Tribeca 2018:  ‘Netizens’ and ‘Every Act of Life’

These important documentaries about online abuse and the works of Terrence McNally attempt to illuminate empathy and social awareness at a time when it is being woefully ignored.

Cynthia Lowen
Apr 2018
Every Act of Life
Jeff Kaufman
May 2017

While radical forms of religion often engender severe judgment, the arts evoke emotional interpretations, which engender empathy and social awareness to wash away judgment altogether. The same can be said of the difference between cyber and cinematic or theatrical mediums, in which the former breeds split-second binary conclusions about human weakness, while the latter tries to capture a holistic appreciation of humanity. Two important documentaries at this year’s Tribeca films Festival—Cynthia Lowen’s Netizens, and Jeff Kaufman’s Every Act of Life—attempt to illuminate this distinction at a time when it is being woefully ignored.

Netizens examines three professional women’s efforts to cope with and combat various forms of cyber harassment. These heroes are the renowned media and culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, revolutionary New York attorney Carrie Goldberg, and the multi-dimensional businesswoman Tina Reine.

In the case of Sarkeesian, her video series Feminist Frequency‘s critiques of sexism in video games has been met with death threats and sexually graphic memes which continue to traumatize her. Goldberg, who suffered through several months of cyber assault and was refused legal relief from courts on First Amendment grounds, responded by launching a boutique internet privacy and online assault law firm. Reine is a businesswoman whose career precipitously crashed after her ex-boyfriend created numerous reputation-harming websites about her.

Both Sarkeesian and Goldberg are eloquent, intellectually incisive rising stars in their fields; accordingly, Lowen is certainly justified in continuously using a passive camera to simply listen to each dissect sexually assaultive behavior on social media sites, and those sites’ seemingly non-existent regulatory schemes. Lowen’s technique represents a refreshingly new dynamic of an uninterrupted 90 minutes of close-ups to women’s faces as they address the still patriarchal entertainment and social media industry.

Some of Sarkeesian and Goldberg’s arguments will prove familiar to anyone who keeps up to tabs with internet critiques. Indeed, Silicon Valley has a predominantly male culture which cannot be trusted to self-regulate online sexual assault against women. The more fascinating argument is that social media giants have weaponized the First Amendment to protect slanderous and sexually assaultive online content, even if this very claim results in the encroachment of female victims’ other Constitutional rights including privacy, liberty, and equal treatment under law. Disappointingly, while both Sarkeesian and Goldberg seem more than capable of advancing their position even further, only an introduction to it is presented.

As Netizens passes its first hour, Sarkeesian and Goldberg’s continual desk footage can become cumbersome and visually repetitive. The film would have benefited from delving deeper into the messier aspects of both individuals’ highly stressful and dynamic jobs, revealing conflicts in their day to day responsibilities. We don’t see the whip smart and tenacious Goldberg square off against any adversaries, nor the rigors of working in a relatively new field of law. Further, while Sarkeesian’s think tank sessions reveal the details of planning her webcasts, they are too often presented without much sense of tension or irresolution which would feel consistent with the vast, complex online world.

All this begs the question of what is Netizens’ cinematic value; what distinguishes it from The New Yorker‘s extensive account of Goldberg’s practice, and from Sarkeesian’s slew of articles about the cultural intersections of feminism and the online world? Fortunately, Lowen provides enough answers to this question to keep Netizens interesting and emotionally gauging.

Netizens demands an active viewer; one who will patiently study each subject’s face for hints of fatigue and trauma which cannot be captured, or at least fully felt, when passively observing the same on a four-inch cell phone screen. Other times, the film’s cinematic quality is more readily evident when the camera occasionally captures its subjects out of their offices. One of the film’s most poignant scenes is when a crestfallen Goldberg presents a large storage unit of “tainted” boxes from her old apartment at around the time of her cyber assault. Here, Lowen delves deeper into her subject’s private life, showing the haunting details that no successful woman should have to endure.

