The Art Market’s Dead Reckoning

October 12, 2012

It was brunch time on a sunny Saturday in New York’s West Village. Julian Schnabel, the celebrated artist and filmmaker, was holding court at Sant Ambroeus’ main table. The larger than life artist, dressed in one of his signature pajamas outfits, was surrounded by seven friends. Schnabel introduced “Paolo!,” his “favorite waiter,” to the crammed table. Rula Jebreal, the stunning Italo-Palestinian journalist was squeezed to his left, and folding chairs were added so Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson could fit in. Power-agent Bryan Lourd stopped by. He dangled a baby over eggs crostino so the artist could cradle the newborn for a second or two. Downtown fixtures gave greetings while the artist nodded behind his sunglasses. Schnabel “had” the room. Nothing could upstage him.

Then this happened: A modest-sized limo pulled up outside the restaurant and Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis stepped out. They quickly approached the restaurant’s host and ordered two coffees to go. Within seconds, Schnabel managed to squeeze out of his jam-packed table (not an easy task given the artist’s frame and nailed-to-the-ground furniture), and shook hands with the guy who altered the rules of leverage buyout and his wife, the president of MoMA. The greetings lasted less than a minute, and the Kravises walked out.

With its telling nuances, the above scene merely captures stereotypes of the different pecking orders within the art world today. Of course, for all the establishment-envy between artists, agents, curators and patrons, there are counterpoints. Every so often, creativity, along with radical statements, turn rebel art players into brands and redefine what art is. It is this emotion-driven risk taking—at odds with risk management or market research that are valued in more traditional sectors—that has added to the complex and often amusing relationships between the art marketplace and its sponsors.

So far, at least. If you browse art headlines today, you are likely to run into FBI investigations, high-profile forgery-claiming lawsuits, suspicious accounting practices, top prices surpassing pre-recession ones, and, for some, an end-of-the-world competition between nonprofit museums and galleries. Replace the word “art” with “banking” and the headlines still stand. Is the art world turning into and against its own patrons? And if so, how can one take sides in a war between nine-digit worth hedge funders and eight-digit worth art insiders? Could the graffiti read, “clean up your business or someone else will do it for you,” or are today’s lush news just the latest stage of the art world’s businessasusual? To take a position, one needs to understand how things got so inflated, suspicious, and toxic as to make regulation a possibility.

During the last few years, technology has pushed art closer to show business than ever before. At a grassroots level, YouTube users recorded artists who recorded themselves working next to unmade beds in Brooklyn, so that fans in Istanbul and Sydney could “comment,” “like,” and “follow” them, real time. Within such an era of technology-backed popularism[1], brand-making “institutions” like the Tate Modern or the Gagosian needed to rise above the non-stop supply of pictorial stimuli to attract the average-metropolitan Joe, oversaturated by artistic spurs and visual anarchy.

To succeed in this, heads of museums and galleries adopted a “go big and fun,” “Disneyland” strategy that could have come straight out of a Harvard Business School textbook. If YouTube and social media were the new popular ways to make brands and sustain existing ones, then the art market’s big leagues would have to stage Mitterand-grand-like projects for “followers” to upload. For a few years now, they’ve been doing exactly this: offering bigger events with bigger shows in bigger spaces. Hundreds of thousands of people walked, literally, under Louise Bourgeois and Olafur Eliasson’s colossal pieces, while Damien Hirst was shown simultaneously in a dozen or so Gagosian galleries around the world. A shock-and-awe era was established. Millions of white-collar couples with their toddlers, made Saturdays out of MoMA or West Chelsea, instead of checking out the latest Marvel movie. Whether streaming artists working in Berlin or dancing during Guggenheim’s Friday night DJ sessions, the art world bet on the experience, the packaging of art.

By the tail end of the financial crisis—if we are in fact at the tail end of this crisis—the top of the art market has eaten up popularism and then some. Size, spectacle, and ubiquity via Airtime and Vyclone, or whatever the latest “it” outlet is, rival talent, taste, and intellect. To seal the deal, this shift from connoisseur-picked art to “celebart”—easily recognizable art—didn’t go overlooked by the new-new-rich. The bigger and pricier the pieces, the more the media coverage and opportunity for spotlight, the easier for the status-anxiety-driven fund managers to pull out their checkbooks.

Of course artists and their surroundings can go big and loud for purely creative reasons. But what are the consequences of this armsrace that has made art trade a show business? Popularism is not necessarily, not always, anathema. Sure, there is the dread of simplistic and addictive “followship,” but even if they might not all stop by for the right reasons, the five million people who visit the Tate Modern every year could well be better off than they’d be hitting the local pub—health-wise, culturally, even politically. Perhaps. If what the art shows lose in depth they gain in height, for real, then the obvious question is, just how sustainable is this go-big-and-everywhere strategy? Putting the controversy of its cultural efficacy aside—along with issues of necessary resources, maintenance, and storage—there are signs that this popularity contest has brought some conformity to the art world. As museums get more commercial and 50,000-square-foot galleries become less traditionally so, the top echelon of the art world gravitates towards a small web of living and breathing mega-artists, like Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons, in mega-spaces the size of White Cube and AGO. Beyond the obvious risk of grandiose monotony, this emerging “gallereum” phase—a co-competition for shows and artists between museums and galleries—can make artists and their audiences dangerously complacent.

