You don’t need me to tell you that this year’s clutch of documentary shorts at the Tribeca Film Festival is a mixed bag. Of course it is. The day a collection of shorts isn’t a mixed bag is the day that “mixed bag” falls out of our vocabulary entirely — maybe at the Tribeca Underwater Dome City Film Fest of 2115 the metaphor of comparison for the shorts will be a “not fully oxygenated breathpack.”
But this year’s mixed bag has its must-grab beauties. Chief among them: Stefan Nadelman’s Last Call, showing in Tribeca’s “Daily Grind” series of New York shorts. Nadelman’s film is simply an interview, some photographs, and lots of evocative, animated neon.
Nadelman’s father, Sheldon, tended bar for years at the Terminal Bar, across from the Port Authority Bus Station, back when that was a place your parents would warn you to avoid. But Nadelman the elder appreciated the humanity of his customers and the tales they told of how they wound up there. In the Seventies and early Eighties, up until the bar’s closure in 1983, Sheldon took bar-lit photographs of the faces of his patrons — wonderfully expressive black-and-white portraits of drinkers making the best of rough lives. Many customers are smiling, and many of the photographs are available in the book Terminal Bar from Princeton Press.
The film, just twelve minutes long, doesn’t invite you in to linger, as the book does, and as Sheldon must have as he served up his brews. It’s more of a glittering tour de force, the faces and photos dancing about in that well-animated neon: Sometimes, they rotate like the fruits in a slot machine; sometimes they’re flipped at us like cards from a deck; sometimes one trumps the busyness, and we’re given a moment to regard it, to wonder at a world long gone — but still so close.
Through all of this, Sheldon tells stories, matching memories to faces. They’re quick, evocative, wonderful. “We had the run of winos,” he tells us, early on. Then he spills the hardboiled specifics:
• “This guy worked for Gulden’s Mustard. He was destroying himself. He said he knew the recipe for Gulden’s Mustard.”
• “Anywhere from four to six thousand dollars’ worth of cheese a week he absconded.”
• “He called me after he got out of the penitentiary. He was in a hotel a couple of blocks away with a trick, and they stole his pants.”
• “This time he had a scar from here to here. Somebody straightened the wiseguy out.”
• “He once told me these pictures of him are gonna be valuable, ’cause he’s gonna do something. Obviously, he never did anything.”
It’s a pleasure to meet him — and his subjects.
Also recommended in the mixed bag of NYC shorts: James Burns’s We Live This is a tender look at the lives of a group of “It’s showtime!” subway dancers, but even it probably won’t make you feel welcoming about it the next time one of them expects you just to trust that, as he whirls on a J-line pole, his shoes won’t clock you in the head. Vladimir de Fontenay’s What Lies Beneath the Sky, narrated by Chantal Akerman, is an evocative, impressionistic study of the city in the face of a storm — the brooding weather and the grainy Super-8 photography seem to deliquesce into each other. And Paul Stone’s Man Under offers a brief, striking look at the trauma faced by an MTA driver after an elderly woman leaps in front of his train, killing herself. Motormen in the front car often lock eyes with suicides, we’re told — and there are more suicides in New York each year than there are homicides. The story is chilling, even when coated in its documentary-by-numbers soundtrack of sad, tinkling piano mush.