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Tribeca Film Festival 2011: What I've Learned

*There are some spoilers here. Most of which you have probably already read about…but to be safe: spoiler warning!

I’ve learned quite a bit this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Every film festival, I learn that planning, in almost any capacity is almost always pointless. Just when you think you have everything worked out: viewing schedule, writing plan of attack, even sleep schedule, the festival gods take over and remind you that you aren’t the one holding the reigns. 30 films had to be whittled down to 20. 6 pieces became 3. I couldn’t even handle 2 interviews, only had time for 1. I have said before that Tribeca is a massive undertaking, and this year was no exception. But there comes a time when you have to decide when to stop watching and start writing. Even yesterday morning, I wasn’t sure if I could make it to the festival to catch the World Documentary winner: “Bombay Beach,” but I was worried I would never get this published if I saw it. I decided to write first, see the film, and finish up last night. Then last night’s Presidential announcement happened, and, yet again…another delay. Tomorrow I will discuss the winners in more detail, and give my personal best documentary, feature, and a special mention to my favorite horror film.

I have always been a fan of intimate character studies, the most obvious being “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” So, it is no surprise that I felt a strong pull to several films that explored relationships on many different levels. On my first day of pre-festival press screenings, I saw two strong examples of this one of which being one of my favorite films of the festival: “Stuck Between Stations.”

“Stuck Between Stations” tells the story of Casper, an American soldier in Afghanistan who is on a very temporary leave to settle Dad’s affairs after his death. For Casper, the title says it all. He can’t even bring himself to go into his childhood home, staying in a tent in the backyard, almost as if he is leaving a foot connected to his job, unwilling, or perhaps afraid to fully immerse himself in his past. The film begins after he is already home, at a local bar. There he spies a woman who seems a bit out of place herself with a group of “friends.” Casper realizes this woman is his childhood sweetheart, Rebecca, played by Zoe Lister Jones. Thinking they are treating his old crush in a manner unworthy of her greatness, he picks a fight. We learn (surprise) that Rebecca isn’t the only one who is a bit stuck. Having just been let go as a teaching aid (to Michael Imperioli) after their love affair has been discovered, she is a bit lost. Rebecca and Casper end up on an all night journey that takes them to a couple of parties, (one of which is with Josh Hartnett’s “Paddy” who plays the obligatory anti-war voice, but in a surprisingly light handed, if still passionate and intelligent way), a very fun sequence at a Minneapolis public television station, a covert trip to the teacher’s home, and eventually to that tent outside Casper’s old home. The idea may be old hat, but the intimacy is remarkable, especially in the final scenes between the two as they reach the inevitable.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the two leads: Rosen and Jones as well as the directer Brady Kiernan. Before we got to specifics of the film, I spoke with the actors a bit about the transition from theatre to film. There is a great deal of talk that film actors can’t do stage and vice versa, with a few exceptions of course. I have always found this a bit ridiculous. Back in the day, there really was no division. Even Betty Davis did a musical! Both Zoe and Sam have an extensive background in theatre, yet the quiet intimacy that we see on screen would truly never translate on a Broadway stage. I learned from my interview that there was very little improvisation on the screen, which made things connect for me. That theatre training allowed the scripted material to appear, well, not so scripted. I was shocked to hear they hadn’t danced around the actual lines. I was also fascinated by the fact that Rosen co-wrote the script with friend, Nat Bennett, and helped produce the film as well. Sam told me “we had to start making stuff for ourselves, as opposed to…waiting for other people to make our work.” Inspiring.

My favorite (best will be reserved for another film, I will discuss tomorrow) documentary was “The Swell Season.” This is a doc most Oscarwatchers should be familiar with. For those who aren’t: it is a portrait of the effects of sudden success/fame post Oscar on “Once” stars Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard. What makes the film truly unique is the almost impossibility to separate the films subjects with the characters they played in “Once.” And I’m not the only one with this struggle. We see the adoring fans treat them almost like friends. It is a constant cloud hovering over them, and we see it affect them in different ways. It’s not until the end of the film when we spy on what has been dubbed by audience members as the “cafe scene” that we are reminded that this is not the continuing story of the fictional Guy and Girl, but the real people who we (possibly) watched fall in love on screen. It is the final act. A sequel that we hoped might never come to pass. It is truly end of things.

At the premiere screening of “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” my suspicions that we weren’t going to be treated with a surprise scandal, or trying times, was affirmed. It was a look at a positive, committed artists, who took her work so seriously that it was sacred. I left the theater incredibly moved by the fact that this theatrical legend was able to reconnect with her childhood love after a 70 year absence. She had two great loves: the stage and Harry. She did have several unhappy marriages prior to her 4th, and also battled Ovarian cancer. But the director chose to take an approach to the storytelling from the Carol Channing playbook. She didn’t turn these obstacles into the through line of her life, so why should Dori Berinstein. I spoke with a friend yesterday, who said there was no story there. He wanted more of the drama, more conflict, inevitably comparing the film with “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work.” Perhaps I connected to the story because I try to have a similar outlook on life, not to say that my friend is a dark cloud. Is a film really “not a film” without that conflict? Are the rules that set in stone? Apparently the audience didn’t have a problem with it, as it won an audience award. But then again, maybe they, like me, have a background in musical theatre, and were biased.

“Maria My Love” focuses on one character, Ana, on a journey to fill a hole left by the loss of her mother, Maria. We enter her story when she meets Ben (Brian Rieger) a sweet young boy, with whom she begins a relationship. His openness inspires her to take steps to overcome her grief. She starts attending (if reluctantly) her half sister’s dance class, attempting to become a big sister for other children who have lost their parents, but it isn’t until she meets another Maria (played by Oscar nominee Karen Black) a hoarder who has lost everyone in her life due to her disorder, hanging on to everything else, literally! From here you can probably guess the rest of the plot (even though the end’s knot isn’t perfectly tied) but predictability, be dammed, Judy Marte is remarkable as Ana. There are so few actors who have the nerve to play the absolute truth, digging deep. And when the magic happens: the connection to the character being remarkably strong, it is beautiful to see (and very often looked over during awards season.) On the other end of the spectrum we get a no holes barred take on hoarder Maria from Karen Black. It is over the top. It is every hoarder stereotype. But no matter how hard I looked for holes in this wild character she created, I saw none. With all the broad strokes, comes absolute truth.

Expect one more piece tomorrow morning, if not tonight. I will delve into the interesting choices for World Narrative, World Documentary and give my own personal Best of the Fest awards.

Brian Whisenant
Awards Wiz: