The Tribeca Film Festival allowed this frequent New York festivalgoer a chance to see three genuinely surprising features quite unlike each other, except that they're three pop experiments that flit around their genres' boundaries (music doc, food doc/road film, and porn/musical) and are all quietly unforgettable.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye: a rock doc as avant-garde love story (previously discussed here).
The Trip starts out as a hilarious spoof of a road trip: Steve Coogan brings along comedian Rob Brydon on a tour of restaurants in the north of England when his girlfriend bails. They order scallops often, and realize quickly that neither really cares about food. (The film satires food culture by ignoring it.) Instead, they out-impress each other by doing impressions that range from bad to inspired. The film takes on a pathos as Coogan (or Coogan's character Steve Coogan) tries to create a self-pitying narrative within this structure. "I'm brilliant!" he shouts at one point, echoing something Alan Partridge might have said, but in this case that reaction (to someone more successful and less talented) takes on a bitter painfulness since it's true. Coogan is brilliant…and has to still tell us so.
Underwater Love, a softcore pinku eiga, follows Dogma-esque rules that it must be shot in 35mm within a week, and must contain a sex scene every six minutes or so, is an incomparable experience. It can only be described as a lo-fi (soft, hotly lit, and shot by Wong Kar-Wai DP Christopher Doyle) version of the scarily energized Doris Day factory musical The Pajama Game. Except with sex scenes with a young man in a shabby turtle costume (a mythical Kappa) that involve a giant swirled purple dildo and female ejaculation. The lead actress is a tender-hearted thirtysomething fish factory worker who's always up for it, whether that's dancing goofily or sumo wresting with Death (in this case the Grim Reaper is a dirty hippie in a caftan with a headband).
I had a chance to chat with Tribeca Director of Programming David Kwok on how the festival has changed over its 10 seasons and what cracks in the usual cultural gate-keeping allow three such diverse works to be screened in one festival.
Miriam Bale: You described Tribeca as an "audience festival"—as opposed to, for instance, a niche festival. Can you describe what that audience is?
David Kwok: [laughs] No, I mean that's the great thing about the audience, it's so diverse. Every year I say this, I'm still amazed at how different the audiences are at the festival. Which gives us the luxury of being able to program different types of films. I was looking at the audience for Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, and it was an older, theater crowd. And then for something like Lotus Eaters, which is a small Irish film, but it has a very fashion-y aesthetic, so there was a very young audience that came out for that. And L'Amour Fou was a lot more fashionista. It always amazes me, it's like I don't know who these people are, but it's great, the films do find the right audience. I have been to festivals and I've talked to filmmakers where the audience doesn't exactly mesh with their films, because the audience is heavily older or heavily younger. And sometimes their films don't play as well as when they have the right audience that knows what they're getting into.
MB: So you have the luxury of being able to program for…
DK: A variety of people, yes. And that is a luxury, because not all festivals have that. There are festivals that are lucky to have a core audience, and they know they're going to appreciate these films in this context. But for us, we have the luxury of saying, yes, here's a weird little film. And then we also have the very mainstream, or whatever you want to call it, that may not be deemed "art house." And we know that both of those very diametrically different types of films will each find their own audiences at the festival.
MB: In trying to differentiate Tribeca from other New York film festivals like the New York Film Festival and BAMcinemaFEST just in terms of countries represented, BAMcinemaFEST is aiming to be more of a new American festival, while something like the New York Film Festival is international, but in more a classic world cinema way.
DK: Yeah, they're more auteur-driven, and we're more discovery-driven, in a lot of ways. And so that makes it a little different. We have so many countries represented, and we have such a good balance between American and non-American films, and we've been consistent that way since the beginning. It's always been an international lineup, and without any segregation; the Americans play alongside the Romanians which play alongside the Chinese. Even the documentaries and the experimental films; we don't want to marginalize any type of cinema. Our experimental film programmer Jon Gartenberg is very immersed in that community, and he said the great thing about Tribeca is that we don't marginalize avant-garde cinema like some festivals do. So you're getting this whole audience which doesn't go out for avant-garde, and exposes them to something completely new that they wouldn't have seen otherwise. That's the crucial difference I think.
MB: That's interesting. I guess that allows for some crossover in the film's themselves, something like Marie Losier's movie The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. Also crossing boundaries are something like Underwater Love and the more mainstream The Trip. Which are all brilliant movies, but are not new American cool or serious high-art cinema, but they're all just weird and amazing.
DK: No, exactly. It's great that we get to play such three really different films under the same umbrella. There's going to be overlap on some of those audiences, but there are going to be people who have never seen Marie's experimental shorts before. And Underwater Love, the best thing about the Q&A for that was—besides Christopher Doyle being there—was that people in the audience asked a lot of questions about "pink" cinema, and were exposed to this whole genre of Japanese cinema, with a whole history to it. And it's those moments that really make the festival, that we're really here for.
MB: David, you've been with the festival since the beginning so you've seen a lot of changes. What direction do you see it heading in, say five years?
DK: Well, it's not just the festival, but Tribeca as a whole—the institutes, and the distribution arm, etc.—and how we're evolving together. And what that means for the future is that all of that will start working together even more. You know, it just takes time for that. But we also keep exploring what are the next steps for film festivals: What does it mean to be a festival in this day and age? And every year, as we change, how do we fit into that? How do we change, adapt, be a part of the evolvement of how film is changing? And we're just part of that dialogue. And some things we'll try out, and hopefully they succeed, or we'll try something else. It's all a constant dialogue; there's no this is what we want to do by 2016.
MB: So very flexible…
DK: But that's always been us over the years, very flexible. We set out to be a different kind of festival. I was always the kind of programmer—and all of us here at Tribeca were—who would not say here are the "festival films." You'd talk to producers and sales companies and they'd say, "That's not a festival film." But you never know. Maybe it's not, for us, but I don't know what the hell "a festival film" means. And that's really changed over the years, actually. Yeah, there are still some films that will just play the festival circuit, but before it was more frequent that you'd here, "Oh, that's just a festival movie."
MB: And that's changed…. Because distribution has changed?
DK: Yeah, and also how people look at films has changed. And also how people look at festivals in general.