I’ve been back from Florida for almost two weeks, and so far, most of my time has been spent in anticipation of being settled into my apartment. Boxes, bags, moving things in and moving things out. I have had a lot of things to do, lots of running around to do, and so my time at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival has been somewhat limited. I have been able to grab some screenings here and there, and I have been engaged by what I have seen, but when you have a program of over 300 films playing all over town, the onus is on the viewer to make sure you’re planning carefully and seeing what interests you. For me, this is a difficult festival at which to take a lot of chances; unlike many fests, if you don’t like something, your next screening might be 35 minutes away by subway and on foot. That is not unlike Sundance, and I understand that the growth of the TriBeCa FF has made the geographical shift central to the festival’s ambitious program, but this scope comes with a cost, and for me, the cost is the inability to spend long days running from film to film, having a festival-like experience. Manhattan has so much going on, and I am so closely tied to the ins and outs of my own life here in the city, there is no sense of escape involved, no unique sense of place. Somehow, the festival feels like simply going to the movies. Nothing wrong with that. That said, I’ve seen some interesting films at the festival.
Backstage by Emmanuelle Bercot
This was the first film I saw at the festival, and I think it will leave audiences and critics deeply divided. On the one hand, those who appreciate an over the top melodrama devoid of realism where emotions are always on full boil will be dazzled by the story of Lucie (Islid Le Besco), a young fan who falls into the inner circle of her idol, a French pop singer named Lauren (Emmanuelle Seigner). Others will find the meandering story, whereby Lucie slowly earns the trust of the deeply flawed, vain Lauren, to be pretty boring. Count me among the latter; while the initial scenes of Lauren performing and Lucie’s quivering, wild-eyed devotion to her might thrill the Pimp My Ride set, I think my personal bias against the cult of celebrity made the film seem ridiculous to me, and this sense of the absurd was not assuaged by the film’s ending, which tries to bring a moral to the tale and instead validates the star structure all over again. That said, there is plenty to recommend the movie for those interested in old school melodrama hung onto the frame of today’s pop idolatry. Again, I have nothing against melodrama as a form, and this is a fine example, but with Strand picking the film up, the melodramatic (read: Camp) appeal of the film will probably be the locus of the marketing campaign, instead of trying to get teenagers who might relate to the story to actually watch a film with subtitles and listen to pop music in a foreign language (gasp!) Agnes Godard shot the film, and while I’ve read others praising her work here, I couldn’t say; the press screening I attended was shown on what looked like a VHS screener bumped to DVD. No shame in a screener, but the low-res quality of the print prevents me offering any commentary on the visual power of the movie. The more I write, the more divided I feel and wonder how much of this is my own shit, and how much is in the film. Ah, perspective.
The Case of The Grinning Cat by Chris Marker
I believe it to be impossible for Chris Marker to make a bad movie. In his latest essay on the relationship between domestic French politics in the post-9/11 world and the sudden proliferation of a charming graffiti tag featuring a grinning cat, the master of the cinematic essay comes to terms with his personal sense of whimsy. Is it old age that brings about this charming, bemused perspective from Marker? There is no cynicism to be found in the film and despite the titular relationship to a film like A Grin Without A Cat, Marker’s latest features none of that film’s sense of outrage. Instead, Marker has penned a bemused love letter to the energy found in activism; as interest groups and political activists take to the streets of Paris in response to the hard-right shift in the political landscape (symbolized by classic French baddie Jean Marie LePen), Marker shows his admiration for the energetic activists while documenting the spread of the grinning cat, which he sees as a symbol of traditional French optimism and a simpler, happier time. The film’s wry, smart take on France’s national character may be somewhat confusing to those not quite familiar with the ins and outs of domestic French politics, but the film is a delight. Congrats to First Run Icarus for bringing this film to the US with a wonderful English narration; I can't wait to see it again.
Mr. Chat, in happier times...
Freedom’s Fury by The Sibs
In 1956, the Red Army of the Soviet Union was driven from Hungary by way of a popular uprising. A few days of freedom bloomed, but the Red Army rolled back into Budapest and crushed the revolution, re-instating a hard-line communist regime that lasted until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 (More on the Hungarian Revolution here.) A month after the violent suppression, Hungary and the USSR met in semi-finals of the Olympic water polo tournament in what was described as “the bloodiest game in Olympic history.” The Sibs (a half brother/sister directing team) have created a compelling documentary about the revolution and the way in which athletic competition can be a source of hope and inspiration for both athletes and supporters. The film seems to be ready made for television (with transitions screaming ‘commercial break’ built in to the film’s structure), but the story and the storytelling (the film is expertly narrated by Olympic medalist Mark Spitz) are both worthy of theatrical distribution. Of course, the limited domestic appeal of water polo as a sport and the historical setting of the competition will limit the reach of the movie, but Freedom’s Fury is a compelling movie with a lot to say about the importance of sport and the power of time to heal. As the film ended, I couldn’t help but think how it might feel to watch the USA’s soccer team play against Iraq in the upcoming World Cup (won’t happen, since Iraq was clearly in no shape to qualify). Here’s to hoping that one day, it can be so.
