Friday, January 24, 2014

Sundance ’14: All the Beautiful Things

A good conversation should be like jazz: a little call and response, plenty of riffing, and everyone gets a chance to make their solo statement.  Two estranged friends will try to talk out their complicated history amidst the soulful sounds of a jazz club in John Harkrider’s docu-hybrid-hybrid All the Beautiful Things (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Harkrider grew up on the wrong side of the tracks before making good as a Wall Street attorney and eventually segueing into the lucrative world of independent filmmaking.  His friend Barron Claibourne is a successful photographer who happens to be African American. Issues of race and class will haunt their discussion, particularly when it turns into an argument. 

It all revolves around a woman, but ironically neither man was particularly interested in her romantically.  Harkrider never had the desire or the opportunity to leave the friend zone. However, the woman in question had eyes for Claibourne and acted on her impulses. He did not really reciprocate her interest, but he slept with her anyway, thinking little of it.  Needless to say, things turned rather ugly, leaving Harkrider caught in the middle.

Presumably, whether you think Harkrider did right enough by Claibourne depends on which man you instinctively identify with.  Yet, the stunning African American bartender acting as a neutral referee seems to lean towards Harkrider’s side of things.  Of course, this could also be a function of gender identification, with respects to the unseen woman. While the inherent drama is obvious, it is highly debatable whether the legal events surrounding the Harkrider-Claibourne feud merit the feature documentary treatment. Nevertheless, the democratic ethos of jazz argues everyone deserves a chance to have their say.

Indeed, the better show is probably happening on the bandstand, where trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s quartet will perform John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in its entirety. It is an impressive interpretation that adds spiritual gravitas to the two friends’ bickering and bantering.

Essentially, ATBT was outlined but not scripted, introducing substantial improvisation into the mix. Believe it or not, this approach sort of works.  Harkrider has an acerbic wit, often making hip pop culture references, whereas the more blunt-spoken Claibourne has a knack for cutting to essence of each issue. Still, their purported insights into race and class do not readily suggest wider universal truths, reflecting more specific circumstances instead.

It might be talky, but ATBT is an unusually stylish film, thanks to Pelt’s music (definitely including his Coltrane cover as well as some original themes), Brian O’Carroll’s evocative neon nocturnal cinematography, and Matthew Woodson’s viscerally powerful black-and-white illustrations (used in lieu of recreated flashbacks). Arguably, there is enough substance in the two frienemies’ verbal parrying to keep viewers reasonably invested, but the male-centric gabfest is likely to be divisive among audiences. Regardless, the visual and audio trappings are quite a rich feast. Recommended for viewers receptive to a jazz-noir version of My Dinner with Andre, All the Beautiful Things screens again in Park City today (1/24) and tomorrow (1/25) as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.