Documentaries Rule at Tribeca Film Festival
by Richard Porton
As the Tribeca Film Festival gradually develops into an annual fixture on the New York movie scene, it's become increasingly clear that its documentary offerings are consistently the strongest. There are perhaps logistical reasons why documentary films continue to outshine most of the other fare on display at Tribeca. Following Sundance by several months, it's not an easy task for the festival to snag premieres of notable independent narrative films—and the ones featured are usually unadventurous fluff featuring familiar stars. Even the least successful Tribeca documentaries proved more substantial than disposable indie fare such as Marc Klein's Suburban Girl.
While Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side (winner of Tribeca's World Documentary Award and discussed at length by Susan Carruthers in the current issue of Cineaste) is an almost prototypically engagé Iraq War documentary, a tendency dubbed the biographical documentary or "biodoc" flourished, however fortuitously, at Tribeca. This phenomenon, like the ongoing popularity of print biographies, entails a set of intriguing contradictions. The public is drawn to biographies for reasons that are simultaneously high-minded and prurient—a compulsion to learn about the social and political importance of both the celebrated and the obscure competes with an all-too-human interest in gossip. Of course, many novelists, most famously Proust (whose novels could be viewed, from one perspective, as a series of thinly fictionalized portraits of socially prominent men and women) realize that gossip is frequently not mere idle narcissism, but a pursuit intimately bound up with the workings of history itself. (Roberto Rossellini's distinctive blend of fiction and documentary prefigures current trends. The Rise to Power of Louis XIV successfully links private imbroglios and more global historical preoccupations while a more recent twist on the standard biopic, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, represents a sadly inadequate attempt to establish affinities between the current mania for tabloid gossip and the foibles of the Ancien Régime.) Taking a nod of encouragement from the contemporary academic compulsion to give center stage to marginal historical figures while frequently marginalizing archetypal "Great Men" (as well as the smattering of "Great Women" feted by historians), biodocs on relatively obscure (mostly art world and show business) personalities such as Scott Walker, Danny Williams, and Sam Wagstaff proliferated at Tribeca. Their little-known accomplishments were apparently deployed to downgrade the more conventional achievements of the banally famous. This sort of maneuver obviously can fall prey to gimmickry and Ed Halter pointed to some pitfalls of this sort of revisionism in his Village Voice festival coverage. He maintained (ironically in conjunction with a favorable review of James Crump's Black White+Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe) that "recent biodocs have an unfortunate tendency towards desperate mythologizing," implicitly trumpeting the assertion that "...today forgotten, so-and-so changed history."
Of course, in a more general sense, Halter's caveat sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of biography tout court. The tendency of many professional historians to increasingly focus on individuals seemingly eclipsed by the tide of history can be alternately salutary and frivolous. Fortunately, most of the Tribeca documentaries devoted to relatively obscure figures were at the very least diverting, and, at best, noteworthy footnotes to American cultural history. Stephen Kijak's Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, although perhaps not particularly revelatory, is a more than serviceable introduction to one of pop music's more shadowy figures. Now in his sixties, Walker, who gained fame as a purveyor of rather insipid pop while a member of the Walker Brothers during the 1960s, has the peculiar distinction of subsequently crossing over from bubble-gum music to the hard-core avant-garde. It is not Kijak's fault that Walker comes off as opaque at both the film's outset as well as its conclusion. The genial Walker's opacity is both his and this film's allure and, although he speaks frankly about his remarkable musical trajectory, he provides few hints concerning the roots of his transformation from short-lived pop idol to hermetic innovator. But bemused commentary from the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno, not to mention shots of the eccentric musician percussively pummeling meat (a curious esthetic ruse highlighted on his seminal album The Drift) allow us a good-humored glimpse at Walker's continuing inscrutability.
Esther Robinson's A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory is a much more anguished portrayal of an elusive, quasifamous artist—a prodigiously gifted filmmaker, editor, and, for a brief time, Andy Warhol's lover. Seemingly a suicide at age twenty-seven during a trip to see his family in Massachusetts (his body was never found), Danny Williams's death is still shrouded in secrecy and his considerable achievements received little attention before this well-crafted film by his niece hit the festival circuit. Even apparently definitive histories of "The Factory's" creative ferment give fairly short shrift to Williams's legacy. For example, one of the fullest accounts of his demise can be found in Steven Watson's near-definitive Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties. Yet even Watson's scrupulous reportage fails to assess William's considerable talents—as director (Factory, one of his remarkable experimental films, is shown in its entirety in the documentary) and, more influentially, as the mastermind behind the light shows featured at the multimedia events known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. In interviews, Robinson recounts how her film started out as essentially a gift to her grandmother, who is still haunted by Williams's death. This initial altruism notwithstanding, A Walk into the Sea is not merely a personal exorcism—it also reveals, with gentle acerbity, the pettiness and backbiting that was such an integral aspect of the circle surrounding Warhol. Although Brigid Berlin is quite magnanimous in acknowledging Williams's contributions, Paul Morrissey virtually dismisses Williams as an insignificant nonentity. It's difficult not to be touched by this life of aborted promise and wonder why this mild-mannered Harvard graduate is still regarded by some old Factory denizens as an irksome interloper.
