The first thing that everyone likes to joke about the Tribeca Film Festival is that it’s actually the Union Square Film Festival, at least for the vast majority of attendees who identify a film festival by where the screenings actually take place. I’m sure this has already been widely noted, but it’s so ironic and so easy to criticize that I just felt like I had to say it again. No matter how hard the event tries to cram in its Tribeca roots — promo reels before every show touting Tribeca restauranteurs, etc. — logistically, it’s so clearly not centered around Tribeca anymore that it’s funny.
With that out of the way, let me say a few things about two of the films that I’ve seen at the festival.
Tribeca has been good to “The Exploding Girl,” Bradley Rust Gray’s latest feature about a young woman back home from college in New York for the summer, dealing with the vicissitudes of love and the lurking reality of epilepsy. Five screenings. A Village Voice Cover story and a pick of the festival. That’s a lot riding on an intimate character piece and upcoming indie starlet Zoe Kazan’s shoulders. While I think the film is sturdy, subtle indie work, with Gray confirming he and his partner “Treeless Mountain” director So Yong-Kim’s talent for capturing youthful confusion, quiet moments of inner turmoil and a smart sense of location (cleverly setting scenes on concrete islands in the middle of busy New York intersections), I have a few quibbles.
One, the characters feel a tad too precious and naive. Perhaps this criticism comes with being a few years shy of 40, but the protagonist’s male friend’s interest in baby pigeons felt a little too sweet for me. Secondly, I would have liked to see this movie in cellulloid rather than DV. While surely a function of budget and Hi-Def video currently compares to the specificity and detail of film, “The Exploding Girl” feels like it should have the intimate grain of celluloid–the digital here is just too cold and glossy for a film as emotionally tender and soft as Gray has conceived.
In terms of digital, you’ve got to hand it to Steven Soderbergh. The man knows the potential, the mood, the limits and the aesthetics most suitable to a low-budget digital production–and how ironic that “The Girlfriend Experience” is about the discrete charmlessness of the upper-bourgeoise. (At a reported budget of $1.4 million, it’s still probably double the cost of “Exploding Girl.”) If his last DV experiment “Bubble” was criticized by some for condescending to middle-class America, he’s on more familiar terrain here with an icy, lacerating look at the lives of the rich during these recessionary times.
Of course, everyone knows the movie is about a high-class call-girl played by real-life pornstar Sasha Grey, but the metaphor is clear: it’s just as much about capitalism-as-prostitution, and the way shallowness and materialism defines the aspirational American dream, not to mention a few other things: the pathetic state of wealthy men in search of attention and the way we are all, in some way or another, subject to the criticisms of vindictive amateurs in the Internet-age. (There’s also an array of self-reflexive ironies: the fact that a group of slimy rich guys take a weekend getaway to a swanky Las Vegas hotel recalls the sparkling allure of the “Ocean’s 11” movies–but now subverted.) I won’t give away the film’s final scene, but it’s a mystifying bit of political and sexual critique that I’m sure some paying writer has already or will take the time to parse out. For now, I’m wondering if I should see the film a second time.