“I am a big Bob Dylan fan,” John Elderfield, the legendary ex-chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, said. “And we [Larry Gagosian and I] go to concerts together,” he confessed when explaining why he moved to the Gagosian Gallery, a career move that shocked many.

“Oh, say it isn’t so,” stare-and-church-art aficionados blogged, while others, including David Ross, chair of MFA Art Practice at the School of Visual Arts in New York, applauded Elderfiled’s move as a sign of today’s dynamic and changing art world.

Mixing work and fun or swapping custodians with players are not art-unique phenomena. In the name of the next big thing, different sectors have experienced fraternities and rivalries that crossed nonprofit and commercial lines. In the late 90’s, when Craig Venter announced that he would decode the human genome using a fraction of the time and cost of the equivalent public project, he launched a race that benefited genetics stakeholders all around. Airbus (an EADS subsidiary), Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and NASA have all run for the gold within aircraft, satellite, and aeronautic systems. So far, so good: competition and cooperation can complement one another.

But what about when things get just too comfortable in the old-boys club? Marketmakers becoming marketplayers can yield unfair advantages and make hell break loose. Indeed, mixing complex speculations with commercial and retail activities brought the world to its knees. The US Congress pondered if the Fed was just too close to Wall Street and whether Henry Paulson, ex-Goldman Paulson, and Timothy Geithner did everything they could for the taxpayers when it came AIG and other institutions.  In the midst of finally understanding the conflicts of interest and lack of transparency that led to a global recession, a cryptic art market seems to either have learned very little from its patrons’ shams or to have turned itself into the patrons’ total bitch that tolerates, and even adopts, shady white-collar practices.

“Think about it,” I told Ann Freedman, a grande dame of the art world and the owner of a prestigious Upper East Side gallery. “The buyers of six out of the ten most expensive paintings ever sold, four of those sales made within the recession, are either unknown or unconfirmed.”

“Oh, please,” she said waving her hand incredulously. “Our culture of sublime and secrecy is long-standing. Way before bond traders and oil money got into the game.” She opened a folder and began to read out loud an excerpt from a 1940’s (nineteen forties) article about “understandings” and “considerations” in her space. “Facts and figures must be kept secret at any cost,” she read and looked up. “Even back then. Especially back then,” she said with staged self-deprecation before continuing to read: “The price of painting sold may be concealed because, one, concealing prices could protect other works by the same artist; two, the painting was sold at a very high price, and the dealer does not wish to be accused of cheating; three, the client intends to reveal to his friends that he paid much more than he actually did (a snobbery of wealth, or a means to demonstrate solvency); or four, the client wants to pretend that he paid much less than the real price (a snobbery of connoisseurship).”

Was she telling me that the Morgans and the Rockefellers corrupted her world way before Greek shipping magnates and Hamptonites made them dance?

“Do you know the difference between being private and being secretive?” I asked her.

“Do you know the difference between lying and bullshiting?” Freedman replied, with a keep-your-sophisms-for-Greece stare. “I have seen it all,” she went on, referring to her tenure as the head of one of New York’s most renowned galleries. She came across offshore shelter companies, IRS, or the lack of it, closets of all kinds, secret funds that spouses were not supposed to know about. “All common practices. Everybody knew…” she said with an understated nostalgia that made me recall my business school professor ranking “creative” accounting practices: “Hollywood, art deals… next stop mafia!” he’d said half-joking.

“The difference between privacy and secrecy is a fine but fundamental one,” I insisted. “It is key when provenance is the elephant in the room in forgery-related lawsuits and investigations.” I added, stepping into her world’s ultimate taboo, the speculation currently played out in courts and blogs about the authenticity of works attributed to some of the biggest masters, Rothko and Pollock included.

Freedman did not object, not in principle. Yet, “You can’t protect anonymity if you can trace the money,” she said, amending her concession. “You have to build shelters.”

Anonymity and closets stand out indeed, amid today’s chaos of accusations surrounding the genuineness of pieces that challenge masters’ catalogue raisonnés, experts’ opinions, and dealers’ intentions. With an “open source” art force growing—from real-time art sharing to the increasingly uninhibited, often downright “out” lifestyle of some new young ultra rich—secrecy seems archaic, expensive, and frustrating. So when the assumed identity of the anonymous owner of debated art changes from a Middle Eastern princess to a closeted sugar baron to the son of a Mexican painter[2], one has to suspect the “structuring” of provenance. Dead reckoning has already begun. As research has commenced from a false premise, any expert’s assessment—if there is any assessment left in today’s litigious climate—is subject to cumulative errors.

Privacy, on the other hand, distinguishes between incomplete and false information, protects facts, and highlights what is known versus what is unknown, so that experts can make the best out of available intelligence. If capitalism and art continue to sleep with each other, then art whizzes should consider authentication as part of a risk management-backed valuation exercise—at the very least, they should call up their art management compatriots with MBA’s. Most business investment decisions are done in the absence of complete information, and decision sciences have optimized how to make the most out of such situations. Using decision analysis and real options to combine provenance, forensics, and connoisseurship (experts’ subjective judgment—even “blinks” for Malcolm Gladwell’s fans), specialists can assess art in ways that value expectancy and optionality.

