Let's be clear: I admire both Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore. I think they're talented and thoughtful, and contribute positively to their causes. But watching the Academy Award-winning actress "interview" the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker onstage last Sunday afternoon as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, I feared the entire auditorium would disappear into a black hole of smugness. It wasn't the first time I felt out of step with everyone else at this festival – I'd say that that feeling pervaded the five days I spent there.
From moment one at Sunday's event, when Sarandon and Moore were introduced as "two of the most distinctive thought leaders in America today," and Sarandon replied, "I've always thought of myself as a thought listener," I was on self-congratulation alert. When he marvelled at how he "fell through the cracks" to become "a stand-in for the voices you don't usually hear, like working-class people in Gary, Ind.," and she responded that she feels the same way when people criticize celebrities for calling attention to places like Darfur, I looked around the room to see if anyone else feared that we were inching toward insufferable. The answer was no: Everyone seemed to be burning with the fervour of true believers.
They chuckled when Sarandon asked Moore how he is able to ambush subjects, because, "I can't even throw a surprise party for someone because I feel guilty about lying to them. I guess I have overdeveloped empathy or something." They beamed approvingly when Moore insisted – incredibly, to me – that he and Sarandon are both "shy, like two introverts sitting alone in a high-school cafeteria." They didn't seem to mind that Moore went directly from talking about the growing number of poor in America to complimenting Sarandon's expensive-looking black-and-white spectator shoes, and that she responded by raising her leg and waving one in the air so the whole audience could get a look.
Several nodded sagely when Sarandon, a judge for Tribeca's short documentary competition, asked, "Have documentaries replaced traditional news media as the main source of investigative journalism?" And many burst into applause when Moore replied, "Our media have been bought and damaged. … Shouldn't the news organizations be hounding Wall Street and the banks? I've filled a void because mainstream journalism hasn't done its job!"
It seemed I alone wondered where Moore and Sarandon thought everyone had learned about securities shorters and mortgage bundlers, if not from initial reports by news organizations. (I admit that I had 20 years on most of the audience, and work for a traditional media outlet – but still, I'm baffled by people, especially "thought leaders," who think they're getting their information from some mythical organic source rather than the news organization from which it usually springs, just because they read a more personal-sounding version on someone's website.) I tried, though, to climb down from my high dudgeon and keep an open mind.
But I was further disheartened when Sarandon turned the event over to audience questions. Most of those who grabbed a microphone used the opportunity to further their personal agendas. More than one aspiring filmmaker wanted to know nothing more than how to get distribution for their work. One even walked down the aisle and laid two copies of her DVD – a short about human trafficking – on the edge of the stage, for the stars to take home. Sarandon got in a plug for her latest movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Moore encouraged people to watch his films, and promoted the theatre he owns in Michigan.
Eventually I had to accept that I alone was squirming in my seat. People had come here to be infotained; this was pretty high-calibre infotainment; therefore, they felt replete. I mean, what is a film festival, if not a groovy venue for self-promotion?
The night before, I attended a party for a thriller that had struggled to find distribution, until the filmmakers figured out how to start it with a bang –they tacked on a new beginning in which a man is shot. After that, several distributors expressed interest. But no one at the party felt perturbed by this. They were simply happy it sold. And why not?
Throughout the festival, I watched a number of other dramas whose plots revolved around a young person in an awkward situation who eventually makes a microscopic moral calibration, not so much about how to behave, but about how to "be." This made me realize two things – first, that "open-ended" dramas are clearly supercool right now; and second, that I can't always tell where "open-ended" ends and "underdeveloped" or "ill-thought-out" begins. But again, I was in the minority – everyone else was clapping and waving and hugging away.
Then I heard that two Cuban actors, leads in the multi-award-winning Tribeca film Una Noche ( One Night), had landed in Miami en route to the festival, but never made it to New York. Like the characters they play in the film – Cubans who defect to the United States – the actors had vanished, and are presumed to be seeking asylum. (They are Javier Nunez Florian – who shared the award for best actor in a narrative feature – and Anailin de la Rua de la Torre.) As of this writing, their whereabouts remained unknown.
So after five days of nipping around lower Manhattan, this is my take-away: Film festivals are collections of movies, and movies are microcosms of life. Some of them drive you crazy, some fall short, but a precious few can lead to change – change in policy, change in behaviour, change in thought.
At a high point (to me) in the Sarandon interview, Moore said that his greatest moments as a filmmaker have been the ones where he changed his mind. This sentiment was echoed by a female audience member, who stood up and announced that she'd avoided Moore's doc Fahrenheit 9/11 because she had been in the World Trade Center that September morning, and thought he couldn't do the subject justice. After hearing him speak today, however, she was willing to watch it. "Mike, I didn't like you when I was walking in here," she said. "But I like you now." Maybe that's all you can ask of a filmmaker, or a film. Maybe that's enough.