[Author’s Note: Sundance 2018 was a big deal for me. With press credentials, I had the opportunity to interact as an equal with some of my heroes, to make my first podcast appearance, and to test my capabilities as a writer. This is the first chapter of my coverage of the festival.]
“Death gets everyone, he comes for all of us, he’ll come for you too.” – German skydiver.
These were the last words yelled (without subtitles) by a German skydiver as she leapt from the soon-to-be pilotless plane. Our hero, Philip Burgers, was left aboard to solemnly finish his burrito, or let it be taken by the wind. The future was none of his concern, for Philip Burgers does not despair even in the most perilous circumstance. It was, after all, just the first minute of The Passage, a Super Deluxe production directed by Kitao Sakurai (The Eric Andre Show).
In essence, The Passage inserts a dumbfounded American cowboy into a Carlos Reygadas film. Before a slow, floating camera, the language-challenged gringo stumbles through a mystical series of horrors and miracles in the shape of a stuttering chase scene. He can be found either in extreme peril – like a maritime massacre, a failing pilot-less plane, even in bed with the director’s wife – or, gratefully receiving a bowl of soup from a stranger. Hopscotching through continents – from Mexico to Korea to Haiti to Norway – Phil Burgers is a fugitive mime with a face that reads sublime.
Burger’s experience is not so unlike our own: meandering through the world attempting to pick out cues from an assortment of interactions that we’ll never entirely understand. While the rest of us obsess over comprehension, Burgers finds beauty in confusion. It’s a philosophy he shares with Reygadas, the great Mexican auteur, who once told The Guardian: “We are used to knowing exactly what’s going on when we are watching something, which is very strange because in life it is precisely the opposite. Most of the time in life we are living through things and don’t know what they mean at the time, except at a very superficial level. It is only later they become important, or take on a particular relevance.” If ignorance is the only true knowledge, the clown is the wisest sage.
This clown, Philip Burgers, is not your classic honk-my-nose jester. He’s a contemporary clown, a worldly clown, a clown that doesn’t understand but still listens. In this day and age, we need sensitive clowns, clowns that defy borders, clowns that open eyes instead of close them. We need clowns that pierce our hearts, that lift our souls, that strangle our attention, that fix us a cup o’ pick-me-up when the times are rough, that grasp us firmly and plant warm kisses, that cradle us sweetly in the satchel of Mother Earth, that deliver solemn news with the utmost grace and tact, that spell the names of our future prophets…
Behold, the overextension of an idea. It doesn’t really work when I do it, but it’s one of Phil’s favorite techniques and it’s funny when he does it. Like, it’d be kind of funny if a sandwich bit back, but it’d be more funny if a sandwich absolutely unleashed and you were both rolling around in the dirt suffocating in mutually unflinching strangleholds. That’s kind of what The Passage is like, at least in one scene.
Visually, it has the dense, tenderly crafted, perfectly treated, nearly square, old glass quality that gave Reygadas the reputation of “The Mexican Terrence Malick”. The slow, meditative pace, liberated from heavy arthouse topics, is a gloriously novel frame for some really smart/dumb humor. With such an unorthodox combination, the show creates powder fresh tracks in an over-traveled comedy landscape.
While most directors mold only a slight variation of the classic films they know and like, Burgers combines such disparate influences that his product is almost impossible to describe. The Passage is a soup with fine ingredients from a variety of across the globe, and I hope with all my heart that the journey continues forth, for it’s not often you’re offered a soup with such fresh flavor.