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Sex, War Games, Boring Singers, and Superman: a Mixed Bag at TFF's Observation Deck

05/05/2006 02:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the great things about going to a film festival like Tribeca is that you get to see all sorts of oddball little shorts that are shown before some of the features. But what if you went to see a screening that was nothing but shorts? It's an odd feeling, I'll tell you that; you go from happy to angry to bored in the span of two hours.

At least that's what I felt when I went to see the Tribeca Film Festival's Observation Deck, a series of six documentary shorts that explored a number of varied topics using a number of different styles.

First up was a Swedish short called Never Like The First Time!, directed by Jonas Odell, which uses animation to illustrate four real people's stories about the first time they had sex. Each story was animated in a different style reflective of the story; for instance, a male describing his triumphant teenaged deflowering at a party was drawn in a lighthearted manner, using colors and comedic-looking (well, for Sweden, anyway) figures, while a story about a girl being possibly raped after a night of drinking used more life-like pictures and menacing black-and-white tones. It was an enjoyable, if fairly inconsequential, short; in all four segments, the animation was remarkable, but the stories behind the animation weren't anything more interesting than the stories you'd hear if you asked your friends about their first times. In all, a good way to kick off the screening.

Next was In a Single Bound, which was the movie that I specifically went to Observation Deck to see. Directed by Ross Marroso, it's a straight-ahead documentary look at the history of Superman, from it's creation by boyhood friends Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in 1933. Through interviews with Superman historians like Jim Hambrick and famous comic artists like Jerry Ordway and Alex Ross, the audience learns about how Superman came to be, his transformation over the years, his depiction in just about every major medium from the last seventy years.

Marroso has his interviewees also talk a little about the problems Shuster and Siegel encountered after DC Comics marketed Superman to the hilt during the 40's, and didn't pay them a cent from those profits. The dispute over that money led DC to take both of their names off the comic. Both men fell on hard times over the next thirty-plus years, until Warner Brothers, who then owned DC, gave them benefits and a pension right before the Christopher Reeve movie came out.

But the movie doesn't really explore that dark side of Superman all that much, something that Marroso acknowledged during the post-screening Q&A. The initial cut, which was over an hour, explored the "Superman curse" which affected various people who were in the Superman movies and shows, from George Reeves' mysterious death to Chris Reeve's paralysis (he does have Noel Neil and Jack Larson from the old TV series reflect on Reeve, which is one of the best parts of the movie), but it was taken out. A little of that information would have given the doc more depth than the cursory look he gave in the finished product. Also, there's too little reflection of how Superman remained popular despite ever-changing views on what "truth, justice, and the American way" actually is. Oh, and, for some reason, the film ignores the existence of Lois & Clark, Smallville, and the new movie Superman Returns, which is set to come out this summer. An hour isn't too much to explore an American icon that's been around for 70 years, and Marroso should have stayed with that format (even if he couldn't enter it in the festival as a short...).

The audience was then taken from super heroes to true-to-life war video games. In Playing The News, fillmakers Jeff Plunkett and Jigar Mehta profiles gaming company KUMA, who creates realistic Iraq war video games based on news accounts and satellite maps of the terrain. Their war game, KUMA\WAR, is constantly being updated by the company; in fact, the movie shows that they had their module based on the 2004 battle for Fallujah created and ready for download before the city was even secured. The filmmakers try to balance the view of the creators and gamers -- along with some experts, like an MIT professor and a reporter from The Economist -- that the games give people a much better view of the Iraq war than the news media has been able to give, with the view from war reporter Phillip Robertson, who feel that no video game can capture the human element and toll involved in war.

But the scenes of the KUMA VP of product development cooly placing insurgents and I.E.D.s into the game scenario, along with two gamers playing the battle online like it's a game of Halo, just made me angry. It's bad enough that first-person shooter games like Doom have desensitized people to the acts of firing weapons and being in battle, but to reduce a real battle -- filled with real anxiety, real fear, and real suffering -- to something that can be played by two anti-social nerds on their laptops does a disservice to the real soldiers that are fighting and dying over there as we speak. And, as fair as the filmmakers tried to be, that point of view still seeped through in the final product. If that's the message they wanted to convey, they did their job.

Of the remaining three movies, the only one that gave me any kind of pause was Lea Rekow's A Long Struggle, which used a combination of frantic hidden camera footage and interviews with refugees to tell the story of the Karen, an ethnic Burmese minority who are constanly forced to flee through the jungle from the corrupt and drug-addled Burmese army. Rekow took a major risk in going into the country to film the plight of these people, and her work is both powerful and painful at the same time. The scenes of happy Burmese interspersed with shots of mangled and blooddied bodies of the Karen is especially harrowing. It is yet another reminder that no matter what's going on here, there are people in the world who have things much, MUCH worse than we do.

She Rhymes Like a Girl was a nice little music video/documentary, directed by JT Takagi, about a group of women who are trying to encourage other women to express themselves via hip-hop. It was only seven minutes, so the film didn't go into the program in-depth, but it was a nice respite from the horrors shown in the previous film.

Finally, the screening ended with Mariners and Musicians, a far-too-long film that combined the words and music of Roseanne Cash with grainy art-school shots of bridges and trees and flowers. Don't get me wrong, Cash's music is beautiful and her history -- her relationship with her father Johnny and her stepmother June Carter , not really touched on here -- is interesting. But the indecipherable, mystical ruminations that she gives here, combined with the slow and pretentious music videos, made this movie seem endless. I saw many people leave during this film and never come back. I wish I was one of them.