The film’s third subject, Tina Reine, has a hellish career trajectory that could be a film all its own. Netizens slowly tracks Reine’s efforts to recover her career, and to openly share her past from her perspective in the form of stories as opposed to defamatory websites. After losing her dream job in New York, Reine is forced to Miami to take a lesser paying job, and to try to piece her life together. Visuals of lonely bays surrounded by long grass at sunset provide the harrowing real life metaphor of a woman ostracized, helplessly trying to distance herself from the Internet’s infinitely long tentacles.

Reine’s rough journey is not only the most painful, but maybe also the most hopeful for victims of cyber abuse. As Netizens reveal more about Reine as she continues to re-purpose her life as an artist, a motivational speaker, and a businessoman, a powerful if not inspiring message is conveyed that this is a person whose life cannot possibly be confined by a computer screen, and which won’t be.

Each woman’s story, taken cumulatively, has another ironic message: our best Netizens are the ones who fight for truth and justice outside of the Internet, perhaps more so than within it.

Netizens rating: 7

* * *

In what can be loosely perceived as a nostalgic homage to an artistic era prior to YouTube videos, Jeff Kaufman’s Every Act of Life lovingly charts the famed career of theatrical playwright Terrence McNally, whose award-studded resume includes cultural and gender-bending hits such as Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Master Class, and Frankie and Johnnie.

The first act of Every Act of Life, which is easily its strongest, is delivered mostly from McNally’s voiceover set against a treasure of black and white photos portraying his young career in the ’60s and ’70s. During this era, the Manhattan-based artist struggled to find his voice an openly homosexual playwright in a time when his gay colleagues and lovers were still closeted. Other playwright and actor interviews take secondary roles to describe Manhattan’s theater scene, thereby enriching McNally’s early years with a sense of a lively, flesh and blood underground community consisting of starving artists, progressives, and closeted homosexuals struggling to reach out to one another. This ethos served as the thematic base for much of McNally’s work.

Included in the film’s account of McNally’s earlier years are some informative forays into the artistic process, including McNally’s struggle to own his voice in a culture which demanded he put it on mute. Authentic materials, such as a handwritten letters from McNally’s high school English teacher and from John Steinbeck, each encouraging McNally to develop his material, are worth more than a million Facebook “likes”.

Some of the interviews, told fireside congeniality, add color to the Manhattan of yesteryear. A hilarious, inspiring story of how F. Murray Abraham obtained his career-changing theatrical role in one of McNally’s first plays will redefine for some the meaning of “perseverance”. One may ask if actors can get away with Murray’s moxie today, when smartphones are roaming around in every direction, enforcing increasingly rigid forms of behavior even in the arts.

Ultimately however, Every Act of Life too frequently veers into overly romanticized terrain: it doesn’t delve deeply into the violent rebuke McNally faced for his groundbreaking works on gender identity, or give much sense of the emotional trauma he faced, which caused him to drink heavily midway through his career. One of McNally’s plays entitled Corpus Christie, which received violent death threats and protests, is given only a minor treatment—a curious choice for a documentary that ideally should delve into the messier aspects of a complex playwright’s life. The omission of this material feels particularly glaring during the Trump era, when a neo-conservative White House and the curtailment of LGBT rights is a continually fearful issue.

Every Act of Life eventually over simplifies itself into a summary homage of McNally’s works in the mid-’80s through early 21st century. An office Rolodex’s worth of famous actors including Abraham, Nathan Lane, and Edie Falco, universally praise McNally’s work and the impact it had on his lives. Little insight is provided into McNally’s evolving artistic process, or the contextual influences at the turn of each decade of his career which he incorporated into his writing.

At best, Every Act of Life will inspire audience members to see one of McNally’s plays or cinematic adaptations, and explore human nuance in one of these emotionally rich mediums. That would be a worthy accomplishment in an age when its tough to get people off their phones or out of their houses. Nevertheless, this achievement alone does not dismiss the criticism that Kaufman could have provided a more critically enriching perspective of one of the most revolutionary playwrights of our time.

Every Act of Life

Every Act of Life rating: 5