Friday, June 18, 2021

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exception but the delayed dates -- the festival usually launches in April but was held off until June -- the coincidence of Pride Month and the festival schedule creates an unmistakable synergy, enough so that the TFF marketing staff have drawn attention to it in their publicity. And between this year's selections and the holdovers from 2020, there is a particularly rich vein of LGBTQ+ form. 

One of my favorite films from last year's event was P.S. Burn This Letter Please, a smart, low-key look back at the very underground drag community of New York in the 1950s. The product of an enormous personal archive maintained by an active member of that world, Burn This Letter documents an all-but-forgotten segment of the city's gay subculture in the words, images and artifacts of those for whom it was a haven, and their recollections some six-plus decades later. This is oral history honed to a fine, often funny edge, carried for all of us by some smart, spiky, and deeply proud survivors of the wars that triggered the Stonewall riots, among other things. Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexeira, the film deserves a place of honor alongside such classics as Word Is Out and Before Stonewall.

Henry Arango, aka “Adrian,” 92, at home 
with his vintage doll collection, Astoria, 2019.  Photographer: Zachary Shields

Last year's award for best documentary feature was won by the gay-themed Socks on Fire, in which filmmaker Bo McGuire used an innovative blend of family footage old and new, blended with recreations to tell the story of his divided family in Alabama, a raucous mix of vehement homophobes and an out gay uncle as they battled over a family inheritance. This year's award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature went to The Novice, a debut feature by writer-director Lauren Hadaway, a tense study of a young, striving student who aims for a place on her college rowing team at any cost. I'll talk about the latter, along with the other feature prize winners, over the weekend.

Why does it matter if there are openly gay, lesbian, bi or trans people depicted on-screen? Or Latinx or African-American or Asian-American or Native American people or people with disabilities. It would be easy to dismiss the question as ignorant or deliberately obtuse, and in the current atmosphere of anti-anti-racist McCarthyism rampant in state legislatures and school boards across the country, it is a temptation. But there is a moment in the sprightly documentary No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics that puts a smiling human face on the answer to that question. Trans comic book artist Dylan Edwards recalls the first time he saw a comic that featured a trans character, adding, "Look, I exist!"

The importance of visibility for the too-often marginalized is so self-evident that we tend to forget about it. Well, as Dylan Thomas famously said, "Just because it goes without saying doesn't mean I'm not going to say it." That issue is really at the heart of No Straight Lines

I grew up in a world in which comic books didn't acknowledge the existence of anyone who wasn't a whitebread middle-class heterosexual, superpowers not withstanding. By the time I was old enough to have lost interest in superheroes, that had begun to change. For the dozens of LGBTQ+ comic artists who speak in this film that change was what they had wrought, sometimes with rage, more often with a dry wit, sometimes with a gentleness that combines anger, humor and compassion.

"...with a dry wit" -- Allison Bechdel

At the heart of the film, adeptly directed by Vivian Kleiman, are five founders, the godfathers and godmothers of queer comic book art: Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Jennifer Camper (Rude Girls and Dangerous Women), Howard Cruse (Gay Comix and Wendel), Rupert Kinnard (B.B. And The Diva) and Mary Wings (Come Out Comix). Alternating their career trajectories with incisive observations by numerous others, Kleiman gives us a smart, joyous and entertaining precis of the rise of the underground comix, a phenomena that was frequently spearheaded by their queer practitioners, the gradual shift by many of the creators into the multi-leveled territory of the graphic novel,  the rise and fall of key markets like the alternative press and other print vehicles and the survival of queer comix in the cyber-wonderland of the Internet.

Kleiman collaborated earlier in her career with the late, great Marlon Riggs, and like him she has a wonderfully nuanced understanding of the delicate crossroads where the libido intersects (and occasionally crashes into) the politics of solidarity, identity and art. The film that results is both a joy ride and a pride parade (as well as a Pride Parade). Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Tribeca 2: Love in the Time of COVID-19

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the pandemic would become a prime setting for fiction films. Reality is what it is, and filmmakers like any other artists react to their reality. (This means that sometime in the not-too-distant future we can expect a cycle of movies set during the Spanish flu crisis, historical films being a good way to comment obliquely on our own period.) Of course, given the global shutdowns in film production that resulted from quarantine, etc., the field was open for low-budget indie film companies to explore the topic. 

