Why do we judge when we watch people dance? Living Stars reveals the truth

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The Sundance Institute
Every Sundance there's a crowd-pleaser, and most years it's got one degree of separation from the Little Miss Sunshine crew. But the most delightful flick of the 2014 fest is an unconventional documentary with no plot, no dialogue, and nothing but party. Living Stars, a fleet 63-minute film by Argentinean directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, is a lark, a YouTube-influenced trifle that travels to different people's homes, plops a camera on a tripod, and asks them to pick a song and dance.

That's literally all Living Stars is: 30-plus strangers shaking their stuff to Britney Spears and the Black Eyed Peas. In the corner, Cohn and Duprat write each dancer's name and occupation. There's secretaries, building managers, judo instructors, telemarketers, students, and supermarket cashiers. There's kids as young as 3 and adults so old they can't even stand, so they move it to Pitbull by waving their hands. There's good dancers and bad dancers and a whole lot of mediocre. It makes your body want to move, and then, improbably, it makes your brain start to race.

Forgive me for bringing up Eisenstein's theory of montage in a movie that starts with a dentist dancing to Lionel Richie. I'll make this quick. Eisenstein understood that the human mind is hungry to build connections between unrelated things. It's why early man correlated the sun with gods, and why Eisenstein could cut from a baby carriage to a flight of stairs and make our hearts pound with fear.

When we sit in a theater, we're primed to add images together to create a story. Living Stars doesn't have one. And so we make it up ourselves. Like You, the Living, a more pedigreed plotless stunt, our need to make sense of the thing -- or, really, our awareness of that need -- becomes the story we seek. Instead of plopping their performers in front of a backdrop or on a stage, Cohn and Duprat elbow into their homes and ask their friends and family to stick around and act natural. There are no redos. If they stumble or their baby brother toddlers into the frame, the show goes on. We soak it all in -- the clutter, the "characters," the dogs nipping excitedly at their feet -- and quickly shape it into a scene we can understand.

Magically, this story-less montage becomes one of the most cerebral headtrips of Sundance. Living Stars is both dozens of mini-movies and no movie at all. We build a whole life for each person without them saying a word. A tough, talented girl dancing while her mechanic dad solders a car is like a 60-second version of Flashdance; an older woman bopping though "Hound Dog" while her two friends beam in her crowded bedroom is a short story about friendship after 50.

There's a world of backstory in the details: the mom willing to steer a fan so her son's cape will flap in the breeze, the brother who rolls his eyes as his older sister gets sexy, the daughter who can't stop laughing as her dad shakes it to the Spice Girls. I've never seen anything that gave me more hope for equality and tolerance than a young man in his kitchen in full drag grinding it to "Toxic" in front of his entire family. When his wig flies off, grandma leaps to hand it back, and as he slipped it back on with a diva flourish, the crowd around me burst into applause.

And then it hits you that the audience is the story, too. The entire time, you've been absorbing everyone else's reactions. Who do people like? Who do people not? Along with these instant character portraits come instant, often unfair judgments. Map everyone on a four-quadrant graph of talent and looks, and patterns appear. Chubby kids with skills get cheers, older ladies who love Technotronic are heroes. But the reaction to good-looking, semi-skilled girls is cold, and a teacher who twerks got shamed with tsk-tsks. With the exception of a shirtless actor deemed conceited for dancing to "I'm Too Sexy," men have it easier than women. A guy can doofus through Daft Punk or totally nail his pop and lock and be a star. A girl who's either too pretty or too perfect is a snot. The camera is neutral. The jerks are us.

There's no online trailer for Living Stars and lord knows if it will ever be released in theaters. The filmmakers didn't even fly in from Argentina. But there's a poetic logic in that. It's not a film about actors and scripts. It's a film about us, the strangers in our world, and our reaction to them. This is the only film at Sundance that you can duplicate by clicking around YouTube. And it's fitting that we're free to make our own version. Go ahead, give it a whirl.

More images from the film are on the next page.

The Sundance Institute

The Sundance Institute

The Sundance Institute

The Sundance Institute

The Sundance Institute

Living Stars Directors: Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat Screenwriter: Andrés Duprat Executive Producers: Ximena Taboada, Juana García Fernández, Adrián Lakerman Editors: Jerónimo Carranza, Klaus Borges Baz, Martín Briano Producers: Television Abierta, Cynar Music: Maxi Trusso Camera: Roque Silles

Amy Nicholson is reporting on the Sundance Film Festival for Westword. Follow her on Twitter at @theamynicholson.

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