Tribeca 2012: Docs in Brief, Part Two

In this second of three Tribeca roundup posts, I offer brief thoughts on a number of documentaries in the festival’s Spotlight, Viewpoints, and Tribeca Talks sections. For films in the World Documentary Competition and Special Screenings, see my earlier post. One final post will follow with additional docs from Spotlight and Viewpoints not covered below.

Filipino singer Arnel Pineda’s unlikely rise from obscurity to become the frontman for the legendary rock band Journey is, by now, relatively well-known. While this is a great hook for a film (pictured), director Ramona S Diaz – who has previously done an exceptional job profiling Filipinos both (in)famous (IMELDA) and unknown (THE LEARNING) – wisely chooses not to dwell too long on the story of Pineda’s discovery and instead to focus on his first year with the band. It’s a crash course in celebrity and the realities of life on tour for the once homeless singer, as well as an adjustment to his veteran bandmates. Balancing the expectations of a music doc – providing a succinct history of Journey, spotlighting their popular repertoire through concert footage – without losing sight of her main character, Diaz succeeds in creating a film that should appeal to viewers whether or not they’re fans of Pineda or Journey.

Petter Ringbom also follows a musician in his film, accompanying Grammy nominee John Forté and his band on a tour of Russia, and he also chooses to concentrate on his subject in the present rather than the past. While Forté makes no secret of his time in prison for drug possession, and is determined not to repeat the mistakes that brought him there, his goal is to move forward. To that end, Ringbom captures his experiences performing, and, most interestingly, collaborating with a range of Russian musicians. While there may be culture shock and language barriers – which come to an effective head in one late, tense scene – it’s fascinating to observe Forté’s creative process as he demonstrates the universal power of music and shows the promise of fulfilling his unexpected second chance.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is clearly no stranger to second chances – as demonstrated clearly in Michael Sládek’s profile of the beloved cultural institution. Co-produced by BAM’s Karen Brooks Hopkins and Joseph Melillo, viewers shouldn’t be looking for anything besides a celebration here. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, given that there’s much of interest to explore in the history of America’s oldest performing arts center, which once burnt to the ground, and which weathered its darkest days by renting space out to judo studios. This background is intercut with snapshots of BAM’s various activities in the present – from Wim Wenders presenting PINA to Robert Wilson collaborating with the Berliner Ensemble on THE THREE PENNY OPERA. By the nature of the project – having to address a century and a half of material but still underline BAM’s current relevance – the result is a bit disjointed; there’s an ephemeral elegance to the present-day footage that clashes with the more conventional and weighty archival sequences. That said, the institutional history is often absorbing, especially when the forward-thinking Harvey Lichtenstein enters the picture, radically transforming BAM in the process.

The next film takes us to another NYC cultural institution – the Metropolitan Opera – and the work of another visionary – French-Canadian director Robert Lepage. Susan Froemke follows Lepage over five years as he develops and implements an ambitious, and, for some, controversial, restaging of Richard Wagner’s RING CYCLE, using modern technology to try to follow seemingly impossible stage directions that neither Wagner nor his contemporaries were ever able to fulfill. The engineering involved in creating the massive stage/set design is a wonder to observe, and it’s a thrilling albeit nailbiting experience to watch it go into operation in later scenes. One quibble: While the first opera in the cycle, DAS RHEINGOLD, is provided ample screentime, it feels like the other three are given shortshrift.

If Froemke showed Tribeca audiences high culture, directors Daniel Miller, Seth Kramer, and Jeremy Newberger celebrated the figure many considered the nadir of low culture of the late 1980s: would-be crooner turned controversial talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. Their doc is an affectionate but never pandering tribute to the mouth that roared, chronicling the showman’s meteoric rise and equally swift fall from popularity through trademark outrageous TV clips, clever animated sequences, unfortunately overused poetry recitals, and revealing interviews with family, co-workers, talk-show rivals, and, most enjoyably, now-grown “Loudmouths” – the show’s rabid fans. The filmmakers succeed in making a figure who both peaked and vanished from popular culture a quarter of a century ago relevant to today’s audiences by contextualizing Downey Jr as a canny inheritor of the confrontational style of Joe Pyne and the progenitor for today’s army of loud-mouthed pundits, willing to exaggerate whatever personality traits and political stances it took to get people watching and talking.

The subjects of Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s equally affable doc profile – Eric and Troy – represent the flipside of Downey Jr’s personality type. But while unassuming on the surface, these quiet scientists spend their off-hours creating elaborate though low-budget sci-fi films. Kane and Koury capture the likable duo over the two-years it takes to realize their biggest short film to date, PLANET X, and to get it out on the festival circuit. While there have been many films about the bumbling behind-the-scene efforts of would-be filmmakers, such as the masterful AMERICAN MOVIE, these usually indulge in a fair bit of pointed mockery. Refreshingly, that’s absent here, in large part because even though Eric and Troy generally take what they do seriously, they bring a palpable sense of camaraderie and fun to their efforts. Since there’s no real conflict to drive the story beyond the question of when Eric and Troy will complete PLANET X, this enjoyment in filmmaking ultimately becomes the whole point of both directing duos’ films, and this will undoubtedly connect with audiences.

The process of filmmaking is also the subject of Chris Kenneally’s documentary, with a specific focus on the changes wrought by digital technology. The doc’s producer, Keanu Reeves, serves as a (generally superfluous) on-screen interviewer to a who’s who of Hollywood directors, cinematographers, editors, and other post-production technicians, who each weigh in on the impact, for better or worse, of the rise of digital. On one side are the already-converted like George Lucas and James Cameron, completely enamored with the control they’ve gained over the image, while their opposites include Christopher Nolan and Vilmos Zsigmond, who insist that there’s nothing like film. Kenneally packs a lot into his project – detailing the development of increasingly more sophisticated cameras and various post techniques from editing and visual effects to color correction and digital projection – and frankly, most of it is engrossing. At the same time, I never got the feeling that I needed to be watching it in a theatre – the small screen seems like its most appropriate home.

Equally compelling is Andrew Shea’s exploration of the controversy around Egon Schiele’s titular piece of art. In 1997, MoMA’s exhibition of the Austrian painter’s work made unwanted headlines when the ownership of one particular portrait was contested, resulting in a thirteen-year legal battle that kept the painting from returning to Austria. “Wally” was stolen from its owner, Lea Bondi, by the Nazis after the Anschluss only to turn up in the possession of the world’s foremost Schiele collector, Rudolf Leopold after he was asked to locate it for Bondi. Shea tracks the twists and turns of the painting’s history, the efforts of Bondi’s heirs to reclaim the piece, and the still-contentious decision of MoMA (and other museums) to side with Leopold despite overwhelming evidence from the family of “Wally”‘s rightful ownership. It’s an impressive feat, with the result being a captivating documentary that manages to represent the lingering aftermath of the Holocaust and its accompanying injustices in the form of one simple piece of artwork.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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