April 13, 2010
 

Brokaw's Best Of The Fest - Part Two.

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"The Art of The Steal." If you live and work in New York advertising, you're aware every day how Mayor Mike Bloomberg practices the steal. We call it the privatization of public space--little by little, Manhattan's streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas are being ceded to marketers. From our graceless Cemusa bus shelters with their 24/7 motorized one-sheets to the advertising-supported banners stretched taut on light poles up and down our major residential avenues, the city of eight million stories is fast becoming the city of eight million pitches. A piece of Central Park has been leased to Chanel, the planters on Donald Trump's Fifth Avenue block virtually cover the pedestrian crosswalk, the 4th Street basketball court has been rented out for a fashion show--it goes on and on. This steal is the prime agenda of the 60 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) spread across New York's five boroughs, aided and abetted by our City Council and blessed by the departments of consumer affairs and parks/recreation. The defense, of course, is that New York is broke and needs to raise revenues by placing non-traditional messages and events in the most conspicuous public locations. It's stealth advertising without the stealth.

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No one has made a documentary of this corporate and governmental abuse of power, but the Philadelphia-based documentarians Don Argott and Sheena Joyce (they're life partners as well) look like they might be up to the task. Argott/Joyce's "Art of The Steal" is a diamond-hard, exhaustively researched investigation of the theft of the world's most famous private art collection, The Barnes Foundation, valued at $25 billion and counting. This is the flip side of New York's shame. "The Art of the Steal" isn't about taking what's public and making it private, but just the opposite-- removing the paintings collected and owned by the late Albert Barnes from a rustic museum setting in a 12-acre arboretum outside of Philadelphia, to a downtown site on Museum Row adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What would this create? Just the largest single tourist attraction in cash-starved Philadelphia's history. It would change a tiny research and educational institution for students and scholars-- as well as a controlled and modest flow of visitors-- into a "McBarnes" where the whole world could stream past 181 Renoirs, 64 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, et.al. Who wouldn't want to supersize the largest collection of French Impressionist and early Modern paintings in the world?

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The film is very specific in identifying the power broker barons--starting with the late Walter Annenberg's Annenberg Foundation, billionaire H.F. Lenfest of the Lenfest Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trust and its society register head, Rebecca Rimel. None of these polished citizens would go on camera for Don Argott, who looks like a polite pussycat next to attack dogs like Michael Moore. And so the film Is largely built through exposition and opinion by a slew of art critics, historians and educators, nearly all of whom are outraged by the subtle engineering of an art-for-art-lovers' haven into an art-for-everybody spectacle. "The Art of the Steal" has its smoking gun, too, and it's set up by the world-class gallery owner Richard Feigen, who wonders early on why corporate donors wouldn't put up, say, $50 million to fix up and preserve the Barnes property in its present location. Feigen's take is that it's chump change to preserve a priceless collection worth billions. Much later in the film we learn through LA Times art critic Christopher Knight that one hundred million dollars in state funds was mysteriously line-itemed into a city budget to move the whole works downtown, long before a judge even ruled on opposing court arguments. We see the figure right there in the budget. How did it get there--who put it there? The film won't (or can't) go there, and it leaves off with a judge's recent decision not to overturn plans to move Barnes' paintings out of their original home and into Philly. Absolute power, the film infers, corrupts absolutely. One talking head for the establishment is the city's tourism head, and her frozen-smile prattling about how many unique new visitors will be drawn to downtown is juxtaposed with the city's present TV campaign using a clownish shill hawking its wares. This is a riveting, chilling portrait of the hidden side of cultural marketing.

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To Die Like A Man. Sometimes the essence of a movie can be transmitted in a single scene. If a song or piece of music reinforces the visual content in exactly the right way, the scene can be transcendent. Critics as diverse as Playlist's Sam Mac and The New York Times Manohla Dargis have already identified the tableau forest setting shown above in which Joao Pedro Rodriques' principal actors pause to rest. There's Tonia, the blond transsexual drag queen whose career is being derailed by younger performers, whose breast implants are postulating and emptying, whose young lover Rosario is demanding she undergo a sex change operation, and whose son (an army deserter and killer) is after her. Tonia is falling apart. She's also anguishing trying to maintain her duality--perhaps plurality is a better word--as both male and female. Tonia and Rosario discover the friendly young transsexual Maria and her partner Paula, and everyone sits silently in the primeval forest, bathed in red. The soundtrack softly eases into the delicate, keening ballad "Calvary," executed in a trembling falsetto by the veteran transsexual performing artist Baby Dee, a colleague (and sometime band mate) of Anthony from Anthony and The Johnsons. "Calvary" is an anthem worth exploring, for it may unlock why Sam Mac found this "the single most elevating scene" in the entire Cannes festival he saw and reviewed.

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The song is about Jesus urging us to weep for our children, not Him, to take up the cross and follow Him to Calvary. "Who are all the children, anyway, who ought to be home in bed" sings Baby Dee. The actors continue to sit, unmoving. "What happened to your big sister...wake up, wake up in sorrow, wake up on Calvary." Critic Dargis terms the song and the scene "a moment of rapture." It is that, and make no mistake; it carries more religious conviction and impact than two other Festival films with prominent Deity themes--"Antichrist," about a grieving couple's extreme suffering, and "Hadewijch," about a teenage novitiate's love for Christ. Rodriques' mature and assured drama will carry Tonia, (acted with a weary grace and acceptance by an excellent Fernando Santos) to a quiet and heartbreaking conclusion. "To Die Like A Man," like the moving Argentinean transgender study "XXY" (shown last year in New Directors/New Films), shows a rare kind of compassion and understanding of a man who won't fully become the woman he presents to the world. And Baby Dee (pictured below) has contributed the most memorable musical composition in the New York Film Festival's 47th annual celebration of world cinema.

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