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Tribeca Diary, Day Three: The Master, the Wolf and the Rabbit

Tribeca Diary, Day Three: The Master, the Wolf and the Rabbit

 

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As beautiful spring weather moves into New York City for the first time this year, the lines for TriBeCa movies only get longer. And, for all of the talk that TriBeCa is a festival for “indies that aren’t really indies” because of the A-list stars in their casts, the greatest masters’ films always draw the longest lines.

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In this case, the great master is the late, legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, whose final film In Transit made its world premiere. Maysles had been wanting to make a movie about passenger trains for decades, but an actual opportunity to do so only appeared in the last year and a half. Over that period, Maysles and his four collaborators (Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui, and Ben Wu are listed as directors, but an opening title card announces “an Albert Maysles film”) observed the Empire Builder line between Chicago and Seattle, interviewing hundreds of passengers just to capture the dozen or so stories that appear on screen. Each of those stories involves a person in transition in their own lives: going off to college, looking for a new job, running away from a disastrous relationship. The train makes a rich metaphor for life transition, as none of these interviewees can go in reverse from the decisions they’ve made, and this camera crew demonstrates an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time to find apparently thrown-away conversations that deliver that metaphor effectively. Add in the monumental technical challenges of filming onboard a moving train – the sound alone must have been a nightmare – and it’s clear that Maysles saved his best for last.

Put it this way: Last year an excellent documentary about oil workers in Williston, North Dakota, The Overnighters, was released. Many oil workers who arrive in Williston do so via the Empire Builder train, so more than a few of them appear in In Transit. What The Overnighters needed ninety minutes to tell about all of the promise and heartbreak in the North Dakota oil life, Maysles can do in five. Every other film in this year’s documentary competition at TriBeCa is playing for second place… Grade: A+

On the opposite end of the documentary spectrum is The Wolfpack, a film which is drawing raves from some corners, but which your humble correspondent thoroughly disliked. It’s the story of a family on New York’s Lower East Side which has confined their five sons to the family apartment for their entire childhoods. (There’s also a daughter who has been equally confined, but apparently she is not worthy to join The Wolfpack, which is just one of many problems this film has.) The sons’ only interaction with the outside world is through TV and movies, so they have taken to making their own shot-for-shot remakes of popular movies using homemade props. However, the movie-remake aspect of the story is barely important, compared to the much bigger issue of the kids not being allowed to leave home, and here the movie raises more questions than it answers. If the kids aren’t allowed to leave home, how did the filmmakers find out about them? Why does the father seem thoroughly opposed to the cameras being in the apartment, but filming happens anyway? How seriously are we to take the accusation that the father has hit his wife, which is mentioned almost as an aside and subsequently tossed away? And if all of those stories existed before the police were called to this apartment (as happens in the film), why did they not believe this to be an abusive household? The movie-remake aspect of this story seems like a crutch, a hook to draw other movie nerds into seeing the film without questioning too much all of the parts of the story left untold… Grade: C-

There are many comparisons to be made between the TriBeCa film Jackrabbit and Shane Carruth’s Primer: both are sci-fi efforts made on hyper-low budgets in Texas, both featuring casts of unknowns, both having a hand-made aesthetic, both with plots that become difficult to decipher in Act Three. The difference is that Primer is difficult to decipher on purpose, and Jackrabbit just seems poorly plotted. Set after a vague technological apocalypse that causes Austin, TX to be the most advanced city on earth, as a result of an all-powerful corporation running the city’s utilities, Jackrabbit starts out as a sort of mystery. Two hackers played by Josh Caras and Ian Christopher Noel are brought together by the suicide of a mutual friend, for reasons unknown to them both.

However, the more clues that the two discover behind the suicide, the more incomprehensible the film becomes. Fundamental questions like “Why is the evil corporation evil?” don’t receive satisfactory answers, but even worse, nothing about this plot or these characters will motivate an audience to care about those answers. Jackrabbit deserves credit for looking great on a micro budget, and the details of its post-apocalyptic world are well thought out (every time spare computer parts are referred to as “Tetris,” I laughed). But taken as a whole, it merely provides a glance at what Primer might have been, if Shane Carruth were a worse filmmaker… Grade: C+

Coming tomorrow: Nightmares, and lots of ‘em

-Mark Young