Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tribeca Film Festival 2008 - Day Six

On Tuesday morning, I managed to catch one of the festival's least impressive programs of shorts entitled, "Cold Feet"-- a melange of films that were for the most part slickly produced and mildly entertaining, but largely lacked any soul and sometimes bordered on the precious. The main theme that seemed to connect them all was the idea of self-doubt, whether it be in the course of discovering how to think for oneself (Matthew Modine's "I Think I Thought"); trudging through a romantic relationship (Hyoe Yamamoto's "When I Become Silent"); avenging a loved one (actor Rider Strong and brother Shiloh Strong's "Irish Twins"); carrying out a scheme of corporate blackmail and subterfuge (Nico Zingelmann's "Shift"); finding love despite a debilitating physical condition (Eric Gavel's "Eau Boy"); figuring out a way to procure uniforms for a soccer tournament for free (Michele Alhaique's "The Tournament"); or protecting oneself from the consequences of making a fatal mistake (Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's "Sikumi").

The only short out of these which felt truly unique and original was MacLean's "Sikumi," which takes a rare look at the Arctic Alaskan landscape and the types of characters that populate its mostly desolate expanse. In the film, Apuna, an Inuit hunter, comes upon two men from his village embroiled in a vicious fight. In a bout of drunken fury, one of the men kills the other. When the murderer claims self-defense, Apuna is suddenly put in the precarious position of having to choose between honoring the memory of the victim and destroying the reputation and life of the killer.

Worth noting: Shot on anamorphic 35mm at temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, Sikumi is the first film ever made entirely in the Iñupiaq language, which truly makes it a rarity in the history of world cinema.

The next film I caught was Daniela Zanzotto's new documentary, Zoned In. Running at 90-minutes, the film took over seven years to shoot. In it, we follow the journey of Daniel, an African American teen from the Bronx who, by the age of 15, had already sold drugs, fathered a son, witnessed his mother's arrest, and watched two of his brothers get thrown in jail. The film opens with Daniel at age 16, attending the notorious Taft High School in the Bronx, NY, but focused upon doing well in his classes in order to hopefully make it out of "the life" and urban milieu with which he has become so familiar over the years. Daniel's dreams of upward mobility seemingly come true his senior year of high school when he is accepted into a prestigious Ivy-league school, Brown University. Not only is Daniel the first member of his family ever to graduate from high school, but he is headed to one of the best-regarded educational institutions in the country. However, what Daniel doesn't anticipate is how desperately ill-prepared he is for such an elite school-- both academically and socially. During his first two years, Daniel struggles and flails to keep his grades up and makes only a few friends with whom he feels a true kinship or connection. We watch as he expresses his disconnect with the sea of privileged students around him, voices his despair and frustrations with the American education system, and rages against the institutionalized racism and classism that have simultaneously granted him access to limitless resources by way of affirmative action, yet withhold those same privileges, resources and opportunities from the countless numbers of people around whom he grew up back in the projects.

Worth noting: The film is narrated entirely by Daniel and is truthful to a fault-- perhaps to the point of being offensive to those who would rather not acknowledge the vast inequities and injustices that abound within an educational system that favors the privileged and shuts out the less fortunate. To watch Daniel triumph over incredible odds is both inspiring and thought-provoking.

Finally, as the day wound down, I met up with fellow Scarlett blogger Liz Stephens for a nighttime screening of the cult Fellini classic, "Toby Dammit."

Back in the late 1960s, when anthology films were more popular, American International Pictures released a feature length work in the U.S. that was known by several names: Never Bet the Devil Your Head; Spirits of the Dead; Histoires extraordinaires; and Tales of Mystery. It featured three stories based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, each directed by a legendary European director: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. "Toby Dammit," Fellini's contribution, tells the tale of former Shakespearean actor Toby Dammit (played by the British actor Terence Stamp in a tour de force performance), whose thespian career is quickly being destroyed by a nasty drinking habit. He agrees to work on a film in Italy whereby he is to be paid with a Ferrari. Upon arriving at the airport, he is accosted by the papparazi as well as plagued by visions of a little girl who has lost her ball-- the chillingly silent guise of the devil come to take Dammit's soul. The film was scored by musical genius Nino Rota and notably marked the beginning of Fellini's successful working relationship with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno.

During the course of the program, the audience was treated to a number of pleasant surprises. There to present the beautiful new print of Toby Dammit (on loan from the collection of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia-Cineteca Nazionale, courtesy of Alberto Grimaldi Productions), was artistic director of the upcoming Taormina Film Festival, Deborah Young. Taormina will be officially presenting the restored "Toby Dammit" to audiences later this summer, thus making this "preview" screening of the film at Tribeca most special indeed. Then, the screening quickly got underway.

As a precursor to the feature presentation, we first watched four out of a series of eight very short films called, "Green Porno," which were conceived, written, and co-directed by the iconic Italian model and actress, Isabella Rossellini. Inspired by the extraordinary sex lives of insects (yup, I said "insects"), each short features Rossellini wearing ridiculously inventive yet cartoonish bug costumes, filmed on a set dressed to comically kindergarten-like perfection. Ultimately intended for distribution and purchase via cellular phones through the company Helio, "Green Porno" first premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and then screened at the Berlin Film Festival before coming to Tribeca. It was, in my humble opinion, the funniest thing I had seen all week. (One can now watch "Green Porno" here.)

Then, the feature.

Not having known ahead of time exactly what the film was about or any of the history behind it (besides the fact that it was directed by Fellini), I was most definitely taken aback by "Toby Dammit"'s morbidly fatalistic tone as well as its horrifying vision of a globalized and super-mediated world. As I watched the story unfold, I realized just how terrifying in fact both the title character and the world in which he lives are. Technically speaking, Never Bet the Devil Your Head was classified as horror. But, it's Poe; so it's not the kind of horror that expects to shock with blood, gore, special effects, or even tricks of the camera, but rather with the slow and methodical illustration of the decay of one's soul-- Man's own self-destruction. Painted a ghostly white, with wild eyes and crisply bleached hair, Stamp slurs and rages, smirks and irreverently quips his way as the character Toby Dammit towards certain death, if not eternal damnation. The film reminded me in many ways of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz for its morally bankrupt yet tragic protagonist and the way in which both directors darkly present to the viewer a modern society in which one's only preoccupation is with image and the manipulation thereof.

Once the end credits rolled, the lights came up; and to our delight, Young introduced the esteemed Rotunno himself, who collaborated with Fellini on a number of films after "Dammit" and who restored the print we had just seen, using a chromatic recovery process that saved the film from certain ruin. Rottuno graciously apologized to the audience for his English and took a number of questions. He then shared with us one last gem: the rough cut version of an Italian car commercial that was shot by Fellini in the early 1990s, just before he died. In it, one can hear Fellini's own voice dubbed over the actor's as virtual audio notes as to how he intended the commercial to eventually sound and look. It was a rare and surprising look into one of cinema's master's last works-in-progress.


Elliot James said...

Did that restored version you saw feature Stamp's audio in English? The versions on DVD and shown on TCM were in French and it's not the same without Stamp's distinctively rich voice.

Karen Wang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Wang said...

Indeed, the track we heard was in Stamp's English. It was quite the treat.