Tribeca Film Festival Postponed

Before the rains came and washed out the world premiere screening of Bernstein’s Wall, icon of New York’s old cultural guard Fran Lebowitz took the mic to deliver an introduction. (Well, really more like a highly literate stand-up set with her prickly, piquant wit.) Lebowitz could not let the opportunity pass without noting the elephant in the room…er, outdoor venue. The Tribeca Festival dropped “film” from its official name for the 2oth edition. She claimed that, before coming on stage, she asked a festival staffer what they put on if not films. Lebowitz rattled off a few categories before dwelling on one that particularly chafed her when the staffer conveyed it: “Games? I hope she didn’t [say that], but I think she did.”

What’s in a name? The question has vexed those who have asked it from Juliet Capulet to the audiences of the Tribeca Festival this year, who navigated an event that reinvented itself both out of necessity and by choice. Festival director Cara Cusumano confirmed over email to me that the change was not to minimize the importance of film to the event; the medium is still the “bedrock” and “inspiration” of Tribeca. But she posited that with the addition of podcasts and, yes, Lebowitz’s derided games, “it felt like the name needed to reflect the full breadth of the programming.”

But in a period of American life where absence and mourning linger at the forefront, it is easy to see the shortened name and focus on what is lost rather than what might be gained. (The festival might have also paid the price for not putting more energy into communicating the rationale behind their rebrand; many press releases since Tribeca Festival announced its new dates in June used the new name without explaining or drawing attention to the cosmetic change.) These organizations bear responsibility for showing what is gained by the innovations and alterations the pandemic forced them to adopt or embrace. With the possibilities of gathering in-person for a communal moviegoing experience still tenuous, it’s incumbent upon festivals to show that their changes can be additive to their core experience rather than just a substitute.

Let’s Get Physical

The first Tribeca Film Festival, which occurred in spring 2002, just months after 9/11 shook the lower Manhattan neighborhood to its core, became a beacon of resilience in the wake of tragedy. With New York among the most impacted cities by COVID-19, it’s perhaps no surprise that the festival spun a similarly triumphalist narrative for their 2021 edition. Tribeca bookended their festival with two massive in-person extravaganzas: the world premiere of In the Heights simultaneously broadcast to venues in all five boroughs to open the event, and a full capacity mask-less screening for vaccinated festival-goers of a new documentary about Dave Chapelle at New York’s storied Radio City Music Hall to close.

For various reasons, I was at neither signature event, but did get to experience Tribeca’s in-person programming over the course of the festival’s 12 days. (This was in addition to the virtual access my badge granted me this year.) Cusumano disclosed that they had some big ideas that did not come to pass, such as “hanging screens from the Brooklyn Bridge or the Washington Square Arch, projecting films onto buildings.” Ultimately, the festival ended up largely ditching projectors and opting for giant 40-foot LED screens erected across every borough in New York City.

The main benefit? Tribeca did not have to wait for the darkness of sunset to show films. The setup permitted them a wider range of possibilities to program in the daylight hours, a scheduling constraint that forced last year’s New York Film Festival to add a week to their already expansive event. I did still experience a little bit of glare against the screen at one event on a pier off west Manhattan, but it quickly subsided as the sun receded.

With relaxed rules around social distancing and gathering since the fall, Tribeca did not have to rely on drive-ins as NYFF did in 2020. The festival assembled socially distant pod seating in tape-demarcated groups of twos and fours around their glorified jumbotrons. (The same restrictions did not seem to apply at events like a directors’ dialogue with M. Night Shyamalan at the festival’s rooftop headquarters.) This setup allowed us to enjoy feeling visibly connected to the people who also chose to attend a given screening.

Like just about any makeshift solution during the pandemic, I took the good with the bad. It did feel a little strange convening for a communal gathering over cinema that did not involve projected beams of light. To some extent, I got the sense we were fulfilling Quentin Tarantino’s prophecy that the digital revolution was leading us toward “TV in public.”

I can’t say I felt all that enriched by the audience experience, either. Perhaps the distance played a role, or maybe the 2.5 screenings (an approaching thunderstorm led to a mid-movie cancellation of Bernstein’s Wall) I chose did not lend themselves to enhancement by a participatory viewing experience. All of them certainly had a kind of second soundtrack: the noise of New York City traffic and commotion, unfazed by a film festival happening on its edges. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if I’d gotten to laugh and swoon at lockdown-inspired rom-com 7 Days – a charming mix of The Apartment and The Big Sick – with an audience rather than in my living room.

