by Cynthia Lucia and Richard Porton
While its Manhattan theatrical venues now stretch far north of the “triangle below Canal” Street, the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival nevertheless remained true to its original goal of drawing in filmgoers, journalists, and tourists to celebrate New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. In the seven years since the attacks, the mood is lighter, less mission-oriented, and the festival has grown to include 121 features and 79 shorts from 31 countries, as well as a number of star-studded, camera-ready events. Maintaining its public flavor, however, the festival featured outdoor “Drive-In” screenings—all family-friendly in their subject matter—and highlighted New York City, children’s, and sports films within its larger categories. While not all that many films hit the mark from a critical perspective, the crowds of filmgoers wrapped around city blocks waiting for admission, the NYC events tied into the festival, and the audience awards in more than one film category—all continue to proclaim the populist spirit of the festival.
Given its subject matter, it’s no surprise that James Marsh’s documentary about high-wire artist Philippe Petit, whose extraordinary (and clandestine) 1974 walk suspended between the rooftops of the World Trade Towers garnered critical and popular acclaim. Philippe’s infraction, which required years of planning and a team of dedicated friends to pull off, is labeled simply as “man on wire” on the hand-written police report—an inelegant understatement that must have been irresistible to Marsh as the title for his film, based on Petit’s memoir, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. Man on Wire digs into the obsessive energy of Petit who, at age seventeen, knew “I needed to have that,” he explains in an interview, recalling his visit to a dentist’s office where, paging through a magazine, he saw a visual rendering of the yet-to-be-constructed Twin Towers.
Present-day interviews with Petit and his collaborators—including his former girlfriend, Annie Allix, and friends Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-François Heckel—offer commentary as we watch the 8mm footage the group shot of Petit nimbly and playfully crossing the towers of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral and Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge—both surreptitious acts as his World Trade Center performance was to be, perhaps somewhat redefining the notion of guerilla art.
In a post-9/11 context, however, eerie reminders of both the 1993 and the 2001 attacks on the towers can’t help but creep into the consciousness as the film displays Petit’s meticulous WTC diagrams, surveillance photos, architectural models, forged ID cards, construction- and office-worker disguises, along with footage of his group transporting equipment and gaining entry to the WTC parking garage in their van. They discuss, with a mixture of mischievous humor and serious import, the painstaking preparations, which included the recruitment of several New Yorkers and an insider at an insurance firm headquartered in the WTC. Thankfully, the youthful Petit and his colleagues kept copious visual records of their rehearsals and planning sessions involving numerous trips from Paris to the newly-constructed World Trade Towers—all infused with the excitement and danger of a high-stakes heist, or assault. Perhaps sensing the implicit parallels, Jean-François Heckel says of Petit’s walk across the Notre Dame Cathedral towers that it was “against the law but not wicked.”
Petit’s Twin Tower exploit was to be the thrilling climax of his high-wire career and the breaking point for many of the intensely close friendships of those who aided him but found that, with the media attention and fame to follow, Petite had somehow lost the lighthearted drive that drew them all in. Even now—more than thirty years after the event—as these one-time friends speak of Petit’s irresistible exuberance, the beauty of his talent and single-minded passion to perform, we can feel the force field of his influence. A sense of nostalgia and of loss for that heady, youthful innocence pervades the film, mingling with an unspoken nostalgia for the towering structures and the pre-9/11 world they represent. It is no wonder, then, that this film took on an iconic status within the festival.
Emitting a force field of a different sort at the festival was the city of Winnipeg in Guy Maddin’s equally playful but far more quirky My Winnipeg, a textured black-and-white meditation on the pull of the past—an intriguing hybrid of documentary, personal essay, and noiresque stream-of-consciousness narrative. Maddin, in a faux attempt to escape his native Winnipeg, narrates, attempting to explain the city’s inexorable pull, with its mystical forks where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, the “forks beneath the forks,” which Maddin imagines as the magnetic convergence of local history, folklore, fate, and nature, further merging—both visually and thematically—with his personal and psychological past in the form of “the lap” of his omniscient mother (played by Anne Savage, whose now mythic status as star of the cult film noir Detour lends a dreamy aura to the scenes of a selectively remembered and peculiarly reenacted past).
