The thirteenth TriBeCa Film Festival can be considered a great success if growth is a value indicator. Official screening figures boast “over 120,000 movie-goers”, with “a total attendance of over 400,000”, once panels and events are included in the count. (1) I mention the attendance here at the outset because the TriBeCa Film Festival is primarily concerned with growth and gentrification; celebrating quality cinema takes a back seat.
Co-founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, “[T]o spur the economic and cultural revitalization of the lower Manhattan district through an annual celebration of film, music, and culture…”, the festival plays for the good of the city. It has generated approximately 850 million dollars in economic activity since its inception. But if gentrification equals homogenisation – as so many residents would argue that it does – then the city and its state of film are also suffering its effects. The experience of attending TriBeCa is a lot like drinking coffee from the nearest Starbucks; it leaves a vaguely satisfying but not overly enjoyable aftertaste and, more syrup than bean, the “kick” is too often altogether absent.
But, such as any coffee corporation sets out to do, the aim here is to make money. Reinforcing the world’s most powerful economic trade centre takes precedence over art and culture on the post 9/11 agenda. Most of the festival doesn’t even take place in TriBeCa. With a spattering of screenings and events in the area it was established to regenerate, the festival spills out into Chelsea and the West Village, like so much building debris, engulfing masses of the Lower West Side in its post-Bloomberg scaffolded stranglehold. The Chelsea Bow Tie cinemas are a multiplex like any other but, despite the venue’s lack of personality, the projection was impressive. It is indeed a rare pleasure to see short film programs correctly masked according to each individual film’s aspect ratio.
Aside from its focus on revitalisation of the city, this year’s slogan, “A New York State of Film”, didn’t really seem to reflect any particular focus on local filmmakers or city specific content, though both were present. With so many of its titles sitting squarely under the umbrella of American Indie fare, it wouldn’t have been very difficult to highlight stronger thematic threads, but TriBeCa doesn’t seem interested in what is predominantly a European model of festival curating. As such, the film sections were of little help in navigating one’s way through the bloated programming. “Documentary” and “Short Films” aside, the content between programs seemed mostly interchangeable. Titles like “Spotlight”, “Viewpoints” and “Storyscapes” did little to differentiate content through any instantly recognisable sorting mechanism such as genre, theme, region or style. Moreover, the handful of international films outside of the World Narrative Competition looked as if cherry picked at random. It could be that the programmers are of the opinion that categories and uniting themes don’t hold much weight, since the final word in curating belongs to the audience anyway.
And so, letting the scattered nature of the festival run its course, the so-called state of New York film revealed itself as a hotch-potch in flux; impossible to pin down just like the city that never sleeps. Such is the fractured way of big city life – one could haplessly walk the street of the Lower West Side daily without so much as an inkling that a film festival was even taking place. Meanwhile, inside the nearby multiplex content is mediating between somewhat intriguing, truly dull and occasionally captivating.
Rory Culkin was a surprise standout this year, proving that he deserves another shot at the limelight after his intuitive and captivating performance in the titular role in Lou Howe’s debut feature film, Gabriel. Culkin brings balance and reserve to his presentation of a teenager battling mental illness. Met by Howe’s empathetic eye, the result is as unnerving and upsetting as the incurable illness it portrays. Re-integrating into “everyday life” after a long stint at a psychiatric institution far exceeds the challenge Gabriel’s family prepared for. Desperate to find an old girlfriend, who showed him kindness and compassion when the rest of the world didn’t know how to regard him, he lets everything ride on slight possibility and great hope: that someone will love him and, with them, he will build a happy, stable life.
The film’s success lies in Howe’s attention to detail, allowing us to experience the heightened sights and sounds that compound Gabriel’s anxiety. Slicing through the air with all the violence that his outbursts contain, the plastic blades of a ceiling fan provide the beat to a diner scene medley of mayhem. The sounds of cutlery clinking against crockery, people chewing, talking and smacking their lips all become too much for Gabriel who storms out of the diner leaving an unfinished plate of food unpaid for on the lonely countertop. Shutting out the noise in an instant the audience is allowed a gasping moment of respite, even though Gabriel is never afforded the same relief. In the final moments of the film, Gabriel puts his heart on the line and all but begs to be “normal”. Howe then uses a stunning counter to the sights and sounds from the earlier diner scene to really push the point. The beachfront; the soft, gentle cooing of the wind at dawn and a kind face culminate, creating a great sense of calm all around Gabriel. The gentleness as a juxtaposition to his earlier eruptions make this final confrontation, that questions the stigma behind mental illness, all the more poignant.
