Writer’s Bone of Contention, or, Viewer’s Bane

18 Sep 2013: Winter’s Bone (DVD, 2010, Debra Granik)

The Sundance Film Festival, I become more and more convinced every time I see its recent products and prize-winners, is a place where mise-en-scène goes to die, where not only all tripods and dollies are strictly forbidden but also all expressive (in-camera) lighting schemes and original shot compositions. Acting must always be low-key and seemingly non-professional – authentically of the people, however inarticulate or banal their words may be – but delivered by (non-Hollywood) professionals, and never step outside of a particular tight box of emotions and sentiments. This has the effect that, even when a movie like this one comes through with a decent story and a relatively unique setting and ensemble of characters, it still feels like a slapdash trifle destined to be forgotten well within the short timeframe economically required of “indie” filmmakers (scare quotes because the distribution houses are generally subsidiaries of the same large studios that define bigger-budget Hollywood) to produce the next feature. There’s a pervasive sense of careerist apathy throughout such films, or perhaps simply a shortsighted (ahistorical) inability to reach for deeper and more provocative forms of visualization and storytelling that have a response to masters like Fritz Lang and Jacques Rivette, or, staying stateside, even Orson Welles and Monte Hellman. Winter’s Bone has a certain moral code to it not seen very often, along with its Missouri landscape and its rural inhabitants, but such newnesses – however effective the performances – don’t quite register as much as they could against a stylistic and formal backdrop indistinguishable from hordes of other films produced with similar budgets and equipment and showing at the same festivals.

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