The 2009 Tribeca Film Festivalby Oren Shai
Eighty-five feature films made this year’s edition of the Tribeca Film Festival leaner then ever. Among the remarkably many promising directorial debuts featured were few stereotypical indies—a description no longer fitting a mode-of-production but instead now referencing a popular genre produced by the studios. Another worthy trend was the more or less 90-minute running time for most films. It seems that 90 is the new 140, which is a hugely welcome change.
Black Dynamite (Dir: Scott Sanders)
Susan Sontag defined camp as a love of the artifice and the exaggerated; Blaxploitation, Kung-Fu, Fu-Manchu, and a badass hero “Blacker than the Ace of Spades” certainly qualify. Michael Jai White stars as Black Dynamite, a Vietnam vet out to avenge his brother’s murder and clean the city of drugs. Of course it’s set in the ’70s. Jai White channels Richard Roundtree and Jim Brown without a shred of self-awareness, because he is Black Dynamite. Holding black belts in seven karate styles, White reminds us that when an actor can actually deliver on the action, there is no need to keep shaking the camera. Black Dynamite spoofs exploitation genres but never becomes “bad-on-purpose.” In fact it’s good on purpose, exceptionally well shot and directed, always respectful to the originals.
Don McKay (Dir: Jake Goldberger)
Don (Thomas Haden Church), a janitor, returns to his hometown after receiving a letter from his dying high-school sweetheart, Sonny (Elizabeth Shue). She wishes to spend her last days with him. Marie (Melissa Leo), Sonny’s nurse, welcomes Don to her house. She points at a deadly weapon mounted on the wall, “You never know when you might need an axe.” She’s right. Webs of deceit entangle these characters in a light-hearted film noir. A throwback to James M. Cain’s stories, directed as a comic melodrama and reminiscent of the Coen brothers (Goldberger cites Blood Simple as an inspiration). Shue—perfectly cast as Sonny—portrays more of a hysterical 1950s woman then a femme fatal. Haden Church carries the weight and presence of a 1940s actor even as he plays the everyman.
Stay Cool (Dir: Michael Polish)
Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish), a successful writer, prepares to deliver the commencement speech at his high school alma mater. Upon arriving in town, Henry encounters various characters, portrayed by actors who graced the screen during the ’80s: Winona Ryder as the unattainable high-school crush; Sean Astin as a flamboyant gay best-friend; Chevy Chase as the high school principal; Jon Cryer as Henry’s literary agent and Henry’s parents, Dee Wallace (E.T.) and Michael Gross (Family Ties). No, Stay Cool is not a National Lampoon’s 1980s Reunion movie (there’s an idea). Set in a John Hughes world twenty years later, it’s instead a nostalgic, sentimental journey that lacks the emotional integrity of The Breakfast Club or even Pretty in Pink. Winona Ryder so wholly embodied the spirit of adolescence during her star years, reaching a peak that summed up a generation in Reality Bites. Her sincere performance in Stay Cool allows her to reflect on the roles that defined her. She still possesses the ravishing adolescent charm that made her a star to begin with. Ryder’s demotion from a leading lady to Spock’s mother in Star Trek is a shame.
The Girlfriend Experience (Dir: Steven Soderbergh)
One of the most experimental mainstream filmmakers in the United States, Steven Soderbergh embraces different technologies, means of distribution, formats, and structure. At the same time, he resembles the old-school studio professionals who seamlessly shifted between genres, directing an action caper one day and a female melodrama the next. The Girlfriend Experience, a slice-of-life minimalist drama, poses the question: how does the economic crisis affect a high-end call girl? Sasha Grey, the porn star, takes the lead as Chelsea. The film juxtaposes several key scenes set at different point in time. Each scene fraction reflects on the previous, projects the next, slowly unveiling the plot and relationships between the characters. The lack of dramatic elements causes this interesting and clever structure to lose steam around the mid-point. Few could have achieved Sasha Grey’s credibility in the role of the call girl. A truly inspired casting choice by Soderbergh, Grey proves talent exists in the adult industry. In the 1970s, porno’s massive success threatened to merge with the mainstream, rousing false dreams of grandeur. Deep Throat broke the market as one of the highest grossing films of 1972; celebrities attended XXX screenings and swinger clubs like New York’s Plato’s Retreat; codes of sexuality loosened in mainstream cinema. Then home video came along. The cinematic genre faded away. It’s about time that pornographic actors made the transition into mainstream cinema without having to denounce their triple-X career (as in the case of Tracy Lords). If Sasha Grey can be a successful crossover star all the luck to her and props to Soderbergh for giving her a shot. A while ago, Quentin Tarantino expressed his desire to work with Tera Patrick. Now there’s a combo.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (Dir: Julien Nitzberg)
Julien Nitzberg directed the great (and unfortunately hard to find) documentary, The Wild World of Hasil Adkins, about the legendary rockabilly one-man-band. During the 1989 shoot of the former he met the White family of Boone County. Nitzberg follows a year in the life of the Whites, mountain outlaws who live and dance to their own rules. “The true rebels of the South,” Hank Williams III calls them, and the Whites would fit better in the Wild West then modern society. Nitzberg tells the story like Erskine Caldwell on speed. His camera doesn’t judge, but it observes sympathetically. Wonderful Whites never becomes a party-film (which it easily could have) but also oesn’t indulge in emotional pornography. The cherries on top are performances by Hank III and a great soundtrack by modern-rockabilly impresario, Deke Dickerson.
