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Fear and Loathing at the Tribeca Film Festival

Gordon Glasgow Apr 25

I’m sitting in a press screening for The Miseducation of Cameron Post at the Tribeca Film Festival and I can’t seem to find the red light that says “EXIT.” It’s not that the film is all that bad but the man next to me is wearing a fedora with a feather in it and not only does he laugh at every joke, he simultaneously starts clapping his hands and gasping for air. From as objective a standpoint as I can come from, the jokes are not that funny, often they are not even intended to be humorous. He faintly smells of marijuana and scotch and when I talk to him after he tells me he’s been a “film writer” for years.

We’re following the story of, as you might have guessed, Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz), whom the press notes say “looks the part of a perfect high school girl,” whatever that means. (Cameron is blonde and white). Little do we know — wait for it — Cameron is a lesbian! Soon she’s shipped off to a conversion therapy center by her evangelical mother, where Cameron, as the press notes put it, “is subjected to outlandish discipline, dubious de-gaying methods and earnest Christian rock songs.” From the carefully crafted prose of the film’s PR agents, you may be able to tell that this movie has a political message of it’s own. It is not in the business of letting the audience decide for themselves what’s right and wrong — one reason as a filmgoer I usually tend to avoid films that may have a strong “political message.” When you’re told by the filmmaker what to think, or, even more preposterously, how to think, it’s the equivalent of being taken for a fool.

It is more interesting to tromp on authority figures by trying on their shoes.

Following the screening, I have trouble putting my finger on exactly what to make of what I’ve just seen. Luckily, my dear editor is standing outside of the screening room pacing and texting, waiting for his press screening of Nico to start. I tap him on the shoulder gently.

“How was the film?” he asks, kind of startled, maybe not in the mood to run into anyone he knows.

I explain how it tried so hard to push its political morality that it didn’t leave much room for understanding the people who devote their lives to Christianity and gay conversion. The film was trying slightly too hard to let people know what it felt about gay conversion, as if it wouldn’t be obvious anyway. Pete looks at me earnestly, and says, quite calmly, as if he were a confident mathematician who just solved a complex equation, “performative wokeness.”

“Performative wokeness?” I ask.

“Performative wokeness.” He gives me a look that only one writer can give another when they’ve summed up a whole train of thought in two words.

I would much prefer to try and understand why someone does bad things, as opposed to watching the effects of the bad things that were done. Even less interesting is watching a fictional film about victims poking fun at authority. It is more interesting to tromp on authority figures by trying on their shoes. It allows you to see just how silly and capricious people in positions of power can be. And if “performative wokeness” translates into an artistic work’s tendency to portray victims of cultural dominance without trying to form a sense of understanding of the hegemonic forces that cause such debilitation, it all seems too easy, and maybe even disingenuous.

Whatever the case, Hollywood loves a good morality tale, however easy the targets of its ire may be, and the film already won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Drama at Sundance earlier this year.

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‘Winter. Depression. Non. Existent,’ she says, looking at me with the resolve of someone who’s opted for the realm of the synthetic, as opposed to, say, the F train in the middle of February.

The press notes for Duck Butter state that the film is “a blistering look at intimacy in a pressure cooker,” which, to be honest, is not that far off. The story follows two women who meet and then subsequently vow to spend 24 hours together, having sex once per hour, just to, you know, see how that goes. Laia Costa plays the free-spirited Sergio, who performs folk music at bars, and often says things like, ‘Ohh my God, just’a stop’a you’re mind’a and flow weeth it,’ in a heavy Spanish accent. Of course, this is a film, so she needs a contrast, a foil, and, to this end, we meet Sergio’s polar opposite, Naima, (Alia Shawkat). She’s an overthinker, a worrier, someone “trapped in their own head.” During the sensuous tete-a-tete that follows over the next 24 hours, these two clash and push each other in exactly the way you might expect. Two conflicting sides of intelligence, spirituality and empiricism, trying to put up with each other — it provides some entertaining material, regardless if the characters are often caricatures of two cliche’d ideas of identity. The crowd at the press-screening is mostly male and I guess that makes sense given the content of the film.

“Hmm, yes, I suppose I should check that one out,” I imagine most of them saying when peering open the screening options.

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“I saw Sarah Jessica Parker here yesta’day,” one security guard says to another.

“Yea? Well, I saw De Niro and Bradley Cooper walkin’ by.”

A debate follows as to who has seen the most celebrities walking in and out of Spring Studios, the Tribeca Film Festival hub. Along with a herd of press agents, photographers, journalists, and industry types in various states of hysteria, the fifth floor of Spring Studios is also home to the festival’s “Virtual Arcade,” a sort of mini-convention room where multiple forms of virtual reality storytelling are on display. I strap on a bulky headset and pick up two controllers and give the “Vacation Simulator” a try. I am transported to some indistinct Caribbean island, where I play handball with a bunch of robots who, for some reason, are on holiday with me. I take off the headset and find myself back in a windowless room behind a soundstage in a building in the middle of Tribeca, not far from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. A woman with blonde hair, photochromic eyeglasses and about seven gold bracelets on each wrist tells me that she’s been testing the product all winter long and that whenever it was rainy, cloudy, or even just cold outside she would put on the headset and “practically find herself on vacation all day.”

“I had a lot, a lot of trouble taking it off!” she says.  

“The headset or leaving ‘vacation?’”

“Leaving the Caribbean!’”  

“Did it, uhm, leave any long-term side effects?”

“Winter. Depression. Non. Existent,” she says, looking at me with the resolve of someone who’s opted for the realm of the synthetic, as opposed to, say, the F train in the middle of February. Maybe we’re all just looking for those glowing red letters that say “EXIT.”

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Photo: Revelers at the Tribeca Film Fest’s “Virtual Arcade” experiencing a VR alien abduction at the Dinner Party exhibit.