Interestingly enough, certain institutions already seem to have taken the first steps in this direction. Calder and Lichtenstein’s foundations, along with the Noguchi Museum, have placed their cataloging work online and call them “works in progress,” reported Patricia Cohen, a New York Times journalist so consumed by the authentication saga that she has covered everything from the 1929 da Vinci disputes to the memoir of “redeemed” art con man Ken Perenyi.

“You determine if your work is fake or not with the data we present,” Alexander Rower, Alexander Calder’s grandson and the chairman of the Calder Foundation, said, according to Cohen.

“What we are presenting is a combination of completed research and research pending,” stated Shaina D. Larrivee, project manager of the Isamu Noguchi catalogue raisonné. “We have the ability to remove artworks if new information comes to light.”

Acknowledging unfolding events and the possibility of further research findings, like the above foundations do, allows for assessment processes that offer expected values and contingent investment opportunities. This paradigm is at odds with the pursuit of absolute and irrevocable rulings from foundations such as Dedalus, Motherwell’s foundation. Jack Flam, its president, which also includes ex-MoMA, now-Gagosian John Elderfield, not only permanently and irreversibly marked art as forgery, but also adopted an “If one of the paintings is wrong, then they’re all wrong,” position, Cohen reported. This summer, ARTNews described at great lengths the criticisms and wars that the above stand sparked among the foundation’s own art historians and beyond.

Whether the business surrounding the arts will adopt practices that will engage uncertainties as issues that need to be assessed and managed—versus to be hidden or exploited—time will tell. Actually, Phillips’ flirting with the idea of auctioning of the infamous Red, Black & Silver painting, tagged “attributed to Jackson Pollock” rather than “by Jackson Pollock,” can provide some indication. On that note, if the industry is indeed betting on the experience of art, then provenance, which is often linked to artists’ personalities and biographies, adds to the elementals around their work. Becomes part of a story that can have many interpretations, as art does. Becomes art.

No matter what happens at Red, Black & Silver, we are indeed at the verge of a correction. The last recession, or recent CERN findings for that matter, made it clear that there is little irrevocability as there is little perfect information. We have to learn to live with uncertainty. For no matter what type of regulation is introduced, risk will never be completely eliminated. The question is, how should we do this? Well, here is how we should not: trends that promote technology-backed congruence, as well as those that maintain old-school secrecy, are not only unsustainable, they are wrong. They breed dead reckoning. The good news is that in the long run technology promotes transparency, which stymies secrecy. With some luck and time, they will wash each other out.

[1] A demand for everyone to “follow” everyone else and everything from everywhere according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas L. Friedman.

[2] According to Felix Salmon from Reuters

How I Ended This Summer

I followed wars between art dealers and hedge-funders in the Upper East Side, and looked for Greek neo-Nazis bullying minorities. Here is the first of these stories: The Art Market’s Dead Reckoning

Rough Thoughts from an Itinerant Man

August 20, 2012

I’ve spent many years obsessing over opposites. Again and again, I’ve tried to belong and to leave. The pleasure of being accepted while moving on thrilled me—still does. During the last two decades, I’ve crossed borders not only between countries, cities, and neighborhoods, but also between corporate and art settings, luxury and practical homelessness, friends and enemies, men and women, even between bullying and getting bashed. Do these contradictions make me unique? Hardly. Does writing about them make me more honest? Yes. And it is this sharing that gives me hope for something more prized and lasting in my life.

Rough Thoughts from an Itinerant Man

August 16, 2012

I’ve spent many years obsessing over opposites. Again and again, I’ve tried to belong and to leave. The pleasure of being accepted while moving on thrilled me—still does. During the last two decades, I’ve crossed borders not only between countries, cities, and neighborhoods, but also between corporate and art settings, luxury and practical homelessness, friends and enemies, men and women, even between bullying and getting bashed. Do these contradictions make me unique? Hardly. Does writing about them make me more honest? Yes. And it is this sharing that gives me hope for something more prized and lasting in my life.

Photos: Ioannis Pappos and Brian Reeder

After I left Greece to go to school in the U.S., I worked for smart firms and lived in hotels—small, addictive properties. I had liquor and sex in West Hollywood suites and did poppers in back alleys. I reached seven digits in my bank account, and got in line for my last ten bucks, as ATMs only dispensed twenties. My life mirrored the nonfiction-like fiction of Thompson, Miller, and Didion, writers who inspired me to battle with my first novel: Hotel Living—a story about our morally and economically chaotic recent past.

Coming from a deadline-fixated corporate world, I found writing to be a frustratingly slow process. I needed time to let things sit before I could revisit them. But there was an upside. During my breaks—or better, my distractions—I was able to revisit people and places that triggered my memories and inspired me to tell stories. I went back to hotels I’d lived in, visited friends I hadn’t seen for years, and got closer to my family. I spent time on my father’s land by the Aegean and in authors’ hangouts in New York. I worked in my sister’s house and offered tips to friends at their pre-Sundance screenings. I caught myself in political arguments in West Village restaurants, and went to sex-for-drugs parties on construction sites. This website is my reservoir of the good and bad side effects of writing a novel.