Transcendent Man (Dir: Robert Barry Ptolemy)
In the not so distant future humans can digitize their brains, be upgraded, and merge with Artificial Intelligence. These things are agreed upon unanimously by all the interviewees in this fascinating portrait of inventor/futurist, Ray Kurzweil.
Kurzweil engages in research on which he bases his ideas and inventions, using current technologies to create future ones. He tapped 2029 as the year humans will create Artificial Intelligence. Afterwards we will be able to transcend our biological limitations, possibly achieving immortality in an evolutionary stage called Singularity.
During a post-screening Q&A, Kurzweil suggested that he participated in the film in hope of learning something about himself. Director, Robert Barry Ptolemy, steps up to the challenge; he focuses on Kurzweil’s personal life and motivation to reach a deeper understanding of his ideas. Particularly, Kurzweil’s longing for his father and his will to live forever. Determined to stick around for Singularity, he takes about 200 pills daily in order to reconfigure his biology and slow down the aging process. “Does God exist?” he asks, “I would say not yet.”
Soul Power (Dir: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte)
A documentary of the 3-day concert staged in Zaire before Muhammad Ali and George Foreman Rumbled in the Jungle. A companion piece to Leon Gasts’ When We Were Kings, a record of the days before and leading up to the fight. James Brown sports his 70s mustache and upstages everybody like he did The Rolling Stones at The T.A.M.I. Show back in 1964. B.B. King and Bill Withers give the Godfather of Soul a serious run for his money. Lloyd Price promoted the event. I wished he had stormed the stage to sing his 1959 classic Stagger Lee, but at least we have the record.
Blank City (Dir: Céline Danhier)
Hard to believe that Céline Danhier is a first time director given that she made the best documentary about New York’s underground culture. Ms. Danhier’s not merely a first-timer, but a law student at the Sorbonne who decided to move to NY and make a film. Blank City tells the story of New York’s independent film movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Its structure bears a resemblance to one of the director’s influences, Legs McNeil’s oral history of Punk, Please Kill Me. Danhier interviews Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Beth B, Scott B, Susan Seidelman, Bettie Gordon, Amos Poe, James Chance, Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie, among others.
“I have no problem with ‘No Wave’ because it says No,” comments Lydia Lunch about the film movement that followed the NY Punk explosion. Influenced by the French New Wave, No Wave used stolen equipment and shot in the run-down streets of a war zone 1970s New York. In 1985, Nick Zedd banded his contemporaries under the Cinema of Transgression manifesto. “There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined.” He promised and kept his word. Cinema of Transgression films relied heavily on shock-value to comment on political, social and cultural changes. Danhier skillfully interweaves historical context into the personal stories, adding an emotional layer that makes Blank City much more then a documentary about underground cinema. It chronicles the East Village’s gentrification and the rise and fall of the cultural revolutionaries who tried to inhibit it. Blank City ends with Jim Jarmusch’s optimistic statement: “Forget about the past and bring the future.” But the presiding hipster culture is so immersed in consumerism, fashion, and presentation, it’s devoid of any content or originality. Blank City reminds us that Punk effectively ended when it became a fashion statement.
Burning Down the House: The Story of the CBGB (Dir: Mandy Stein)
When Johnny Thunders died in 1991 there was wide-spread amazement he’d lasted that long. It’s equally surprising that CBGB survived until 2006. In its later days, the club served as a monument more then a venue; a notch on the belt of young guitar slingers playing in New York; a memory of a not-so-distant past when mass media discovered new scenes instead of creating them. Eventually the landlord (The Bowery Residents’ Committee) decided a nice store might serve the Bowery better. After a highly publicized fight, the birthplace of Punk (where Brian Jones was the preferred Rolling Stone) shut down and became a museum piece at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex.
Where Blank City succeeds, Burning Down the House stumbles. The documentary juggles three narratives: the failed campaign to save CBGB, the story of CBGB and a third involving Jim Jarmusch and Luc Sante paying the torn-apart club a post-mortem visit. The structure lacks focus and plays down the historical context for its destruction.
The highlight of Burning Down the House is the candid participation of Hilly Kristal, founder and owner of the club. The soul of CBGB, Kristal is also the soul of the documentary. A final performance by Patti Smith, paying tribute to those who passed away, brought the audience to tears. “If these walls could talk,” says Luc Sante as he walks through the ruins of the club. “You probably won’t want to hear it.”
Oren Shai does want to hear it.