Ten Years without Tribeca

The Tribeca Film Festival starts next month, and I will be observing ten years of skipping films screening at this festival. I last went to a film screening at Tribeca in 2006, when I saw two films. One was the worst film I ever watched in a theater, and the second was the site of the worst Q&A session I’ve ever endured. After both experiences, with some very oblivious film viewers, I swore I would never return.

The Worst Film

Choking Man seemed promising at the time. It featured Mandy Pantankin, who I held in high regard from appearing in the Showtime dramedy Dead Like Me, and it took place in Queens.

The apparent inspiration for Choking Man (2006), the last film I ever watched at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The apparent inspiration for Choking Man (2006), the last film I ever watched at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I haven’t revisited the film since watching it at the festival: I have not re-screened it nor did I follow up to research the filmmaker’s vision. While it’s true that filmmakers sometimes find inspiration in the strangest places, this film seemed to be informed by two unlikely bits of inspiration:

  • The colorful “Choking Man” posters that appear in every New York City–restaurant. At the time, there was a version with a lemon wedge and a fish. It was hard not to notice.
  • Some New York Times article that revealed that there are a lot of languages spoken in Queens. Who knew?!?

As far as substance, these two bits were all the film had to offer. The characters in this film are all very flat, and the flimsy plot was immediately forgettable. I didn’t leave the screening, but I did mentally “check out” once Jorge, the Ecuadorian immigrant at the center of the film’s fish-out-of-water story, starts doing magic. If this was supposed to be a moment of magical realism, someone needed to pay more attention in his Latin American literature class.

After the screening had ended, there was the requisite Q&A. The audience loved the film and expressed their gee-whiz fascination with Queens and brown people, and they marveled at the area “by the airport.” They showered the filmmaker with praise and mid-2000s–era platitudes, such as “poignant” and “transcendent.” I never wanted to vomit in public as bad as I did then. It probably didn’t help matters that I saw this film with a girl I had already broken up with, but we decided to watch the film together anyway because we wouldn’t give up our tickets. (Hi, Tori.)

One could be forgiven for thinking that the audience was just being polite. After all, why would any want to be mean in public? But days earlier, I witnessed the Tribeca audience draw their “critical” claws. And it wasn’t pretty.

The Worst Audience

Two hours and forty-eight minutes is a long time to sit through a movie. No one I knew at the time would go with me, but Free Will [Der freie Wille] was one of the boldest films I had seen at the time. The story profiles Theo, a convicted rapist, after serving his sentence at a mental institution. Now free, he struggles to suppress his urge to rape again.

The Free Will (2005)

At first, Theo comports himself, but as the film continues, he finds himself consumed with his urges. On a cognitive level, he’s aware that it is wrong and that violating his parole will bring dire consequences. But he’s clearly sick, and serving time did not heal him. With each subsequent scene, the visuals in the film become more unstable. The pace of the editing quickens. The film stock becomes “faster,” which makes for a more grainy and noisy look to the film. Perhaps most noticeably, the cinematographer starts to hold the camera in his hand, and the image shakes considerably.

The duration of the film also exacerbates the difficulty of identifying with Theo. Throughout the film, we want Theo to control his urges, but by the end, we share his exhaustion. Much like Chantal Akerman needed nearly three-and-a-half hours to show Jeanne Dielman’s dreary life, this film needed to torment its audience for it to share Theo’s demons.

For the people who remained through the entire screening, their questions were harsh. Not only was Matthias Glasner, the film’s director, in attendance, but the actor who played Theo, Jürgen Vogel, was also present. The audience interrogated both Glasner and Vogel. Some questioners seemed to forget that they had seen a fiction film and treated Vogel as if he was an actual rapist. Others grilled Glasner over the “shaky” camera towards the end of the film. One viewer even asked, “Couldn’t you find a cameraman with a steady hand?” Both Glasner and Vogel seemed dumbfounded. At the time, the world held the US in pretty low esteem because of George W. Bush and his War in Iraq. This Q&A did not help elevate our global status.

To be fair, Tribeca screens well over a hundred films each year at its festival, and this was the first or second year after it had expanded north of Canal Street. With more and more films, there are going to be “duds.” But it was the audience’s taste, not the selected films, that really bothered me.

I didn’t want to sit with them ever again.

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