My mother was right. During the second week of the Tribeca Film Festival, I discovered a medical condition where the sufferer feels his brain rotting away from staring at a screen for hours on end. This happened about halfway through Al Franken: God Spoke, my 13th film in three days: I briefly wondered whether I had been staring at Franken’s enlarged head for an eternity.
Among the 30-odd documentaries, comedies, and dramas I saw this week, one theme popped up with alarming consistency: the individual overwhelmed by malevolent forces, primarily corporate and political. Take Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo) in the BBC’s Shoot the Messenger (UK 2006), a software engineer who decides to teach at an inner city school to provide a black male role model for the students. After a student falsely accuses him of abuse, Pascale becomes the focus of an unconvincing community scandal, is fired, goes crazy, and decides he hates black people. In frequent asides to the audience, he engages in sometimes hilarious, sometimes atrociously cheeky rants against absentee fathers, names that end with “eequa,” and cloying Christian piety. Director Ngozi Onwurah refuses to temper Pascale’s offensive remarks until the final act, when Joe becomes involved with Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who raises questions about his own self-hate. After a confused opening, Shoot the Messenger finds its legs as a provocative but touching examination of identity politics.
Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set (U.S. 2006) takes up another form of self-hate, more cultural than personal. Mike (David Duchovny) is a television writer and producer trying to retain something of his original vision as the Panda network develops his pilot. Even British exec Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), brought in to provide “edge,” worries, “I’m just making the world more mediocre.”
But Mike’s show, “The Wexler Chronicles,” looks cheesy before the suits screw it up. Sigourney Weaver spins her character, a stereotypically bitchy network exec, into a clueless harpy for big laughs: she says “fuck” for gritty cred, bases programming decisions on the opinions of her tween daughter, and prattles on about how Lucy Lawless deserves a great sitcom. Any original-seeming characters are soon absorbed into the familiar plotlines (as when a first-time actor becomes an obnoxious cad).
The documentary American Cannibal: The Road to Reality (U.S. 2006) charts the devastating sacrifices made by two writers desperate to get something on television. After struggling through failed projects, Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts are pushed into pitching reality shows by their agent. They find a taker in Kevin Blatt, the porn merchant who made a fortune off the Paris Hilton sex tapes and is now looking for “legitimate” product. Their excitement gives way to panic attacks when a show revolving around starvation and cannibalism is put into production.
The so-perfect-they-had-to-be-scripted story developments of American Cannibal had some people at the screening (including myself) wondering if parts of the documentary had been faked. Street Thief (U.S. 2006) actually was faked. Shot by Ken Seng in verite style, directed by and starring Malik Bader, it follows “Kaspar Carr” as he cases and breaks into Hispanic grocery stores, nightclubs, and a movie theater. The reenacted crimes are based on the exploits of criminals Bader and his brother knew growing up on Chicago’s South Side. Kaspar is despicably charismatic: he bullies the documentary crew, disdains the working stiff; he’s brilliant and skillful in all the wrong ways.
The movie also raises questions about filmmakers’ responsibilities. The Bridge (U.S. 2006) takes voyeurism to a more traumatic extreme. The documentary tracks “jumpers” off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004 by taping their suicides from distant viewpoints. It combines this footage with interviews with friends and family members, discussing their mental collapses. The film is more respectful and less exploitative than it sounds, providing a complex meditation on the vagaries of mental illness and a rare candidness concerning death. It features three manipulative pop ballad cues, and I’m still not sure what to make of the brutality of the suicide footage, private moments in a public place.
Tackling other real-life devastations, Encounter Point (U.S.-Israel 2006), follows Palestinian and Israeli victims of violence trying to foster peaceful solutions to their conflict. Like Control Room, which was cowritten by this film’s co-director Julia Bacha, it is most effective when focusing closely on individuals. As David Remnick recently told Publishers Weekly, “When you’re covering the Middle East, extremists are easy. But figures who suggest potential answers and reconciliations and hope are rare” (“Capturing the Elusive in Words, 24 April 2006).
Extremists are easy when you’re covering U.S. politics too. Al Franken: God Spoke (U.S. 2005) is a heartburn-inducing flashback to the vitriol of the 2004 election, tracking Franken from his Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them book tour to the founding of Air America, Kerry’s loss, and Franken’s decision to run for the Senate in 2008 (maybe). As Franken confronts right-wing demagogues, he’s funny and his targets worthy, but Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus’ film is not a love-fest. Franken can be petty (as when he badgers Karen Hughes about Bush’s drunk driving arrest), condescending, and arrogant. The title, God Spoke, spoofs Republican claims to divine representation, but Franken’s chest-puffing can be just as absurd.
Other conflicts structure other films: In Crime Novel (Romanzo Criminale, Italy 2005), a dramatically inept Italian gangster epic, the Roman hoodlums are brought down by politicians trying to keep their power in check. In its world-weary pessimism that at times borders on paranoia, the film is not unlike Jesus Camp (U.S. 2006), which depicts a radical Christian club churning out Village of the Damned-style children for a right-wing legion of shock troops.
What a relief to see Isabelle Huppert as Judge Jeanne Charmant-Killman in Claude Chabrol’s Comedy of Power (L’ivresse du pouvoir, France 2006). While investigating corporate malfeasance, she unravels a larger scandal, much to her superiors’ consternation. Her tenacity takes a toll on those around her, but Charmant never loses her cool or sacrifices her snappy fashion sense. Like other Chabrol films, this one is modest in execution and quietly captivating.
I also found myself charmed by the two leads of Just Like the Son (U.S. 2006), director Morgan J. Freeman’s return to the “naturalistic” style of Hurricane Streets. It’s the sappiest of stories: a smalltime criminal (Mark Webber) rescues a precocious tyke (Antonio A.J. Ortiz) from an orphanage and they embark on a road trip to his sister’s house in Dallas. But damned if its shameless tear-jerking doesn’t work, owing to Dean Wareham and Britta Phillip’s dream-folky soundtrack and Webber’s winning performance. Against the sturm und drang that filled so much of the Festival, Just Like the Son‘s recognizable characters were enormously appealing.
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