Reportedly worried mostly about our ailing national economy, just 17 percent of Americans, according to an April 4 New York Times/CBS poll, view the ongoing and already failed War On Terror as a top national priority. But perusing the schedule for the seventh annual Tribeca Film Festival, which opens next Wednesday, you would have to be pretty cynical to believe that audiences in this presidential election year have actually tuned out the rest of the globe. In the same way that the Sundance Film Festival is linked in the popular imagination with photographs of vain Hollywood stars compelled to wear unflatteringly silhouetted parkas against the Utah cold, the Tribeca Film Festival — founded by Robert De Niro, et al. in the wake of the September 11 attacks on lower Manhattan — has from its inception been associated with an earnest, celebrity-driven political conscience (as well as its impossible-to-miss American Express sponsorship). And so, polls be damned, this year’s festival is understandably thick with what can loosely be called wartime programming.
At least half a dozen pictures on the Tribeca bill confront our bumbled overseas military commitments. In War, Inc., starring John Cusack, an assassin travels undercover to a generic Middle Eastern hotspot where the United States goes to battle with private contract troops (as if that were some sort of sick joke rather than the real-life situation in Iraq now), while in The Objective, directed by Daniel Myrick (The Blair Witch Project), a special ops team, on mission in Afghanistan, becomes the victim of an enemy it did not anticipate. Rounding out these relatively conventional thrillers, with a more nuanced viewpoint, is the documentary Baghdad High, in which four teenage boys in Iraq’s capital, using video cameras borrowed from HBO, record their senior year. And beyond these obviously topical selections, Tribeca will play a range of films that, arguably, approach the subject of American foreign policy either by analogy or tangent — such as Milosevic on Trial, Theater of War (a Bertolt Brecht tribute) and Fire Under the Snow, about a Tibetan monk who was tortured for 33 years in Chinese prisons.
THE WAR OVER HERE
But with all due respect to Fahrenheit 9/11 and No End in Sight, and all the other worthwhile examples of Bush-era documentary muckracking, America’s ambivalence about the War On Terror has lately expressed itself at the movies primarily through sublimation. If this year’s Oscar awards are the yardstick, our uncertainties have found their voice in the resurgent popularity of the outmoded and morally-dubious-to-begin-with genre of the Western. On the other hand, judged solely by the box office, old-fashioned gunslingers have only moderate appeal in an age when the knives are out. Much more than the Western, the cheap studio slasher film has made a sustained comeback in the aughts, spearheaded by the iconic, period-defining torture porn of the Saw series.
Horror films, as they did in the immediate years after Vietnam, are providing the psychological distance U.S. moviegoers require when watching the history of their violence. Tribeca meets our needs with a revival of Night Tide, an atmospheric 1963 camp hoot starring Dennis Hopper as a doe-eyed Navy grunt who, docked in San Pedro, falls for a vacuous homicidal mermaid; as well as with the premiere of Duane Graves’s and Justin Meeks’s The Wild Man of the Navidad, a wry monster movie purportedly based on an actual legend and filmed affectionately in a 1970s Chainsaw style. The Wild Man of the Navidad, set in Sublime, Texas — a place where every man hunts his own dinner — taps into our wartime urbanite anxiety that barbarism waits for us in the Red State provinces.
It is a measure of how deep our sublimation runs that Tribeca will also screen Baghead, an unwieldy attempt by the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair) to marry the core premise of the slasher genre (heterosexual sex, a broken car and alcohol/drugs in a rural setting) with the gangling conventions of mumblecore, the lo-fi indie movement that’s all talk, no action. Baghead opens at, of all places, a film festival, where a quartet of pathetic Hollywood extras dream of celluloid immortality. On a whim, they decide to write their own script during a weekend jaunt to Big Bear. But, once arrived in the idyllic mountain setting, the foursome finds itself hunted down by a sack-hooded lurker who emerges from the woods. The joke — that nothing less than the threat of imminent murder can penetrate the would-be starlet’s armor of narcissism — is certainly apt. Baghead, nevertheless, is exhaustively simple, and one gets the feeling watching it that sublimation is an aesthetic dead end.
Maybe that’s why the Tribeca entry most likely to exhume your suppressed wartime unease is tranquil and silent — and that despite an unusual sensitivity to ambient outdoor sounds. John Gianvito‘s documentary Profit motive and the whispering wind tells the story of American radicalism, although it is completely non-narrative, in that it has no voiceover and no readily apparent structure. Composed almost entirely of handheld yet stationary long takes, with occasional cuts that pull back to reveal the wider frame, Profit motive visits more gravesites, statues, busts and community monuments than you ever knew existed — all of them dedicated to Americans who have died for the cause of freedom. Over a dizzying 58 minutes, Gianvito juxtaposes colonial revolutionaries with Native American killers, labor leaders with abolitionists, suffragists with anarchists. The dialectical effect is to provoke pride and shame, simultaneously. Like Mark Street’s less impressive but similarly themed Hidden in Plain Sight (also featured in the festival) Profit motive and the whispering wind doesn’t act as a placeholder for our discontents the way horror films tend to do. Instead, Gianvito has found an innovative method for reaching an audience suffering from eight years of outrage fatigue.
