Two from Tribeca and a Book Recommendation

So I've already filed my second and final piece on this year's Tribeca Film Festival for Jewish Week, which means I can turn my attentions to the 98% of this year's offerings that don't have any Jewish content. And I must say that the first two films I caught up with were very nice examples of why I like this event.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is a loving, frisky, almost giddy biographical documentary about the pioneering Bay Area poet and filmmaker, a celebration of one of the really funny and nice people in experimental film, directed by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade. How can you not love a man who advises, "When it doubt, twirl," and "Believe in the unbelievable?" Strangely enough, as the film makes clear, Broughton's joyousness was hard-won, a slap in the face at the depression that had dogged him into his thirties. "Making films saved my life," he says bluntly.

Big Joy is relentlessly honest, much to its subject's credit as well as its creators'. The film deals simply and fairly with Broughton's short-lived relationship to Pauline Kael, which resulted in a child and a sharp break. "They lived together, but they didn't think together," poet Jack Foley says simply. We hear Kael on the film's soundtrack discussing the break-up a bit more disingenuously and it's hard not to wonder how much of her infamous homophobia was the result of that event. By contrast, Broughton's second straight relationship, while incredibly complicated, seems to have been a bit more successful, but the real love of his life was Joel Singer, several decades younger than Broughton but fiercely loyal to the literal end.

James Broughton and Joel Singer

But the real centerpiece of Big Joy is the man hiimself, witty, goofy and superbly gifted. There are clips from the key films and some wonderful quotes from the poetry. The result is a film with a slightly baggy structure. It starts out using a one-man show by performance poet Keith Hennessy but somewhere in the middle that device is abandoned and simple chronology asserts itself. It almost doesn't matter; one suspects that this nod towards shapelessness would have tickled Broughton, and that is a good thing in itself.

What Richard Did is an understated Irish family melodrama about a golden boy who falls hard from grace. Richard (Jack Reynor) is enjoying the summer before university, hanging with his rugby teammates, flirting with the local girls and getting ready for the arduous double-act of playing rugby professionally while a college student. He's smart, good-looking and, from everything we see of his behavior in the film's first half-hour, a thoroughly admirable young man. With the emphasis on "young." He becomes involved a friend's girl, Lara (Roisin Murphy), and the tensions of jealousy threaten the summer idyll. Finally, something unthinkable happens and Richard must deal with the guilt surrounding his actions. Faced with the necessity to behave like an adult, he discovers that his equanimity isn't quite as impregnable as it seemed.

What Richard (Jack Reynor) Did with Lara (Roisin Murphy)

Director Lenny Abrahamson, for whom this is a third feature, has a certainty of tone and a nice eye for the comfortable ensemble. He gets lovely performances from his mostly young cast and creates one of those now all-too-familiar teen-worlds in which grown-ups are at best an awkward presence. Yet the film never falls into the post-'1950s cliches of misunderstood youth. What happens here is beyond the pale despite being rather typical, and the film is more reminiscent of American '60s suburban dramas than Rebel Without a Cause or its imitators. These kids aren't disaffected, just foolish. Unfortunately, Abrahamson, screenwriter Malcolm Campbell and novelist Kevin Power whose book is the source material for the film, seem ambivalent about their ending, and What Richard Did dissipates into the air rather than resolving itself. But before it fizzles, the film has some lovely moments, well worth a look.

Jan Wahl was not much older than the fictional Richard when he accepted an invitation to watch Carl Theodor Dreyer direct his 1955 masterpiece Ordet (The Word). Although it's a bit unclear how Wahl rated such a treat, the book he wrote about the experience, Carl Theodor Dreyer and 'Ordet' -- My Summer With the Danish Filmmaker (University Press of Kentucky), suggests that the opportunity wasn't wasted. Wahl's prose is as straightforward and unadorned as the book's title, but his recollections of Dreyer are warm and informative. It becomes evident from the outset that Dreyer didn't fit the image of the stern taskmaster and martinet that is so frequently associated with filmmakers of genius. (Think Ford or Preminger for example). On the contrary, he seems both genteel and gentle, a soft-spoken, almost introverted perfectionist who reserves his harshest words for himself. My favorite anecdote from the book concerns the use of a local newspaper to line the drawers of a dresser; Dreyer sends Wahl in search of a correct period paper from 1925 even though the only person who will see it is one of the actors. "He'll be distracted" if the date is incorrect, Dreyer explains. A charming book that is a reminder of a great film and its creator.