Francophrenia — Diving Into an Experiment, You Have to Be Comfortable With the Possibility of Failure

July 27, 2012

In quantum labs you can see an object in two different places at once. Yes, at the same time. Laugh, I used to, but quantum physics is a radical science. I studied electrical engineering, and Heisenberg’s theory taught me that atoms are not things but rather tendencies. Still, I can’t totally believe that one object can be in more than one place at the same time. This was the first paradox I came across in my adult life, something I re-lived watching Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), an experimental film around James Franco’s appearance in a soap opera.


Directed by Franco and hardcore documentarian Ian Olds (Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi), Francophrenia is a fictionalized chronicle of the making of a General Hospital episode that features Franco as guest star. A derivative of a derivative of a soap opera, the movie takes place during one night at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It is both a narrative and a documentary that toys between dialogue and voiceover, private and public images, celebrity and fans, sanity and paranoia, while staying Franco-ubiquitous. We follow him on billboards, chased up and down stairways, talking to anyone on the set, and freefalling from rooftops. My visual feast (a tribute to David Lynch) was only fueled and distracted by Franco’s real life multiple professions. He is a film instructor, screenwriter, director, Ph.D. student, author, conceptual artist, blogger, film editor, and of course an actor. For a moment my consciousness of the movie, of the world, shifted from a sum of events to multiple, simultaneously occurring possibilities.

Does James Franco even exist? I thought as I leaned back in my cab seat, on my way to interview Ian Olds at the Hilton in New York’s Fashion District. In Heisenberg’s world, where atoms are tendencies (“atomo” in Greek means person), we are products of tendencies. In that world, a world of possibilities of consciousness instead of events, multiple Francos could exist. So which Franco was in General Hospital? “The consciousness belongs to the observer,” my engineering teachers told me. “The observer influences the event.” The only problem is that, in our world of cabs, movies, and popcorn, we don’t really know who the hell the observer is. So how about the observer being the guy behind the camera? “Ian!” I shake Olds’ hand.

“Thank you for your the interest in the movie,” Ian says.

He is referring to my email in which I linked Francophrenia to Greece, my homeland, currently obsessed with Turkish soaps in the midst of a massive financial and social storm. An Eddie Redmayne look-alike—ginger hair, Vanity Fair smile—Ian combines clean looks with dirty boots. There’s something Byronesque about him, like a kid who plays piano and then volunteers in Haiti—could these very kicks have been to Afghanistan?

“I admire your work,” I confess. “So far,” I add, and Ian gives me a shy smile that makes guessing his age impossible.

We are seated, and I begin to talk about Francophrenia. I start by saying that, in the first part of the film, the camera seems to hate Franco. “We see him as a contemptuous narcissist, at times obnoxious,” I elaborate. Ian nods and grins, so I go on. “He gives a speech like a stoned Brando projected on a wall-sized screen.” Ian doesn’t get defensive. Actually, he looks amused. He’s a good listener, making me feel like I’m on a shrink’s couch. I tell him that in the second part his star finally relaxes. People working on set—men of labor, non-actors, and black transsexuals—make Franco look like a child in a tux who wants to seduce us. He appears as a handsome angel, no hint of the demonic James in him. That’s until he’s beset by paranoia and becomes obsessive and hateful again. Then Franco gets vulnerable and delusional like a character struggling to break out of a comic-book frame in A-ha’s 80’s “Take on Me” video.

Ian enjoys the direction I’m taking. He gets the phases I describe and acknowledges the unnecessary angst of his protagonist. “But everything’s sort of unnecessary,” he adds and, in a way, justifies his meta-movie by highlighting “the surreal amount of labor and energy that goes behind this soap mediocrity, this celebrity-driven spectacle.”

“Then why did you do it?” I ask Ian. “If we agree that the output is an expensive nothing, then what’s the point?” I say. “By showing this negative return on investment, you are either legitimizing my mother’s obsession with soaps, or you are exposing it, calling it absurd. Which one is it?”

“I’m not sure if what you are asking me is part of my job to answer. Part of the artist’s job to answer,” Ian replies.

“Sustained,” I murmur. “But you did the Fixer. Whether you want to admit it or not, your work is political. You can’t deny people’s love for disposable culture. It’s there. So your work has implications.”

“When you dive into an experiment, you have to be comfortable with the possibility of failure,” Ian says, checkmating me. “Looking forward, I’m more interested in fiction,” he adds, and bang! I get it. From Afghanistan, to hyper-tinsel-nothing, to fiction, Ian and his boy are getting away with “parallel universes.” Well, not in my interview. I won’t give them a free pass to their quantum existence. Not yet, anyways.

“Let me tell you a story,” I say, and Ian looks genuinely interested—again, a sport. “During my post-MBA dry-clean-only, white-collar life, I often run into one of my VP’s in the elevator. This fat son of bitch—to whom I delivered solid work, mind you—would not give me the time of day. Then a janitor would step in and he’d stop BlackBerrying to say hello to him. Now, are you guys soap-opera experimenting with an equally politically-correct-covered chip on your shoulders? ’Cause I can’t tell what’s going on here,” I say, and seriously I can’t.

