Nourishing Films At Sundance: ‘Operation Avalanche,’ ‘Holy Hell’ and ‘Indignation’

Operation Avalanche

Before the very first screening of every day at Sundance, I go out of my way to spend a few minutes at the festival headquarters to get free coffee and cookies. This has essentially become my unhealthy but also subsidized diet, but progressively, after every day of the festival, the cookies are getting staler and the coffee is increasingly diluted. The films are the only thing keeping me nourished and alive.

With the exception of last year’s The Visit, most found-footage films have become trite, tired and torturous, but Matt Johnson’s innovative, informative and potentially influential Operation Avalanche (8/10) finds new thematic and formal potential for the genre. The Paranormal Activity movies, which were already a simulacrum of Blair Witch, and all of the imitators they inspired, typically face two insurmountable problems that are engraved in the mode of filmmaking itself. (1) The shot choices are often random and grisly, not thoughtful or evocative. In trying to make the plot and characters immediate, the films sacrifice poetry and the artist’s touch. (2) We constantly question why the characters would continue to film in every dire situation. Johnson, whose previous film The Dirties was also a mockumentary, is mountains above most simpletons working in the genre. He crafts stellar images that always feel raw. We never question the legitimacy of the film’s construction.

Set against the backdrop of the cold war, but very much influenced by how images are being currently politicized and used to construct identities, Operation Avalanche follows a film crew in the CIA, who infiltrate NASA as documentarians in order to find a mole. NASA has bigger problems; they are too behind on their technological development and may not be able to land on the moon before the Russians. Matt (played by the director of the same name) and Owen attempt to fake the moon landing, creating heroes out of themselves in their own movie.

Operation Avalanche is dizzyingly meta-textual as the filmmakers infiltrated NASA to make a film about infiltrating NASA, all the while playing alter-egos of themselves. The film uses its beautiful and impressive formal qualities (a single take car chase is unforgettable) as thematic reflection – to adopt the conventions of direct cinema, which claimed to portray unmediated truth, in order to show the ideologies always at play and the egoism of the men who elevates themselves as the protagonists of a nation, a country that has itself adopted the narcissism of manifest destiny.

Holy Hell

Holy Hell (6/10) is a simplistic documentary that scrapes by on the warmth of its humanism and the empathy for its subjects, not the editing, structure or style. At times its revelations and construction resemble schlocky investigative cable shows but the powerful words from the survivors, the eeriness of some of the images, and the sheer bizarreness of the story make it mostly an empathetic if fairly standard viewing experience.

In 1985, Will Allen, seeking meaning, purpose and a community in which to belong, joined the Buddhafield, a group seeking spiritual awakening that was led by an eccentric but mesmerizing master, the enigmatic Michel. Over the course of twenties years, Will and his other brothers and sisters in the cult were slowly brainwashed to serve the leader’s narcissism, to love him with the entirety of their beings and serve his every need. Because Will Allen was a filmmaker, he captured the group’s daily life and spiritual ceremonies for propagandistic purposes. Holy Hell is assembled with talking head interviews with former members of the cult and excerpts from the video footage of the years inside the Buddhafields.

Although you might expect the film to condescend the leader and the unabashed acceptance of his naive teachings by his followers, what makes Holy Hell powerful and mildly subversive is the evoking of the bliss, transcendence and satisfaction Will and his brothers and sisters felt in the first few years after the forming of the community. The beginning of the film, mostly done with cheesy short films that Will made, are earnestly expressed, but after the story circles back, the insidiousness and profound hurt were shown to always be there.

Indignation

The soul-searching of Holy Hell is the poignancy underneath the cold, distant and clinical mentality of the protagonist in Indignation (7.5/10), an adaptation of a Phillip Roth novel of the same name. Logan Lerman plays against type as Marcus, a character that seems perfect prima facie but hides his narcissism and lack of empathy under a suffocating air of awkwardness.

Set in the 1950s in the middle of the Korean War, Marcus is a model student that goes to university to avoid the draft. As a Jew in a predominantly Christian institution, he is put at odds with the Dean of the school and his peers, only connecting with Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) on a purely sexual level. The film is lamely directed and quite incoherent, failing to find any thematic throughline between the conversations about Bertrand Russell, the Korean War, and the segregation Marcus experiences in ’50s society.

But after thirty minutes, as I began to groove with the film’s odd structure, which lacks conventional transitional scenes or development of the plot, the film’s emotions and tragedy began to connect with me. I felt Marcus’ disconnect; his lonely alienation where social interactions are like business deals. The film’s standout scenes are between Marcus and the Dean, whose conversations are full of passion underneath the contortion of their words. It’s a showcase of acting acrobatics at its most flexible and versatile. Repeated viewings may help connect the fractured motifs and themes, but Indignation works best as a showcase for an excellent Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman, who find a cold passion, a yearning underneath their distance.

Luckily, as I’m starting to decline, along with the quality of the festival’s buffet of free sweets and treats, the nutrients provided by the movies have dabbled into a lot of different cinematic food groups: a powerful documentary, an idiosyncratic narrative film, and even an innovative hybrid of the two.

Later Today: Little Men, Dazed And Confused Live Commentary With Richard Linklater

Josh is a film critic who probably spends more time watching movies than you spend not watching movies. His tastes are unabashedly snobby and he tries to watch and promote Canadian films (despite the fact that most of them suck). Josh is currently taking a double major in philosophy and film studies. He also likes to point out why your opinions are fallacious by quoting the definition of ad hominem, ad populum, and ad nauseam. Notice how he just used an Oxford comma? He’s kind of pretentious like that.