All the same, I did feel a little flicker of optimism when I stood up after a Brooklyn screening of Materna – a selection of the canceled 2020 Tribeca invited back to have a moment of communal viewing glory – and noticed an assembled crowd that watched the film from a tall set of library steps directly outside the venue. Just from observation, the crowds at the screenings resembled the composition of the city more than most highfalutin film events: younger, queerer, more racially diverse. “Our mandate is to connect films and audiences,” Cusumano described Tribeca’s mission, “so we have to do as much outreach and cultivation on the audience half as we do on the film discovery half.” Amazing what democratizing access through venue approachability does to make people feel welcome and included.

Perhaps most intriguingly from the outdoor screenings, the sunlight illuminated a fascinating live commentary track for me at All These Sons, a documentary by Bing Liu and Joshua Altman about gun violence prevention in Chicago. I wound up seated directly behind the filmmaking team and many subjects of the film, many of whom were experiencing it for the first time along with the crowd. With nature’s “house lights” up, so to speak, I was able to observe their behavior and reactions as the film forced them to relive the joys, struggles, and pains of their experiences on a larger-than-life scale. It was the most vivid evocation and recreation of a quintessential festival experience. Sometimes the most interesting action takes place around the screen rather than on it.

A New Face for an Old Virtual Home at Tribeca

Though Tribeca relished in its in-person elements, the festival did not abandon the virtual component that has defined the festival experience since the onset of the pandemic. Cusumano informed me that they have been playing in the online space for a decade now, but in the spring of 2020, they took steps to grow “Tribeca at Home” even further. “I wanted to be sure it’s a program that works for the films too,” she said, “so the program is designed to be a focused selection with a set screening schedule and festival-style introductions and Q&As so it really feels like the festival experience for both the films and the audience.”

New to this edition, as far as I could tell, was this sidebar featuring exclusive online premieres. Despite having ample programming slots in person, this specific selection showed only virtually. Sure, there’s something nice about a small-town movie lover having access to quality cinema – especially now, geography should no longer impede cinephilia. But I remain skeptical that this does not establish a second or less prestigious tier of films within the Tribeca lineup – the same festival laurels, but with a kind of “straight to video” designation.

At least, this concern remains for the time being, given the relative freshness of virtual festival technology. Can a digital experience really provide the same sense of cinematic communion for audiences and filmmakers alike? It’s been a functional stand-in during the pandemic, yes. But getting these platforms to represent a co-equal viewing experience for all parties involved in a film festival still requires additional work. Only part of that change can come from innovation, too – audiences will need to signal their approval as well.

One thing that struck me over the course of Tribeca was just how differently the films acted on me when I left my apartment to see them. Getting showered and dressed, taking the time to get to the venue, waiting in line, lingering in my seat … irrespective of the film’s quality, all this effort from my end transformed the viewing into an event. I cannot say the same for anything I watched at home, where it was just another icon on my Apple TV flattened into the vast sea of content forever available at my fingertips. The virtual terrain is relatively new for festivals, and competing for eyeballs and attention spans here requires a different calculus.

The Way Forward for Festivals

Tribeca 2021 billed itself as the first in-person film festival in North America since the pandemic – and even enlisted a powerful ally in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to help spread the word. Not to be all Dakota Johnson on Ellen, but actually, no, that’s not the truth. Over a month prior, Film at Lincoln Center (in partnership with MoMA) welcomed back audiences to the 50th-anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films.

“We just assumed that everything would be virtual, maybe some outdoor screenings or drive-ins, things like that for the rest of the summer,” explained Film at Lincoln Center’s deputy director Eugene Hernandez. But after months of setbacks and slow progress in the fight to control COVID-19, the rapid reopening of New York caught him by pleasant surprise. Once Governor Cuomo began allowing small capacity crowds to congregate at movie theaters inside again, the festival made “a very last-minute scramble to make that to happen.”

Not unlike my Tribeca experience, ND/NF was a hybridized festival for me. It was the in-person experience that felt like the strangest approximation of normalcy, however, with a clunky filmmaker introduction recorded over Zoom aided by a translator. But after more than a year away from in-person festivals, I was more than willing to tolerate the awkwardness. ND/NF and Tribeca both displayed such an open eagerness to roll up their sleeves and get fans back into theaters, and the earnestness always outshone any inelegance.

