A hallmark of this year's Tribeca is the prevailing grimness. A day's worth of films leaves you with searing images: Haitians tortured by colonizers in When the Drum is Beating; murder and mayhem in South Africa in The Bang Bang Club; gang wars in 70's Glasgow in NEDS. And then there's the psychological violence of Angel's Crest, when a single father's lapse in judgment brings tragedy -- in fact, if you're a parent, you may want to skip this one. Doubtless the grimness mirrors much of what's going on in the world. And the dark tone may also reflect the luck of the draw in what I've managed to see. TFF is spread all over town -- up, down, east, west; the logistics (and cab fares) can be daunting. Still, there exist multiple approaches to the world's horrors. After all, Voltaire was able to extract mordant humor and satire from the Lisbon Earthquake and The Inquisition (Candide, anyone?). Too much of TFF 20ll is, well, a tad earnest.
Which brings me to Roadie by Michael Cuesta, a coming-of-middle-ager -- and another report from the dark side. I missed the edgy, un-P.C. humor of the filmmaker's earlier Twelve and Holding, much of it at the expense of the weight-challenged. But though fairly excruciating, Roadie is worth the trip, partly thanks to knockout turns by Ron Eldard and Bobby Cannevale. Jimmy Testagross (Eldard) has lived his childhood dream as a roadie for the band Blue Oyster Cult. But with its glory days far behind, Jimmy has gotten the boot. He crawls home to his widowed mother in Queens (Lois Smith), who has kept his childhood room, a miniature rock 'n roll museum, intact. Back on the old sod Jimmy revisits high school nemesis Randy (Cannevale) and his wannabe singer wife, presenting himself as the bigshot manager of the legendary band. When the three light out for a night of coke and Wild Turkey in a cheesy motel, it's not hard to guess where the plot is heading.
Cuesta has really got down Queens: the accents; the terrible light of dusk to rival Walker Evans; the pinched houses with siding; the belief that success in life means getting the hell out. Eldard, who reportedly gained 20 pounds for the role, is both magnetic and heartbreaking as a loser mired in the past. (With his floppy blond pageboy and extra weight he resembles a handsomer Gerard Depardieu.) The film's set piece is the appalling, but brilliant scene in the motel, which includes a crotch-eyed view of Cannavale sprawled on the bed, while a coked-up Eldar plays air guitar in a riff that will blow you away. When Cannavale dismantles Eldard's fragile front, calling him "a fuckin' schlepper," it's like watching a predator zero in on his prey. The burden of unhappiness in "Roadie" may thwart its ride to theatrical release. But the beauty of TFF is that it enables cinephiles to savor two of our finest actors at work.
One caveat. A current tic among filmmakers, including Cuesta, is the obligatory barf scene, the default position to signal emotional distress. I say lose the barf scene. Give us evisceration, crucifixion, amputation -- anything but a barf scene. Trust me, the film will not be the poorer without it.
Happily for the hardworking critic, TFF is not just about attending screenings -- all of them packed, even mid-afternoon -- and enriching cab drivers by commuting to far flung venues. There's always time to party. Though the invites are not easy to score. I made it to the list for Tenjune, a club in the Meatpacking District, following the screening of Love Hate Love by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy (executive produced by Sean Penn) -- only to get disinvited and re-invited about a dozen times in one morning.
The scene at Tenjune aped grander events in Cannes and Toronto. It featured a roped off pen for "The Talent," meaning Sean Penn. I was eager to thank Mr. Penn for producing socially progressive documentaries and ask him how it was going with Scarlet Johansson. But the area was closed to commoners and guarded by a burly bouncer from central casting. You need a bracelet to get in, he informed me. I wondered if someone grows up wanting to be a bouncer, given that the work must be underpaid and is surely under appreciated. I asked the bouncer about his day job but he didn't care to chat. He was busy denying entrance to an esteemed film critic, who'd moderated the film's post-screening panel, and lacked a bracelet.
I never got to thank Sean Penn. I did get to meet a child molester though. Or rather -- it was hard to hear through the din -- a guy who introduced himself as a once-accused child molester who lived under a cloud of suspicion for twenty years until his name was cleared. He'd figured in an earlier film produced by Sean Penn called Witch Hunt. Was that about the McCarthy period? I asked, revealing my old school bonafides. No, the persecution of falsely accused child molesters by politicans on the make. "It was Meese's fault," the man said. Another gent in need of breath mints told me the Huffington Post was his favorite web site, seconding the views of many at the fest. At the risk of sounding like a character played by Kathleen Turner, for a party given by Stoli, those Blackberi cocktails at Tenjune were pretty light on the sauce. A salute to the new austerity? Next up a report from the jewel of Tribeca hoopla, the Vanity Fair party.