Franco’s Gioconda smile has been fixed on his face since the first time I saw him at GQ’s 2007 fifty years party in Milan. I remember him browsing the men-filled hangar-sized tent (it was Men’s Fashion week) with a sardonic beam that made it impossible to tell whether he was pleased or feeling ironic about being part of this Felliniesque extravaganza. Was he doing the late Alexander McQueen a favor, or was he just having a good time? Was his gig as an Oscar host art performance or just a juvenile bet to see if he could get away with it? Is his life art, or is he just pushing the envelope, taking more and more risks while shrugging them off? Is he an Andy Warhol or an Ayrton Senna? “I give up,” I say, smiling. I’m tired of possibilities and paradoxes. I want Ian to take a position on his experiment.

“Shots are thoughts,” Ian says, looking at me curiously. “You don’t see it, but there is a butterfly effect.”

He’s talking “Heisenberg” to me, and that suddenly makes me the observer. Franco’s paranoia from the movie gets under my skin. Franco’s voiceover lines echo in my mind. ‘This is crazy.’ I hear Franco’s ghost whisper. ‘I got to get out of here. Everything will be alright.’ I am inside Francophrenia now—as the observer, I can choose to be there. My mentor, Ira Sachs, was Ian’s teacher at Sundance. I invite him to Ira’s premiere party. Ian looks pleased and handsome. ‘I got to kill him.’ Franco fucks with my mind. But, hold on a sec, in Francophrenia Ian himself ended up recording the voiceover that was supposed to be Franco’s. I’m turning into Ian on Ian; the quantum joke’s on me.

Ian hands me a white business card that has his digits in white font. Really. ‘I didn’t go to grad school for that,’ Ian-pretending-to-be-Franco within me says.

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 — To Live and Die for Globalization

July 15, 2012



I saw reporters crying at Tribeca’s pre-festival screenings. Actually, I heard them sobbing in the dark. Old-timers told me this happened rarely. If ever. Never. So why was I so lucky?

Maybe it is the recession, but man’s isolation in his fight against the “machine” is at the festival’s core. “When you’re cut off from social network, you get lonely and die,” an artist explains in Antonino D’Ambrosio’s breathtaking Let Fury Have The Hour. But before death, Tribeca shows how haunted we are. Prevalent in the festival is a calling for a fight some cannot resist. My first week at the screenings, I felt depressed and encouraged at the same time.

With digital replacing film, directors enjoy more technical and, in some cases, more artistic mobility. Narrative and documentary cinema are merging into one. Directors give up on plot or accept clichés in order to stay closer to social missions. It seems protests are more potent through fiction, and documentaries through storytelling. Tribeca 2012 is a docudrama festival. Sure, there’s Hollywood, confident raincoats, and “swagga” cries at premieres. But when the red carpets rolled back and the lounges got smaller, people finally “got into” the movies.

“You fight back against corrupt governments,” said Mario Casas, the star of the Spanish Unit 7, punching his fist on the table during drinks and tapas at the Chelsea Hotel.

“I’m interested in gene therapy,” Antonino D’Ambrosio confessed when I tried to “threaten” him with epigenetics as a way to translate his artistic fury into bread-making solidarity.

“I had to go back to my childhood,” Dariel Arrechada, the 21 year-old from Havana and winner of the Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film for Una Noche, replied when I asked him how easy it was to play a homophobic bully desperate to leave Cuba.

Xingu, Headshot, Una Noche, Polisse, Rat King, Room 514, and Wasted Youth (screening in the shadows of the festival) all tackle the man-versus-the-system universal battle. Flee, fight, talk, give-up, or give-in—the endings are not always pretty, but some can be noble. Even Ian Olds, a stern documentarian and co-director of Francophrenia (James Franco’s gamble with a soap opera spectacle) reminded me that “when you dive into experimentation, you inevitably face the possibility of failure.” 

Heartbreaking Dinner — Unit 7 at the Chelsea Hotel

June 25, 2012

Heartbreaking Dinner -- Unit 7 at the Chelsea Hotel

“In 1992, Spain went to her Baile de Debutante. Our country was presented to the global scene,” Alberto Rodriguez, the director of Unit 7 (Grupo 7), tells me over beer and appetizers at the Chelsea Hotel. The film is about a group of cops who break all the rules to clean up Spain’s ghettos in the 1980s. Bearded, in a dark navy coat, Alberto has a seaman’s wrinkles the way directors in Southern Europe should look from time in the wind and sun. His English is potentially adequate, but the translator steps in. “Drug areas in major cities were supposed to disappear for the ’92 Olympics. They were not aided or rehabilitated. They were eradicated!” she says, and Alberto curves his hand hyperbolically.

Mario Casas, who plays one of the four corrupt cops that make up Unit 7, sits silently opposite of me in a hoodie — the signature movie star outfit — sipping his gin and tonic. His body language, though reserved and self-satisfied, is somewhat supportive of Alberto. Mario plays Angel who, together with the rougher, more mature Rafael (Antonio de la Torre), run Unit 7 the-end-justifies-the-means way while they get Rolex-comfortable with drug kick-backs. “Who lived here?” Mario asks, waving his finger in the air, referring to the Chelsea Hotel.

“Everybody. Patti Smith to start with,” I say. “She has a book out that covers those days,” I add, but Mario retreats to his drink.

