SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”

Poster for "The Case Against 8"
The Case Against 8
Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White (documentary)

The Case Against 8 is a riveting chronicle of the court battle following the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, which legally defined marriage as a one-man-one-woman institution in the state. The story spans nearly five years, starting from the November 2008 election, and ending with the 2013 Supreme Court double-whammy court decisions which invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act and effectively terminated Proposition 8. Just a warning for the approximately 46% of you who statistically might oppose same-sex marriage at this point…this film makes no pretense of “equal time for both sides”. It focuses entirely on the behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering of the opponents of Prop 8 (and supporters of marriage equality). So don’t go into this film expecting a fair and balanced hearing on whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to get married. The film simply takes this point as a given, and chronicles the legal and constitutional battle that ensued.

First and foremost, The Case Against 8 is a stunningly executed legal and political procedural. Speaking as someone who has been mainlining episodes of The Good Wife for the past year or so, I was definitely the target audience for all of the judicial details. In order for this lawsuit to go forward, a number of things had to be executed perfectly. The right set of plaintiffs had to be recruited – two same-sex couples – one male-male, one female-female. Both submitted to being investigated to track down any dirt that might damage the lawsuit in the court of public opinion. And most interestingly, both couples submitted to becoming media personalities. The lawyers are equally fascinating – the unlikely team-up of conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, best known for being opposite sides of the 2000 Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore (a fact that the film points out in great detail), and the film provides a staggering degree of access behind-the-scenes as they prepare for their legal fight. I can’t overstate how much I came away admiring Olson and Boies both for the fight they took on, and for the legal and practical risk they took by allowing cameras behind the scenes during ongoing litigation. And for the public-facing aspect of the case, their clashing politics and personal friendship serve effectively to project the idea that same-sex marriage should not be a partisan issue.

Interlaced with the procedural details, this film is a deeply affecting personal drama. The two couples – Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, and Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier – are forced into the difficult position of having to defend the merits of their respective relationships in open court. Both couples – especially Perry and Stier – provide a staggering degree of access into their families and homes, which in the case of the latter couple, includes their four sons. The film highlights the staggering contrast between an ordinary family trying to live and provide for their children, and the dystopian nightmare of Perry and Stier receiving a government letter in the mail explaining that their 2004 marriage had been legally invalidated. As a fellow who has been married for nearly two years now, I found this moment deeply disturbing – and the couple’s courage and steadfastness in the face of such a societal betrayal was inspiring to say the least.

I try not to be overtly political when discussing film, but I expect my own politics on this issue should be fairly obvious by this point. When I got married in 2012, I shifted from being merely okay with same-sex marriage to being actively interested in making it happen. I phone-banked for the campaign for Washington’s Referendum 74 that same year, and was elated to see it pass. That’s the positive spin. Here’s the sad fact that precedes it – back in 2004, when Kristin and Sandy first married in San Francisco, I opposed their legal right to do so. Given the shift in public perspective on this issue over the past decade (which the film also highlights), I can’t imagine that my story is unique. But it also illustrates the value of a film like this in putting a public face on those who are still being denied their freedom to marry. And that’s the third great strength of The Case Against 8 – it is a stunningly effective treatise on the purpose and value of marriage. It is an affirmation of American family values. It is, I daresay, a bastion of conservative ideals in the 21st century. And that’s exactly what this issue needed.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

The Case Against 8 is being distributed by HBO Films. It will have a limited theatrical release on June 6th and premiere on HBO on June 23rd. 


Still from "Desert Cathedral"
Desert Cathedral
Written and directed by Travis Gutiérrez Senger

Desert Cathedral is a deeply sad film, owing not only to its subject matter, but to the choices that it makes between fantasy and reality. The film is based on the true story of a real estate developer who left behind his wife and child and disappeared into the Southwestern desert in 1992. Peter Collins (Lee Tergesen) makes his suicidal intentions clear by way of a trail of VHS-taped breadcrumbs recorded as he takes this impromptu roadtrip – he quits his job and drives off into the desert to find a suitable place to die.

The most obviously fantastical note is that of private investigator Durin Palouse (Chaske Spencer), hired by Collins’ wife Annah (Petra Wright) to track him down. This character caught me off-guard, first because I realized this is one of very few non-Caucasian hard-boiled detectives I’ve ever seen (a racial casting bias that hadn’t occurred to me until this film) – and second, because his voice is a near perfect ringer for the Southern drawl of Matthew McConaughey. Spencer gives a fine performance, but the character never quite feels like more than a construct. In the later acts of the film, we learn a few personal details about him, but due to his incognito role, it’s never quite clear which details are real and which are not. Spencer and Tergesen’s interactions are interesting, but they struck me as the most overtly fictitious parts of the film – frantic, retroactive attempts to rewrite history and pull Collins back from the brink of a terrible, sad, and ultimately selfish decision.

Tergesen’s own performance, however, is nicely layered. The film never attempts to ennoble Collins’ suicidal intentions, but neither does it shy away from them. At times, he seems right on the verge of giving the whole thing up and heading back home to rejoin his family and face his demons. He takes diversions to drink, drive, light off fireworks, take in a pretty desert vista, and, most tellingly, reveal (on video) a few more details of the problems that drove him to his decision. The result is a film that falls somewhere between mystery, tragedy, and travelogue, with a sufficiently interesting character at the center of it.

It turns out I’ve seen director Travis Gutiérrez Senger‘s prior short film, White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, which was a verité postmortem on a drug-dealing hip-hop DJ. Junebug and Collins aren’t perfect analogues, but they certainly both succeeded in making me sympathize with them more than I initially expected. The film’s soundtrack provides a nice mix of dour, atmospheric country and blues, as well as simple, mood-setting acoustic pieces – reminiscent of composer Nathan Johnson‘s understated work in Brick. Atop Senger’s mostly effective handling of the subject matter, the cinematography – with what appears to be central/eastern Washington State standing in for the California and Nevada deserts – is gorgeous.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10


Poster for "In Order of Disappearance"

 

In Order of Disappearance
Directed by Hans Petter Moland, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson

I’ll be brief, because there’s not a lot to say about this movie – if you want to see Stellan Skarsgård as Nils Dickman, a snowplow driver on a Norse-bound mafioso revenge-killing spree, this is the film for you. This film is darkly hilarious, brutal, and absolutely riddled with the cheapness of human life. The comparisons to Fargo (my second-to-least favorite Coen Bros film) are warranted. The lead villains are effective and memorable, including an eccentric vegan known as “The Count” (Pål Sverre Hagen), and an old-school Serbian just called Papa (Bruno Ganz). The Count is clearly the most dangerous wildcard of the bunch, while Papa, also out for revenge after a fashion, actually ends up striking some interesting parallels with Dickman himself. The bloody shootout at the film’s end is obligatory (and nothing special, heavy equipment notwithstanding), but this film was an entertaining ride nonetheless.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering – Dickman is a funny name in Norwegian too.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

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One thought on “SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”

  1. Pingback: 2014 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2014) | FilmWonk

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