Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Trials of Tribeca (Part 1)

Tribeca is so damn big and sprawling, even if they did show fewer films this year, that one person’s experience of it can be completely different from another’s.

I certainly know that my Tribeca 2007 was vastly different from that of Pablo Villaça, the renowned Brazilian film critic, because he was sleeping on my futon throughout the event. (In fact, it almost seemed as though he slept through the event, but that’s another story.)

I have been interning at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and back in February, my bosses there asked me to spread the word about an event they were holding there: The Moving Image Institute.

The Institute, co-sponsored by The New York Times, was intended as an educational forum for film writers and editors from smaller markets, and I contacted various organizations to encourage people to apply. I posted a notice on the message board of the group I belong to, the Online Film Critics Society. My fellow OFCS member Pablo applied, and got in.

The Institute was providing participants with press accreditation for Tribeca, which took place immediately after the five day event. A few days after learning that he’d been accepted, Pablo posted a message saying that he needed a place to stay in New York during Tribeca.

Now, I had never met Pablo, and judging from his posts on the OFCS board, he seemed like a bit of a nutjob, but then again, they all do. They are online film critics, after all.

In any case, my little hovel on the Upper East Side is not really big enough for two people, and it’s filthy for some reason, and the walls are unconscionably thin, and I have loud inconsiderate neighbors.

So, naturally, I offered to let Pablo—a total stranger, an online film critic, and a Brazilian to boot—stay in my apartment during Tribeca. I presented it as a possible last resort, but naturally there were no other resorts pending.

Considering the odds against my ever taking Pablo up on his kind offer to reciprocate the next time I visit Belo Horizonte,

it was pretty much a selfless act of human kindness, and one which I increasingly regretted as the days counted down to the Institute.

I feel the need to be somewhat discreet about my experience of the Institute. I volunteered to “help out” during the event, but being a freelance film critic myself, I was hoping to be able to sit in on more of the panels and discussions than I did. Ah well. Such is life. Maybe I’ll apply the next time they do it. The kids got to meet Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Frederick Elmes, and other luminaries. I hear it was good.

I jokingly wished that I could join a panel with some big-time critics, to offer some perspective. I’ve been writing for over a decade now, I think I’m a pretty good critic, and I’m fairly certain that I’ll never make a living at it. Boo hoo.

But as it turns out, there was little need for my input. From what I heard, the speakers were all pretty cynical about the state of the independent film business, of repertory exhibition, and about the future of film journalism and criticism, or at least the dismal prospects for making a living at it. Dennis Lim, the great former film editor at what is now jokingly referred to as the Village Voice, now works at the museum, and from what I heard, offered his own less-than-sanguine take on the subject.

What’s clear is that the independent film business and film criticism are mutually dependent, to some extent. I think reviews have an impact on the box office for every film, even such so-called “critic-proof” films as Spider-Man 3. They’re much more important to lame-ass “prestige” releases like Crash and Brokeback Mountain. But they’re crucial to smaller independent and foreign releases.

While I was in the room, one of the speakers at the Institute, Nadja Tennstedt of Milestone Films, read a snippet of a Janet Maslin’s Times review of Charles Burnett’s brilliant Killer of Sheep from 1978, when it was shown at the Whitney Museum. Nothing against Maslin, but her dismissive review seriously hurt any possibility that the film might get a wider theatrical release, and that had a deleterious effect on the talented young filmmaker’s career.

On the other side of the spectrum, I recently watched the documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, wherein John Carpenter describes how Halloween was widely dismissed by critics on its release, until the Village Voice published a serious, positive review, and the film began to gain some critical traction. Did that help the film's box office? Probably not too much--it was already going to be a hit--but in the end, film criticism isn't supposed to be about the box office, is it? The film's increasing critical cache inspired an expansion of the discussion that film criticism at its best is supposed to help foster.

(I was watching the documentary in preparation for the upcoming horror series at the museum. There’s nothing about it on the website yet, but keep checking; it should be special. In the meantime, be sure and make it over there for the Sam Fuller retrospective and a special screening of Johnny To’s Exiled.)

My point is essentially that smaller films need critics.

Hey, I’m a critic.

I write synopses and reviews for All Movie Guide (see link on the right), which a lot of filmgoers use as a resource when deciding what to see. They get about ten million page hits per month, which from what I understand is a lot. On top of that, they sell content to other sites, including the New York Times website. The Times doesn’t cover every film that shows in New York, and AMG fills in the gaps online.

I’ve been covering the Tribeca Film Festival since the first one in 2002, and I’ve reviewed many smaller films that didn’t get as much coverage as the big premieres.

I mention all this because I am a whiny little bitch.

