This Week at Tribeca Festival: The Weissbergs of Gramercy Park, Waiting for Hockney, Scary Spooks in Afghanistan

Whoo-hoo, we’re a week into the Tribeca Film Festival and we can hardly remember a time when it wasn’t Tribeca Film Festival time. We’ve now learned how to avoid the blinking-light madness of the red carpet, how to navigate the (sorta crazy) long lines outside the theaters, and that our laminated pass gets entree into clean East Village restrooms. Oh, and the movies! One strength that the festival has always had is its documentary section—last year Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side was picked up and went on to win an Oscar—and this year’s offerings have proven equally fascinating, from Baghdad High—where four high-school students in Baghdad were given cameras to record their time in high school (a hellish experience even before you add in a war zone)—to This Is Not a Robbery, about a bank heist committed by an 87-year-old Floridian. But it’s hard to resist a great New York City story, which is perhaps why we were so taken with Hotel Gramercy Park.

Directed by Douglas Keeve (who did the excellent Unzipped documentary about Isaac Mizrahi in 1995), Hotel Gramercy Park contains several stories within one. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Weissberg family, who controlled the hotel for 50 years. Three generations of the clan lived inside the hotel—think really eccentric Eloise—and were dogged by tragedy, addiction and death. (Mr. Keeve got excellent access to the remaining family members, who are funny and haunted-looking.) The hotel—a character in itself—went through its own high and low periods. At one point the Kennedys rented a floor and Humphrey Bogart got married there; then it turned into the flophouse of choice for downtown rock ’n’ roller debaucheries (David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry). More recently, the hotel slid into a Mrs. Havisham-like state of shabby glory. Then, in 2003, Ian Schrager, the former Studio 54 overlord and current hotelier, bought the place and proceeded to relaunch it as the shiniest bauble around.

One of the delights of the bittersweet film are the kooky characters who pop up—from the longtime tenants who hunkered down and refused to leave amid construction, to the aspiring-actor bellhop learning to greet guests. Mr. Keeve has said, “It really all started when the guy jumped off the roof [David Weissberg]. And then Ian bought the hotel and everybody was freaking out because the Gramercy was this incredible old dinosaur, and there really aren’t any dinosaurs around anymore. My friend and producer, Wendy Ettinger, lived across the street and said, ‘Let’s do a movie before it’s totally gone’. So we did.” Watching Ian Schrager—who goes waaay beyond detail-oriented—glam up the place and reopen it is a drama within itself. And it’s fun to see a bouncer turn away Paris Hilton during opening night.

Waiting for Hockney is another doc that hooked us in and also made us just a little bit sad. Director Julie Checkoway follows Maryland artist Billy Pappas in his somewhat bizarre and obsessive quest to meet David Hockney. Mr. Pappas had been working on the same pencil drawing of Marilyn Monroe for over eight years (he uses a 20x magnifying glass to create every follicle of hair, pore and freckle), becoming more and more of a hermit, trying to create his very own masterpiece. Mr. Pappas is a sweet sort of weirdo, and his family is hilarious. (His mom’s name is Cookie!) As he starts to put more and more faith in his somewhat quixotic mission—which includes meeting The New Yorker’s Lawrence Weschler—one gets an uneasy feeling. Like, Hmmm, shouldn’t I have heard of this person if this all turns out well? We won’t give away the ending, but the film certainly does shed some light on the impossible hurdles facing those who aren’t born with connections to the art world, as well as a little something about the all-consuming artistic process.

And checking in on the non-documentary side of things, The Objective had its premiere at the AMC 19th Street theater last Thursday night. It’s the first theatrical release from Daniel Myrick, co-writer and co-director of that spooky shaky-cam classic, The Blair Witch Project, since 1999. And while it’s not quite as out-there scary (or as nauseating) as his last, Mr. Myrick has creating a deeply unsettling film about a C.I.A. agent and a group of soldiers in Afghanistan who are sent out on a mission to discover a mysterious phenomena occurring in the desert (really, really scary triangles of power). We wish we could better report on how this all played out, but we admit to being absolutely flabbergasted by the film’s ending. Is it a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy? A musing on the “we don’t belong over there” sentiment among many of us? Or, holy crap, are there more things in the universe we need to be scared of? Send in the flying monkeys!

The film was co-written by Wesley Clark Jr., whose father is exactly who you might think he is, and used actual military men, along with Jonas Ball (last seen as Mark Chapman in The Killing of John Lennon and who—if you close your eyes—sounds exactly like Edward Norton, which throws a whole other layer of weird in on this one). Here’s something we did learn: Many of the acquisitions executives, who are there, no doubt, trying to measure audience reaction and see if the film could be another Blair Witch-like hit, all like to sit together clumped in the back of the theater. But there were a lot of them there, so stay tuned. …

This Week at Tribeca Festival: The Weissbergs of Gramercy Park, Waiting for Hockney, Scary Spooks in Afghanistan