Film festivals are not necessarily the sum of their parts, but they tend to be viewed that way. From Sundance to Cannes, audiences delve into discussions of the films that stood out in competition versus what belonged in it, which countries produced the best work, the themes that dominated the lineup, and so on. While the Tribeca Film Festival’s program has steadily improved in recent years, these types of conversations are still difficult to pin down — partly due to the volume of films (even as it has shrunk), but also because many of its best movies are buried in sections that don’t allow the quality to stand out.
This year, the festival screened a hefty amount of documentary profiles featuring notable figures finally receiving their due. Rather than lumping the films together in a program that would allow exemplars of the approach to stand out, however, these movies are scattered throughout the program. A number of non-fiction gems have surfaced in the massive “Spotlight” section alongside the flimsy coming-of-age drama “Adult World” and Ramin Bahrani’s middling “At Any Price,” not to mention Richard Linklater’s masterful “Before Midnight,” which appropriately dominates any section where it shows up on the festival circuit.
Why not give the documentary profiles their own space to shine? Given that this type of filmmaking can be found among countless new features each year, the festival’s programmers may want to consider carving out a better space for them in the next edition. In the meantime, these movies still provide the current festival with its most impressive ingredients.
Entertainers received a fair amount of exposure among this year’s Tribeca docs. While Marina Zenovich’s “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” and Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley overview “I Got Something’ to Tell You” both faced sturdy receptions, the best of the bunch among the ones I saw was “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a title that mirrors the incendiary attitude of the movie’s irascible subject.
The impressive directorial debut of Chiemi Karasawa (who produced the sleeper festival hit “Billy the Kid” a few years back) follows the 87-year-old Broadway legend through what appears to be the last great hurrah of a ceaselessly energetic career. A foul-mouthed entertainer thoroughly aware of her theatrical persona, Stritch is seen reflecting on the ups and downs of her life, basking in a final burst of fame from her recurring role on “30 Rock” and struggling with alcoholism and diabetes.
These last elements take the movie, which contains plenty of famous talking heads offering their praise, away from the trappings of hagiography and into a far more intimate and at times disturbing look at a seeming unstoppable performer facing her own mortality. Karasawa contrasts Stritch’s fiercely individualistic stage presence — most notably in a performance of Stephen Sondheim tunes at the Carlyle Hotel — with images of the same woman in a hospital bed. It’s a humbling juxtaposition that turns “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” into a peek at the aging process irrespective of its subject’s fame. At the same time, the movie acts as the quintessential celebration of a thoroughly distinctive character.
A similar description applies to “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” Nicholas Wrathall’s compelling assemblage of interviews with and about the brilliant writer that simultaneously demystifies the allure of his approach and provides a natural introduction for those unacquainted with his work. Vidal, who died last summer, maintains the presence of a confident sage and the chief guide to his own accomplishments.
Using a mixture of interviews conducted later in his life and plentiful archival material, Wrathall pay tribute to Vidal’s versatility as he grappled with sexual and political taboos of the late fitness and early sixties while transcending the limitations of his work as a novelist by turning into a leading commentator: Footage of his legendary televised debates with friendly sparring mate William Buckley stand out in a collage of moments that provide a fitting tribute to Vidal’s historic role in the evolution of American culture.
Even so, Vidal’s writing looks fairly tame when compared with the naked bodies writhing about in the work of experimental filmmaker and poet James Broughton, whose output began in the earliest stirrings of American avant-garde filmmaking and continued into the nineties. “BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton” contains a hefty sampling of footage from Broughton’s oeuvre, including his Cannes-acclaimed “The Pleasure Garden” and free love celebration “The Bed.”
But directors Stephen Silha, Eric Slad and Down Logsdon also capture Broughton’s continuing inability to reconcile his ecstatic impulses with a troubled personal life that spanned two marriages (including one with the late Pauline Kael, whose memories are provided in voiceover narration) and a personal struggle with his homosexual urges eventually mollified with his final relationship to collaborator and former student Joel Singer. The movie mirrors Broughton’s playful demeanor and a willingness to create films that tackle heady issues of identity with physical comedy by frequently letting his work take over.
The slew of talking heads, which includes Singer, choreographer Anna Halperin, George Kuchar and various other established poets and filmmakers, capably analyze Broughton’s inspiring role in their lives while remaining mystified by his ability to tackle the mysteries of existence in his work. The movie closes with a collective recitation of Broughton’s poem “This Is It,” proving that his legacy continues through the lasting power of his creativity. That takeaway applies to all of the documentary profiles that stood out in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.