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Life is a Festival
Part II: The Tribeca Film Festival

<<< Click here for part I - The Brooklyn International Film Festival <<<

Regeneration and Revitalization: The Tribeca Film Festival

May 27, 2002 | While the Brooklyn International Film Festival has had five years to figure out its identity, the Tribeca Film Festival (May 8 to May 12) only had about six months. Soon after the September 11th attacks, Robert De Niro, producing partner Jane Rosenthal, and Martin Scorsese announced that they would host the festival in order to help revitalize the devastated downtown area, although what they meant by "revitalize" was unclear. In the months leading up to opening night billboards and posters popped up all over town that suggested a lack of focus. They touted New York's role as the location of films like When Harry Met Sally... and Men in Black, films with about as much edge as a jelly donut. When the line-up was announced things got even weirder. The opening show was to be About a Boy, a Hugh Grant comedy directed by the guys who did American Pie, hardly a film festival-type title, made all the more suspicious by the fact that De Niro and Rosenthal's company, Tribeca Productions, produced it. And with the closing show being Star Wars - Episode II: Send in the Clowns (or whatever), it looked like Hollywood glam would win out over quality. (Although the receipts for the high-ticket Star Wars shows were set to go to the Children's Aid Society, so at least it was for a good cause.)

The Cloud of Unknowing's
director Sylvarnes
and star Nikaido
The Cloud of Unknowing's director Sylvarnes and star Nikaido

Right about now you think I'm gonna bash the-little-festival-that-could mercilessly. Well, I'm happy to report that despite my apprehensions, the fest was a terrific experience. Below the surface of glitzy stars and red carpets was a batch of truly worthwhile films and interesting, friendly filmmakers. Although the programming included a tremendous amount of overlap at the festival's seven venues which made it impossible to catch everything, there was still plenty to see.

The best thing about a good film festival is the opportunity to see a film without any preconceived notions about it whatsoever. Richard Sylvarnes' The Cloud of Unknowing is perhaps the most beautiful film to have ever been shot on DV Cam. The film is something of a modern ghost story, telling the tale of Dr. Bennett (DJ Mendel) who is haunted by the death of his wife (Miho Nikaido) and who may or may not have encountered her otherworldly spirit. The film is quiet and thoughtful and never rushes the characters through any of their emotional developments. The images avoid the ugly mush of most digital video thanks to Sylvarnes' careful economy with color and composition. Nearly all of the film is shot in close-ups, a bold move that avoids the loss of detail that landscapes typically experience in this format but that also helps draw the viewer into the mysterious, internalized world of the characters.

Even with the film's unique visual and narrative styles, Sylvarnes found his large audiences had no trouble connecting. "The audiences were really passionate about the film. The women seemed to really go for it." He also met a lot of young wannabe filmmakers who were getting their first exposure to digital filmmaking. They definitely got an unsually cinematic introduction to the style. Sylvarnes' careful cinematography matched with the high-grade Panasonic projectors used at the festival created a sharp, bold image not often seen in digital filmmaking. "As far as I could see," says Sylvarnes, "I was looking at the future. When I decided I had to shoot on DV I went to see a lot of digital films. I saw a lot of faux documentaries that were not careful about things like lighting and colors." He decided to make his film stand out. "One way to make it look unique was to do the opposite of what everyone else had done." That meant no handheld shooting, careful attention to things like contrast and lighting, and big, graphic images. He wanted the film to "feel very claustrophobic, to redefine the close-up, I focused extremely tightly on [the characters]." The result is purely cinematic, with long wordless sequences and haunting images.

Jodie Foster and the
world's funniest ransom
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: Jodie Foster and the world's funniest ransom note

Another independent film, although with a higher budget and some bigger names, was The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Peter Care's ode to growing up in the seventies. Thankfully, the film doesn't contain anything about priests molesting little boys, but instead is an insightful look into the way kids try to deal with their pain. Although it features fine supporting performances from Jodie Foster and Vincent D'Onofiro, the film focuses on three kids: Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Margie Flynn (Jena Malone). Sullivan tries to cover over his youthful angst with increasingly dangerous and stupid pranks, Doyle follows along, and Margie has her own set of secrets. The film unfolds patiently, allowing each actor to create their own quiet, soulful performance in time. But in an unexpected twist, the film also includes lengthy animated sequences (pulled from the mind of Hirsch's cartoonist character) that help illustrate the inner turmoil of the characters. These sequences, created by Todd McFarlane, are loud, violent, and colorful - they're totally different from the tone of the rest of the film and, while jarring, they help the film stand out as a unique vision.

The festival also presented a fair number of documentaries. One of the most popular was Matthew Ginsburg's Uncle Frank, a friendly, ambling biography of 84-year-old Frank Pour. By playing his keyboard regularly at the various retirement homes that ring his Rome, NY home, Frank has kept active and healthy long past the age that lots of other folks start to lose their pep. That's the key to Uncle Frank; it's about age and the ups and downs of aging. Both Frank and his wife, Tillie, have lively, friendly personalities and they're clever and engaging subjects, but there is an element of sadness to the film as well. Frank receives bad medical news at one point and the audience can't help but be moved. Still, both Frank and Tillie were at the screening, so everything seems ok right now.

