April 19–May 1, 2005
It’s hard to describe New York as a film-festival-starved town, with the 41 year-old New York Film Festival towering most visibly over a teeming hive of more specialised cousins, from those countless events catering to just about every nationality you can think of (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and Spanish Cinema Now, of course, but also festivals devoted to the movies of Russia, Poland, Mexico, Korea and Bosnia-Herzogovina, to name a very few), to others whose identities are cultural (the Underground Film Festival), sexual (the Mix Fest and the New Fest are two of several gay and lesbian events), or thematic (such as the Human Rights or even the Bicycle Film Festival). Despite, or possibly because of, this glut of cinematic celebration though, one species of festival has until recently been conspicuously absent – the sort of vast, sprawling, market-place like event that descends once a year on cities like Toronto, Berlin, Rotterdam, Sundance, or even, to less fanfare, Chicago or San Francisco. Well, thanks to a national tragedy and some highly influential, motivated, and wealthy movers and shakers, this particular vacuum has been filled. This year’s edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, its fourth, reached new heights, in quantity certainly (with almost 250 movies packed into 11 days), but apparently also in quality. I say apparently because, with one glorious exception, most of the movies I saw struck me as more or less disappointing. But I failed to see a large enough sample to pass judgment on the festival as a whole, and reports from other critics and festival-goers suggested that I missed some of the stronger films (I was especially unhappy to let Claire Denis’ Towards Mathilde  slip by me). And more importantly, many of the movies I caught, even when they failed to live up to my expectations, were movies I wanted to see whether they proved disappointing or not.
Movies like Tickets, Singing Behind Screens and Midwinter Night’s Dream would probably have been excluded from the NYFF, and for good reason given that festival’s modus operandi. But a true movie culture is not only about the cream of the crop, it’s about surveying the terrain, experimenting, valuing movies that are challenging, inventive, and ambitious, even when they fall short of success. There are filmmakers (like Ermanno Olmi, whose Singing Behind Screens  showed up at Tribeca) whose new movies I want to see whether or not they are perfectly achieved. In terms of the level and consistency of quality, there’s really no comparison between Tribeca and the New York Film Festival – I would guess that at least half of the films screened at Tribeca are of little or no interest to a serious film buff. But what Tribeca offers is choice, the opportunity to determine your own itinerary, to make discoveries, to program your own festival in a sense. Though the programming still has a way to go before coming within hailing distance of, say, Cannes, Rotterdam or Berlin, Tribeca is becoming the sort of festival which rewards those who are willing to do the research and make the effort to seek out the jewels – as opposed to the NYFF, which seems to cater more to a crowd who prefers their masterpieces presented to them on a silver platter.
With its multiple venues, endlessly overlapping films, numerous panels and special events, and its competitive sections, there’s a circus quality to Tribeca, for better or for worse. It can be distracting, and of course it attracts the legions of scenesters and industry vultures who thankfully tend to stay away from the NYFF. But whereas the NYFF, with its extreme selectiveness and its single venue, is not much more than a high-priced version of the numerous series the Film Society presents throughout the year, Tribeca does boast a certain level of excitement and momentousness – it does at least feel festive. Even when the films disappoint, the sport of choosing your path, crisscrossing the neighbourhood, and recognising the throngs of fellow festival-goers among the regular city crowd, is pleasurable in itself. Having to dart from one venue to another makes the city itself a part of the festival, which is not true of NY’s other film events.
Of the movies I managed to see, by far the greatest was James Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004), a film which could hardly have been less appropriate to this particular festival. A serene, contemplative film with a minimal human presence, 13 Lakes presents just what it promises: 13 lakes across North America, each one filmed in a fixed, ten-minute-long shot. Needless to say, the film demands a certain patience, but once you make the necessary adjustments, it becomes a truly overwhelming experience, neither slow, nor boring, nor static, at least not in the conventional (negative) senses of those words. 13 Lakes demonstrates the paradoxical experience engendered by the greatest minimalist works of art – its formal simplicity expands our perception, sensitising us to a multiplicity of phenomena we would normally overlook entirely. As the ten minute duration of each shot elapses, the frame appears to come to life, the seemingly static and unremarkable gradually revealing a sea of detail and activity, of motion and change, the more dramatic for being so subtle. In one shot rain begins to fall, lightly enough that it fails to register on the soundtrack, the only evidence the tiny, fleeting pinpricks visible in the surface of the rolling lake, a visual effect of exquisite beauty. We would barely notice such a detail if the film were not so “empty”, but in context it is as momentous and powerful as any dramatic revelation.
