Chats perchés

April 25–May 7, 2006

Founded in 2002 in the wake of the WTC attack as a way of celebrating and reinvigorating its neighbourhood, the Tribeca Film Festival has outgrown its origins, both in its location – though still anchored in Tribeca, the festival now encompasses venues as far away as the Upper East Side – and in its scale (ever-expanding, the event packed 250 movies into the program this year). Despite the proliferation of titles, the films themselves at times seemed overwhelmed by the marketing blitz accompanying the event – the ubiquitous American Express ads all around town did not inspire great hopes for the quality and adventurousness of the selection. Since 2003 however Tribeca has been programmed by the well-respected Peter Scarlet, former programmer for the San Francisco International Film Festival, and if the sheer volume of films included inevitably meant that there were a great deal of underwhelming films to be seen (it almost goes without saying that neither I nor any of the critics I spoke to saw more than a small percentage of the whole program), it took only a little effort to find worthy ones.

Documentaries were thick on the ground in Tribeca as usual, a trend which is hard to argue with – even if many of them were unremarkable cinematically, they could usually be counted on to illuminate and edify. This only goes so far though – there’s nothing as frustrating as watching a documentary so misguided in the presentation of its material that the subject matter is obscured and sabotaged. Though there were undoubtedly many films of this type in the festival, I was lucky enough to see only one – Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre’s Maquilapolis: City of Factories (2006). Focusing on some of the most egregiously exploited victims of globalisation, the workers at the factories hastily built by a number of major multi-national corporations just over the Mexican border, Maquilapolis documents the poverty of their lives, the injustice with which they are treated by their employers, and the nearly insurmountable obstacles they face in trying to assert their human and legal rights. Needless to say, calling attention to the lives of these men and women, and to the unspeakable and unchecked cruelty practiced by the companies and factories that employ them, is an invaluable project. And when the filmmakers content themselves with simply recording the daily existence of the workers they meet (or when they give the cameras to the workers themselves), the film is extremely powerful and compelling. But like many documentary filmmakers before them, Funari and de la Torre underestimate the power of their own material. Anxious to hold our attention, they resort to a number of dubious strategies – using digitally saturated colours, switching to slow-motion, forcing the workers into strained, over-determined poses and compositions – that unwittingly distance us from the reality they’re attempting to document. It’s more than just a matter of aesthetics – rather, it’s a question of a basic misunderstanding of the power of the unmediated image, of unadorned documentation of experience.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple

At the other end of the spectrum was Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (2006), by the experienced documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, on Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, a gripping film on an amazing subject. A great part of the film’s strength is a result of Nelson’s access to footage of Jones and his followers, both in the US and most memorably in Guyana, and of his success in tracking down and gaining the cooperation of a number of the (very few) survivors of the Temple’s eventual mass-suicide. The film’s last half hour features extensive excerpts of the devastating footage shot by the camera crew accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan on his disastrous visit to Jonestown, as well as film shot by members of the People’s Temple during the administering of the poison. This footage is so heart-rending to watch that the film risks upsetting the fine balance that any study of the People’s Temple must strike between, on the one hand, the obvious response of horror and disgust at the Temple’s tragic end, and on the other an understanding of what drew people to the Temple in the first place, the authentically positive impact it had on the lives of many of its members. The group’s spectacular and horrendous demise can hardly help but take centre stage, but it should not be allowed to obscure the complexity of the phenomenon that was the People’s Temple. For the most part, Nelson does an excellent job of conveying this paradox, identifying the Temple’s revolutionary doctrine of racial equality, its social significance, and the political influence it wielded at its height, all of which emerge from his interviews with the survivors, for many of whom the Temple had a meaning and a value whose loss they have never recovered from, even as its violent end claimed many if not all of their loved ones.

Somewhere in between the two poles of amateur and professional documentary filmmaking was The Cats of Mirikitani (2006), a film that admirably illustrates how fine a non-fiction film can be, no matter how few resources at its disposal, when it simply trusts its subject to hold the audience’s attention (of course, it doesn’t hurt when the subject is so inherently fascinating). The genesis of the project was the filmmaker Linda Hattendorf’s desire to create a documentary portrait of Tsutomo Mirikitani, a homeless NY street artist she had been observing for some time. Part of the beauty of the film is how the process by which Hattendorf’s conception expanded, deepened, and was transformed by various factors becomes part of its story. What starts as part of a familiar and rather dubious genre (a privileged filmmaker’s portrait of an under-privileged outsider, a “character”) becomes something much more complicated when Mirikitani is displaced in the aftermath of 9-11. Hattendorf opts to take him in, a decision which makes her an active participant in her own film as she helps her new roommate navigate the city’s social-services network and secure a home of his own. Hattendorf avoids the opposing pitfalls of comfortable detachment on the one hand and self-congratulation on the other – she doesn’t make a big deal of her involvement in Mirikitani’s life, presenting it matter-of-factly as a series of small decisions motivated not by heroism or saintly altruism, but simply by a sense of responsibility towards this man whose life she has chosen to film. She acknowledges, without over-emphasising, the comic awkwardness of taking Mirikitani in, as he quickly makes himself right at home and becomes more than a little demanding. Still, all this is only an aspect of the film, and far from the most important – the focus is on Mirikitani’s past, which encompasses a great deal of the past century’s most tragic scars (born in Sacramento, he was raised in Hiroshima, returning to the US before the war only to be imprisoned for several years in a Japanese-American internment camp), and on his path through the NY social-services system. What at first seemed destined to be a charming, superficial street portrait turns out to be a deeply moving, often heartbreaking, but legitimately affirmative reflection on the impact of a century worth of history and conflict on one lost soul’s existence.

