FILM 2021

Tribeca ‘21: What We Do in the Shadows, All Together in the Dark

Bundy's strange performative psychopathy was a kind of a complex acting job all its own, devious and untrustworthy but always played in the key of Watch Me.

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Boy, are we ready. Nineteen years after the Tribeca Film Festival was invented as a kind of annual team-building retreat for all of a wounded New York, here we are again, emerging from a fog of trial and tribulation to get together, and reacquaint ourselves with the communal nature of moviegoing. It is, after all, a festival.

But will we? Even with our inner Eberts straining at the bit after over a year of being home-screen bound, it might be an uphill climb. For one thing, the fest’s Tribeca at Home virtual hub opens the gates on most of the films to anyone in the country, in their living rooms — which is different from a streaming service how? In a larger context, we may well have passed the point of no return in seeing or even caring about the difference between “going to” a movie, taking it in under the classic theatrical circumstances, and simply staying home and watching it on the best screen we’ve got, which in many cases may be very good indeed.

But that’s not a “festival,” is it? Nor is it anywhere close to the “event” context that moviegoing had for many decades, back when movies were a place you went to, and an individual film could change your life. Tribeca was from its beginning a defiant party, a self-celebration that framed itself as being bigger than its britches, gradually evolving into the downtown institution it always thought it was and bringing the measure of starfucking and showbiz pomp that the NYFF had always haughtily deferred. Of course en masse moviegoing was always the stock in the soup; without it, as we saw last year, the effort felt less like actual sex and more like internet porn, to evoke a very contemporary parallel dilemma.  

Or, put it like the critic David Thomson, who likened the difference between watching a movie on TV and watching it in a full-sized theater to the difference between looking at an aquarium and watching a whale swim past you underwater. The last 15 months may have made our already convenience-first home viewing habits practically intractable, but there’s a classic and rather unshakable argument supporting the necessity of the cinema. (We’ll get to this year’s Tribeca docket in a minute.) In 1969 the doggedly sensible philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote about how, in a traditional live-theater situation, “the first task of the dramatist is to gather us and then to silence and immobilize us,” and then, via the story on hand, “to show that this very extraordinary behavior, sitting in a crowd in the dark, is very sane.”

Helplessness has been an imperative mechanism, forcing us to experience movies as classical audiences enjoyed Shakespeare — “paralyzed” by decorum in the “black box,” and therefore forced to share the characters’ fates, empathize with their sufferings, fully engage in the emotional moment. The drama unfolds within a window of time you cannot alter, and is comprised of decisions, tragedies, fates and fortunes you cannot mitigate or prevent. Being helpless is our role, and we must accept it. Cavell retells an old anecdote, in which a Southern yokel instinctively jumps onto the stage during a performance of Othello in order to save Desdemona from the homicidal rage of a black man. Cavell doesn’t even touch on the scenario’s inherent racism — he instead looks at the man’s reaction as the antithesis of what it means to partake of and participate in dramatic art.

The Southern man ignores the difference between reality and “pretend,” but more vitally he fails to understand that there is no reason to act or interfere, because there is absolutely nothing a spectator can do to help Desdemona or deter Othello. It is precisely our inability to alter the course of the story, as we sit and are forced to endure it from beginning to end, that guarantees our emotional investment and cathartic involvement. It is our hostage status, the norms that define the audience and the stage as two complementary but separate worlds, that makes the drama work. The feelings of alarm and empathy a play or movie musters is why we’re there. We can care about Desdemona, but we can never save her.

It is, virtually by definition, inconvenient — anti-convenience, even. At home, of course, the spell can be destroyed in a thousand ways, and routinely is, and if you’re going to theorize about how our moviegoing habits have mutated over the last decade or two — toward hyperextended or even endless TV narratives, toward CGI’d explosiveness, toward re-binging thoughtlessly, toward the unthreatening safety of sequels and reboots — Cavell’s thesis may be a good place to start. The endgame question might be, do we — or even can we — care about Desdemona anymore?

Black box, take me in. Rousing from her coma, the new Tribeca fest returns with a rich docket, a hearty helping of which are actually holdovers from last year, COVID having robbed them of their fest premieres. (Awards were still doled out.) Typically, it’s a robust cross-section of what’s being made out there, beyond the multiplexes and Netflix menus, and for better or worse. Jonathan Cuartas’ My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To did, in fact, win a Best Cinematography jury laurel last year, and its off-center, claustrophobic intimacy perfectly manifests the secretive world of its protagonists: a brother (Patrick Fugit) and sister (Ingrid Sophie Schram) who kidnap and kill loners and nobodies in order to secure blood for a sickly quasi-vampiric third sibling (Owen Campbell). It’s an EC Comics scenario dished out with funereal solemnity, as what is obviously an untenable situation (“He’s not getting any better,” Fugit’s guilt-bundle mutters) helplessly spirals into cataclysm. The whys and hows and what-the-s are blessedly left dangling.

A fellow grim brooder without answers, Amber Sealey’s No Man of God takes on the last death row days of Ted Bundy, seen through the exploratory interviews conducted by FBI profiler William Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). As the infamously manipulative and seductive Bundy, Luke Kirby is the movie’s gasoline; his performance is often leeringly lurid and menacingly flamboyant, but so was Bundy; his strange performative psychopathy was a kind of a complex acting job all its own, devious and untrustworthy but always played in the key of Watch Me. Even so, the filmmakers deserve credit for the puncturing moments of context — as when the camera hones in, during a prison interview with a televangelist, on a young female crew member we know nothing about, watching Bundy spin his web, tears welling up in her eyes.