The lockdowns of 2020 happened rapidly, but the re-openings of 2021 are proving themselves equally nimble and spry in their own right. When it came to Tribeca’s mask-free finale at Radio City Music Hall, “it actually happened very quickly once the idea was out there,” Cusumano described. “We have had such incredible support from the city and the state, and I think all these decision-makers really responded to the message of what we wanted to do and how meaningful that would be.”

Now that New York’s pandemic state of emergency is over, though, how much longer will audiences tolerate these rickety recreations of normalcy – both in person and virtually? As other elements of American life begin to resemble their “Before Times” character, it’s unclear how and where people want the moviegoing experience to settle. It’s not as simple as flipping a “reopen” switch, as Hernandez clarified for me.

The pandemic laid bare the precarity under which so many arts organizations operate – not to mention the wide gulf between those in a financial situation to adapt or innovate and those just scraping by. Hernandez expressed gratitude that Film at Lincoln Center was able to weather the storm of the pandemic, though not without painful cutbacks, through a combination of loans and donor support. Tribeca shuttered their educational outfit, Tribeca Film Institute, yet are in mostly secure financial hands thanks to the majority stake James Murdoch took in 2019.

But for many of the smaller groups with which Film at Lincoln Center partners for smaller festivals, the event they do together is the showcase event for the entire year. There’s also a downstream effect for the films as well, which other festivals oftentimes select on the back of their recognition by Film at Lincoln Center. Thus something like Open Roads, their week-long program of new Italian cinema presented with Istituto Luce Cinecittà, took place entirely online at the end of May. Hernandez cited the difficulty of travel from Italy for filmmakers and the festival partners alike in their determination not to cobble together some in-person screenings. “Everybody had their Plan B,” he said, “And then Plan B became Plan A – the alternate version of your festival became the primary version.”

It’s unclear what drove the Brooklyn Academy of Music to present the 2021 edition of BAMcinemaFest entirely online. (The organization did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this piece.) Their exhibition venue, BAM Rose Cinemas, reopened later than most New York theaters when they resumed showtimes on June 11. But a 12-day turnaround from theater opening to festival opening night did not stop Film at Lincoln Center from pulling off ND/NF in April, so there would be a precedent for pulling off such a feat. After a full cancelation of 2020’s BAM Cinemafest, perhaps this year’s event – featuring a dramatically pared back lineup with few marquee titles – just needed to happen somehow to ensure it had a future.

“I think arts organizations and festivals are just catching up with a lot of things that are happening all at once,” Hernandez observed. To some extent, it was only a matter of time before the sea change in film accessibility and changing audience preferences began to determine the contours of these vaunted cultural events. What keeps him excited and optimistic through the uncertainty is that everyone in the festival circuit remains devoted to innovation. Both the format and features of virtual festival programming remain in a constant state of improvement and iteration. And that does not just pertain to the technology, either. Case in point: BAMcinemaFest rolled out variable pricing for all their films, allowing people to pay between $5 and $30 for the same viewing experience based on what they are comfortable contributing.

This moment represents merely the beginning of exploring the possibilities inherent in the virtual festival and calibrating its relationship to the traditional in-person component. Sundance wasted no time announcing in May that their 2022 festival will continue with at least some virtual component, and Hernandez divulged that the 2021 New York Film Festival will operate on three tracks – indoors, outdoors, and virtual. “The work I try to focus myself on is creating that rich festival experience in all of those places,” he affirmed. The films in their lineup remain in flux, as do concrete plans around how they will each be shown to the public. All the same, Hernandez revealed that distributors have thus far shown an openness and willingness to consider alternate modes of exhibition rather than immediately snapping back into the old paradigm.

Tribeca Festival: Moviegoing in Microcosm

Give a writer the column space as well as some unstructured time, and they’re going to find a micro-scale representation of a larger issue they’re trying to write about. (Apologies.) As I sauntered around Tribeca between screening venues one crisp summer evening, I decided to remove my AirPods, stop cramming content into my ears and simply take in the neighborhood. Any organization or any event takes on the character of the place that births it, after all, and it was time to really see how Tribeca imprinted itself on the festival that bears its name – even if the event has dispersed and outgrown the area.

