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When Tribeca Was Like a Hollywood Backlot …

To understand the Tribeca Film Festival within the larger context of New York's film community, it helps to understand the perspective of the 2009 festival's most active participant with long-standing ties to the city's history. Filmmaker Bette Gordon's triple presence at Tribeca this year includes her new feature "Handsome Harry," a restored version of her […]

To understand the Tribeca Film Festival within the larger context of New York's film community, it helps to understand the perspective of the 2009 festival's most active participant with long-standing ties to the city's history.

Filmmaker Bette Gordon's triple presence at Tribeca this year includes her new feature "Handsome Harry," a restored version of her 1983 cult favorite "Variety" and an appearance in "Blank City," a documentary about New York underground cinema in the 1980s.

Gordon, now a film professor at Columbia University, has lived in the Tribeca neighborhood for decades. In her early years as a New York resident, she worked at the Collective for Living Cinema, a low-rent screening center located in a loft on White Street where all types of movies were shown to curious local audiences.

"It was a group of young people who made films and believed in exhibition," Gordon told me yesterday. "The beauty was that the programming was so eclectic. The audiences would build because they would come for one thing, and then go see something else."

However, Gordon doesn't place the Tribeca Film Festival in that same tradition. "It was a great idea that Jane [Rosenthal] and [Robert] De Niro had to bring business back to the neighborhood, but our neighborhood was never about business," Gordon said. "Tribeca was like an old Hollywood backlot when I moved to it. You could hear the crickets at night. The landfill was still there. There was art on the beach. That can't stay forever."

While the festival's programmers make sure to recognize the history of filmmaking in neighborhood with events such as the recent "Variety" screening, many of the older locals have struggled to accept its colossal presence. "I think a lot of artists in Tribeca felt ignored," Gordon said. "The film festival grew out of a whole different need — a need for industry, and the intersection of culture and industry."

Gordon and her gang, which includes local staples like John Lurie and "Variety" cinematography Tom DiCillo, never aimed for such professional standards. "We didn't think we were having careers," she said. "We just wanted to make the work we wanted to make."