Keeping it short: Notes from New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

Keeping it short: Notes from New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

By ABHIMANYU DAS | | 30 April, 2016
A still from The Dying Parlor.

The Tribeca Film Festival, whose latest iteration began in New York City on April 13, is a curious beast. Stuck between the established monoliths of Cannes and Sundance, it boasts considerable celebrity sheen and plenty of star-studded marquee releases. On the other hand, it also looks to the future with an enthusiasm lacking from a lot of other major festivals. Its pioneering curation in the digital, video-game and virtual reality narratives realms, its focus on debut filmmakers and oft-marginalized mediums like documentary and short films have all set it apart from some of its more established equivalents. Sadly, these outliers often get overlooked in festival coverage so I thought I’d kick off my dispatches from this year’s festival with a look at some of its varied selection of short films.

Given the nature of the medium, it’s almost always best when the filmmaker wastes no time laboriously explicating the premise and just leaves it to the viewer to fill in gaps. Australian director Tim Egan does an admirable job of this with the stripped-down and deeply discomfiting Curve, an 11-minute film that focuses its entire runtime on a young woman clinging to a concrete curve above a depthless chasm that appears to be both sentient and hungry. The surrealism of this closed little world is enhanced by the steely grey sky above, the blood spatters on the concrete (both from her and others presumably swallowed by the chasm) and the general nightmarish feel created by the situation and the cinematography alike. These compelling genre-inspired accoutrements, however, are anchored by Laura Jane Turner’s singular performance as the woman in what ends up being the best kind of audition reel possible. The camera stays close to Turner’s unnamed character throughout, magnifying every ounce of anguish she projects as she rubs her hands bloody trying to climb past the unscaleable curve to safety. It’s a wordless performance that evokes the gut-level horror of the universal nightmares the short draws upon.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Nick Thorburn’s hilarious That Dog. Michael Cera stars as Tim, a cretinous manchild who is housesitting for an absent friend who decides to have his narcissistic and equally immature wingman Bert (played by comedian Tim Heidecker) visit overnight, thus creating more than a little havoc in the small apartment complex the film is set in. This one’s essentially a bit of a lark, trapping two characters who would be irritating at feature length but elicit plenty of eye-rolling amusement in this truncated format as they’re shoehorned into some deliciously uncomfortable situations by dint of their sheer 30-something-slacker awfulness. Also funny but with a darker, postmodern-fairytale edge is Alex Gayner’s Mildred and the Dying Parlor, about a teenager whose parents run a service in which they host terminally ill individuals in their home. Naturally, the shadow of mortality underscores the film with a constant sense of melancholy but the point-of-view character remains the self-obsessed Mildred (played by Zosia Mamet), causing the end-of-life parable to be crossed with a teen angst fable that takes on explicitly fairytale overtones in a third-act twist. Steve Buscemi and Jane Krakowski frequently steal the show from Mamet as Mildred’s parents, turning in a pair of typically idiosyncratic performances.

Also worth a mention is Neil LaBute’s The Mulberry Bush, which begins with two men having what appears to be an innocuous conversation in a park. However, as one of them starts to make allusions to the other’s past and gets increasingly hostile, it becomes apparent that this isn’t a random encounter.

Also concerned with mortality but, this time, from the more positive angle of putting it off via judicious doses of hedonism, is Matthew Modine’s Super Sex. Known mainly as an actor, Modine steps behind the camera this time to direct his daughter, Ruby, who plays a prostitute entering negotiations with a pair of suburbanites (Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins, both excellent) over visiting their aging father as a birthday present. The whole film is built around the eyeroll-inducing punchline of a joke reportedly told by actor Eli Wallach but its centerpiece is a scene in which the two middle-aged squares get shaken down—in most congenial fashion—by the young woman they’re trying to hire. The sharp scripting is enhanced by what appears to be considerable improvisation on the part of veterans Nealon and Perkins, and a satiric element drifts in over the culture-clash angle Modine takes on the material.

Also worth a mention is Neil LaBute’s The Mulberry Bush, which begins with two men having what appears to be an innocuous conversation in a park. However, as one of them starts to make allusions to the other’s past and gets increasingly hostile, it becomes apparent that this isn’t a random encounter. LaBute, a filmmaker and playwright known for provocative and rather misanthropic films like In The Company of Men, doesn’t let the side down, ramping up the tension and injecting a claustrophobia that belies the summery outdoors setting. Without giving too much away, the film also becomes a study in the psychology of guilt, taking a nuanced look at the mind of a hopelessly broken man perpetually wrestling with his misdeeds. It leaves you wanting to take a bath, as per usual for LaBute’s work.

It’s impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth of Tribeca’s dozens-strong lineup of short films. I haven’t even touched the documentary shorts in this column, given that they deserve a whole longform article all to themselves. But even a viewing of this smattering of examples demonstrates the programmers’ enthusiasm for a form that doesn’t get enough credit in the bigger festivals and, most importantly, showcases the filmmaking chops required to shape the enormity of life into ten-minute vignettes.

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