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Representing another strain of non-fiction filmmaking, Mary Jordan’s long-awaited documentary on the legendary underground artist, filmmaker, writer, performer, and force-of-nature Jack Smith, titled Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006), is an admirable attempt to convey both the anarchic, wholly original spirit of its subject and his under-recognised importance. The film is packed with rare footage and other material, as well as testimony from an impressive roster of friends, admirers, and witnesses to Smith’s life and work, including Tony Conrad, Richard Foreman, Gary Indiana, Ken Jacobs, Mike Kelley, George Kuchar, Taylor Mead, Jonas Mekas, Mario Montez, Billy Name, John Waters, Robert Wilson, Holly Woodlawn, Mary Woronov and John Zorn. Jordan labours to infuse her film with some of the energy, restlessness and creative spirit of Smith’s own work, and sometimes she succeeds. But many of her strategies amount to little more than superficial decoration, masking the film’s basically conventional approach (archival footage combined with talking heads). The most frustrating thing about Jordan’s film is that, despite the abundance of footage by and of Smith, this footage is generally presented in such a fragmented form that you come away feeling like you’ve glimpsed his work without really having been allowed to experience it in depth, to truly engage with it – the film communicates a quality of Jack-Smithness but only in a vague, unedifying way. Any exposure for Smith is to be applauded, and for the uninitiated Jordan’s film is a perfectly decent introduction. But only intermittently, and mostly thanks to the testimony of its many witnesses, is it more than that.

Far more unique is Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004), the new movie by one of the fathers of the essay-film, Chris Marker. Though not major Marker on the order of Sans Soleil (1983), The Last Bolshevik (1993) or A Grin Without a Cat (1977/2002), Chats perchés is an excellent example of his brand of highly personal, utterly unique reportage. Triggered by his fascination with the painted cats appearing on buildings throughout Paris in 2002, Chats perchés gradually develops into a wide-ranging meditation on the state of the world in the aftermath of 9-11, as the extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen outpolls the socialist Lionel Jospin and George W. Bush goes to war in Iraq. As always, Marker interweaves a number of themes, motifs and tones, structuring his observations around the phenomenon of the painted cats (as well as his own, much noted obsession with the feline species), and maintaining a whimsical, ironic (but never flippant) attitude no matter how ostensibly grave his subject (most memorably perhaps when he responds to footage of Bush delivering his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein by remarking, “Let’s just imagine Churchill giving Hitler forty-eight hours to get out of Germany”).

Several of the fictional features I saw at Tribeca incorporated elements of documentary filmmaking as well, though in the case of Brothers of the Head (2005), the combination was not a fruitful one. Telling the story of two conjoined twins discovered by an exploitative rock and roll impresario in whose hands they are transformed into a hugely successful novelty act, Brothers of the Head mimics the form of a rise-and-fall-style rock documentary, complete with faux-archival footage, talking-heads, and Gimme Shelter-inspired moviola-scrutinised tragedy. Made by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (best known for Lost in La Mancha, their record of Terry Gilliam’s doomed adaptation of Don Quixote), Brothers of the Head is insufferably clever and way too pleased with itself, expending far more energy and creativity recreating the look and conventions of a rock and roll documentary – the varying film stocks, the supposedly spontaneous camera-work, the mannerisms non-actors adopt on-camera – than developing its characters and themes. The movie somehow feels exploitative despite being a work of fiction – it’s not the twins who are being exploited but the emotional substance of the material, which is thrown aside in the interests of a superficial conceit.

Mani Haghighi’s Kargaran Mashgoul-e Karand (Men at Work) (2006), like countless Iranian movies of the past decade, also adopts a documentary-like aesthetic, but here the approach feels far more purposeful. Conceived in the allegorical mode so characteristic of Iranian cinema, Men at Work is founded on what seems the slenderest of ideas – four middle-aged, urban, upwardly mobile Iranian men on a road-trip find themselves fascinated by a strange, obelisk-like rock formation they discover (during a bathroom-break) on the side of the road. Their immediate, instinctual reaction is a near-primal, inarticulate desire to topple this (phallic) rock, to push it over the edge of the cliff on which it’s perched, simply to see what will happen. Though decidedly modest and unassuming, Men at Work expands this disarmingly simple situation into a sustained and engrossing film, revealing the backgrounds and interrelations of the four men as they make several attempts to uproot the rock, and eventually expanding to encompass several other characters who complicate the film’s subtext. Men at Work suggests many possible meanings while maintaining a stubborn ambiguity to the end. It’s an unspectacular film, but a resourceful and memorable one.

