April 13, 2010
 

Tribeca Film Festival, Part Two.

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"Katyn." This writer has long regarded Andrzej Wajda as the Elie Wiesel of world cinema. Wajda has spent over half a century crafting Polish dramas of the plight of his homeland's people before, during and after World War II. In films ranging from the seminal trilogy of "A Generation" ('55), "Kanal" ('57) and "Ashes and Diamonds" ('58) through "Man of Marble"('77),
"Man of Iron" ('81) and "Korszak"('90), Wajda's unwavering message, much like Wiesel's, has been "never forget."

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His films started as modest, inexpensive, black-and-white neo-realism dramas, and have steady increased in size and scope; he's embraced and integrated big screens and bigger budgets into his truth telling. In 1940 Wajda's father was among the 14,500 Polish military officers--which included many Jews, Ukrainians and Georgians--massacred in prisons by Russian army officers or transported in the infamous "Black Maria" vans by secret police into the Katyn birch forests where they were shot and thrown into dirt pits "Katyn" is Wajda's most fully mature master work. It has sweep and spectacle, dynamic and soaring music in the spirit of Erich Korngold's 1940s scores, scenes of intense and frightening intimacy, and concluding sequences of extermination that are painful but not numbing to watch. Well, perhaps you will find them numbing, but you will take some comfort that at the end the theater stays dark for some minutes, and the screen carries an "exit music" sign while meditative music plays softly to give you time to compose yourself. This is a grace note from Wajda.

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Like all of this great director's films, "Katyn" gives you characters and lives you care deeply about. The core stories include a cavalry captain separated from his mother, his wife and daughter; a woman who gives her life to try and preserve her brother's memory, and her disapproving sister who's surviving under a regime dominated by criminals and bureaucrats; and a general's pretty daughter who briefly helps a handsome young partisan. The link that threads its way through these stories is a 1943 black-and-white German film of the mass graves of the Polish officers, which are exhumed and examined, naming the Russian army as the executioners. A year later the same film becomes a Russian version of the graves and skeletons, which pins the responsibility for the exterminations on the Nazis. The evidence is clear that Joseph Stalin (ruler of the USSR from 1929 to 1953) ordered the executions after the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, forcing thousands to flee their homes, businesses and universities, which is where Wajda's film begins.

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The sisters in "Katyn," like occasional characters in Wajda films, have a small window of time to make life-or-death choices. The surviving woman tells her sister who's trying to erect a tombstone for their brother that spells out the facts of his killing, "you choose to live with death--that is morbid." "No," her sister quietly replies, "I choose to live with the murdered, not the murderers." Shortly after that, we see her being directed down into a cellar from which she'll never return. This is yet another of "Katyn's" heartbreaks that cannot and must not ever be forgotten.

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"Squeezebox." From 1994 to early 2001, at the corner of Greenwich and Spring, the Squeezebox club was downtown Manhattan's premiere venue for major and emerging names in gay/punk rock. You may or may not be familiar with artisans like Debbie Harry, John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig, Dean Johnson, Lily of the Valley, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Karen Black and her Voluptuous Horror, The Toilet Boys, The Plasmatics, and the godmother of 'em all, Jayne County (formerly Wayne County who led the Electric Chairs). While Max's Kansas City once served the best club food in New York, and while CBGBs surely had the finest 24/7 sound system in the northeast corridor, Squeezebox's primary appeals were a knockout house band, and teardown sets by the above artists, and a tolerance for conspicuous sexual and substance practices that were virtually unknown (or at least untried) in other live entertainment spaces.

Squeezebox first and foremost put on first-rate pansexual rock shows, and like the Apollo up in Harlem had little patience for second-rate talent. The expectation levels of mixed gay/straight audiences were very high--multitalented performers like Misstress Formika and Justin Bond learned how to hold a room or perish here. At its soaring, savage best, Squeezebox was a mashup of rockers, stoners, fall-down drunks and sweaty drag queens having the time of their lives at sonic stun.

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Steve Saporito and Zach Shaffer's exhilarating, take-no-prisoners documentary captures the true glory of Squeezebox. The world premiere of their film was held at The New School, and the sold-out crowd was treated to (and loved) a sound level that was edging toward those Blue Cheer decibels that once opened up cracks in reinforced walls. At 93 minutes "Squeezebox" is lean and muscled. Its whipsmart talking heads include director John Waters, author Michael Cunningham, photographer Bob Gruen, and club denizens like Michael Schmidt, Genesis P-orridge (from Throbbing Gristle), and the haunting Nina Hagen. As a rock doc it holds its own with "Joy Division" and the "Decline and Fall" films, and that's as tough as they come.

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But more than anything else, for all its hardassed rudeness, "Squeezebox" celebrates a New York diversity that embraced lifestyles of every possible persuasion. The film demos that beyond dispute. It's an authentic record of lives lived below 14th Street in pre-9/11, a must-see among the Tribeca Film Festival's lineup of world documentaries.

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