As much as I appreciate festival press screenings, I hate going to them. The theaters reek of work and fatigue, and worst of all, a press screening's snobby austerity is no match for the anything-can-happen fever of a public premiere.
Take last night's opening of A Stadium Story: The Battle For New York's Last Frontier for example. Directors Benjamin Rosen and Jevon Roush arrived at the AMC 34th Street theater as sleep-deprived as they were ecstatic, the victims of a crashed computer that threatened to scuttle their big night. Rosen introduced at least the first half the film; the second half was still being output 20 blocks away at the DuArt lab, and either way, both looked extremely rough. "We're rolling with it, and you guys are going to roll with it, and you're going to love it," Rosen said. He then shouted out to the crowd, a divided bunch comprising supporters and opponents of the now-defunct West Side Stadium, whose high-stakes saga supplied the basis for Rosen and Roush's documentary.
"I'm so glad to see the anti-stadium shirts out," Rosen continued, "and I'm so glad to see the union guys in fine form right there! Jim Mahoney, bravo!" He pointed into the audience, planted his tongue in his cheek. "We didn't want to say this, but let the healing begin."
As evidenced throughout the screening, a little healing may be in order: Viewers applauded anti-stadium leader John Raskin's first appearance and hissed at the introduction of deputy mayor and pro-stadium godhead Dan Doctoroff. Union boss Mahoney greeted at least one of Raskin's allegations -- that union protestors were paid to lobby Albany the day of the deciding vote -- with a throaty cry of "Bullshit!"
But ironically or not, A Stadium Story may indeed provide at least some of the groundwork for resolution. In fact, early segments hinting at the filmmakers' anti-stadium bias give way to a final act daring to suggest that nobody won the doc's namesake battle: In helping to kill the stadium construction deal, activists preserved the West Side's sense of community while thwarting the ailing union's chance at rebounding. The immense political capital expended by Mayor Mike Bloomberg (and ultimately quantified by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose final stadium veto reflected his dissatisfaction over the rebuilding of his district in Lower Manhattan) will not likely return to the Hudson Rail Yards if or when it is ever reacquired, meaning that the housing and jobs desired by advocates on both sides are equally unlikely to appear on the West Side anytime soon.
Even Rosen admits that such blown-out realities made it hard to choose sides as A Stadium Story barreled toward its conclusion. "Well, my partner found himself on the pro-stadium side of things, and I found myself on the anti-stadium side of things," he told me at the premiere's after-party, thrumming along at a bar three blocks from the Hudson Yards. "And so, inevitably, we found ourselves in intellectual battles abut if this thing was a good thing for the city. Is this a good use of public funds? We both grew up in the city, and we both had our biases. I felt like I had to battle my own biases. My kneejerk reaction was to say, 'This is stupid. $600 million for a football team? That's retarded.'
"But when you factor in the union situation in this town -- the fact that 50 percent of the building construction trades are non-union, and all the construction trades have 75 percent unemployment, that's a powerful, powerful factor in this story. That opened my eyes."
Rosen said he got the idea for A Stadium Story while chatting with Marc Levin, the acclaimed documentarian (Slam, Protocols of Zion) whose office overlooks the rail yards and for whom the young filmmaker was working when inspiration struck in 2004. "We were talking about the Knicks, and then we started talking about football," Rosen said. "And then he gradually mentioned, 'The stadium battle would make a great documentary.' And I said, 'Oh, all right.' A month later, I was thinking about it, and it came up and we just decided to go for it."
Rosen and Roush had known each other since they were 4 years old; they grew up together downtown in Noho and Soho, respectively. "One of the things that drew us to the story to begin with was that our neighborhoods underwent profound transformation as we were growing up," Roush told me. "The same thing's going to happen over in this neighborhood." The pair began shooting in August 2004, getting to know players in community, union and city politcs as they went along. When the stadium became the hub of New York's bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, Rosen and Roush started trailing additional players like Doctoroff and NYC 2012 executive director Jay Kriegel.
And while a few archival ploys backfire (did they really need to shoot NY1 news footage directly from the Web?), Rosen and Roush secure almost unimaginable access to to the inner workings of the pro- and anti-stadium campaigns. On paper, at least, A Stadium Story's final 30 minutes have no right being as enthralling as they are; after all, everybody knows how the vote will go. But the filmmakers' omnipresence is mind-blowing, and editor John Kirby's masterful intercutting from Albany to New York City on the day of the vote creates a rich, rewarding intrigue.
Wednesday night, it also revived the heartbreak of vanquished dreams. "I thought the portrayal of the argument was not accurate," Mahoney told me after the film. "But from an outsider's point of view, it was pretty close. (The stadium) was a good project; economically, it was smart. Artistically, it would be popular to be opposed to it. From the point of David vs. Goliath, the truth is I was David. I was portayed as Goliath.
"My members are out of work," he said. "They don't have jobs. This would create jobs. Right now, only drug dealers and prostitutes profit by the West Side Yards. Thank you, Shelly Silver."
But nothing in New York can be so black and white -- least of all the transcendent spirit of hometown films like A Stadium Story at a festival like Tribeca. I could suffocate with the critics, but why bother? There is only one first time for every one of these films, and for better or worse, you might as well make it an experience.