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Online Exclusive: Tribeca Film Festival Year 10

By Amy Taubin

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The 10-year-old Tribeca Film Festival has become, almost before anyone noticed, as comfortable as an old pair of Campers: a place for friends to meet up at matinees, do some celebrity gawking at the evening galas, or get a jump start on summer releases. The festival calculated that screenings and panel discussions were at 95 percent capacity over the 12 days, with 115,000 bodies in seats. Add to that the free outdoor screenings and family events, and the number of participants totaled roughly 430,000.

Of the 93 features screened, I saw about 35; none were game-changers, or even likely to turn up on many best-of-the-year lists. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy a lot of them. Perhaps what’s best about the festival as a whole is that it offers the opportunity to test one’s eclecticism. Films as dissimilar as Ed Burns’s no-budget fiction feature Newlyweds, and Michael Collins’s investigative documentary Give Up Tomorrow, found wildly appreciative audiences, which will make their release more likely.

Give Up Tomorrow

For Give Up Tomorrow, which won the Audience Award, there was the opportunity to enlist viewers in a campaign to win a different kind of release—that of its subject, Paco Larrañaga, from prison, 14 years after he was given first a life sentence and then the death penalty, the victim of a judicial process whose blatant corruption extended to the highest level of the Philippine government. Audiences were not only horrified by Larrañaga’s plight, which is not yet over, they were rightly admiring of the investigative skills and determination of the filmmakers, Collins and his producer Marty Syjuco, who, although they never make a big deal of it, clearly put their lives at risk by asking tough questions and exposing some powerful people. 

Burns, a Tribeca resident who has premiered about half a dozen features in the festival, took to the stage at the closing-night gala to explain that not only was his movie made in the “hood,” but that it cost a mere $9,000 (plus, of course, all the favors he could call in). Which would be meaningless if Newlyweds wasn’t as smart, funny, and adroitly crafted as it is. Burns has evolved into a deft director, who brings a light touch and acerbic wit to serious subjects like marriage, blow jobs (or the lack of them), and men who marry women who are richer than they are. Parsing the differences within what is vaguely referred to as “the middle class” is his specialty. The best thing I can say about Newlyweds is that I hope there’s a sequel because I’m really curious about what will happen to these characters five years down the line.

A much rawer movie, but one that like Newlyweds creates a sense of intimacy among a handful of actors, Jasmine McGlade Chazelle’s Maria My Love stars Judy Marte, bringing a grown-up version of the gravity and honesty that made her so memorable in Raising Victor Vargas to the role of a young Southern California woman who is bereft after the death of her mother. With clarity and subtlety, McGlade Chazelle depicts the seesawing emotions of damaged people who find that attempting to help others heal is an unpredictable and difficult process and won’t necessarily lead immediately to healing the self. Another auspicious narrative debut feature about a young damaged woman, Yulene Olaizola’s Artificial Paradises stars Luisa Pardo as a heroin addict who crosses paths with a much older man, whose addictions to marijuana and alcohol are not as life-threatening. Artificial Paradises makes the most of the lush green hills that surround a lonely Veracruz beach town. But even more impressive is the way Pardo, an accomplished actor, meshes with Salomón Hernández, a laconic 50-year-old local resident who commands the screen as if he’d spent his life before the camera. Might the fact that the directors of both Maria My Love and Artificial Paradises are women have something to do with how real and surprising the struggles of the central female characters are in both movies and how their pain is never exploited for easy drama or sentiments?

Let the Bullets Fly

Tribeca’s selection of foreign-language movies was, as usual, more intriguing than most of the homegrown product. The highest-grossing domestic release in China, Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly is a mock Western and a political satire set just before the Communist revolution. Fast, broadly funny, and violent, it’s also relentless in its manipulation of audience response. Just as action- and CGI-packed, but wildly unpredictable and strangely moving in its understanding of the compromises attendant on power (especially when they involve the only woman ever to rule China), Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is vintage Tsui Hark, filled with virtuoso aerial fight sequences and soaring performances by glamorous veterans Carina Lau, Andy Lau, and Tony Leung Ka-fai.

Give Up Tomorrow was not the only documentary to mesmerize its audience. There was big buzz for two nonfiction movies about undying love, Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye and Pierre Thoretton’s L’Amour fou. If ever there was a case that proves a picture is worth a thousand words, it is L’Amour fou, which describes the 50-year personal and working partnership of designer Yves Saint Laurent and businessman Pierre Bergé. The central event in the film is the auction of the amazing collection of art and artifacts that the two men built together six months after Saint Laurent’s death in 2008. Since the auction is organized by Bergé, and since he is the film’s primary talking head, L’Amour fou often seems like a vanity production, which doesn’t mean that Bergé hasn’t some very interesting things to say and to show. Seeing walls covered with works by Matisse, Mondrian, and Rembrandt is impressive but not as jaw-dropping as glimpsing Duchamp’s Belle heleine casually positioned on a coffee table. However, what’s fascinating and heart-wrenching about L’Amour fou is the portrait of Saint Laurent that emerges from archival footage and photographs. If you ever doubted that Saint Laurent was the greatest designer of the second half of the 20th century, you won’t after this movie. Which makes his physical and psychological decline from the exquisite, mercurial, and charming young man, circa 1958 to 1970 or thereabouts, to the increasingly frozen-faced depressive hulk that he was for the last 30 years of his life is truly horrifying. One wants to believe that to create beauty and to live with beauty could at least be a solace if not cause for joy, but clearly, for Saint Laurent, it was neither. “All this useless beauty,” indeed.

A more subversive love affair, the complete merging of the identities of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, pan-gendered artist and musician (she played with both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, performer and musician, lasted 15 years until Lady Jaye’s death in 2007. To hear Genesis’s serene commentary is to understand that the grave did not end it. Losier began recording this most symbiotic of couples—they both had extensive plastic surgery in order to look like mirror images of each other, and they used the plural pronoun “we” to refer to each other—four years before Lady Jaye died. The director continued to record Genesis for the next three years. The result is a movie where actions that might seem, at a cursory glance, to be radical to the point of madness become perfectly rational expressions of that crazy thing called love.

Mama Africa

As usual, Tribeca did not lack for inspiring and harrowing documentaries. Among the former was Mama Africa, Mika Kaurismäki’s portrait of the great South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba. It’s difficult to do her life justice—but Kaurismäki comes close. Among the latter, Lee Hirsch’s timely but barely organized The Bully Project, which surprisingly—because it’s a very small movie about a big subject—was bought by The Weinstein Company. It might be an instance where Harvey’s notorious scissorhands are put to good use.     

Still, my favorite Tribeca film was Cédric Klapisch’s My Piece of the Pie, slated, like L’Amour fou and Michael Winterbottom’s hilarious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon vehicle The Trip, for summer release. A brilliant social satire, set during the ongoing international financial crisis, it stars the irresistibly forthright Karin Viard as a unionized worker who loses her job when the company where she’s been employed for decades goes bankrupt, thanks to short-selling shenanigans by hotshot traders. Needing to work to support her kids, she finds employment as a housecleaner for one of these masters of the universe. What ensues proves that there is nothing worse than an insecure tycoon-in-the-making who fancies himself—for no discernible concrete reason—a liberal.         

© 2011 by Amy Taubin

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