It’s Spring in New York and that means one thing to cinephiles: Tribeca Film Festival. The festival runs April 24-May 5 at Village East Cinema and Regal Cinemas Battery Park. TFF2019 Opening Day is soon approaching, so I will cut right to my Curtain-Raiser Pick List. Continuing to expand its entertainment offerings, Tribeca has broken up their titles into an even more confusing array of categories than ever before, including Documentary, Spotlight Documentary, Viewpoints, Untold Stories, Spotlight Narrative, US Narrative, International Narrative, Movies Plus, This Used to Be New York, Critics Week, and on and on – not exactly easy to navigate. So, ignoring all that, and also side-stepping the more typical Critics Picks of big-name and high-profile productions (see any other publication for that), I will offer a select list of films that fall into a category defined by my own tangled and perhaps questionable perspective: I am interested in the number of Archival Movies at TFF2019, and I will list just a few here.
This seems to be an unofficial theme this year – films that begin and end with images of VCR tapes or microfilm, drawers full of old photographs or scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. Archival materials are typical components of well-researched documentaries (and TFF is always wonderfully rich with documentaries), but this year the focus seems to be as much about the archival material itself as it is the subject of that material. Several films investigate real-life individuals whose identities where defined by and sometimes destroyed by their images on paper or video.
I theorize that with the advent of the internet and the digital age where unlimited masses of everything are recorded, without context, the old concept of carefully collected documentation is increasingly a thing of the past. And old, analog items, such as photographs on yellowed, warped paper, are a dying breed of memoires — history made real by material things. It’s the beginning of the end for archiving as we know it, and we rightly are already nostalgic for those tangible touchstones. Here are some movies that ask the viewer, in various ways, to reflect on the relationship between archival items, the people who keep them, their depictions on screen, the memories they create, and reality.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (Feature Documentary)
Marion Stokes secretly recorded American television 24 hours a day for 30 years, amassing an incredible 70,000 VHS tapes. Long before our current era of “fake news,” Marion was seeking and protecting the truth by archiving everything that was said and shown on television. The public didn’t know it, but the networks were disposing of their archives for decades – into the trashcan of history. Remarkably, Marion saved it. A mystery in the form of a time capsule, Matt Wolf’s film delves into the strange life of a reclusive archivist who was perhaps crazy, perhaps genius, perhaps both.
Beginning with the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 and ending with her death during the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook, Stokes captured wars, triumphs, catastrophes, talk shows, bloopers, commercials, and more. The archive reminds us who we were and explores how television shaped the world of today. At the same time, it looks at the woman who dedicated her life to this visionary and maddening project and the toll it took on those around her.
History of Memory (Tribeca X, Short Documentary)
Tribeca X celebrates the intersection of advertising and storytelling, in itself a fascinating topic. For more on that, click here.
The History of Memory is a series of short documentary films created by Redglass Pictures and the Garage by Hewlett-Packard (HP), which celebrates the power of printed photographs to change our lives. From Florida to India, Beijing to New Orleans, the short films explore stories of real life people whose lives were forever altered by the discovery, creation, or preservation of a photograph. In At First Sight, a deep connection is made across continents following the exchange of two images. A Secret Album tells of a woman who discovers her true self after the uncovering of a hidden family photo album. And in It’s a Boy, a young man poses for an unconventional photo shoot, and then feels a part of a family for the first time in his life. In each film of History of Memory, we are reminded that the most important memories are those that we cherish, share, and protect. (And ideally, if you believe HP, that includes printing your cherished photos.)
The Quiet One (Spotlight Documentary)
Throughout his life, Bill Wyman, one of the original members of The Rolling Stones, shot hours of unseen film footage, took thousands of photographs, and collected a vast archive of memorabilia. He also kept a detailed diary to accompany these treasures. Known by his former bandmates as a man of few words, the notoriously private bass player reveals himself to the audience by talking us through his life’s archive and reflecting on his experiences. It’s an insightful perspective of a man at the end of his career. Directed by Oliver Murray, The Quiet One is an engaging cinematic memoir from a working-class boy, raised by his grandmother, who found his home in the band that disrupted the music scene and made rock n’ roll history.
