Judith Dry’s Tribeca Notebook
Published on May 1st, 2012 | by Judith Dry0
The thing is, I already knew this story. I saw it when it was a very good play by Sarah Ruhl called “In the Next Room (Or, the Vibrator Play).” It’s a brilliant work of literature with compelling characters and a dramatic story that exploits the “doctors invented the vibrator” trope for smart humor, instead of a few gratuitous scenes with old ladies kicking doctors over and bursting into arias at the height of their “paroxysms.” When Maggie Gyllenhaal is not around, “Hysteria” must rely on its cheerful music and beautiful costumes to keep the viewer attentive. The whole thing feels like the Disney version of this semi-vulgar topic, somehow managing to simplify a really interesting piece of history into a Romantic Comedy in the form of a Period Piece, capitals very much intended. “Hysteria” paints its predictable story in the broadest of brush strokes, and sadly I think that might just be the thing to make it a hit at the box office.
The other films I saw were so much more provocative and intelligent than “Hysteria,” leading me to conclude that Tribeca’s duds are few and far between. The feature film debut by Haitian American writer/director P. Benoit, “Stones in the Sun” is an expertly drawn story of three Haitian refugees arriving in 1980s New York City, greeted by their variously assimilated family members. Benoit explores various ways people deal with trauma, embracing the moral ambiguities of impossible situations. Never indulgent, the film features very few tearjerker moments. Difficult to watch, yes. Devastating, indeed. But I was too engaged in these characters’ stories to have time to cry for them. At the Q&A session, Benoit spoke eloquently about how she wanted to explore “the invisible wounds of living in exile, and why there are so many Haitians living outside of Haiti.” She cited her use of close-ups as an attempt to show the “landscape of the body.” She spoke of a desire to educate Americans about Haitian history before the earthquake. “People need to understand, in the ’80s and ’90s there was a real, viable, grassroots movement for democracy in Haiti. Those people were murdered. By armies that were trained by the U.S Government.” Don’t be put off by the heavy subject matter―Benoit finds humor in the struggles. Particular delights are the scene in which a fallen war general yells at the bank tellers in French that he will have them arrested, and when the suburban real estate agent hides her jewelry and locks her car doors when she finds herself on Ocean Avenue in Flatbush. “Stones in the Sun” is a lovely and poignant film offering a glimpse into a community rarely represented in mainstream cinema.
There were two excellent gay films featured in the festival: “Keep the Lights On” and “Any Day Now.” While very different in content, both films’ stunning cinematography share a nostalgic glow. Both films explore questions not unique to the gay experience: How fast can two people fall in love, and how much pain can they endure together and still make it out alive? What is unique to the gay experience are the details of that pain and the injustices that create it.
In “Keep the Lights On,” Ira Sachs (“Forty Shades of Blue,” “Married Life”) delves into his last major relationship with painful honesty in order to “tell a queer New York story that has not been told before.” He calls it a “coming of middle-age story,” following two lovers who suffer together through one partner’s nasty addiction and live to tell the tale. The story is told over the course of nine years in New York City. Our protagonist is documentary filmmaker Erik, who is played by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt. (Sachs on directing semi-autobiographical work: “But then, you’re Danish!”) He’s working on a documentary about a largely unknown photographer who documented most of New York gay life in the 1940s and on. The film within the film is not so much integral to the story as it is a funny reminder of the director’s presence. When his cherubic lover Paul first reveals his habit to Erik he says: “It’s my little secret. You can’t tell anyone. Nobody at work knows.” The two make it through an unsuccessful intervention that leads to Paul’s worst binge yet, culminating in one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever seen on film as a sobbing Erik, terrified for Paul’s life, holds his hand as he gets pounded from behind by a muscular young man. It is moments like this that gay men may find all too familiar, and that perhaps will necessarily hold a mirror up to a community that has some dirty secrets that aren’t funny or salacious―they’re just downright sad. Maybe we need to “Keep the Lights On” in order to save ourselves. We need more searingly honest films like this one that examine the darker parts of our lifestyle that are maybe―contrary to commercial media representations, gay or straight―not so fabulous.
