Amid the Spectacle, Plenty of Worthy Films At Tribeca 2004
by Anthony Kaufman
Though you might not know it from the Zulu dancers on Greenwich Street, the Van Morrison concert, or the premiere of the new Olsen twins movie, there were actually worthy films to catch at the third-annual Tribeca Film Festival. Did anyone know that Tribeca had a tribute to experimental film guru Stan Brakhage? No matter, word from lower Manhattan was this year's selection showed a marked improvement over last year's slate.
Take, for example, the world premiere of the festival's deserving top jury award winner, "The Green Hat," which won prizes for best film and best new director Liu Fen Dou (known for his screenwriting collaborations with Zhang Yang, "Shower" and "Spicy Love Soup"). "The Green Hat" braces audiences for something singular and surprising when three armed-robbers step into a bank, but Liu's camera focuses instead on a monkey and a puppy trapped together in a small cage inside the getaway car.
Two stories of male impotence placed side by side, "The Green Hat" situates the first tale of rejection in a claustrophobic market with wall-to-wall crates of empty Coke bottles; it's a brilliantly conceived location (is this another Chinese self-critique of its growing capitalism?), where our first protagonist loses the love of his life over the telephone. The second half follows the policeman who witnesses the dejected lover's suicide and who also suffers from premature ejaculation. While the film has a sense of humor akin to Zhang's two movies ("How big is your cake?" "14 inches" goes one deadpan exchange between two male rivals), Liu's vision is far more captivating, original, and angst-ridden. Last year's competition fest winner was another Chinese film a cut above the rest, Li Yang's "Blind Shaft."
In the festival's wildly eclectic competition section, one could also find the stunning and excruciating "The Last Train," directed by Aleksei German Jr., son of the St. Petersburg master Aleksei German ("Khrustalyov, My Car!"). A recent Rotterdam entry and award-winner, "The Last Train" reveals the brutish horrors and absolute absurdity of war. Filmed in gorgeous black and white and composed of the white-washed smoke-and-fog filled snowy landscapes of the Eastern Front in WWII, "The Last Train" follows a German doctor futilely floating from one hopeless situation to the next -- where everyone suffers from hacking wet coughs and dripping noses. "It's all pointless," he says at one point. The Tribeca audience may have agreed, as they snuck out of the theater in droves, but German Jr.'s debut is a magnificent achievement of death gurgles, existential agony, and dreamy cinematography. I never thought I could catch pneumonia from a movie, but this one made me reach for my Vitamin C.
Coming from an entirely different planet, "Poster Boy," directed by first-timer Zak Tucker, inexplicably sat alongside "The Green Hat" and The Last Train" in the competition section. The film stars newcomer Matt Newton as the "Price William of the Religious Right," a gay college student whose father is a conservative North Carolina senator running a reelection campaign based on family values. Entertaining, witty, and told in flashback, "Poster Boy" finds Newton's character relating the story of his coming-out and reluctant political activism to a grizzly New York Post-style reporter. Much of the film reflects a Cable TV sensibility, but Newton gives the conflicted young man an authentic inner turmoil.
Forget the forced plot twists, trim some scenes off the end, give it a glossy post-production finish, push Newton as the next talented heartthrob, sell it to the gay and art-house audience as a topical drama about the culture wars, and "Poster Boy" (or at least Newton) may emerge as the festival's American discovery of 2004.
A far more studious, artful, and talked-about U.S. debut, "Winter Solstice," Josh Sternfeld's elegy for suburban nothingness, proved that business could get started at Tribeca; the film was the only American indie with enough buzz to initiate a bona-fide deal with a U.S. distributor during the festival. (Rumors of a deal swirled, but those affiliated with the film say nothing is set.) If distributors take their time, it only makes sense, as "Winter Solstice" never rushes a single moment.