What I observed was a neighborhood where New York negotiates its own path forward, with the classical and the contemporary duking it out for dominance. This relatively small area is home to textures as varied as cobblestone streets and a glass skyscraper resembling a tower of Jenga blocks. The vestiges of the neighborhood’s old merchants still haunt the sides of buildings, fading in presence but still nonetheless evident. Cozy residences bump up against the literal World Trade Center. Amidst all the confusion, the consistent sight of empty real estate once occupied by fast-casual chains begs the unavoidable question: who is this neighborhood really for?

It’s easy to count the mixed messages and jumbled communication of the Tribeca Festival against them. A part of me still wonders if the organization is really just a corporate brand activation in search of an artistic mission. There’s a risk that without making a further proactive effort to convey who they are and what they stand for, they could become the East Coast version of the now-defunct Los Angeles Film Festival. An event backed by a powerful independent film institution still must cultivate an audience and find its own role within the broader festival ecosystem. Simply being in a hub for the medium does not guarantee survival, especially now as the festival experience becomes less tethered to geography.

But in 2021, at least, the confusion of Tribeca was kind of the point. Because as everyone fumbles and feels their way out of the pandemic, everything about movies and how people consume them is confusing. An event that doesn’t reflect that would feel like an odd mirage out of step with the moment in which it existed. As the industry figures out everything from release windows to theater capacities, there’s no clear path forward yet – and a sense that going backward is not an option. In its lack of clarity, Tribeca proved oddly clarifying.

In everything from scattershot mask guidance, its inconsistent distance protocols, its diffuse nature, its uncertain format availabilities, to its indeterminate identity, the Tribeca Festival embodied a city, a country, and a culture unsure of how to move forward – but determined to do so even if it means getting messy and making a few mistakes. “The whole role of the festival is to reach as many people as possible to amplify independent film,” Cusumano reiterated to me, “and to create unique movie-going experiences in-person, outside, online, underground, in space, all of it!”

In that answer lies the challenge: how – and where – to reach audiences in a meaningful way where so much content is accessible and so few experiences of consuming it feel special.

new tom hanks heroes

It had to be Tom Hanks.

There was no one else but the legendary actor to host the 2021 inaugural celebration. The authoritative and avuncular presence of Hanks, who for many was the first person whose COVID-19 diagnosis made the virus’ threat feel real, represented a tentative hope that the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel was brightening. America’s Dad was here to assure us everything would be okay.

Yet just two weeks after the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, Hanks’ close association with America’s democratic values gave the proceedings additional thematic heft. Framed against the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., Tom Hanks did not appear to stand in front of them so much as he stood amongst them. Here, too, was a powerful projection of the country’s spiritual leadership.

Hanks is one of few contemporary actors who truly merits the label of “iconic” in the vein of an old-fashioned movie star. To some extent, he’s always playing the idea of himself for us – but it works because people understand the ideals for which he stands. Hanks’ storied career exemplifies a commitment to duty, honor, and service with a particular civically-minded bent in everything from the persona to the performances.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)

When I looked at my top 10 list this year, something jumped out at me: half the movies I picked were documentaries. That may be in part a reality of supply in 2020 as many high-profile narrative films opted to delay … and delay … and delay their releases. Documentaries, which have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade thanks to newfound demand on streaming platforms, were more than willing to help make up what was lost in both quantity and quality.

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How Short Films Are Changing

No story in the world of short-form content attracted as much attention (and derision) as the staggering collapse of Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s mobile video platform dedicated solely to “quick bites” of content. Don’t write the epitaph for shorts solely based on the demise of Quibi, however. As smartphones and internet speeds have better adapted to a video-based web, the ecosystem to exhibit and enjoy short films has only grown more expansive and exciting.

Over the past decade, there has been something of a renaissance for short film distribution online. Communities sprung up around curatorial sections like Vimeo’s staff picks and Short of the Week. Dedicated channels for short films like Field of Vision, Newness and Omeleto have built up large followings and racked up big view counts for their videos. Massive journalistic outfits such as The New York Times and The New Yorker invested heavily in short films, particularly documentaries, as part of their pivots beyond the written word. Feature-heavy streamers like Criterion Channel and Mubi also push their viewers towards shorts; even Netflix, which saw the short film categories as an easy path to Oscar glory, has gotten in on the game in a major way.

