Day Three at the Sundance Film Festival

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A still from "The Greasy Strangler." Courtesy of Sundance Institute

On the third day of Sundance, I sit on a park bench along Main Street, very much exiled. Maybe this is what the Stones were talking about. Friends are either at events I didn’t RSVP to or at screenings, and every restaurant in town is backed up for hours. Surrounded by an embankment of snow, I shiver and shovel a veggie wrap into my mouth, occasionally switching hands to avoid potentially contracting frostbite. Bizarre questions then begin to pop up in my head, such as: What am I doing here? What is this all about, really? Who am I?

Three-plus days of insomnia-driven delirium are perhaps partially to blame for this bout of philosophical meandering. But I’ve also failed to follow my own rule of Sundance: Strive to fire on all cylinders, always. If you stop for even a moment, you’ll be reminded of just how drained you truly are.

Here is an interesting thing people don’t tell you about Sundance, though: In the ambitious pursuit of seeing as many films as possible during this marathon, you often don’t consider how images can profoundly affect you and potentially leave you incapable of even talking afterward—never mind attending that revelrous afterparty everyone’s whispering about. I recall seeing three films in one day last year, the first being Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck. I was paralyzed by that screening, my senses dulled to the point that everything I saw immediately afterward went right through me. And while this year I’ve decided to see just two films on Saturday, my selections—We Are X and The Greasy Stranglerhave affected me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. One left tears in my eyes, and the other made me consider getting a lobotomy, or even an exorcism.

First, I caught the world premiere of Stephen Kijak’s emotive documentary We Are X, which chronicles the rise of the five-piece band X Japan (not to be mistaken with California X, or X, an excellent punk band also hailing from California). Helmed by the brilliant composer, pianist and drummer Yoshiki (the subject of the documentary), X Japan gained immediate success in their native Japan upon their debut in the 1980s, bursting onto the scene with their distinctive combination of metal, balladry and unbelievable technical skill that came to be known as “visual kei.” Their flamboyant sartorial approach, inspired by David Bowie’s chameleonic Martian chic, Kabuki culture and the safety pin stylings of early punk bands, definitely helped. As did the band’s heart-pounding live performances, complete with flames, kaleidoscopic light shows and 10-plus-minute-long drum solos that at times left Yoshiki collapsed on the floor. (Later on, the band would provide him with oxygen tanks so he was able to keep playing.)

It’s not all leather and spikes and everything nice, though. The story of the band X Japan is, really, a meditation on the triumph that’s often buried somewhere amid senseless tragedy. In this case, that includes losing several several close friends and family members to suicide and even having to contend with cult brainwashing. Yoshiki’s story is the central narrative here, and through his personal tales, dazzling footage of the band preparing for a 2014 Madison Square Garden run and some serious archival deep-dives (including an unexpected brush with David Lynch!), the director threads together a compelling narrative that will resonate with fans and new listeners alike. It also forces us to grapple with difficult questions of purpose, the inevitable role of pain in art, and how music acts as a force for salvation, as much for the fans as for the musicians who thrash these songs into existence.

Yoshiki—who was once described to me as “the Mick Jagger of Asia”—walked out after the premiere to a standing ovation. While soft-spoken and gracious with his stories, Yoshiki is every bit the larger-than-life force of rock he appears to be onscreen, decked out in leathers and a blowout that would make Farrah Fawcett clench her jaw in jealousy. Later, Yoshiki tells me that he cried “about 10 times” while watching the film, which is among one of the most uplifting pieces I’ve seen at Sundance, period.

Later that night, I make a game-time decision to catch the much-buzzed-about The Greasy Strangler , dubbed “a movie that begs you to hate it” by The Hollywood Reporter and simply “WTF” by The Daily Beast. I’d heard from a friend that it was gory and that the prosthetics were cartoonish, but I could’ve never anticipated the nightmare that was about to unfold. And I enjoyed it—I think? It’s tough to discern a plot, but from what I gather it follows a father and son struggling to mend their tense relationship. By day, they lead disco walking tours throughout Los Angeles; by night, the father evolves into the greasy strangler—a murderer who covers himself in dripping grease and stalks the city for victims to choke. The movie’s a feat in the grotesque: From scenes of people stuffing grease-laden sausages into their pie holes to long yellow nails scraping grease to cringe-worthy sex scenes, The Greasy Strangler could churn even the strongest of stomachs. Afterward, I overhear someone say, “I need a car wash for my brain after seeing that.”

You know what? That’s a good thing sometimes, being uncomfortable and confused. We don’t always have to look for Hitchockian parallels or nods to French New Wave in every capital-F film we see at an independent film festival: It can just be its own bizarre thing. After the screening, director Jim Hosking says as much when he is asked about how he created the universe of the Strangler: “We wanted to create a world without any reference to it.” It also goes without saying, but the less you try to read into films like The Greasy Strangler, the better time you’ll have.

Later that night, I trek out during a pummeling snowfall for the Strangler party, where Elijah Wood—one of the film’s producers—spins disco into the wee hours of the morning at the Photage Film Lounge. The man who plays the Strangler, Michael St. Michaels, is there. Beside a crowd of revelers (and the hot dog truck), he busts some funkadelic moves that would make even John Travolta blush.