The Good, Bad, and Truly Spectacular: Tribeca Film Festival 2007


In the spirit of the thing, herewith are a half dozen random, contradictory, but generally optimistic notes on the sixth annual Tribeca Film Festival.

1. TFF = WTF?

As late as the first week in April, aspiring moviegoers looking for the dates of the Tribeca Film Festival could surf its entire website in vain, an annoyance made all the more mystifying by a splash page that asked in big bold type, “Need a little . . . Guidance?” Uh, yeah, actually, thanks for asking. For starters, what’s that ellipsis meant to indicate? Perhaps a sense of humor about New York’s upstart mega-festival, with its reputation for sprawling (literally) all over the map? A new message later appeared. “TICKETS ON SALE NOW For American Express Cardmembers.” What that says about the TFF is just as telling, speaking as it does to the festival’s unambiguous success when it comes to corporate sponsorship. But to what end? Now in its sixth year, the festival has long since lost its original, official motivation: the revitalization of downtown. Tribeca needs money like Soho needs tourists. So what does New York need from the TFF?

2. ESPN = Zzz

Corporate sponsorship of film festivals is nothing new, a necessary evil of big-event economics. But come on, an ESPN-sponsored sidebar of sports-related films? Ack. The one sure thing the TFF’s got going for it—and what makes it a potential challenge to the boutique New York Film Festival—is all the room (physical, financial) it has to play with, provoke, dazzle. The festival already screens some terrific restorations, but why not offer something more extensive and, dare I say, scholarly? A well-chosen retrospective, genre survey, or historical sidebar could easily fit in the TFF menu, and locals would wolf it up. Better yet, the festival could give carte blanche to a guest programmer—preferably someone young, adventurous, and ready to up the ante on the city’s comprehensive if often predictable rep programming.

3. More Than Meets The Eye

The festival’s harshest critics tend to fall into two overlapping categories. First, the tastemaking elite, most of whom are readying to attend Cannes in May, and who sniff at the “festival leftovers” sprinkled throughout the TFF—even though for everyone else, the local premieres of stuff like 2046, A Talking Picture, and The Power of Nightmares are an unequivocal treat. This year, civilian cinephiles will be scrambling for tickets to Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, both inexplicable no-shows at the New York Film Festival.

In the second category are those with the least first-hand exposure to the festival. That isn’t to say there’s not plenty of junk here, as there is at any festival of comparable size, but anyone who hasn’t made a discovery at the TFF simply hasn’t dug in. Sensational documentaries like
Rock the Bells and The Origins of AIDS world-premiered in previous editions, ditto indie standouts Conventioneers and The Reception, to say nothing of minor works by major auteurs (Tian Zhuangzhuang, Claire Denis) that remain undistributed.

4. $$$$

Ticket prices at this year’s festival are jumping 50 percent from $12 to $18. The festival has justified this arrogance by insisting it offers unique experiences that can’t be duplicated. As it happens, that’s 100 percent true for one event, though it will, in fact, cost you $25 (see 6, below). For everything else, the price hike is outrageous, if depressingly in tune with the tenor of post-9/11 New York. While some tickets to the super-exclusive New York Film Festival are slightly higher—if you can get ’em—seeing a movie at the TFF now costs more than Sundance or Toronto.

5. Talking To Each Other

“Here’s an opening salvo for you,” I said to festival director Peter Scarlet over a recent lunch. “If you were a Robert DeNiro film, which one would you be?” Scarlet laughs, orders wine, then mulls the question for a long time before answering Taxi Driver. “Because it seems to be the film everybody in the word knows. On the other hand, maybe that’s why I wouldn’t want to be it. Because I value more and more not being the . . .” his thought trails off, “um . . .”

Scarlet is less hesitant when it comes to defending what some consider the festival’s lack of identity, but what he sees as its energetic eclecticism. “Movies aren’t the hip thing they were 20 years ago. But I think if the medium’s going to stay alive, we’ve got to get younger people to the movies. Try to make it fun. And surprising. Last year we were using the [Loews multiplex on 34th Street] and there was a flat-panel TV showing excerpts from the films and I happened to look up and there was Ken Jacobs’s Ontic Antics. And people were looking at it. OK, so maybe 90 percent were like, what the fuck is that, but somebody was there getting curious. It’s important that these different kinds of things talk to each other.”

6. Passio = Passion

In 2006, the Telluride Film Festival presented a “pre-premiere” digital projection of Passio, a 74-minute archival montage designed to screen on 35mm accompanied by a live performance of Arvo Pärt music. According to Scarlet, a man in the audience was so moved by
Passio he offered to underwrite its staging at the TFF as a gift to his sons, who live in New York. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving! Say what you will about the TFF, but in facilitating this sublime, once-in-a-lifetime experience, Scarlet has secured a sensational coup.

Assembled by the esteemed critic, curator, and archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai, Passio juxtaposes flashes of archival imagery against a void of visual silence seared by rapid bursts of hand-drawn calligraphy (by Brody Neuenschwander, the calligrapher on Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book). The chief subject is agony: nudes wrenched in epileptic fits, dueling beetles, eye surgeries. Hand-colored psychedelic crystal patterns enliven the horrorshow; scenes from the natural world rebuke the record of human cruelty.

The clipped, avid rhythms are reminiscent of late Godard—Passio could be the terrifying coda to Histoire(s) du Cinémabut the cumulative effect, monumentalized by Pärt, is unprecedented. I was devastated by Passio on a flat-screen monitor, and can only imagine its harrowing rapture when performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Trinity Church during the festival. God knows how they’ll manage the 35mm.