Before the festival started, Pablo sent me an email because he wasn’t sure about the level of press pass he’d been issued. The festival told him his pass would grant one admission to press screenings and public screenings. He was worried that meant that he could only attend one screening. I told him, yeah, dude, pick the ONE film you want to see from the 200+ titles in the festival that you’re staying in New York an extra ten days to cover. Then I explained that I was joking. He’d been worried, and I enjoyed mocking his less than 100% perfect (though pretty damn good) command of English. Probably because at that point he hadn’t moved in yet, and I was nervous, and got a little passive-aggressive toward him. That’s okay. I later made it up to him by talking endlessly about Xuxa once he moved in. For those of you that don’t know, please click on that link to see Brazil’s favorite entertainer. Pablo claimed that he was not a fan, but I don’t believe him. They all love her. With that be-lipped spacecraft and those seductive underage backup singers, how could he not love her? You’ll be wanting to see more.

In any case, I met Pablo during the Institute. (Aside from a strange incident involving an allergic reaction to carpeting, he seemed normal enough. I was still fairly nervous about living with him for ten days, though.) I was thinking it would be appropriate to spend some time with him during the festival, show him the wonders of Tribeca. After perusing the schedule a bit, however, I realized that very little of the Tribeca Film Festival was actually taking place in Tribeca. Screenings were in the East Village, Kip’s Bay, Chelsea…there were even a couple in Queens at the museum.

I was trying to figure out what films I could see. I am finishing up the semester at school now, trying to meet deadlines for papers, working in the office up at Fordham, and at the internship, so I wasn’t going to be able to see as much as I have in the past. Then I took a closer look at my pass, and realized that, unlike Pablo, I would have to request tickets in advance to get into public screenings. So I was mostly limited to two days of press screenings and whatever public screenings they had tickets for on the two weekends when I could attend. I wasn’t very happy about that, especially as it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t find out whether or not I was getting into the public screenings until the day of the show, and that I wouldn’t be able to get into much. For every day that I had requested tickets (always selecting backup shows if my first choice was not available), I got a long list of titles for which the press office had received nothing. No tickets for press. Which seemed to defeat the purpose. I understand that they have to sell a lot of $18 (!) tickets to cover the costs of the festival, but it might have been in everyone’s best interest (or at least that of the filmmakers) to let the press in. Even the small-time internet press, like me.

So, Pablo turned out to be a great houseguest. Very considerate, and a funny guy, too. I was jealous, though, because he went to see a lot of films (mostly at the festival), and I only got into a few shows.

So here I am, whining. I’ll tell you all about the films I saw if you give me a day or two…

Note: I've posted a couple of Pablo's photos here. I stole them from his blog; I hope he doesn't mind!


StephaniePisces said...


With regard to the importance of film critics, I was just reading thorugh Robin Wood's book HOLLYWOOD FROM VIETNAM TO REAGAN, and was struck by how many movies I saw based on his praise and pans. So many of these movies are great favorites of mine...MARTIN, GOD TOLD ME TO, SISTERS...the list goes on and on. If it weren't for these reviews, I would have missed on some singular filmgoing experiences.

Of course, all critics are not created equal. And the current state of film criticism is weak indeed. Exhibit A: the cover story from my local arts paper that reviews summer movies BASED ON PREVIEWS critic Matt Brunson has seen. That's right: he hasn't seem the actual movies, just the previews. I'm so friggin' grateful to have somebody tells me what looks good, based on a preview.

I suspect Creative Loafing (the publication) just didn't have the $$$/interest/inclination to send Brunson to screenings, but please. I wish he had had the sense to turn down such a stupid assignment, just in the interests of journalistic integrity. Whatever.

If you'd like to find out what's good this summer, click on the link below. With criticisms like this, is it's no wonder the film industry is floundering in a sea of doo-doo.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a blogger. Anyway, I'm here, not as a blogger, but as a worrier. I was listening to Leonard Lopate the other day, a habit dating back to my days as a broadcast news clip service slave (and I have heard rumors that you were once...) and his guests included lofty book critics (I'm giving myself away) who said that there are fewer critics (as you note) and so this smaller pool has a bigger voice that gets syndicated all over creation, or at least America. This was depressing. But then they added that criticism isn't meant to sell a book (or film) and in the spirit of free speech I think they're right. So was Maslin wrong to speak her mind about a vulnerale independent film? Would it have been better to ignore it? I don't have the answer. Maybe you do. By this point, I was thinking maybe Wal-Mart needs a new check out person. But then I was encouraged because they all agreed that despite the lack of reviews and the damage one bad review can do, word of mouth is the real way books (or movies) are sold (like Kite Runner, whihc I read and bought for a blogger-- even thought I'm not one--because somebody raved about it ata picnic). I was heartened, turned up the radio (pop station) and did some bad karaoke.