Otherwise, navel-gazing Gen-Z mood pieces are of course thick on the fest’s ground, as they are everywhere, with Noah Dixon and Ori Segev’s diaphanous and rather odd Poser leading the pack. Newcomer Sylvie Mix plays a decidedly passive hotel maid and music-scene wannabe who begins a podcast for what seems to be large parasitical purposes, attaching herself to a local vampy singer named Bobbi Kitten, played by Bobbi Kitten. Which is the odd part — the film, a kind of All About Eve for the Phoebe Bridgers set, is split between being a satire on the “scene” and a distended promo for Kitten and her band, Damn the Witch Siren, when it’s not simply dallying in dark clubs and watching the beguilingly lispy Mix watch everyone else.  

Samantha Aldana’s Shapeless is similarly fuzzy, following a budding jazz singer (Kelly Murtaugh, also the screenwriter) as she battles with bulimia, gorging and puking (Fruity Pebbles!) over and over. Swamped with filter distortions, lighting flares, and song interludes, the film has a handful of startling Cronenberg moments — that eyeball — suggesting bulimia’s body alienation, but they’re reflecting only the character’s internal state, and they’re too brief to stick. 

Randall Okita’s See for Me moves more confidently, by virtue of its very simple genre set-up: a prickly blind girl (Skyler Davenport) cat-sitting in a McMansion is beset by an armed team of safecrackers — which she evades and works against with the help of a phone app connecting her with a sighted staffer (Jessica Parker Kennedy). A Wait Until Dark plus iPhones and virtual sisterhood (even gunplay is doable for the girls), it’s a spiffy résumé B-movie and unpretentiously fun.

As you’d expect, the line-up is also filthy with inspirational profile docs: drag queens, skateboarders, activists of all kinds (in and out of a subprogram celebrating Juneteenth), woman conductors (Marin Alsop), wise old Nobel Peace Prize winners, gender-fluid Nigerian youths, female war-zone camerawomen, adolescent Olympians, Leonard Bernstein, and so almost infinitely on. If that’s your jam — more provocative, non-fiction-wise, is the Michael Moore-ish strategy Daily Show vet CJ Hunt uses, in The Neutral Ground, to investigate Southern racism through the ongoing argument around Confederate monuments — the dumb, brazen absurdity of which effortlessly musters an all-American sense of surreal comedy.

Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State is another refresher, marching us through, in Errol Morris fashion (he’s an exec producer), the insidious federal persecution of Anonymous cohort Matt DeHart, and in the process reminding us, after four Trumpian years of looking at the FBI and CIA in a heroic light, how deep-dish criminal those agencies can get.  

It often helps if a doc has a solid and unique starting point, and for Keith Maitland and Melissa Robyn Glassman’s Dear Mr. Brody, it’s a cache of 30,000 unopened letters, sent in 1970 to one Michael Brody, a hopped-up 21-year-old Scarsdale millionaire who announced, foolishly, that he would give away $25 million to whomever asks. An irritating, starry-eyed loudmouth with a serious PCP habit, who managed only a handful of giveaways as he battled with the press, Brody made himself a tortured celebrity for a while, but the film brightens when diving into the letters and, sometimes, the now-aged writers, reading their hopeful notes 50 years later. Your eyes will sting.  

Of the more inspired features, I wouldn’t miss Levan Koguashvili’s Brighton 4th, a tiny but near-perfect, semi-comic portrait of the low-rent Georgian enclave in Brighton Beach, visited from Tbilisi by an elderly ex-wrestler (Levan Tediashvili), whose ne’er-do-well son (Giorgi Tabidze) is drowning in gambling debt owed to gangsters. It’s quite like a wintery, shabby day trip to Coney Island, because the film fans out, embracing a dozen or more vivid, craggy-faced characters and their struggles and grifts, less to drive a story than to thumbnail a weathered, hard-smoking community.

Regrettably, Brighton 4th goes where you think it will, but Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers, a polished sci-fi drama shot entirely in Namibia, doesn’t quite — we’re with a homesteading family in an outpost on Mars, where threats from unexplained outlaws are ever-present, suggesting to us a social-conflict parable we can’t quite pin down. But the Mom and Dad (Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller) are on the razor’s edge of homicidal dread (as seen from the POV of the nine-year-old daughter, played by Brooklynn Prince), and what seemed like a home invasion scenario with orange skies changes and changes again; deaths occur off-screen, and we’re never sure where the story’s sympathies will go. The unarticulated macro view, of a human colony failing and collapsing over generations into a feral wasteland, is daunting.

And, a fave: Rob Schroeder’s Ultrasound is another kind of beast altogether — a clever wedge of mindfuckery that invokes the adjective “Shane Carruthian,” no small praise. Many balls are in the air — a stranded motorist (Vincent Kartheiser) and the odd couple who take him in and cajole him into sleeping with the wife (Chelsea Lopez), a tense psychologist (Breeda Wool) rehearsing a transcript of the motorist’s and wife’s conversation, an underground research complex of mysterious ends, several pregnancies and many memories that may not be real, a whiff of The Manchurian Candidate, a trace of David Cronenberg’s Stereo. Centered on a relentlessly garrulous performance by Bob Stephenson — we learn quickly he’s not who he says he is — the movie is a dizzying puzzle you don’t quite want to solve itself. It does and it doesn’t, ultimately, and sticks to your frontal lobe like a sweaty shirt.   ❖

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from June 9 – 20

Highlights