Such unfettered beauty from a debut was, however, a singular experience. A number of so-called “breakout films” offered up a curious selection of not so inspiring directions for the future of the American Indie film. More fragmented than perhaps ever before, the films don’t seem to be moving any further towards mainstream assimilation or pushing back against it. For a tradition of filmmaking that harks back to the Beat generation, it’s surprising to see that even the social conscience films are visually and resolutely apathetic to the polemic embedded in their storylines. There was also a recurring presence of nostalgia for iconic films from the 1980s. Along with it came an unfortunate emphasis on masculinity and, as such, questions of misogyny cropped up throughout the festival. Big names led to disappointment. Instead of pushing political boundaries a number of titles stood idly by, acting as little more than safely laid stepping-stones for television celebrities to cross over into feature film. Life Partners, an enjoyable yet ultimately inconsequential film, brought Leighton Meester from Gossip Girl (2007-12), Gillian Jacobs from Community (2009-14) and Adam Brody of The O.C. (2003-07) together to the big screen in roles that just barely broke the moulds of their televised counterparts.
Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, among my most anticipated titles, also failed to enthral. Though all of Reichardt’s films to date look at aspects of outsider culture and social conscience issues, the rich character development that gave Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) their emotional hook is missing here. Thematically similar – though perhaps less self righteous than Zal Batmanglij’s The East (2013) – Night Moves sets out to present the paradoxes of trying to affect social change through extremist action. Unfortunately, despite best efforts from both Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, the characters feel like they’re working against their own internal logic. The twist ending belies too much of the well-crafted dynamic that came before it. Not only that, but the event that turns the narrative also undermines its social conviction. In trying to present a balanced view of the counter-argument, Reichardt sadly dismisses her own.
Chris Messina’s directorial debut Alex of Venice was almost as promising, though it too lacked the conviction that a message film requires if it’s to make a lasting impression on its audience. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is essentially Erin Brockovich for the middle class. She’s well spoken, intelligent, hard working, thoughtful and determined to do the right thing – even if she hasn’t entirely thought through what that might be. Fighting development to save the environment, Alex not only sees the face of her adversary but also goes on to engage with him on a very personal level. Though the encounter doesn’t change her position on the issue, what it does do is undermine it for the audience. Offering a multitude of opinions is fine, but this constant interruption of secondary and tertiary characters and storylines derails the flow and shifts focus away from the protagonist and the social issue she fights for in favour of her familial situation. Whether or not we invest in her Don Johnson’s performance of an aging actor battling the onset of Alzheimer’s or Katie Nehra’s stereotyped crazy-sister-from-out-of-town who steps in to shake things up, makes a great difference to how deeply we care about Alex’s professional plight for society. Perhaps it is because Messina himself steps into the role of wounded husband whose kindly nature was taken advantage of by an ambitious career woman that the whole thing collapses into itself. Though the look of the film is naturalistic, it amounts to little more than yet another film about a woman whose personal arc is a lesson in underestimating her vulnerability.
As further examples of poorly imagined female characters continued to crop up, my hope for the new American Independent cinema deflated. Two films that deliberately place all of their emphasis and attention on male characters, Jesse Zwick’s About Alex and Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly’s Beneath the Harvest Sky, also indulge in more than just a healthy dose of 1980s movie nostalgia. For About Alex, the reference is The Big Chill (1983). It’s so overt that one of its ensemble cast references it specifically – the age of self-reflexivity is not over yet. Still, one major narrative point of difference is that the Alex character only attempts suicide in this modern day update whereas the Alex referred to in The Big Chill was rather more successful with his efforts.
The group of unlikely bantering misfits make up a veritable feast of mediocre actors who are plastered with Hollywood style good looks; Maggie Grace, Max Minghella, Jane Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter, Max Greenfield and Nate Parker. Despite the contemporary setting for the film – it’s described in the official festival program as “A Big Chill for our current social media moment” – its depiction of gender roles are a few further decades behind still, with female characters assuming domestic roles as an excuse to steal away and talk about men and destiny. A lot like Life Partners, and various other innocuous fare in the line-up, About Alex is also exemplary of the dialogue-driven dross that thinks TV aesthetic is good enough for the big screen.