Maddin presents scratchy images of snowbound Winnipeg streets, with sleepwalking citizens, carrying keys to all of the past addresses they occupied in the city, and which, he tells us, they feel compelled to reenter night after night searching for what they may have left behind—much as Maddin does in the context of his film. Suspended like these sleepwalkers in limbo, the film itself circles back to images of Maddin—half asleep, half awake—riding a train out of town that seems to be drawn continually back into the center of town and into the past. The idiosyncratic humor is never better than when Maddin has actors occupy his childhood home, reenacting scenes, both banal (the daily ritual of straightening the hallway carpet) and oddly primal (the night his sister hit a deer and is forced by a seemingly clairvoyant mother to admit that the car was really the scene of her sexual awakening involving one of the men who helped her at the roadside). When Maddin mourns the loss of the local hockey arena and other past landmarks of the city, the film loses a bit of its edgy intensity—at least for those audience members who are not residents of Winnipeg—but, by and large, the film exerts a hypnotic pull that is at once amusing and ghostly.
Also exploring the magnetic—and debilitating—pull of the past were the more conventional fictional features Savage Grace and Boy A, both sharing, at moments, the dreamy feeling of running in place, but devoid of Maddin’s leavening humor. Based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson about Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) who married Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, Savage Grace is a portrait of Daly’s overwhelming and twisted narcissism, fueled, in part, by the insecurity of having married above her station. Barbara demands to be noticed, admired, and pampered as she uses her husband’s name to thrust them both into the “best” circles, often with embarrassing consequences as she humiliates Brooks in an attempt to take center stage and establish her “rightful” place.
She can be charming and is beautiful, and therefore does exert a certain influence, none more powerful or destructive than on their only child Tony (Eddie Redmayne) who, as he matures, seems drained of all will to resist Barbara’s possessive lure. As an incestuous relationship develops—some theories have it because Barbara intended to “cure” Tony of his homosexuality—Tony’s submerged, seething anger mingles with his love and distorted dependency, all with emotionally torturous and, ultimately, murderous results. The film and actors play the layered ambiguities of the relationship skillfully so that we remain uncertain, in the end, whether Tony’s murder of his mother is entirely willful or another action that the suicidal Barbara goads him into performing—again, with an overwhelming narcissism that blinds her to the consequences, whether legal or psychological, her already seriously disturbed young son will face.
Themes involving repressed homosexuality, destructive narcissism, and incestuous murder would seem tailor made for filmmaker Tom Kalin, whose first film Swoon (1992) is a riveting and psychologically complex portrait of the notorious child murderers Leopold and Loeb. Whereas Swoon brought the viewer intimately into the relationship between the young men in a concentrated way, however, Savage Grace ultimately fails to fully connect us, perhaps because it is too caught up in the frenetic energy and movement of Barbara’s character as she jets around the world from New York, Paris, and London to Cadaques and Mallorca. Perhaps Kalin, along with writer Howard Rodman, would have done well to limit the affluent globe trotting of their characters and to concentrate instead on a more slowly evolving study of their fascinating contradictions and excesses.
Boy A succeeds where Savage Grace fails in presenting an intimate portrait of the psychologically—and socially—damaging effects of the past. Adapted from Jonathan Trigell’s novel of the same title and directed by John Crowley, Boy A is the story of twenty-four-year-old Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield), released from juvenile prison after twelve years for, along with another boy, having murdered a young girl. The film focuses on Jack’s attempt to reenter life as a young man having been removed from it as a boy and on his attempt to negotiate his past that will linger always at the margins of his effort to start anew. Very much a boy, still, Jack’s vulnerability is heartbreaking. His emotional anchor is his caseworker Terry (Peter Mullan), a surrogate father for whom Jack has deep love and respect. Given the public outrage at the time of the crime and, again on his release from prison, Terry insists that Jack can never, ever reveal his true identity (his name and background are invented)—even when he falls in love with Michele (Katie Lyons) and wants to feel the intimacy that can arise only through complete honesty with her.