Heartbreaking Dinner -- Unit 7 at the Chelsea Hotel

“Let’s talk Unit 7,” I say to Alberto, an established director (7 VirginsAfter) and I start by questioning his beautification of the ghettos in Seville. During the first 10 minutes of the movie, Mario chases drug dealers on superbly rotten, rusty-brown terraces filled with sufi-soul-shaped chimneys in a violent choreography that might have been an anti-James Bond video game.

“These were magnificent buildings from the 16th century. All discarded,” Alberto explains. “I tried to use that artistically, but we are still paying today for the way we hastily and at-any-cost cleaned up whole regions in order to be seen as a global player.”

The 2004 Olympics and the Greek aftermath bring a bitter smile to my face. “Your movie is based on true stories,” I say. “The closing scene has real footage of King Juan Carlos announcing the international Expo in Seville. Your movie is a protest.”

“You got my movie,” Alberto says, confidently.

“Getting rid of ghettos before international events is a global phenomenon. Have you read Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums?” I ask him. He has not. I write a couple of Davis’ books on my business card and hand it to him. He puts my card in his pocket with a child’s smile.

I turn to Mario, who’s still sips his drink in that “road-trip” beaten movie star way. “Before Unit 7 joins the dark side, Rafael saves your [Angel’s] life,” I say. “And yet, when you want to buy him a drink, to thank him, he shies away. He gives you the I’m-just-doing-my-job snub. From that point on you are hooked on him.”

“I discussed it with Alberto,” Mario says, throwing him a glance. “Angel is insecure, he needs validation.”

“When you finally manage to get him to the bar you are both uncomfortable, practically incapable of speaking,” I say. ”Rafael can’t even look at the photo of your child. You drink like schoolgirls with guns. You’re silently falling for each other. At the end of that night you take a wasted Rafael to his home and put him tenderly to bed. For a second there you stare at him sleeping.”

Mario tilts his head and takes a sip.

“Absolutely,” Alberto mumbles.

“Okay,” says Mario, and looks straight at me. First time. “But then they drift apart,” he adds. “Their moral stands change.”

“There is love and wariness that carries throughout the movie,” I say, and I’m ready to back off—for now. ”Your details of corruption and extermination are at times disturbingly tender,” I tell Alberto. “When Rafael gives the junkie he fell for a pair of earrings, she thanks him by saying: ‘I don’t know if the are real or not, but they are pretty.’ It’s a heartbreaking scene in a heartbreaking movie.”

Unit 7 is not a black or white story,” Alberto explains. “Like life. We cut corners all the time. It’s not always easy to know what’s right, or who’s right and who’s wrong.”

“During fights, you use male nakedness as a form of humiliation. Why?” I ask Alberto.

“It’s based on facts,” Alberto says. “It was the culture on the streets at the time. When the ghetto fights back, they make Unit 7 go naked through a mock-religious litany.”

Staying real, true to the culture and history, can hurt the commercial potential of a cop-action film, disappoint the fans’ hope for a one-up from the latest genre hit. Even the plot at times gets too complicated in order to capture the twists and turns of the era. But Alberto seems okay with that. He bets on the docudrama in developing memory-lasting characters, even if the story has clichés, as real life does. The flawless acting of Casas and Torre is on the same plane with Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed (2006). Angel and Rafael play their bromance well. They jump together on the bad side, challenge each other as their ethics change, but at the pivotal moment, when the ghetto corners them, they frat-pack in a two-men suicide mission that feels borderline Plata Quemada (Burnt Money, 2000).

“You are willing to take the bullet for your bud. Am I missing something?” I ask Mario. “Your relationship with Rafael may drift apart for a moment, but does a 360. You end up at the same bar, equally phobic and embarrassed in each other’s presence, silently codependent; just the way you started.”

Mario’s box office smile comes through — another first. I can tell that he’s about to give in to my full-circle take on their relationship. “You are right,” he says, locking on me. “You own the movie.”

Unit 7 may win, or not, but at what cost? The fact that government corruption can beat the streets has by default some fatalism in it. It’s inevitable. If it weren’t Unit 7, it would have been Unit 8. “There is so much poetic justice at the end,” Alberto says. Angel and Rafael are aftermaths, collateral damage adopted and used by the system but at a personal level they are discarded and isolated.

Coming from Greece, even deeper in the abyss that’s pulling in Spain, I have one last question. In the universal fight between man and the corrupt machine, I offer Mario and Alberto four alternatives — all showcased at Tribeca via different movies: You can flee (Una Noche). You can fight back (Headshot). You can give in, like the detectives in Unit 7, or even give up (Wasted Youth, screened parallel to the festival). “What would you say to a young Greek at such a crossroad?” I ask.

“You stay and fight back,” Mario says, hitting the table with his fist. And I’m done.

They have to go to their screening. Mario offers me a Bronx arm-hug. He insists that I “nailed” the movie, and Alberto holds our handshake that extra second. The interpreter and the publicist kiss me on both cheeks, the way we Europeans do. They want to pay for the food and drinks “because you’re Greek.” I joke about the Spanish bond yields in March, but it’s lost in translation.

