Tuesday, May 08, 2007

It has been a few days since the end of the Tribeca Film Festival, and the decompression has been difficult. It became such a routine to go to the press screenings. And since the screenings even went into the weekends, so it was nonstop. It's a little like going cold turkey.

But it's time to reflect (a little) on Tribeca and its history. The first year, the press screenings were all held at the Tribeca Film Center, and, because of the haphazard nature of that first festival (it came late to the scene, and most of the movies, certainly most of the independent movies, were committed to other festivals, and the Tribeca staff had to hobble together whatever it could), it was the first festival in which a majority of the films were digital video productions. Three examples: "Manito", "Roger Dodger" and the arty, more experimental "Cloud of Unknowing". What was memorable was how terrible they looked: most of these films were shot on low-level digital equipment, and were never meant to be projected. So sitting in a theater, watching this fuzzy, murky mess... it was not pretty.

But that's my strongest memory of that first Tribeca Film Festival.

By the second year, they had decided to start taking the idea of having a festival seriously. Peter Scarlet was hired (away from the San Francisco Film Society, where he ran the San Francisco Film Festival), Nancy Schafer (from the South By Southwest Film Festival), and David Kwok. And there was a marked improvement, in that there was a real attempt to find international films....

So now we come to this current festival, which is still being called Tribeca, though it has moved from the neighborhood (screenings at the Kips Bay, the Loews 34th Street, the Clearview Chelsea, etc.). It's not as unwieldy as in previous years (there were less films than in the last two years), but it was more spread out, not as concentrated in one neighborhood. Fewer films, but screenings in more places. And the quality of the films (from what i was able to see) was on a generally high level. Of course, i didn't get to see that many of the American independent films... but i did see a number of documentaries that proved to be more intriguing than i thought they would be. (Last year, there was that doc about the Cosmos and the attempt to promote professional soccer in the United States, which was so much more entertaining than one would have expected.) This year, two examples included "Music Inn" (about one of the first jazz festivals in the Berkshires, which lasted from 1951 until 1960) and "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" (the public career has been documented, but the information from his family was really intriguing).

Yet Tribeca suffers from a schizoid approach: the publicity angle is always devoted to the Hollywood and sub-Hollywood films, the "premieres" of movies such as "Spiderman 3" (though this year, opening and closing nights did attempt something different: opening night was a program of shorts devoted to environmental issues, hosted by Al Giore, and closing night was the premiere of "The Gates", the doc about Jeanne-Claude and Christo's Central Park art project).

There's no denying the fact that Tribeca is showing movies such as "My Father My Lord", "Lost in Beijing", "Still Life", "Half Moon", and "Times and Winds", so for that, it's doing something worthwhile in the context of New York City. And because of that, Tribeca is helping to make these films more accessible (movies like the Chinese "Blind Shaft" or the Thai "Last Life in the Universe" were released in this country after their Tribeca screenings). And there's also some recognition of the avantgarde: this year, there were programs of shorts that included Jay Rosenblatt, Lynne Sachs, Bill Morrison, Jem Cohen, Anita Thacher.

I'm only now starting to look through my e.mails, to see what press screenings are coming up. (I did catch the last press screening for the Werner Herzog documentary program coming to Film Forum: "How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?" and "Death for Five Voices"... in the case of "Death for Five Voices", knowing that the so-called "historical" commentary is mostly fabrication makes the film more interesting, because it becomes a fictional film disguised as a rather straightforward PBS-style documentary.)

TCM is showing Katharine Hepburn this week, to celebrate her centennial: seeing her in some of her earliest films ("A Bill of Divorcement", "Christopher Strong", "Morning Glory", "Little Women", "Spitfire" and "The Little Minister"), it's so striking, so amazing, to see the self-creation of this most singular of American heroines. It's true that her career after the mid-1960s is pretty hideous, but to deny her originality early in her career seems rather harsh. (On Joe Baltake's blog, www.thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com, Katharine Hepburn is his candidate for the ranks of the overrated. I love Joe Baltake's blog, i learned about it from reading Dave Kehr's blog, but though i agree that almost everything Hepburn did after 1966 was garbage, what she did before, in films such as "Little Women", "Alice Adams", "Sylvia Scarlett", "Holiday" and "Bringing Up Baby", is just incomparable.) It's similar to Brando: what Brando did in his first few years (from "The Men" in 1950 to "Guys and Dolls" in 1955) was unprecedented, and everything after that was an anticlimax. Hepburn did such amazing work from 1932 until 1938... but she had to reinvent herself, in order to regain her popularity. So she went from her RKO period to her MGM period, where she did reinvent herself, and was able to maintain some semblance of her originality and her uniqueness, though at a cost: she's more domesticated after "The Philadelphia Story". And MGM put her in some lousy movies ("Undercurrent", "Song of Love", "Dragon Seed"), but even that wasn't enough to kill her reputation.

But after 1968 and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", her career mostly goes to hell. It's not just that the vehicles are (mostly) bad, she's bad, she's everything that people who didn't like her earlier insisted she was: mannered and superficial. Every so often, she made an attempt (such as "The Trojan Women"), but it's a record of decades of hideous work.

But in the early scenes of "A Woman Rebels", she's just so stunningly beautiful. And that's the other thing: when she died, and so many people (including Claudia Roth Pierpont) wrote about her, one common statement was that she was a rare movie star in not being a great beauty. But when i first saw her (watching her old movies from her RKO days on TV), she seemed to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. She had been one of the standards of beauty (as Garbo was).

My loyalty to her (and i was a huge fan) was tested severely after the mid-1960s.... but then all i have to do is watch her in "Little Women" or "Alice Adams" or "Sylvia Scarlett" or "Stage Door" or "Bringing Up Baby" or "Holiday", and i'm captivated, all over again.

I just read Charlotte Chandler's book on Bette Davis, and Davis makes the point that, in the mid-1930s, the only women in Hollywood who tried to be individuals, who didn't conform to the cookie-cutter Hollywood glamour machine, were Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Sullavan, and her.


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