Comedy of Power

Of the more conventional fictional features I saw at Tribeca, several were by major figures in world-cinema – including Brasilia 18% (2006) by the Brazilian Cinema Novo pioneer Nelson Pereira dos Santos (a new print of his 1963 classic Vidas Secas [Barren Lives] was also screened at the festival); Sileni (Lunacy, 2006) by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer; and L’Ivresse du pouvoir (Comedy of Power, 2006), Claude Chabrol’s 55th feature film – though none were at the level of their greatest work. I’ve always felt that Svankmajer, many of whose short films are brilliant, has difficulty sustaining his inspiration over the course of his features. Lunacy, which is mostly live-action, with the animated sequences serving largely as punctuation between scenes, is provocative and impressive, but Svankmajer doesn’t quite succeed in reinvigorating the rather well-worn idea of insanity-as-metaphor, and the film ultimately becomes overbearing and tiresome. About Brasilia 18% the less said the better – I haven’t seen much of Pereira dos Santos’ later work, but it’s hard to believe that this film, which plays like some mediocre late-night-cable thriller, could’ve come from the man responsible for such masterpieces as Vidas Secas and Como Era Gostoso O Meu Francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, 1970). Comedy of Power was easily the best of the three, a typically understated (and aptly titled) reflection on the allure and the abuse of power, in its various forms. Comedy of Power features the inevitable Isabelle Huppert as a petite but unrelenting examining magistrate determined to bring down the entrenched and corrupt boys club that constitutes the corporate elite, but in Chabrol’s hands this is no Erin Brockovich – as usual he delights in upsetting our expectations. Huppert’s Jeanne Charmant-Killman (her last name is hilariously apt) pursues her prey with such malicious glee, luxuriating in her own, self-righteous power, that we find ourselves feeling sympathetic towards the corrupt, criminal businessmen she is prosecuting. If Comedy of Power flirts with misogyny in its portrait of the man-eating, aggressively driven Jeanne, positing itself as a male-nightmare/legal-revenge flick, Chabrol eventually complicates his already-subversive premise, gradually humanising Jeanne and allowing her to distance herself from the film’s power-thirsty world.

The strongest of the fiction films I managed to see was Der freie Wille (The Free Will, 2006), by the German director Matthias Glasner. A double character-study, the film focuses on Theo (Jürgen Vogel), a convicted rapist released, after a decade in treatment, back into a world he is barely able to function in, and Nettie (Sabine Timoteo), a troubled young woman, finally liberating herself from her disturbed and possibly sexually abusive father, who becomes involved with Theo. After a brutal opening in which, without any background or contextualisation, we witness Theo raping and beating a young girl, The Free Will flashes forward to his release a decade later. For the rest of its unhurried, expansive length, The Free Will harrowingly conveys the painful, unceasing battle Theo wages against his own worst impulses, a battle which can be won only by a lifetime of unceasing vigilance and self-discipline, but which can be lost with only a moment’s misjudgment. Though the threat of sensationalism looms over the project, The Free Will largely avoids this trap, thanks to its patience, its generous but clear-eyed characterisations, and its bracingly despairing tone. By no means an easy or pleasant film, The Free Will is nevertheless unforgettable.

Tribeca is a film festival that aspires to include something for everyone – from glitzy, high-profile premieres (Mission: Impossible 3 was the headliner this year) to several programs of avant-garde work (aside from the Jack Smith film, this year included a documentary on Marie Menken, a new feature-length video piece by Ken Jacobs, a program devoted to the late Nam June Paik, and shorts by Laurie Anderson, Bill Brand, Grahame Weinbren, Ken Kobland and Robert Wilson), and from the multitude of locally-themed features and documentaries to a large selection of films from all over the world, not to mention a number of screenings of restored classics (Vidas Secas was joined by films like The Big Combo [Joseph H. Lewis, 1955], Francesco, giullare di Dio [The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini, 1950], and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery [1957]). If there’s an incoherence, a naked commerciality, and an excessive sprawl to the festival that makes it much harder to take seriously than the more purist, highbrow New York Film Festival, it’s also relatively easy to ignore the circus, to filter out the noise, and to see a number of films that, given the sorry state of film distribution, may very well not reappear even in New York. The city needs this kind of sprawling, all-encompassing festival – if Tribeca casts its net too widely and indiscriminately, it’s also true that among all the flotsam there’s more than enough of value to justify its existence.