As a whole, the film is animated by the contrasts between shots, the variations in the quality of light, the colour of lake, land and sky, and the relationships of these three elements compositionally within the frame (the shape of the land is particularly variable, sometimes a solid, looming backdrop, sometimes a barely perceptible strip where water and sky meet, and in one shot an island-like form, seemingly floating in the centre of the frame). The compositions are often breathtaking, many of them in their near-abstraction resembling Rothko paintings, with thick bands of lake and sky separated by a thin line of land. But seen from a representational perspective, there’s also a fascinating, evocative counterpoint between the immediacy of the foreground, in motion and full of detail, and the remoteness of the receding lake and the land in the distance, timeless and unknowable in their stillness. Depth of space has rarely felt so revelatory or mysterious, so philosophically suggestive and poetic.
An interesting counterpoint to 13 Lakes, even if I found it to be almost unbearable to sit through, was Amir Naderi’s Sound Barrier (2005), a film as radically stripped down as Benning’s, but manic and feverish rather than calm and contemplative. The central character is Jesse, an 11 year-old deaf-mute child who discovers that there may be a tape recording of his dead mother’s voice in a locker in a Queens storage facility. In a brief and elliptical series of scenes, we witness Jesse’s discovery of this knowledge and his securing of the key to the locker. The great bulk of the following 90-plus minutes consists of two scenes: for something like 45 minutes, we sit by as Jesse enters the storage locker, finds boxes and boxes full of labelled cassette tapes, and systematically searches through these boxes, growing increasingly desperate, violent and destructive, ripping open the containers, hurling the cassettes aside, and generally laying waste to the room until, finally (FINALLY!), he finds what he’s looking for. The second scene takes place on the busy, clamorous Pulaski Bridge (which links Queens and Brooklyn), where Jesse, who lip-reads, desperately tries to find someone who will listen to the tape and recite what they hear. After finding, with great difficulty, someone who will help him, he discovers that the tape holds a revelation about the cause of his condition, and destroys it in a fit of rage.
The boldness of the film’s structure is admirable, and I found myself fascinated by the first scene, with its hypnotic repetition, its almost sculptural representation of obsessiveness – for the first 15 minutes or so, anyway. Its power has something to do with the fact that, at this point, we don’t really know who this child is or what exactly he’s looking for, leaving us only with this remarkable, animal immediacy, this pure spectacle of feverish physical activity. But as the scene goes on and on (and on), as it ceases to be a scene, per se, and becomes the core of the film itself, it begins to test the patience even of those among us who love say, 13 Lakes, or an ostensibly narrative but radically uneventful film like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The fact that we know so little about Jesse becomes less a matter of mystery and more of a liability. The little we learn about him by observing his behaviour – that he is desperate and hysterical – can’t justify 45 minutes of endless repetition.
And when Sound Barrier squanders the interest inspired by its structural purity, it’s in trouble, having little else to fall back on. Its derivative, melodramatic plot (the revelation of a childhood trauma miraculously curing deafness), its student-film-like direction and editing, and its crushingly obvious experiments with sound and silence (which basically consist of cutting back and forth between subjective shots accompanied by a low rumble and objective shots with ambient sound), fail to compel. And in the last half hour, with Jesse’s prolonged freak-out occasioning a much more cacophonous passage of sound-silence counterpoint, Sound Barrier becomes truly excruciating – it left me longing to be deaf.
Sound Barrier may have been awful, but it was at least memorably awful. Tenja (Hassan Legzouli, 2004), a Moroccan road-movie, the French sex comedy Côte d’Azur (Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, 2005) and the documentaries Souls of Naples (Vincent Monnikendam, 2004) and The Lady in Question is Charles Busch (John Catania and Charles Ignacio, 2005) were far more watchable and yet less interesting than Sound Barrier. Goran Paskaljevic’s Midwinter Night’s Dream (2004), the story of a haunted man returning from war who attempts to start a new life with a single mother and her severely autistic child, is something else entirely, a remarkably moving film for most of its length, with an ending so contrived and manipulative that it squanders all the power it has built up. Costa-Gavras’ The Ax (2004) is no great shakes either, with its tired literalisation of the concept of “killing to get ahead”, though it gradually becomes clear that its stylistic flatness is intentional, and it cultivates a loopy, tricky tone that won me over eventually (I like the film if only for the one brief moment in which Bruno, the homicidal protagonist, catches a glimpse of himself in a dressing room mirror, brandishing a butcher’s knife in preparation for a murder, and responds by pulling a face at himself).