Furious — A Frenzied Discussion With One of the Most Exhilarating Creators in Tribeca Film Festival

June 23, 2012

Furious: A Frenzied Discussion With One of the Most Exhilarating Creators in Tribeca Film Festival

“Capitalism is not natural; it’s just brainwashed into us,” Antonino D’Ambrosio, director and producer of Let Fury Have The Hour—a documentary about art as a political statement and creative response—tells me in the foyer of Tribeca’s Cadillac Lounge. “Dialogue is the beginning of change,” Antonino says and turns to his publicist who brings him a vegetarian sandwich.

In his first feature documentary, Antonino goes back thirty years to the underground cultural resistance during the Reagan-Thatcher 1980’s, “when America changed forever.” He features dozens of mavericks of thought, science, and humor: artists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs and futurists, including semi-legends like Wayne Kramer and John Sayles—all brilliant, left-wing, charming trouble-makers. After watching the fifty or so interviews, I was mesmerized; I wanted more. From our collective apathy, to our acceptance of hierarchy in politics and capitalism, all the way to religion, all the way to the top, Antonino’s guests leave little unchallenged: “How can there be God? God struck Haiti when there’s Las Vegas?”

“Antonino, talk is cheap,” I say. “Had I lived in Bushwick, the way your publicist’s been changing our appointment every twenty minutes or so, we’d never have this chat. I need to afford to live in Manhattan to talk to you right now.”

“That’s our discussion then,” Antonino says smiling.

“Fine by me. Tribeca branched out to Qatar, not to Redhook,” I say.

Furious: A Frenzied Discussion With One of the Most Exhilarating Creators in Tribeca Film Festival

He rolls his eyes but refrains from elaborating on the festival’s activities. “I’m Italian, you’re Greek. Our DNA’s are not that different. We can use art as a trigger to think about challenges like this one creatively.” Antonino talks fast, biting into his sandwich. “Art opens doors through metaphors. Creates a new emotional reality.”

“In your documentary, one of your guests says that the notion of no alternatives is what keeps shitty governments in place,” I say.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Antonino responds, proudly.

“It worked in my country for thirty years,” I say, nodding my head. “But in one of your closing testimonies, it’s argued that just asking the right questions is pretty much all that matters.”

“Music, art can politicize us. They can make us challenge the givens and bring up alternatives. I believe in that.”

“Well, I do and I don’t,” I say. “I’m fascinated by scenaristic thinking. I have to be. I studied decision sciences for Christ’s sake—” I reflex-laugh. “But at the end of the day, we adopt one alternative. There is one reality. My father will either afford his prescription pills or not.”

“Intelligence is what separates us from animals.” Antonino’s answers come out automatic, rehearsed. “My documentary is about finding intelligent outlets for our anger.”

“Intelligence, for me, signals the end of life.” I say. “Look how low intelligence species, one-cell organisms survive for billions of years. Then look at the damage the smartest people have contributed to in the last century alone: environment, war, religion, white-collar, even nuclear damages—everything you list in your feature. Clearly intelligence seems pretty risky for life.”

“I don’t know about that,” Antonino says, leaning forward. “You are talking about mistakes of the establishment. Change comes from the outsider. From grassroots movements.”

“You are an Italian,” I say “You’re an optimist.”

“I have hope, which is different from optimism. I can work towards a creative response, and that’s work worth doing.”

Is this propaganda? I’m getting impatient, Greek. I want specificity and solutions. “Did you see Headshot?” I ask, referring to Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s movie in Tribeca.

Antonino waves no.

“In Headshot, Dr. Demon believes that survival of the fittest worked well for millions of years; it’s in our genes. Nature has no justice. If you want justice, you have to take invasive, radical action,” I say, raising my eyebrows. “So I want some answers. If you don’t take the gun, like Dr. Demon did, do you believe in gene therapy?”

“That fascinates me. I want to learn more about gene therapy, but we don’t need to be that invasive. Political art impacts our consciousness; it can change our votes. It redirects anger. Maybe you start by not getting drunk, or not terrorizing the immigrants.”

I offer Antonino the same four choices about the Greek youth—currently deadlocked in poverty and corruption—that I’ve offered to other directors in festival. All of these choices demonstrated in Tribeca screenings this year: Flee (Una Noche), fight back (Headshot), give in (Unit 7), or give up (Wasted Youth), screening parallel to the festival.

“This is a hard question because there is despair in Greece,” Antonino says. “And yet my documentary introduces a fifth one: creative response via dialogue through art. Maybe you tell a story and start a new movement.”

“Fine. So who gets to tell the stories?” I ask. “Which, by the way, was one of the most interesting questions in your documentary. And more importantly, who gets to tell stories that people will listen to? Any idea is as powerful as the number of its followers on Twitter,” I say, jokingly—but not really.

“Ioannis, we found Greek graffiti in Nazi camps. You start guerilla and move on. In the ’70s, the rock scene was pure establishment. Then indie labels showed up because kids wanted to express their anger, which led to punk, to hip-hop, and so on, all the way to . . . Occupy Wall Street. It will take time.”

Thirty years of fury? The Dr. Demon in me smiles. Then I think of today’s “Holly-valley” kids. They tell stories in completely different ways from Antonino and me. Random Adventures of Brandon Generator allows the audience to influence the story’s outcome. Maybe Antonino is onto something. Maybe I’m too blind or old to understand 2012-grassroots and its potential. How about we write a story about Greece and let the Greeks finish it? “Are you on Facebook?” I ask Antonino, excitedly.

