Hardy Plumbing
May 03, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

The film Lunacy is being screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. (click for larger version)
Tribeca Film Festival Part I

In May 2002, ascending the escalators at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park, one could look out the windows and spot the still fresh ruins of the Twin Towers. At the Tribeca Film Festival that first year, it was easy to feel like an earthworm, wandering through the wreckage as a way of re-enriching it — attending classics like Anthony Mann's Side Street (1950) in a futile to attempt to restore the city to its own more glorious past.

Four years later, the towers' footprints remain and construction downtown is still rampant, but the movies now play to sold-out houses and the festival has come full circle: It opened on April 25 with United 93, the first mainstream movie explicitly based on the events of 9/11. Once a desperate measure for a neighborhood in crisis, the Tribeca Film Festival is now a colossus unto itself.

In size (173 feature films), press coverage, and critical reputation, TFF is proof that anyone with limitless resources can put together a world-class festival event in less than a decade. But what of the movies themselves? One of the fest's highlights so far has been a press conference for a mediocre biopic called Colour Me Kubrick, starring John Malkovich, a real-life con man who successfully passed himself off as the great director. At the Q&A, Malkovich said what attracted him to the role was the question of why a man would put so much time and effort into impersonating someone else. "Why would you bother?" he asked. "The fundamental rule of existence is that you are who you are."

Well said — and whatever else it may be, TFF makes no bones of trying to impose a mission statement on its still-amorphous identity. Depending on what you want, it's a place to catch undistributed foreign flicks, political docs, restorations of forgotten classics, and even fresh works by icons of the avant-garde. As has been noted elsewhere, this year's edition expanded north as far as AMC Loews Lincoln Square — perhaps as a middle finger extended to the nearby (though not concurrent) New York Film Festival.

NYFF's dominance hasn't yet been threatened; even the high-culture triumphs at Tribeca come with qualifiers. As if to summarize the general tenor, Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer's Lunacy opens with a Carl Laemmle–like introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is a horror film . . . It is not a work of art." That's a dangerous salvo to a fest like Tribeca, but the waggish animator gives himself too little credit: This mélange of Poe and the Marquis de Sade (plus a little Bram Stoker), depicting life in an asylum as a deliberately false dichotomy between libertinism and authoritarian rule, is a wacky achievement of some sort. It's a droll, if overlong, Eastern European comedy with its tongue not only firmly in its cheek, but also — given the filmmaker's taste for animated organs and meat — flopping all over the hospital grounds.

So far, the fest's most caveat-free auteurist coup has been Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power, which easily could have qualified for this fall's New York Film Festival. (Indeed, it's vastly more enjoyable than Chabrol's deadly Flower of Evil, which played at NYFF in 2003.) Starring a relatively good-humored Isabelle Huppert as a magistrate fighting a lost cause against a government-business conspiracy, it's a thriller that, through a series of increasingly absurd complications, ultimately evolves into exactly the kind of farce that the title implies. Opening with an elaborate tracking shot that seems designed to parody Paul Thomas Anderson, the movie then pulls a bait-and-switch: Turns out it's actually talky, literate, and intelligently oblique — qualities that Chabrol's films have lacked for years.

Other great directors have been found working in a more minor key. Master film essayist Chris Marker (best known for his meditation on time and memory La Jetée, the inspiration for 12 Monkeys) put in an appearance with The Case of the Grinning Cat, a one-hour monologue on French politics, Franco-American relations, and of course, felines. Charming, if a tad unfocused, Marker's essay can't help but feel minor when compared to a sprawling work of footage compilation like his (strangely, unrelated) A Grin Without a Cat (1977). But in chronicling France's mood swings — from the post-9/11 moment when Le Monde declared, "We are all Americans now" to the anti-Iraq war riots — the film is a valuable contribution to the discourse.

Digging deeper into the past, Tribeca dredged up a new work from Brazilian Cinema Novo fixture Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who hasn't had a new feature film play in the states in more than a decade. Alas, the verbose Brasilia 18% — about a forensics expert investigating the death of a politically connected young woman, and repeatedly visited and laid by naked femmes, one of whom may not actually be a ghost — proved to be a less than apt introduction. It's strong evidence that the device of the limo driver as expository deus ex machina should never be used again, ever.

For great directors of yesteryear, the best bet has been to look to established classics. Shown in a new print, Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) provides startling evidence of the master's uninflected technique and essential faith in human goodness. It's being shown with Canadian avant-gardist Guy Maddin's zany short-form centennial tribute, My Dad Is 100 Years Old — in which Isabella Rossellini plays all of her dad's rivals, and the man himself is depicted only as a great, heaving belly — and the double bill makes for a moving combination.

But the most startling restoration at Tribeca hits closer to home. Newly touched-up by the Cineteca di Bologna (also responsible for the luminous print of the Louise Brooks vehicle Prix de Beaute shown on Sunday), Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery (1957) is a stunningly bleak, partially scripted documentary on poverty in the East Village. Teaming with men in soiled white-collar shirts ranting and raving as if they were in a Cassavetes film avant la lettre, it's a doc that could stand in for the festival as a whole: It's got a downtown setting and faceless masses, but everyone is welcome.

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