Unlike Kijak and Robinson's films, Jim Brown's Pete Seeger: The Power of Song examines the career of a famous, conspicuously public artist and political activist. Perhaps since Brown was not faced with the challenge of explicating a life hidden from history (Seeger's life and work is in fact inextricably bound up with the vicissitudes of contemporary history), this veteran documentarian's stab at the biodoc subgenre is also less satisfying. Much of what Brown chronicles—Seeger's alienation from student life at Harvard, his warm friendship with Woody Guthrie, the 1949 Peekskill riots and the singer's vigorous activism—has already been rehashed in numerous books, articles, and films over the years. (Some of the material even replicates segments from Brown's previous two films on The Weavers.) Perhaps predictably—and not entirely undeservedly—Seeger emerges as something of a secular saint. Whenever a possible chink in Seeger's armor surfaces—his uncritical view of the U.S. Communist Party during the years of the Popular Front, to name only his most conspicuous political miscalculation—Brown papers it over with a perfunctory apologia and moves on to more hosannas for his hero. In the end, one can't quibble unduly with this strategy since Seeger is genuinely well-intentioned and it's easy to see why his good works inspire respect and even adulation. Still, wheeling out the usual suspects to laud Seeger (e.g., Bruce Springsteen and fellow folk singers like Joan Baez)inevitably results in a fairly innocuous documentary.
If "auto-biodoc" can be isolated as a bona fide generic tendency, Camila Guzmán Urszúa's The Sugar Curtain certainly qualifies as an exemplary self-investigation. Given its subject matter—the director's recollection of coming of age in Cuba during the Seventies and Eighties (the daughter of Battle of Chile director Patricio Guzmán, she was of course forced to flee Chile with her family after the coup that resulted in the death of Salvador Allende)—it would be natural to expect a partisan film suffused with enthusiasm for the revolution's achievements. Instead, this meditative, highly nuanced film will probably disappoint both diehard Cuba supporters and rabid, right-wing opponents of the regime. When Guzmán Urzúa invokes the Cuba of her youth fondly and labels it a "lost paradise," she is being neither polemical nor ironic. She is merely distilling the heartfelt, if inevitably distorted, memories of her generation and the disillusion that permeates contemporary Cuban society in the wake of the economic hardship that ensued after the fall of the Soviet Union. While many of her former schoolmates (a number of whom have emigrated to Europe or North America) pine wistfully for a bygone Cuba generously subsidized by a pre-perestroika Soviet regime, this nostalgia is complicated by the realization that their utopian interlude was a palpable nightmare for others; many nonconformists and dissidents suffered profoundly during this era.
Eschewing both political inquiry and the biodoc genre, Seth Gordon's The King of Kong proved an unexpected delight. The fascination of Gordon's consistently entertaining documentary resides in its mock-earnest investigation of a rivalry between two ultra-competitive "Donkey Kong" players. Much more of a narrative documentary than most of Tribeca's compelling nonfiction fare, our interest is piqued by the semiabsurdist rivalry between the smug Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, the studious but determined challenger. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarter sis, above all, an engaging portrait of an idiosyncratically American subculture that promotes an almost monastic obsessiveness within its own milieu and appears more than faintly ludicrous to the general public. Oddly enough, there is something simultaneously pathetic and admirable about Wiebe's decision to virtually abandon all other interests as he seeks the crown worn by the insufferably arrogant Mitchell. Possible skullduggery also rears its head when it becomes clear that Twin Galaxies, the official "electronic scoreboard" for arcade games, appears to regard Wiebe as an irritating upstart and possesses a tangible pro-Mitchell bias. While the Donkey Kong wars end with a peculiarly satisfying conclusion that might have been crafted by Hollywood, the status of the ultimate victor is of less interest than the shenanigans of a group of grown men who behave like overgrown adolescents in their pursuit of a thoroughly wacky dream.
Inadvertently or not, Tribeca's documentary selection demonstrated that, at a time when American narrative filmmaking is at something of an impasse and even most "indie" features are stale and formulaic, nonfiction filmmaking offers many of the pleasures traditionally associated with classical genre cinema.
Richard Porton is a member of the Cineaste editorial board.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.