Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Shorts

New York's premier film fest just wrapped its fifteenth edition. Today, we survey the short films program.

It’s ironic that the Tribeca Film Festival headquarters—what the organizers refer to as the “festival hub”—is just two doors down from a derelict cinema. Yet there’s also a beauty in that very opposition, in that conflict and contrast between old and new, because every time you walk past that abandoned theater and into the TFF HQ, it’s a valuable reminder of the cycle of life, that even in death there springs forth something new.

If that seems maudlin, it probably is. But only a little. Now in its fifteenth year, the Tribeca Film Festival captures the very essence and life-flow of film. The eleven-day event, which wrapped last night, covers any angle you can imagine, from widescreen to close-up. There are hundreds of films to watch, absorb, and be consumed by, as well as talks and panels with actors and directors, unveilings of anticipated feature-length films and shorts, big names and unknowns, movies that open a portal into previously unimagined worlds and those that hold a mirror up to the many realities of actual existence. What this year’s TFF confirmed more than anything else for me is that sometimes—and more often than not—those are one and the same thing.

I’ll be honest: the whole affair is incredibly overwhelming. There’s so much on offer that, even on first glance, it makes you aware of just how much will be impossible to see and do, rather than how much you can see and do. I wanted to add together all the minutes of all the films on offer just to know how many months it would take to watch everything, but I soon gave up, because even that felt impossible. It’s not just time and logistics, either. Even with a press pass, you have to apply for entry to certain talks. Getting in can be like winning the lottery but then realizing you have to be at a certain place at a certain time to collect your winnings, and it’s during your honeymoon.

Tribeca confirmed more than anything else that sometimes—and more often than not—those previously unimagined worlds and actual existence are one and the same thing.

With that in mind, I decided to take an approach that was as practical as possible, both in terms of the festival itself and with the real-life, head-crunching stress of tax season and moving apartments. I threw out any preconceived notions of what I’d planned to see and participate in and instead decided to dive in head first, catching what I could when I could. As a music writer who knows the hell of covering six days of SXSW (and the headaches and hangovers that causes) this was even more extreme. I was jumping off a building into the vast ocean of the movie world, gagged and bound, and with my mixed metaphors at an all-time high. The result was a fascinating, eye-opening, and wholly immersive journey into the malleable and limitless world of film, one that made me forget I was in New York and which took me to different worlds and different times in a way that truly exceeded expectations.

For your sanity’s sake, I’ll be splitting our coverage up across three days, organized around three of Tribeca’s suits: short films, features, and (spoiler alert) my favorite aspect of the festival, the virtual arcade. Today, the shorts.

What struck me about the shorts is just how readily they transcend their name. Yes, they’re short—between four and twenty or so minutes—but they contain whole universes, telling stories and capturing the essence of existence in a way that way outlasts their running time.

Dead Ringer—directed by Michael Tucker, Alex Kliment, and Dana O’Keefe—invoked the spirit of a gritty, older version of New York from the point of view of a phone booth left cold in a world of cell phones and mobile technology. It was pure (dead)beat poetry; think a cross between Edward Norton’s vitriolic rant in 25th Hour and Bukowski’s untrained, visceral imagery. It was a powerful commentary on the things we leave behind (phone booths or otherwise) without ever stating as much. Conversely, Catch a Monster, set on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, was a beautiful but disturbing rumination on the things that we’re unable to leave behind. The “monster” in question was one man’s conscience that caught up to him years after the things he did in World War II. Unsurprisingly, it made for hard-hitting and harrowing viewing.

Auschwitz stretches an eternity of sorrow across its fifteen somber minutes.

Equally heavy (if not quite as engaging) was Je suis un crayon (I Am A Pencil), an animated short which reflected on the importance and power of creative expression in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France. Perhaps most moving, though, was Auschwitz. Directed by James Moll, produced by Steven Spielberg, and narrated by Meryl Streep, it told the story of the construction of the concentration camp, stretching an eternity of sorrow across its fifteen somber minutes, each one of which was weighed down by the lives of all who perished within the confines of the camp.

It wasn’t all serious, stuff, though, and as much as these shorts could capture the darkest shadow of the human condition, levity, love, and laughter were also present among the tragedy. Eugene Kolb’s animated film A Subway Story detailed how taking a chance on a chance (non-)encounter on the New York subway led to real love, while Curmudgeons, directed by and starring Danny DeVito, revealed the wonders of a foul-mouthed but endearing friendship between two senior citizens—proving that while you have no choice in growing old, you don’t necessarily have to grow up (at least, not all the time). Super Sex was a film about two grown children buying their eighty-six-year-old father a birthday present (involving a hooker) he’ll never forget, but it never quite hit the mark it was aiming for.

Tim Egan’s beautiful but brutal Curve was eleven wordless minutes of intense psychological and physical anguish that puts any of the Saw movies to shame. The film’s imagery can either exist on its own terms or serve as a visceral metaphor for those difficult decisions we face, or even just life itself. I’ve never winced so hard watching a movie before, and I still feel the sense of nausea and dread that watching it produced in me.

Other standouts included The Carousel and Gonzo @ The Derby. The former was about the creation of—and history behind—a carousel in Binghamton, New York, which was once featured in an episode of The Twilight Zone and which was restored many decades later as a tribute to the TV show’s creator, Rod Serling. A conflation of fact and fiction, it cleverly blurred the line between the two, demonstrating the ways in which each influences the other. The latter film, directed by Michael D. Ratner, was a fast and furious glimpse—half-animated, half filmed—of Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman’s experiences at the 1970 Kentucky Derby and their inadvertent creation of Gonzo journalism.

Even if shorts are by their very definition concise, when done right (as the majority of these were), these snapshots of life, these flurries of poetry, can say just as much as something ten times as long, which makes them all the more powerful. I probably watched more shorts at the Tribeca Film Festival than I’d seen in my entire life up to that point and I fear it’s the start of an all-consuming obsession that’ll stay with me a long, long time.

Next up, we’ll talk about some of the feature-length films that screened at Tribeca this year. FL

2016 Tribeca Film Festival coverage: The Features | The Virtual Arcade

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