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by Eric Kohn
May 3, 2010 1:54 AM
4 Comments
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Tribeca's Image Problem: Wrapping Up The 2010 Fest

With each passing year, complaints about the lackluster program of the Tribeca Film Festival sound more and more like a broken record. This time around, Martin Scorsese did, too.

In a mildly funny commercial for American Express that preceded screenings at the 2010 festival, New York's iconic filmmaker entered a drug store to pick up photos from his nephew's birthday. The thirty second spot initially showed at Tribeca in 2006, an unproblematic repetition -- but the return of a comical line creates an unlikely reminder that Tribeca's complications have barely changed over the last few years. Humorously critiquing the slipshod mise-en-scene in the party pictures, Scorsese spouts, "I've lost the narrative thread!"

Alas, so has Tribeca.

Since its inception in 2002, the festival's media image alternately invoked 9/11 (it was "born in the ashes of the World Trade Center," critic Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times last month) and iconic co-founder Robert De Niro. That may work wonders for publicity, but it does nothing for the development of a cogent identity out of the actual movies. The emphasis on community without creative content raises questions about Tribeca's programmatic motives.

At the opening press conference a little less than two weeks ago, De Niro colleague Jane Rosenthal stated the ongoing intention of Tribeca to offer "a diverse group of films to a wide group of audiences" -- in other words, something for everyone. As a guiding mandate, that declaration rings hollow, especially within the context of the program itself. In a sense, Tribeca indeed has it all, from midsize, star-studded indies to far-flung international selections. But the lack of connectivity makes it difficult to find the movies that are worth a damn, especially since even the good ones tend to divide people. My own favorites from the recent lineup had miniscule breakout potential. With the exception of the harrowing teen prison drama "Dog Pound," the highlights of my Tribeca experience occupy a niche of experimentalism that limits their appeal: The multilayered documentary "The Arbor," the handcrafted animated noir "Metropia," and the deliberately slow character study "Lucky Life" seem unlikely to find significant audiences beyond the festival circuit.

If Tribeca aimed to mainly focus on challenging fare unconcerned with its mainstream prospects, the aforementioned movies would fit right in. Instead, they become obscure anomalies in a sea of mediocrity. The festival's organizers chose to single out more conventional choices, such as the middling high school comedy "Beware the Gonzo" and the painfully derivative "Napoleon Dynamite" knock-off "Spork" as the latest breakouts. Discounting the popularity of Alex Gibney's first-rate untitled documentary about Eliot Spitzer -- which screened only once as a work-in-progress -- these cookie-cutter productions emerged as Tribeca's predetermined stars, rather than the necessary evils of a large festival obligated to mix the good with the bad.

As an alternative to hunting down "something for everyone," Tribeca could serve a better purpose by narrowing its range. Even the comparatively microscopic newbie of New York's festival scene, BAMcinemaFEST, has already cultivated a clear-cut agenda with its collection of mainly low budget American festival hits. Tribeca might want to consider a similar route, where it could provide a massive, unparalleled rundown of the greatest accomplishments from Sundance, Berlin and South by Southwest. (If Tribeca moved to the summer, it could also nab some discoveries from Cannes.)

Another idea -- with far less potential -- was suggested by The Village Voice's J. Hoberman in a piece that ran immediately prior to the 2010 festival. Imagining (dreaming?) of a cinephile-oriented gathering centered around art house theaters like the Angelika and the IFC Center, Hoberman envisioned a festival with "the power to make Houston Street our La Croisette, complete with palm trees." Aside from the obvious reality that replicating Cannes in New York City would lead to a logistical nightmare, the main reason this could never happen has to do with Tribeca's relentless populism. The festival has no steady form beyond its sponsorship. As distributor maven Mark Lipsky recently pointed out on his blog, "film festivals are, with rare exception, in it for themselves." Even if we take that expectation for granted, looking at the festival from the outside, it remains virtually impossible to nail down exactly what Tribeca wants.

The festival undeniably gets a boost from smart people laboring behind the scenes. Nevertheless, despite the evidently sincere globetrotting efforts of top programmers David Kwok and Genna Terranova, the variety of the program continues to stumble forward without coherence. Hopelessly adrift in annual efforts to define its brand, Tribeca could benefit from creating a new one. Maybe Scorsese can help.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Based in Brooklyn, Eric Kohn is indieWIRE's lead film critic. He writes a blog that is hosted by indieWIRE and can be followed via Twitter.

Recent Tribeca Fest film reviews by Eric Kohn:

Movies Within a Movie: The Anthology Documentary "Freakonomics"

Sexual Innocence: Ashley Horner's "brilliantlove"

Breathless Vanity: Kim Chapiron's "Dog Pound"

Religious Rebels: "Sons of Perdition"

Non-Fiction Innovation: Clio Barnard's "The Arbor"

The Subtext of Longing: Lee Isaac Chung's "Lucky Life"

High School Conventions: "Beware the Gonzo"

An Off-Key Trainwreck: Olivier Dahan's "My Own Love Song"

Colombian Squalor: "The Two Escobars"

4 Comments

  • larry-411 | May 6, 2010 3:25 AMReply

    Last year I wrote a piece pointing out that the festival was in "serious trouble. There is no question about that. Their problems have been well documented in the press...For one, they have lost some major sponsors...The number of films has been slashed..."

    The article detailed a few of the changes that were taking place and offered some reasons for them, based on information which had been provided by the festival. I also discussed the drastic cutback in media credentials, again utilizing statements in a Variety analysis which were attributed to a festival spokesperson.

    In response to my piece, I received quite a nasty email from the press office, accusing me of fabricating the facts upon which I based my conclusion. They claimed that nobody representing Tribeca ever said such things. I replied with the quote from the festival spokesperson in the Variety piece, attached to the exact section of my article which they objected to. The two comments were identical. I even offered to post a statement from them should they choose to provide one. Needless to say, I never heard back.

  • howardbart | May 5, 2010 2:06 AMReply

    They are too thick-skinned to take constructive criticism. As one insider told me, "As long as Jane and Bob are in charge, nothing will change." I covered this year's festival pretty instensively. In response to my last piece, Tribeca's head of publicity contacted my editors and claimed it was a personal vendetta against her. Of course, they stood by me. Eric--and J. Hoberman at the Voice, Andrew O'Hehir at Salon, deadline.com's Michael Fleming et al--are you wasting your time and talent analyzing Tribeca? Their priorities are the same as they have been from the beginning. Let's face it: It's a faux-festival.

  • Mark Lipsky | May 3, 2010 10:34 AMReply

    Thanks for the shoutout Eric. In case anyone's interested, here's the blog http://incitecinema.com/blog

  • larry-411 | May 3, 2010 7:36 AMReply

    Thank you! This is the article I've been wanting to write. You said it all.