17 Blocks (Feature Documentary)
Note that I have not yet seen this film, so Helen can’t Highly recommend it. But I will suggest that it seems to be an intriguing and fresh look at a can’t-be-told-too-often story. I include it in my Pick List primarily because of the compelling and devastating use of a home-video archive. Nine year old Emmanuel began filming himself and his family with a home video camera in 1999, capturing his Washington D.C. neighborhood through the eyes of an innocent child. Growing up just 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, however, proved more difficult than expected. Filmmaker, journalist, and frequent This American Life contributor Davy Rothbart befriended the Sanford family as they continued to document their daily life over a 20-year period in a city plagued by poverty, addiction, and gun violence.
What resulted from this uniquely collaborative effort between Rothbart and the family is a portrait of the unwavering strength of familial bonds. The film follows the characters through periods of joy and sadness, all captured on tape with stunning intimacy. This non-fiction odyssey offers a remarkable look into the lives of one family who was brave enough to share their story with the world.
I am going to break this Archival category into a sub-group of Rise-and-Fall Stories about iconic men whose lives were quite literally defined by the images of themselves created by and about them. Destroy the image, destroy the man? The Halston movie below begins by telling the audience how all of Halston’s tapes of himself and his work during the years of his reign were intentionally and systematically erased by the man who pushed him out of the business branded with Halston’s own name. The tapes were not trashed; they were erased, with fresh blank labels attached to cover up the old ones. Did this destructive act succeed at erasing the man himself? The documentary investigates.
Halston (Spotlight Documentary)
Pictures meant everything to Halston. “Life is like a picture,” he used to say. The man, the brand, and the downfall of legendary fashion designer Halston, are poignantly portrayed in this documentary by TFF alum filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng (Dior and I, and The Eye Has to Travel, about fashionista Diana Vreeland). America’s first superstar designer, Halston created an empire and personified the dramatic social and sexual revolution of the last century. The film reveals Halston’s impact on fashion, culture, and business. It captures the epic sweep of the life and times of Roy Halston Frowick, the man who set women free with his unstructured designs and strove to “dress all of America.”
While framing the story as an investigation by a young archivist diving into the Halston company records, Tcheng expertly weaves rare archival footage – depicted through contact sheets, TV monitors, negative images, and video glitches, with intimate interviews with Halston’s family, friends and collaborators, including Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Iman, and filmmaker Joel Schumacher. What results is a behind-the-headlines look into the struggle between Halston’s self-created image, his depiction in the press, his artistic legacy, and the man himself. As in the story below, it is suggested that perhaps cocaine was key to this icon’s downfall. But the film digs deeper and looks at a carefully considered timeline of events; there is a lot to this story. In addition to its glitzy appeal, this documentary truly investigates America’s cultural and business history in a way that makes it surprisingly significant today.
*Take note during the credits of the film at how much of the archival materials came from the Andy Warhol collection. Now there’s a guy who protected his image.
Framing John DeLorean (Spotlight Documentary)
The story of John DeLorean and his iconic car is mainly associated these days with the beloved movie Back to the Future. The true story has faded since the cameras, gossip, and intrigue swirled around him in the 80s, epitomized by a top-model wife and an infamous cocaine bust, followed by revelations of theft and corruption. But this film suggests that DeLorean’s triumphs and downfall, and their consequences, remain relevant today. And who better to portray a flamboyant man with a giant ego than Alec Baldwin, who appears in this film portraying himself portraying DeLorean?
DeLorean’s fascinating tale is documented by one of the most glamorous archives in biopic history – full of private planes, fast cars, celebrities, posh lifestyles, flashy ads, mob-guy confessions, FBI secret footage, and even a filmed polygraph test plus the rehearsal for that test. The use of that archive in combination with process-aware re-enactments and interviews with many who knew him, including his much-disillusioned and angry son, provide a portrait of a complex, brilliant innovator and marketing genius whose Midas touch disappeared too quickly. The juxtaposition of archival materials, present-day interviews, and occasional commentary from actor Alec Baldwin overtly begs the question: what was real and what was a con? But perhaps the most compelling part of the film is the disclosure of what happened after the cameras stopped filming and the newspapers stopped reporting.
Also check out Part 2 to Helen’s Picks for Tribeca Film Festival 2019, where I recommend two Magic Realism films, two Activism films, and a Music Documentary.