By Gary M. Kramer.
The 2013 Tribeca Film Festival offered attendees hundreds of films—documentaries, dramas, thrillers, comedies, and character studies—that sought to reveal some aspect of the human condition. Here is a rundown of five films from the festival.
One of the best entries at the festival this year was BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton (Eric Slade and Stephen Silha, 2013) an infectious documentary. The subject is the effervescent James Broughton, a poet and filmmaker who celebrated life and the body. BIG JOY nimbly weaves together images of and by the poet along with interviews by writers, and lovers, including the film critic Pauline Kael, his first wife. This documentary nicely provides a history of Broughton’s life as performance artist Keith Hennessy chronicles the subject’s development against the explosion of the San Francisco creative groups that provided the “soil” for the Beats’ growth. He struggled with sexual repression and expression as a child, and as an adult, which BIG JOY suggests fueled his creative work. In the 1950s, when being queer was dangerous and queer art was closeted, Broughton developed poetry and films as someone “outside the outsiders, under the underground.” Making films, Broughton says, “saved my life” and viewers unfamiliar with Broughton’s work will likely want to seek out his short, The Bed, which “moved the culture forward” in showing copious nudity and free love. BIG JOY also addresses Broughton’s interest in Jungian analysis and Zen, and his long-term relationship with his last lover, Joel. But the film is best when Broughton’s poetry—which “focuses on the serious by being silly”—is read or when the clips of Erogeny, a sensuous poem/film about touch, is shown. The work by this irrepressible poet and filmmaker best illustrates (to use one of Broughton’s favorite words) his jocund use of language and movement.
Another film about a queer poet was Reaching for the Moon (Brune Barreto, 2013). This tasteful, English language period drama—set in 1951 and based on a true story—chronicles poetess Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and her intense relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires). The film shows how Bishop comes in to her own in Brazil, when she travels there to see her college friend Mary (Tracy Middendorf). Mary, who is estranged from her parents since they discovered she was a lesbian, is in a relationship with Lota, who dislikes the uptight Elizabeth initially. But this outsider in Brazil is soon seduced by the change of environment and learns to be herself. It’s a soggy love triangle at first, when Lota (who likes her lovers to bathe her) overthrows Mary (who cries) and embraces Elizabeth (who is caught in the rain). But once the relationship between Lota and Elizabeth takes hold, Reaching for the Moon becomes absorbing. Lota gives her lover a place to write, and Elizabeth wins a Pulitzer Prize; Elizabeth gives Lota the support she needs—until she abandons her lover temporarily to take a job teaching at NYU. Director Bruno Barreto captures the co-dependent relationship between these two women well, though the scenes of Lota admonishing Elizabeth for her drinking feel a bit clunky. The two lead actresses give strong, convincing performances. Pires, in particular, is excellent as Lota, especially when she reveals a darker pain beneath her strong exterior. Reaching for the Moon also benefits from its use of Bishop’s poems, which imbue this elegant film with extra poignancy.
In Fresh Meat (Danny Mulheron, 2013), a mild horror/comedy from New Zealand, Rina (Hanna Tevita) is an attractive young Maori with hidden same-sex desires who discovers—to her discomfort—that her family also had a lifestyle change while she was away at an all-girls’ school. The truth—that her family members are cannibals—comes out just as criminals, which include the sexy Gigi (Kate Elliott), take them hostage. While the Maoris and the gang members form alliances or betray one another, often on the basis of saving one’s skin or the chance to eat someone else’s, Fresh Meat offers some indelible images. One shot of a severed body is pretty memorable, as is a clever “boo” moment in the final reel. Alas, most of Fresh Meat, is stale, playing out as loud and violent as possible, and emphasizing the gore while making obvious or broad jokes—as when one characters asks, “Is that an ear on my plate?” And while Temuera Morrison is a vivid, engaging presence as Rina’s father, he also tends to chew the scenery—not unlike how he eats an index finger in a dinner table scene.
In the nifty Canadian thriller Whitewash (Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, 2012), Thomas Haden Church gives an appropriately flinty performance as Bruce, an alcoholic snowplow driver. With his craggy weather beaten face, that belies a hard life, Bruce becomes further trapped—literally and figuratively—in a bad situation following a crime he committed (perhaps accidentally). When he gets his snowplow stuck in the wilderness, he tries to survive with minimal shelter, food and clothing. However, he cannot help but reflect back on the recent events leading up to his situation. Haunted, alone, hungry and cold, Bruce tries to come to terms with his life: past, present, and future. Whitewash provides Church with a juicy role, and the actor is fantastic here. He is particularly expressive physically, conveying tremendous emotion with his excellent body language and minimal dialogue. The film, directed and co-written by Emanuel Hoss-Demarais, is also beautifully photographed; an early scene of Bruce’s snowplow disappearing into the night is as breathtaking as the shots of the empty, snow-covered wilderness that mirror the frozen emotions Bruce is feeling.
Alas, another character study, The English Teacher (Craig Zisk, 2012), is less successful. The voice over (by narrator Fiona Shaw) that introduces Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) sets up that the title character is a single and critical spinster—meaning, by the end of the film, she will find love after experiencing some life lessons and humiliation. If this broad comedy, written by Dan and Stacy Charlton and directed by Craig Zisk, had perhaps deviated from this obvious course, The English Teacher may have been a smart comedy rather than the sophomoric one it is. One night, Linda encounters her former student, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), a promising but failed playwright who is now being pressured from his father (Greg Kinnear) to go to law school. After reading Jason’s play, Linda decides she wants to stage it at her high school. As the production is mounted, Linda and Jason start (and quickly stop) a sexual relationship that causes her to feel jealous when Jason later becomes affectionate with the play’s leading actress, Halle (Lily Collins). More trouble ensues when an explicit verbal exchange between Linda and Jason is filmed and posted online, which results in her being fired. These episodes emphasize that the uptight Linda is flawed because she can read books, but not people. It is, therefore, unsatisfying that Linda never confronts Jason about the lies he tells, and that she holds onto her assumptions about Jason and his father, even after she is told the truth. As such, it is frustrating to watch the flailing Moore become flustered as her character makes a series of bad decisions; her character elicits neither pity nor laughs. Ultimately, The English Teacher is as naïve as the film’s title character, and neither quite earn their redemption.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
For more on the festival, see Michael Miller’s report here.