None of this is particularly surprising. What I didn't foresee is the considerable focus on romantic comedy and domestic drama in these films. Undoubtedly my surprise is ill-founded. Under the necessary restrictions of the pandemic it would be hard to do otherwise; I suppose I'm a little disappointed that we aren't seeing a lot of politically based dramas reflecting on the larger implications of the Coronavirus catastrophe. 

Two of the entries in this year's Tribeca Film Festival immediately leap to mind, 7 Days (Dir: Roshan Sethi, US) and Roaring 20s (Dir: Elisabeth Vogler, France). The former is a two-hander, a chirpy and pleasant comedy about two Indian-American twenty-somethings forced to "shelter in place" when an arranged first date intersects with the pandemic. The latter is an arch experimental video-film that tracks a variegated group of couples through a single evening in Paris, offering a frequently funny and generally graceful 91-minute take, culminating in a surprisingly charming ensemble musical number that re-unites the cast of 24 in a Parisian park. 

The Joys of Lockdown: Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Ravi (Karan Soni) 
at an impasse in 7 Days

Formally, the two films are almost inversions of one another. Sethi, a physician and screenwriter, uses fairly conventional mise-en-scene, long takes and expressive two-shots to give us a slightly giddy fly-on-the-wall experience of his mismatched couple, as prolonged and unsought-after intimacy slowly leads to romantic feelings. Essentially, 7 Days is more '30s-style screwball comedy in lockdown than fluffy contemporary rom-com with the usual trappings of conspicuous consumption and alternating self-love and -loathing. Sethi is blessed with deft performances from screenwriter Karan Soni as a somewhat uptight researcher seeking a "traditional" Indian wife, and Geraldine Viswanathan as a rebellious 2020s wild child who is exactly the opposite of what he has been led to expect. For Sethi, as it is for such masters as Lubitsch, LaCava and McCarey, spatial separation is merely a minor obstacle to be overcome by emotional revelation. 

Roaring 20s: A Wedding dress but no nuptials?

By contrast, Roaring 20s uses its constantly roving camera both to link and separate its discrete collections of couples, uniting its cast at the finale in a delicately integrated community, albeit a makeshift one. Vogler's constantly shifting point of view initially alienates the audience -- such constant motion punctuated by talky two-shots is irritating at first. But as the writing shifts into a more colloquial, less existential gear and her parade of eccentrics solidifies into a series of vignettes of coping mechanisms seemingly adapted to the array of Paris neighborhood backdrops, the film's quirky humor begins to take hold. Think of it as Russian Ark reset in contemporary France, orchestrated by Preston Sturges. 

Both films are refreshingly hopeful and dependably graceful, energized by the charms of their performers and the elegance of their ideas.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Return of the Tribeca Film Festival

 Yes, Tribeca is back, has been back for six days already. The festival is now in its 20th year, which is as good a yardstick of perpetuity in NYC terms as any. I suspect that the film industry has forgotten that the festival had its roots in the calamity of 9/11 and for once, I heartily approve of this little piece of amnesia. While much of the nation was sheltering in the vast wave of jingoistic self-praise coming out of the Bush White House ("They hate us because of our freedom"), Robert De Niro and the other prime movers behind TFF were putting together an event that has become a model of a diverse film program, representing a global selection of films and filmmakers. In short, an entirely admirable reply to the events of September 11, 2001, a reply emphasized the tenacity of New Yorkers and the need for pluralism.

Two decades later, the Tribeca Film Festival is a fixture on the NYC film scene, a sort of perky kid brother to the New Directors/New Films series presented by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. At 50, ND/NF is small but highly ambitious in its ambit, with a focus on spiky, often difficult films and a "fewer but better" aim. By contrast, TFF has become a sprawling media event, with just about every conceivable type of feature film and short, supplemented by new media programs, VR, TV and every conceivable other acronym that the moving image world can throw. It is inclusive to a fault, with New York-centered films and sports films as major sidebar focuses. 