THE WAR ON THE UNDERGROUND
As Tribeca gears up, bigger than ever, another Gotham institution, the New York Underground Film Festival, is shutting its doors. The 15th NYUFF, which ran from April 2 to April 8 at Anthology Film Archives, was the last (although its curators are discussing a new event to take its place). Over the years, I have caught scores of interesting, undistributed films at the NYUFF that I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see — many of them offering counterpoints to concurrent mainstream releases.
Compare, for example, the view of Iraq offered at Tribeca — as represented by HBO’s Baghdad High — with Heavy Metal in Baghdad, one of this year’s NUYFF opening night selections. Baghdad High relies on familiar dramatic conventions, culled largely from the customs of reality TV. It could easily be retitled The Real High School Students of Baghdad. When the mother of one of the principals claims that her son doesn’t use his cellphone for frivolous purposes, the producers naturally cut to the kid, mobile in hand, entranced by some stupid video. By contrast, Heavy Metal in Baghdad doesn’t flatter its audience by recounting what it already knows. Produced by Vice magazine, this documentary about the Iraqi band Acrassicauda occasionally emits an off-putting air of hipsterdom. But beneath that veneer of cool are trenchant observations from the musicians about the way the U.S. media misrepresents the damage we have done. “Dude,” Acrassicauda’s frontman says, rejecting the notion that Iraq’s civil war is a regilious conflict, “I’m a Sunni, my wife is a Shiite. This is a totally fake truth.”
THE WAR ON CRITICS
Tribeca was initiated after an historic blow to the city, with the idea of reminding the world that New York is a cinema epicenter, a place where movies are made and watched and talked about, all with rare secular fervor and democratic spirit. And yet what began just a few years ago as another excellent venue for New York City cinephiles has transformed in 2008 into a downtown monolith, the kind of red carpet parade for which E! was invented. Tribeca’s organizers claim the festival was founded “to spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” and to help their chosen films “reach the broadest possible audience.” If they are sincere in these convictions, then they could not have chosen a stranger time to assert the growing power of their velvet rope.
This year’s edition of Tribeca arrives on the heels of a sudden dwindling in New York’s once-thriving population of movie critics. In recent weeks, reviewers have been fired, laid off, or accepted buyouts at, among other places, Newsweek, the Daily News and the Village Voice. And as the New York Times’s David Carr wrote on April 1, they “join critics at more than a dozen daily newspapers (including those in Denver, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale) and several alternative weeklies who have been laid off, reassigned or bought out in the past few years, deemed expendable at a time when revenues at print publications are declining.” One of the recent local casualties, Nathan Lee, was hired by the Village Voice less than 18 months ago as a replacement for longtime second reviewer Michael Atkinson, who was himself summarily dismissed within months of finally being made a full-time staff member.
Responding to Lee’s firing at the film blog The House Next Door, freelance critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “One could argue, I suppose, that the explosion of web-based criticism will pick up the slack — and speaking only for myself, I find these days that I’m more likely to find lively writing and original viewpoints on blogs than in print outlets.” At the same time, Seitz admitted, “There’s no way that a blogger who isn’t independently wealthy can cover the full spectrum of current releases as diligently as somebody who’s getting paid to do it, much less be able to get newsworthy film people on the phone.” Your own humble guide to Tribeca, who was denied press accreditation as a freelancer, had the resources and contacts (of The L) to see only seven of the nearly 200 films scheduled in advance of writing this.
Lest you think the critical discussion has nothing to do with your own filmgoing, even Hollywood producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) told the New York Times that critical buzz can play a crucial role in getting challenging films released to a wider audience. “For those of us who are making work that requires a kind of intellectual conversation, we rely on that talk to do the work of getting people interested.”
Movies are awful these days. Or that’s what I hear, anyway, from friends and family members who are frustrated with the choices they are given. So why is it — as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum asked in his 2000 book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See — that “the worsening taste of the public is typically asked to shoulder a good part of the blame”? Quality films have not yet gone out of fashion, as many of the best selections at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival demonstrate. But with informed critics who have the time and resources to champion little seen-gems disappearing, and with small festivals that feature genuinely independent releases struggling to survive in the shadow of corporate-sponsored events — or, for that matter, with a film like Profit motive and the whispering wind vying for attention at a festival where Universal’s new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler vehicle, Baby Mama, is the opening night selection — it is clear that the movies, once our national popular art form, are no longer for everyone.