Sternfeld's nearly somnambulant film is set around the Dairy Queens and green lawns of a small New Jersey town where very little happens -- except for a car accident that killed a wife and mother of two five years before. Anthony LaPaglia delivers a sensitive and assured performance as the widower trying to raise his nearing adult sons (two eminently likeable misfits played by Mark Webber and Aaron Sanford). And Alison Janney offers an easygoing portrayal of the new neighbor/love interest. While Sternfeld should be applauded for his subtlety, relaxed pacing, and the appeal of his characters, many of the film's potentially potent moments feel so hushed they barely register.
"Jailbait," perhaps the most claustrophobic American movie ever made, is also notable for its performances. Brett C. Leonard's adaptation of his own play confirms the acting talents of Michael Pitt -- once again an utterly believable, sexually ambiguous, heavy-lidded, troubled youth -- and foretells the abilities of playwright-thespian Stephen Adly Guirgis -- as a genial, verbose and abusive menace, who will next be seen in Todd Solondz's upcoming "Palindromes." High praise was also heard given to two other tightly-filmed accounts of male entrapment, "The 24th Day" from playwright-turned-director Tony Piccirillo, and "Blind Flight," John Furse's character study of an Englishman (the estimable Ian Hart, who won the festival's top acting prize) and an Irishman (Linus Roache) held in captivity in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Among the few documentaries I caught at this year's festival (many more of which pulled in audiences and stirred up passionate discussion among New York attendees), one of the best was Liz Mermin's world premiere "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," an irresistibly moving documentary about a beauty school opening up in the Afghan capital. Despite the culturally imperialist potential of such a project, Mermin discreetly observes the interactions between Western teachers and Afghani women to reveal an inspiring portrait of women triumphing against all odds.
As whispering men with machineguns always lurk in the background, several Afghani students -- ranging from younger neophytes to mature women who had cut hair behind close doors during the reign of the Taliban -- finally relish the chance to perform their craft out in the open. Mermin captures the vibrancy of the war-torn city (via beautiful digital images courtesy of cinematographer Lynda Hall), along with the colorful Western teachers whose behavior and style conflict with their new surroundings: especially memorable is a big and brash American tutor who loudly berates her class for not wearing makeup. Late in the film, when the Western teachers hear a hardworking Afghani student declare quite candidly that women will never attain power in Afghanistan because the men won't let them, the instructors are struck silent, perhaps finally able to understand the gap between their idealistic feminism and the realities of life in the Arab world.
Although "Beauty Academy of Kabul" screenings were all well attended by satisfied audiences (including a special showing at -- good or bad, you decide -- Prada), Mermin experienced the frustration of world premiering her film at a festival so close to Cannes. Wellspring Media owns theatrical rights to "Kabul," but the company has not yet decided whether to release the film in theaters, nor have they had the time to renegotiate rights or field additional offers, presumably as the execs push ahead for the big Cote-d'Azur event. Timely and assuredly made, and easy to market to mainstream news outlets, "Kabul" seems a natural for theatrical exhibition; let's just hope its Tribeca slot won't somehow sabotage, rather than, enable its chances. Mermin wasn't the only filmmaker to complain about the Cannes conflict. Other producers with available films had to resign themselves to trying to seal a deal at the Cannes market, or at other forthcoming festivals.
Tribeca also scored documentary work from acclaimed filmmakers Tian Zhuangzhuang ("Delamu"), Bahman Ghobadi ("War is Over!") and Fernando Solanas, who could not be missed at this year's festival with his tall, magnetic presence and wild, white hair. His return to the agit-prop filmmaking of 1967's "The Hour and the Furnaces" is an urgent, epic expose of the unemployment, poverty and destruction inflicted on Argentina by years of privatization and globalization. Chalk up Solanas' latest "A Social Genocide" alongside "The Corporation" and "The Yes Men" as the latest lashing out against the greed and injustice of the current global economy.
Perhaps the best proof of Tribeca's ability to launch important cinematic works was the few enthusiastic audiences who sought them out. While waiting for "A Green Hat" to begin, one audience member turned to me and asked eagerly, "I missed the end of 'Social Genocide.' Can you tell me what happened?"