Aside from 13 Lakes (and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, which proved impossible to get a ticket for), the films I was most eager to see were Singing Behind Screens, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 (2004) (which had impressed critics at Rotterdam), and Tickets (2005), a collaboration between Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach. All three were more or less disappointing, although only 4, a miserabilist, apocalyptic film whose dark vision felt more like affectation than like anything substantive or truly disturbing, left me completely cold.
Tickets is an omnibus film of sorts, although the three chapters share a setting – a train en route from Austria to Rome – and overlapping characters. Olmi’s contribution is a dense, enigmatic, highly charged mood-piece, centering on an aging professor whose memories of a fleeting interaction with a beautiful young colleague preoccupy him during his trip. Though underdeveloped and slight, it’s a strange and intriguing short film, the professor’s reverie interrupted by and contrasted with a much more immediate act of casual cruelty on the part of a foreign soldier. Kiarostami’s, a more matter-of-fact piece, comes next and if it’s difficult to relate to his other work, it’s also quite good, a memorable portrait of a monstrous woman transformed, in an instant, into a sadly lost creature. About the Loach segment, though, the less said the better: shamelessly contrived and sentimental, it’s also offensive in its emphasis on the moral heroism and self-sacrifice of its Scottish football-loving protagonists over the plight of the desperate Albanians they so charitably assist.
Singing Behind Screens dramatises the story of the widow of a 19th century Chinese pirate, who takes over from her husband after his death. The story is ostensibly acted out onstage in a magnificent brothel, allowing Olmi to move back and forth between different levels of reality, with the actors’ stage-bound recreations of the events merging with Olmi’s own, fully cinematic representation of the story on the high seas. Singing Behind Screens attempts to achieve the fluidity and complexity of Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963), but despite moments of breathtaking beauty and inventiveness, it has a dreamy, diffuse quality which may be hypnotic and dazzling but finally gives the film the feel of an extended music video – its surface is highly seductive, but it never quite takes hold.
I also caught a screening/presentation of Mackendrick on Film, a work-in-progress concerning the teachings of Alexander Mackendrick, the British filmmaker most famous for his work at the Ealing Studios (where he made The Man in the White Suit  and The Ladykillers , among others) and for his American film The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), who spent the last 25 years of his life on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts. A combination of footage of Mackendrick teaching and speaking at CalArts, filled out (liberally) with recent interviews with many of his students, the 90-minute version of Mackendrick on Film shown at Tribeca is, according to Paul Cronin, who compiled it, just one piece in what eventually will be a seven-hour work. What was screened was intermittently fascinating, with Mackendrick’s ideas articulated, discussed, and most usefully, applied to his own works (and others’), though his theories do not seem substantive or important enough to merit an epic-length documentary. Ironically enough, given Mackendrick’s legendary skill in expressing an idea in as few words (or more accurately, images) as possible, even this short excerpt of Mackendrick on Film proved badly in need of editing, with the students’ testimony becoming at times embarrassingly repetitive. Nevertheless, as a kind of illustrated lecture in film practice, and as a portrait of Mackendrick himself, a charismatic, charming, and hyper-articulate teacher, Mackendrick on Film was highly rewarding.
If 13 Lakes was the only film that overwhelmed me at Tribeca, that’s in large part because of what I missed – not only the Denis and Wong Kar-wai films, but also Robert Guediguian’s The Last Mitterand (2004), Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004), Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2 (2004), Sally Potter’s Yes (2004), Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), Robert Drew’s From Two Men and a War (2004), and others. It’s always been a sad paradox that NY, the American city with the most thriving film culture, has never had the kind of festival that gives filmgoers a first crack at a broad swath of international cinema – for filling this gap, Tribeca is already a welcome addition to the scene here. If its programming continues to improve, as it has steadily over the past three years, it could soon become indispensable.