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.
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"