The Bridge by Eric Steel
I have no idea how to feel about The Bridge. I think the ethical issues involved in stalking potential suicide victims with a camera and filming their deaths is bad enough, but interviewing the victim’s loved ones without mentioning the fact that you planned to use their comments as voice over on top of the actual suicide footage seems beyond the pale to me. That said, the footage is absolutely compelling, and the interviews show enough emotional distance to allow for a necessary lack of psychoanalysis; as family members describe the pain that their lost loved ones must have experienced, the impulse they demonstrate is far more empathetic than analytical. This saves the film in many ways; without the family’s empathy, the audience would simply be watching one suicide after another (and thankfully, a rescue or two) as the shock of the initial jump slowly morphs into a waiting and guessing game. Who will be the next to go? As unpleasant as this experience is, in the end, I think this is a film that will draw an audience based on the powerful images of suicide. The issue I take is that, in order to obtain these images, the filmmaker has clearly swept the best interests of his subjects aside (both the living and the deceased). The director has stated that the overall interest is suicide prevention and mental health awareness, but not a single mental health expert or suicide prevention expert is interviewed. Instead, we get unfiltered pain. A compelling film, but the manipulation of audience expectation (Who’s next? When?) combined with the morally specious process of capturing suicide on film makes for some very murky waters.
The Comedy of Power by Claude Chabrol
A non-Chabrol Chabrol might be the best way to describe this movie, which details the efforts of Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert), an Elliot Spitzer-like public prosecutor (or ‘judge’? the details of the French judicial system are never made clear) who seeks to bring down a cadre of public officials abusing tax dollars for their personal profit. Unfortunately, despite a game and rather upbeat performance from Huppert, the film never uncovers a real conspiracy, instead focusing on the investigation’s impact on Jeanne’s life and career. Without the details of the crime or the themes of guilt or innocence that are the staple of most of Chabrol’s better work, the film has all of the atmosphere and none of the mystery. Instead, Chabrol replaces tension with incessant chatter, almost all of it veiled in the “you and I both know what you’ve done” code of legal gamesmanship that unfortunately leaves the audience in the cold.
The One Percent by Jaime Johnson
In his debut effort Born Rich, Jamie Johnson (heir to a portion of the Johnson and Johnson fortune) explored the lives of his peers; obscenely wealthy teens and ‘twenty somethings’ who stand to inherit vast amounts of money without having to lift more than a pinky on a tea cup. His latest film, The One Percent, details the growing (albeit deeply entrenched) gap between the rich and poor. The film is based on a rather strange dramatic arc; it is a tale of a very wealthy young man coming to the realization that when one percent of the population is worth more than the bottom 90% combined, economic injustice will prevail. I don’t know who might be shocked by this piece of information, but I have news for Mr. Johnson; it isn’t we on the bottom. Thankfully, the film is a marked improvement in both analysis and presentation over Born Rich in so much as Johnson doesn’t let anyone off the hook without at least confronting them with realistic questions. I watched the film with a combination of wonderment and nausea; the disconnect between the insanely wealthy and the rest of us really is as bad as we all feared it might be. There are some seriously out of touch people with a lot of resources at their disposal (gasp/shock). There are some terribly disenfranchised people who have a lot to say and who are horribly underserved by our society (gasp/shock). Tax cuts pile up, the rich get richer as their investment dividends are taxed well below the normal income tax rate for working people, wealthy government officials serve moneyed interests, and the rest of us struggle to get by. This is news to no one. The primary interest in this film is the access it provides to an otherwise hidden community of the rich, and Johnson does a fine job of interviewing and talking to his father’s peers and highlighting their crass sense of entitlement. But unlike films like The Corporation or The Power of Nighmares which provide an in-depth analysis and a fresh perspective on what we thought we knew, Johnson doesn’t truly seem to get to the heart of the matter or provide more than an exposé of how wealthy people speak when their guard is down. There is a more interesting story to be told than the one told in The One Percent, and maybe Jamie Johnson will be the one to tell it.
Off to Michigan and Ohio for a quick trip to see the family, then home early next week. More as soon as possible...
Hungarian Freedom Fighters were Time's Person of The Year for 1956