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French Exit Review

Azazel Jacobs’ previous film, The Lovers, establishes its overarching and consistent tone from the time the opening studio logo appears. A self-consciously melodramatic piece of score cues the audience to recognize Jacobs’ perspective. He humorously heightens the stakes for an otherwise mundane story of aging lovers and their affairs.

His follow-up feature, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel French Exit, contains no less vibrant an expression of Jacobs’ directorial stamp. Yet there’s something slipperier and tougher to pin down here, largely because the droll wit never seems to coalesce around a clear point of view. The result is a satire of New York’s upper crust that feels like it pulls punches, if only because it seems to have no clear direction as to where – and how – Jacobs wants them to land.

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For many, the fall conjures up images of pumpkin spice lattes, flannel shirts, or the return of football. For me, the one constant of the season in recent memory has been the New York Film Festival, which I’ve attended in some form since my final year of college in 2014. As the leaves change and the seasonal weather turns, the best of world cinema has beckoned film lovers indoors to the cinemas at Lincoln Center to stare in wonder at a screen inside a dark room.

Despite fears that the pandemic would break the streak, this year marks my seventh consecutive New York Film Festival – albeit one unlike any other before it. I’ll still be enjoying NYFF from the great indoors, though in 2020, that enclosed space will be my own apartment. This year, the fest is taking their programming digital (and nationwide, to boot) while also hosting select drive-in screenings across three boroughs of New York City. It’s as unconventional as it is improbable, a testament to how artistic institutions have seized this unprecedented moment as an opportunity for experimentation and reimagination.

But being America’s first major pandemic-era film festival was never assured. As festival director Eugene Hernandez told me, none of it was ever a guarantee. But NYFF beat the odds in the nation’s first hotspot, no less, and is currently underway online and across the city. How did the Film at Lincoln Center team pull it off? Hernandez walked me through the festival’s evolution and rebirth, which began even before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the Big Apple.

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Night of the Kings Review

Champions of art love to pontificate about its importance, especially during times like a pandemic. But that rhetoric might ring a little hollow right now. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that humans as a species are hardwired for storytelling. There’s science to back up the capability to narrativize our experience as necessity, not merely a luxury. As innate as our impulses for violence and destruction is our drive to create and narrate.

This becomes all too apparent for the young man dubbed Roman (Koné Bakary) in Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings. Within the film, he must become a Scheherazade of the modern carceral state, spinning an engrossing and open-ended yarn to secure his own survival. Lacôte captures something special about the very nature of oral storytelling with his nested narratives. Roman’s imaginative biography envelops and transforms the inmates around him, but the very act of telling the story out loud also changes himself.

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The Water Man Review

“Anything that basically is overtly celebrating darkness and to be perfectly honest, sanctioning it,” David Oyelowo told NPR in 2015, “that’s something I can’t personally do […] I know that films affect and shape culture, and I want to put stuff in the world that I feel is edifying as opposed to stuff that is detrimental.”

As Oyelowo steps behind the camera for his feature directorial debut, it’s helpful to keep the star’s words in mind. The Water Man is nothing if not a brand extension for his humane, compassionate touch. Even if it’s not a particularly distinguished charge out of the gate for him as a director, the film’s gentle and caring embrace of the audience still feels warm all the same.

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As far as ‘80s-set, sun-soaked European summer romances where a young gay man comes to understand his sexuality, Call Me By Your Name still reigns supreme. (A high bar, to be clear!) But if this extremely specific subgenre is to become a thing, François Ozon’s Summer of 85 is a worthy entry. While the film does struggle a bit with some jumbled tonality, the latest work from the famously prolific French filmmaker strikes a new and surprisingly stirring combination of steamy and sweet thanks to the love story at its core.

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Good Joe Bell Review

Towards the end of Good Joe Bell, Mark Wahlberg’s titular character takes a load off his feet from his cross-country walk to condemn homophobic bullying. He sits down at a police station underneath pictures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden hanging on the wall. This bit of art direction reveals what should have been obvious from the film’s overall comportment: this is a period piece.

America at large has experienced a dramatic shift in public attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community even since the Obama era. (Heck, during Joe Bell’s walk in 2013, the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional!) While homophobia remains a present threat, particularly among young people in schools, to act like there’s not significant awareness of the issue is just at odds with reality. People largely know the bullying of gay youth is a problem. And, to be clear, even a single instance of it occurring is a stain on society. But the persistence of the threat exists not out of ignorance but out of malevolence and immaturity.

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