Almost entirely without women – save for an occasional appearance to reinforce a character trait of one of the two male protagonists – Beneath the Harvest Sky is an exercise in appreciating male friendships. From its obvious coming-of-age references to Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) to its not so explicit yet still present, “Stay gold, Ponyboy” glances set against a striking lens flare in front of a setting sun as in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983), the story here is about two boys whose friendship transcends external pressures and the value judgements of others. There’s even a cruel twist of fate in the film that recalls the kind of moralising that John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) became famous for, though this film looks only at class issues, assuming whiteness along with masculinity.
Beyond such middling fare the greatest disappointments on offer came from surprisingly well-lauded individuals. Joss Whedon who, since his TV days began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)has amassed no end of good will from critics and fans alike, penned the embarrassment that became Brin Hill’s In Your Eyes. The concept certainly had potential: two strangers – one boy, one girl – share a gift that allows them to see and experience things through the eyes of the other. Unfortunately, in addition to the hokey dialogue and an unimaginative aesthetic, the female characters are all written as either lacking in intellect or incredibly needy.
As if the weight of disappointment hadn’t already dragged me through the mire of mediocre-at-best American Indie fare, Courteney Cox’s directorial debut Just Before I Go was the final word in festival drivel. Starting with a poorly scripted story, continuing with one dimensional stereotypes for characters, and again with the TV aesthetic (a lot of mid range straight camera angles, medium close-ups, use of “natural” lighting and straight up polished sound), Just Before I Go sets out to push the boundaries of comedy into Seth MacFarlane’s signature did-you-really-go-there territory. Unfortunately, it is neither funny nor edgy. Never before have I surveyed an auditorium to discover a sea of faces so precisely matching my own; the cringing crowd was characterised by hands covering eyes and contorted facial expressions all spelling out d-i-s-b-e-l-i-e-f.
At the other end of the scale Gia Coppola saves James Franco’s misogynist writing from becoming a screen disaster through carefully chosen close-ups examining the characters’ psyches. There is so much flatness in Franco’s writing. The short stories that make up Palo Alto – though connected – never feel like anything more than fragmented sketches thrown together. That is, untilGia Coppola fleshed them out with faces and an unflinching camera that conveys, in lingering just a little longer than usual, so much pathos that in the book reads as nihilistic, rambling prose. While many of the characters remain reproachable, they are at least identifiable and distinguishable from the ones with whom the audience might actually warm to. It is a welcome relief to see that the graphic and glorified rape sequences are omitted from the film. Though there is inference to such events having taken place, they are never explicitly detailed and certainly not exploited in Coppola’s skilled adaptation. The abuse of both April (Emma Roberts) and Emily (Zoe Levin) is severely scaled back and the two actresses bring strength instead of suffering to their roles, repudiating any inclination to dehumanise them, something Franco allows and I’d suggest even encourages in the book.
Misogyny and mediocrity may have characterised a number of these narrative films, but that’s not to say that the entire festival should be tarred with such a damning brush. Several of the short film programs displayed curatorial nous while a series of documentaries, talks and panels offered a sidebar of discourse to the flailing fodder that is, in many instances, unlikely to find an audience outside of this festival. Maybe that’s what makes Tribeca’s seemingly bizarre selection worth paying attention to? With so much content rehashed across the international circuit, and with the bigger titles securing theatrical releases, it takes an alternative program to stand out in a city bursting at the seams.
That’s not to say that Tribeca is absolutely free from recycling films premiered elsewhere; one title from last year’s Cannes film festival was still new enough for inclusion, Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur and the festival also borrowed from this year’s Berlinale, screening the Golden Bear winner, Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice. Two of my own international highlights in the program had already screened elsewhere including the Berlinale’s Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance, d. Hans Petter Moland) and Pelo Malo (Bad Hair, d. Mariana Rondon), which played the Fribourg International Film Festival just two weeks prior.
Though it would be unfair to say that quality cinema was altogether missing from the program, it clearly didn’t sit front and centre. As the festival wore on and I stared at supposedly alternative but increasingly homogenous moving images I began to wonder about how much of a role the identity of a film festival plays in its overall success. Characterised by content, my festival experience is only as enjoyable as the films I see. And while the city outside is being revitalised, the selection of narrative cinema, and specifically American Independent film, is still in a state of distress.
TriBeCa Film Festival
Festival website: http://tribecafilm.com/festival/
1. “Tribeca Film Festival announces attendance.” Tribeca Film Festival Press Release, 28 April 2014.