / future sister-in-law Candace (Sarah Siepp-Williams) care for the baby while Lena worries about whether Joe (Christopher Myers), her semi-AWOL baby-daddy, is going to face up to his responsibilities. In the course of this emotional suspension, Porterfield shows us the dead time that mothering an infant entails, along with sunbaked melancholic atmosphere -- children at the playground, the mowing of lawns, the awkward traversal of undeveloped lots between suburban locales. Some have compared his work to early David Gordon Green (back when he was aping Charles Burnett instead of Danny Leiner), but Porterfield’s observation of the lower class habitus is more organic and far less self-satisfied.

Porterfield’s second film, Putty Hill (again, named after a working class Baltimore subdivision) represents much the same sort of evolution from Hamilton as Winter’s Bone did for Granik. The filmmaker has retained his loose, poetic mode of observation, depicting fragments of a mostly disenfranchised community without judgment or undue romanticization. At the same time, Porterfield has introduced a new layer of formalism that provides a kind of armature for his open-text modality. Relying, like Hamilton, mostly on non-professionals, Putty Hill is a portrait of a community coming together in the wake of a young man’s death by overdose. Friends remember him, long-gone young family members come back to town, and those in the immediate circle (many who hadn’t seen much of the guy since he’d done jail time) try to figure out what meaning, if any, this sudden loss has for their lives. Porterfield’s major gamble is the introduction of a partial faux-documentary structure, wherein an unseen interlocutor engages the characters in direct-to-camera interviews. The method is light years away from “reality TV” bullshit. In fact, Putty Hill is the first film I can think of since the “counter-cinema” heyday of the 1970s that displays the direct influence of Peter Watkins. Porterfield has, in fact, triumphed by forging a most unlikely hybrid with Putty Hill: Watkins meets late Van Sant. And yet, despite the clarity of those touchstones, he’s achieved something completely his own. One can only hope that others might find their own idiosyncratic ways to follow his, and Granik’s, fine examples.