Last year the best-laid plans were smothered by face masks. (You may recall that, vaguely.) I saw several of the entered films, although the combination of lockdown, health problems and sheer exhaustion limited my viewing. What looked then to be a promising collection, based on a limited sample, turned into a source of frustration as my body simply refused to cooperate with my almost unslakeable thirst for cinema. Happily, the powers-that-be-Tribeca recognized that many of us were short-changed by circumstance, not least the filmmakers who had movies entered in the 2020 festival, and numerous titles have been reintroduced from last year's selection. And they have made it easier than ever to partake of the cinematic bounty on-line and at home. 

Indeed, one of the first films I chose to look at was an 2020 title, Banksy Most Wanted, directed by Aurelia Rouvier and Seamus Haley. Banksy, of course, is the mysterious street artist and provocateur who has parlayed his witty creations and invisibility into a global reputation that has made his work extraordinarily successful. At the outset of the film, we are taken inside one of Banksy's most famous efforts, a version of his "Girl With Balloon" that sells for $860,000 at Sotheby's; as soon as the auctioneer's hammer drops, the painting slides halfway through the frame, which shreds it. 

Restorers at work on a damaged Banksy work

It is a typically clever and outrageous stunt, designed to call into question the idea of the singularity of the artwork, the "aura," as Walter Benjamin famously called it, that cements a visual work's uniqueness and, consequently, its value. 

Had the filmmakers focused on the issues frequently raised by Banksy's manuevers, this could have been an incisive and intelligent essay on such issues. had they chosen to focus on the interplay of kitsch and creativity that his art comments on, comparing him to, say, Jeff Koons, their time would also be well-spent. Instead, the film dismayingly turns into a veritable whodunit, with private detectives, self-appointed journalistic watchdogs and the like trying to find the artist's "real" identity. 

Banksy Most Wanted could have just as easily pondered the central question of our era, the rapid decline of the idea of the commons. In fact, that is one of the several topics of discussion, centering the film's narrative on Jeff Barton, an "art dealer" whose apparent wealth is the result of his willingness to seize art pieces from public places by finding the owners of the buildings on which Banksy has placed them and securing their permission to remove and sell them. Barton is no respecter of the idea of public property, a sneering silent-movie libertarian who is briefly one-upped when the title of a building in Folkstone, UK, turns out to be in dispute;. as a result of his slip, he is forced to return the damaged Banksy work. As you can see from the still above, restorers set to work to restore the piece, a reminder that Banksy's creations are highly  site-specific and are intended to the property of anyone passing by a public space. 

When all is said and done, the film is entertaining to watch and a decent introduction to an artist whose former agent calls "the Picasso, the Andy Warhol of the 21st Century." Drawing on interviews with journalists, art critics, profiteers like Barton and collectors, the film paints an amusing portrait of the enigma at its center, but someone else will have to make a more complex film to approach the issues his art foregrounds.


Buddy Guy, one of the last of the classic avatars of Chicago Blues, isn't a man of mystery. He is a brilliant, mercurial master of electric guitar, a talented songwriter and singer, and a surprisingly introspective and genial man who finds the best music is made by the birds and "all the creatures created by God." The film portrait of Guy, Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, directed by Devin Amar, Charles Todd and Matt Mitchener, manages to balance Guy's tougher-than-leather reputation and music against his contemplative nature-loving side, inserting highly effective images of landscape, lakescape and birds in their natural habitats, alongside wonderful archival footage of Guy in full throttle. 

Buddy Guy: Star with a Guitar

Guy, 84, is a strikingly humble man, soft-spoken and modest in his recollection of the career as a late-bloomer that he has enjoyed. He didn't even arrive in Chicago until late in 1957. He repeatedly talks about his slow growth as a guitarist, several times saying "I wasn't sure I was good enough" to become a major voice in blues. He is also a genuinely funny raconteur who has always hung with the most dominating and colorful proponents of Chicago blues, which means we get to see abundant footage of his work with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and his long-standing friendship with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel compelled to elicit "explanations" of the blues from everyone in the film, from Guy himself to Carlos Santana, John Mayer, Kingfish and Gary Clark, Jr.. There is nothing wrong with this material -- Mayer and Clark are particularly incisive expositors -- but it shifts the focus away from the ostensible topic of the film. 

Needless to say, there is a lot more come, and I'll back at this lemonade stand tomorrow with a peek at some Covid-related films. 

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...