Screenwriter Mark O’Rowe structures the narrative very deliberately to forge a strong viewer connection to Jack, only gradually revealing his crime. Jack’s struggle, his small triumphs—whether in getting a job, developing a friendship with a coworker, or having an initially awkward date with Michele—and his fragile emotional state, captured beautifully by Garfield’s performance, place us very much on his side and on the side of forgiveness as we witness a society obsessed with revenge when his identity is revealed—ironically through his saving a child in a car accident and, tragically, when Terry’s troubled and envious son reveals Jack’s true identity to the press, just as Jack receives public adulation for his life-saving courage.
The life saved does not make up for the life taken, however, in the eyes of the media, the community, or Jack’s newly acquired friends. In a sequence that seems part-dream, part-real, Jack encounters Michele at a seaside amusement park they had once visited—and in yet another ironically tragic moment she says that she would have learned to forgive him had he only told her the truth, but that now it was too late. Although there are sunny days in this film, Rob Hardy’s cinematography subtly stresses the gray tones of working-class Manchester to evoke Jack’s tenuous foothold in that society.
While Boy A was among the strongest of the fiction films at Tribeca, Man on Wire would seem to confirm a truism that has emerged over time—that Tribeca does particularly well in its selection of documentaries, its robust offerings of 2007 having included the world premiere of the powerful Academy Award winning Taxi to the Dark Side. In a special screening, this year’s festival featured the U.S. premiere of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, a film that, like Taxi to the Dark Side, looks into the abuses and political/ideological backstory at Abu Ghraib but, unlike Taxi, although filled with riveting interviews, is stylistically overblown and heavy-handed (see Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3 for a review of both films).
Several Tribeca documentaries with lower profiles exemplified certain ongoing nonfiction trends and their attendant pitfalls. Paul H-O and Tom Donahue’s Guest of Cindy Sherman, for example, demonstrated the limitations of “personal documentary” and the dangers involved when a director’s intimate knowledge of a film’s subject matter robs him of the requisite detachment needed to make a credible film. Although Guest is partially an examination of art-world celebrity as embodied by photographer Cindy Sherman’s opaque persona, the film is more preoccupied with H-O’s former infatuation with Sherman herself. The host of an intermittently funny, if defiantly amateurish, public-access TV show called Gallery Beat that became a cult hit during the Nineties, H-0 interviewed Sherman on the program and, after a surprising turn of events, became her boyfriend for several years. What might have been a revealing look at the inner life of a reclusive artist instead degenerates into H-O’s self-pitying assessment of his doomed relationship with a famous woman he once worshipped from afar.
Focused more on the relationship of art and politics than on personal entanglements, John Walter’s Theater of War proved equally unsatisfying. Taking the Public Theater’s 2006 Shakespeare in the Park production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage (which starred Meryl Streep in the title role) as its departure point, Walter’s film is rather schizophrenically divided between chronicling the evolution of what was, from all reports, a mediocre rendering of a classic play and exploring the broader historical implications of Brecht’s legacy. While the latter avenue of inquiry is marginally more successful, Walter seems overly entranced with his access to luminaries such as Streep and Tony Kushner whose observations are, for the most part, banal and unilluminating.
Although ramped-up festival coverage on network TV shows like Entertainment Tonight has somewhat diminished in recent years, for New Yorkers, the force field of the festival with its promised cinematic delights—even if most films don’t fully deliver—is as irresistible as the Winnipeg forks, magnetically pulling myriad filmgoers and volunteers onto downtown subway platforms, behind festival ticket tables, and into queues that span blocks in order to be part of an exuberant and truly community-based event. While many of the best films premiered elsewhere (Man on Wire at Sundance, My Winnipeg at Toronto), and the festival’s own premieres are, more often than not, mediocre, there is at least a glimmer of hope that Tribeca will one day emerge as a first-rate showcase for world cinema.