Out of the Starting Gate at Tribeca

This year, the good folks at the Tribeca Film Festival chose to press-screen many films before the festival opened (which it did Wednesday night). Needless to say, as regular visitors to this lemonade stand have surmised, I didn't get out much the past two weeks, so missed all but one of those screenings. But I didn't sit idly by letting the festival pass without me; thanks to the wonders of the DVD, I was able to do a little prescreening of my own, and the result is my piece in the new issue of Jewish Week, which you can find here. As you can see, there are several interesting Jewish-themed offerings in the festival. (Okay, Katyn, the Wajda isn't exactly Jewish-themed, but you can see why I included it.)

And I finally got downtown to pick up my press credentials and slipped into one of the remaining pre-festival screenings. As a wise man once said, "I shoulda ate the eclair." I saw about 75 minutes of Amos Poe's three-hour Empire II, ostensibly an homage to Andy Warhol's (in)famous Empire, an eight-hour epic consisting almost entirely of a series of reel-long takes of the Empire State Building at night. I saw a 45-minute sequence from the Warhol many years ago at MoMA and much to my surprise enjoyed it thoroughly. almost a parody of the idea of early cinema, the fascination with the mere fact of movement which, obviously, Warhol's film lacks. Intentionally or not, it is a wonderful riposte to all those fathers and mothers who grabbed a home movie camera, pointed it at the kids and said, "Don't stand there! It's a movie camera -- move!"

Unfortunately, what Poe has devised -- at least in the film's first third -- is a variation on what somebody would do with their very first video camera. Empire II is an encyclopedic collection of visual tics based on the possibilities of zoom, rack focus, color filters, light flashes and pointless camera hysterical movement, all of them on display in a seeming tribute to the New York cityscape. Within that first 75 minutes there are some moments of startling, transcendant beauty, particularly when Poe is using water and ghostly black-and-white printing (or filters?) with the result that city dissolves into a series of ghostly liquid hallucinations. And I never get tired of seeing my hometown on film. But between the infuriatingly fragmented soundtrack (can't we hear a song all the way through just once, especially when it's Patti Smith?) and the repetitive shapelessness of Empire II, there was just no way I could stick it out. I won't say that I hope the rest of the festival will be better -- there are some pretty significant pleasures to be had in the films I've reviewed already -- but I sure hope it won't get worse.

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Just a couple of other quick items to pass along. If you don't go to any other movies the rest of the spring -- and there are plenty of good ones out there right now, so you really should go to as many as you can -- you should get down to the IFC Center on the next six weekends for their series of masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is a source of unending amazement and dismay to me and many others that so few of Mizoguchi's films get shown in the U.S., that almost none of them are available on disk, that there is almost no English-language literature on this most sublime of Japanese directors -- hell, one of the most sublime directors from anywhere. If you are in New York and have never seen a Mizoguchi film -- and these days there's a good chance you haven't -- then by all means, go to the IFC Center. It's hard for me to sum up Mizoguchi in a short space, but suffice it to say that he stands alongside Max Ophuls as one of the great poets of camera movement. Mizoguchi is at once a full-blooded romantic and an incisive analyst of the movement of history and how it crushes ordinary people. I'm sorry that the series doesn't include the two late films I consider to be his greatest, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei and Tales of the Taira Clan, but the ones they are showing are pretty special.

In the meantime, speaking of film festivals, the competition list has been posted for this year's Cannes festival and it suggests that this already rich film year is about to get even better. Among the filmmakers with new films opening at Cannes are the Dardenne brothers, Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Atom Egoyan, Arnaud Desplechin, Philippe Garrel, Pablo Trapero and Lucretia Martel. (I'm rather less thrilled by the prospect of a new Spielberg Indiana Jones epic and a four-hour double-feature biopic about Che Guevara by Steven Soderbergh, whose charms have been, until now, lost on me, not to mention another Woody Allen.) In "Un Certain Regard" this year's slate includes new films by Raymond Depardon, Abel Ferrara and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Could be a very good festival on the beach this May. I'm sure my friend and fellow Ira voter Michael Giltz is packing already. (Check out his blog to see if he's ready to go yet.)

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