Uncle Frank, Aunt Tille,
and exec producer
Kevin Spacey
Uncle Frank, Aunt Tille, and exec producer Kevin Spacey

Ginsburg found just being at the festival a great experience. "It was a tremendous honor being invited to screen there for two reasons. First, to be part of the whole effort to revitalize the area and bring people back to Tribeca, and then to screen our film in own home town was great." Having Frank and Tille, on their first trip to the city no less, made it that much more fitting. "Something about Uncle Frank restores your faith in humanity. We like to feel it embodies a spirit of unity and love and giving back to people who aren't as fortunate." Frank's generous nature even extended to his nephew's project. "There were moments, specifically the eve of Frank's visit to the doctor, that felt really uncomfortable, so much so that I said 'I don't know if I can do this.' I thought, I'm gonna let [Frank] make the decision. He said 'that camera's been with you for two years and its coming with you tomorrow. This is what life's about.' The idea of 'family' was always present but we had to separate [ourselves from the material.] The themes are much bigger than a nephew following around his uncle. But when Frank was diagnosed with cancer I was drawn right back in."

Family was very much at the heart of James Ronald Whitney's Telling Nicholas as well, which screened twice at the festival. Cinema Gotham covered this film in the last column and HBO has aired it several times since then, but the audiences at Tribeca had the opportunity to see this immensely emotional film (which documents a Staten Island family's struggle with telling seven-year-old Nicholas that his mother died in the terrorist attack) in a uniquely dramatic location. In fact, reminders of September 11th didn't just come out of the films or the filmmakers' mouths. Tribeca (which is short for the awkwardly monikered "Triangle Below Canal Street") includes the area now known as Ground Zero. Festival goers had to pass the ongoing recovery effort between every venue change. Red Cross tents filled up every available parking lot. And, most affectingly, the UA Theaters multiplex, home to many of the festival's screenings, offered an unobstructed view of the seven story pit that used to be the World Trade Center. Still, a festive spirit was evident at every show. The UA location in particular was abuzz with excitement as hordes of festival goers filled the halls chatting about what they'd seen and what they still had coming up.

The view from the festival
The view from the festival

While most of the shows looked towards the future of independent film, given the inspiration for the festival it was fitting that one of the main side shows dealt with classic New York films, chosen by the ultimate New York director, Martin Scorsese. This film-lovers dream included Sweet Smell of Success, On the Waterfront, Manhattan, and what seems to be Scorsese's all-time favorite, Force of Evil. The real treat, however, had to be a noon screening of Raoul Walsh's rare 1915 silent film Regeneration, which is sometimes credited as the first gangster film. Walsh, who appeared as John Wilkes Booth in DW Griffith's infamous The Birth of a Nation the same year he made Regeneration, was among the earliest generation of filmmakers who figured out ways to integrate complete, satisfying storytelling techniques into their films, adding parallel narratives and complex emotions. Regeneration, which was accompanied on live piano by Philip Carli, tells the story of a young Lower East Side orphan (played as an adult by Rockcliffe Fellowes) who grows to run a powerful street gang. The love of a philanthropic upper class woman, however, leads him to better himself. The film includes incredible stunts, character arcs, beautiful cinematography (often preserved surprisingly well in the Museum of Modern Art print), and sophisticated camera moves and special effects, sometimes used to surreal ends. One camera move consisted of a slow dolly in to the young boy at a critical moment in his childhood. The sudden, unexpected shift in perspective in such an early film was literally breathtaking.

Raoul Walsh's<i>
Raoul Walsh's Regeneration

Carli's accompaniment couldn't have been better. Lively and complex, his playing never distracted from the film but always managed to conjure the perfect emotion. There aren't necessarily that many film accompanists working today - Carli said that there's "such a small number that we all like each other pretty well" - but his performance could definitely inspire a viewer to seek out more.

Scorsese's involvement with the festival extended beyond ticking off a list of his favorite films. In addition to lending his name to the venture he also appeared at a seminar to discuss the history of New York films along with his collaborators, writers Richard Price (The Color of Money, Clockers, which Scorsese executive produced for another New York filmmaker, Spike Lee) and Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, the upcoming Gangs of New York). The seminar rambled quite a bit (their anecdotes traveled to Los Angeles, London, and Toronto) but the affection the three feel for the city was evident. Price even bragged that it's the "only city where you can get matzo twelve months of the year."

On the topic of filmmaking, they connected the conflicts between shooting in such a big place with the inspiration it breeds. According to Scorsese, "It's not a city that's made for shooting. People have other things to do." He remembered a time on Taxi Driver when life began to imitate art. "After a while you didn't know who were the extras and who were the people on the street." A scary thought indeed. Asked whether the Giuliani era would have any effect on their future works, Cocks replied "Well, Boss Tweed plays a very big role in Gangs of New York," referring to the classic corrupt politician of New York's past. Asked for his own opinion, Scorsese pointed to Cocks and said "I think Jay just about summed it up."

Obviously there were far too many films at either festival for any one moviegoer to take in. I was disappointed to have missed G, the Gatsby-esque story of rappers in the Hamptons, and Roger Dodger, the first feature to be shot on New York streets after September 11th, at Tribeca and Beisbol, a documentary about Cuban baseball, and Keeping it Real, which follows Greg Walloch, a white, gay, disabled comedian living in Harlem, at the Brooklyn fest. Both festivals succeeded at introducing new audiences to films and a way of watching them that they may not have experienced before. For example, Matthew Clark, a trader on Wall Street and lifelong New Yorker, found the overall atmosphere at the Tribeca festival to be a completely positive one. "I thought they energized the entire area," he explained. "It was fun scurrying around from one venue to the next." He even found the audiences displaying unusual generosity. "On two occasions people actually gave me extra tickets that they had." After hitting as many screenings as he could, Clark, a self-professed film fest neophyte, expressed a sentiment that would surely sound like music to the ears of the organizers: "It makes me want to go to other film festivals."

The Tribeca Film Festival
Uncle Frank
Telling Nicholas

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