I was surprised to learn that Travis Fine’s “Any Day Now” had won the Heineken Audience Award, not because I didn’t enjoy but because it was so damn sad. It stars Alan Cumming as drag queen Rudy―a role that was undoubtedly written for him. Rudy meets closeted lawyer Paul (Garret Dillahunt) at his drag club almost at the same time as he meets his neighbor Marco, a teenager with Down Syndrome who is utterly neglected by his junkie mother. Hot-headed Rudy convinces conservative Paul to help him save Marco, and the two soon find themselves playing house with their new son. Of course the bubble must burst, and it does when Paul’s boss (a perfectly menacing Chris Cooper) calls the authorities to tell them Paul and Rudy are not in fact, cousins, as they had told the court that granted them temporary custody. I enjoyed the film, though I can’t say it ever surprised. That is, until the very end, which I suppose was appropriately heartbreaking for a movie about gay men in the 1970s. “Any Day Now” has just the perfect blend of Hollywood predictability and outsider credibility to be next year’s (small-scale) “Brokeback Mountain,” as indicated by its success with Tribeca audiences. While I was skeptical at first, Rudy and Marco and Paul sung their way into my heart, and I found myself humming Rudy’s chilling rendition of “I Shall Be Released” (The Bob Dylan and The Band song from which the film gets its title). The title is hopeful or tragic, depending on how you experience it. Rudy sings: “Any day now, I shall be released,” but in the face of his suffering, it seems more like a desperate plea than a prayer that will get answered.
In “Jack and Diane,” Bradley Rust Gray’s unconventional story of young love, a lost pixie of a bleeding-nosed girl named Diane (Juno Temple) falls in love with a scrawny tomboy on a skateboard named Jack (Riley Keough). Bleeding-nosed is no euphemism: her nose actually bleeds. A lot. The film opens with a confused (she’s perpetually confused) Diane putting her fingers to her bleeding nose and then collapsing on a dirty bathroom floor. We know the two have truly become one when Jack starts getting nosebleeds, too. Just in case we didn’t get it, Jack tells us: “I never used to get them and now I do.” Their ages are unclear―somewhere between really young and annoying and slightly older and annoying―as are their family situations. Diane seems to be staying with her hard-working nurse of an aunt, and Jack seems to live in a huge apartment with really hard to open sculpted doors. The class differences are never discussed or even noticed by the characters. Spliced between scenes of these characters falling in love without saying anything interesting to each other are animated shots of long strands of hair wrapping menacingly around internal organs. A few different times a really gross alien/monster shows up and bites someone’s foot off and then we’re told it was just a dream. Perhaps this is really avant-garde or evocative of some filmmaker or genre about which I know nothing, but I just found the whole film pretty unsettling to watch. I sat through it, but mostly because it was the only film about lesbians on offer at Tribeca. Let’s just say, this ain’t no “The Kids Are Alright.”
Not that it needs any more hype, but I have to say my favorite film of the festival was “2 Days in New York,” written and directed by indie darling Julie Delpy and starring Delpy and Chris Rock in his first slightly serious acting role. Delpy and Rock play Marion and Mingus, a couple who must make some hilarious adjustments when Marion’s French family comes to stay. I fell in love with the father (played by Delpy’s real-life father, Albert) as soon as he was introduced, in the customs office with sixteen French sausages and cheeses he had duct-taped on his person during his flight. Chris Rock proves he can play a very funny straight man, and the comedy relies on how increasingly flustered and angry he becomes with Marion’s family. (Even more impressive is his convincing assertion to the sister’s boyfriend that he does not smoke marijuana. The Frenchman’s reaction: “She found the only brother who doesn’t smoke.”) Delpy’s comic sensibility and willingness to poke fun at herself shape this film into one of the most thoughtful and delightful comedies I have seen in years.
Also of note is Jay Gammill’s comedy “Free Samples,” starring Jess Weixler and Jesse Eisenberg. With a set-up that would work well for a play, Jim Beggarly’s script traps his hilariously jaded and lost protagonist in an ice cream truck giving out “Free Samples” all day. She must deal with all the hilarious crazies who would be lured by such a thing, and her anxiety about where her life is headed. A smart study of the quarter-life crisis.
For some cheap thrills go see “Deadfall,” a darkly absurd thriller from Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose 2007 film “The Counterfeiters” won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. The script is a bit all over the place, but the acting is superb and Ruzowitzky’s eye for violence peppered with humor and an appreciation for larger than life characters make it thoroughly enjoyable.