Tribeca Film Festival: The Importance of Being Silent

June 18, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival

In part, we owe the Tribeca Film Festival to Al Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, Robert De Niro co-founded the festival to raise the spirit and economy of Lower Manhattan. Ten years and five-thousand screenings later, the festival’s Doha Tribeca spin-off is well established in Qatar. Is this De Niro’s way of teaching fanatics a lesson in their own backyard? Or just a convenient symbiosis between super rich Arabs and independent filmmakers?

I took my first stroll through Tribeca in the spring of 1993, soon after I moved to New York. I recall the area’s textile cast-iron architecture resembling that of its neighbor, the trendy then-gallery-packed Soho. But the similarities stopped here. Once you crossed Canal Street, you relaxed. Tribeca was the quieter, less viable downtown. In the early 90’s, the conversion of buildings into condos had already begun, but the blocks retained that 80’s undiscovered artist’s-loft feel. Tribeca was a sort of no-man’s land, where walkers could disappear. Night-lights were few and far between. People went to Odeon, a restaurant as noir as its neighborhood, and to De Niro’s Tribeca Bar and Grill, a space as elusive as its famous owner, an actor notorious for his privacy.

After two decades of hyper-invasive journalism, we still know very little about De Niro’s personal life. Averse to interviews, and uncomfortable during those to which he concedes, De Niro remains tongue-tied when it comes to anything beyond work. But interestingly enough, his silence spills over into his craft. We know much more about De Niro’s physical body—his weight fluctuations and the exercises he puts himself through before shoots—than about his psychology as a method actor. Even the dialogues in his movies are constrained. Watching him again in some of his most memorable roles—Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Jake La Motta (Raging Bull), Max Cady (Cape Fear)—I was dazed by the extent to which silence factors into his acting. The body movements, the one-liners, and the faces and grimaces of the working class urban loner iconize De Niro’s work. In a sense, he is a ‘Tribeca’ actor: he works starkly and prefers to stay silent about his ways.

I lived a couple miles away from the World Trade Center when 9/11 happened. After the sirens stopped, which took weeks, De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff founded the Tribeca Film Festival. The year was 2002, and their mission was simple: expose a group of diverse movies and filmmakers to audiences in downtown Manhattan. Covering documentaries, shorts, international, family movies, and features ranging from independent to blockbuster, Tribeca was all about the community. It became almost an instant success. By the mid 00’s, the number of submissions and screenings had grown exponentially. It was impossible to live in Manhattan and not have experienced Tribeca in some way. It hosted panels and workshops, interactive games, concerts, sports, and even outdoor screenings on the Hudson River. Mission accomplished—actually, over-accomplished: by the late 00’s, my neighbors couldn’t get tickets. They declared Tribeca a victim of its own success. At the other end of the spectrum, friends who worked in media couldn’t take the festival seriously. They hadn’t seen a ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ breakout movie yet, they complained—a movie that “made” Sundance.

“Tribeca lacks focus, an identity. I’m sorry, it’s not industry,” a Sundance contender and Berlinale-winning screenwriter told me.

“What is an industry-festival?” I asked him.

“Sundance!” He spat back.

Whatever “industry” means, the gap between De Niro’s Tribeca and the Redford’s Sundance paradigms is striking. In Utah, the quintessential American movie star (good looks, waspy everything-came-too-easy-to-him roles) epitomizes the American golden-boy festival. Sundance is casual Hollywood, a cabin where wonder-boys party with stars in North Face outfits, the ultimate cool for insiders. Sure, it’s sexy. But Sundance is more than that: it is the American dreams-happen festival. A place where movies and careers are made within a week. Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, and Clerks are on the long-list of Sundance breakouts of the past twenty-five years. And with Berlin, Cannes, and Venice thrown into the circuit, insiders question if there is room for one more “industry” festival.

They may have a point. Transamerica (2005), Tribeca’s flashiest discovery, didn’t get the festival where it is today. Rather, much like De Niro’s body and body of work, the festival’s physical evidence, the volume and breadth of its screenings make up Tribeca’s DNA. As a New Yorker of twelve years—hence as a New Yorker oversaturated by downtown’s casual coolness—I took this second-class ranking of Tribeca personally. Why should Tribeca be one more “industry”? Or, better put, why shouldn’t Tribeca’s subtler, less sexy, diversity/community focus continue to form its identity?

“Because entertainment is changing,” West Villagers explained to me during video-on-demand recession nights in their brownstone home theaters. “The industry’s discovery process continues. Staying cool means staying cutting-edge, means staying in business. It’s all about the technology, community is irrelevant. Community gets redefined through technology all the time,” they argued.

I nodded. Still, to test their theory, I called up Bay Area engineers I went to school with who, unlike me, stuck it out after the crash.

“I’ve been to Sundance three times in the last five years,” an artist and digital entrepreneur from California told me.

“You used to go to the Burning Man[1],” I pointed out.

“Totally,” he said with a laugh. “But who didn’t? In fact most of my employees go to both. Now my daughter met some kids at Sundance and wants to go to Burning Man.”

I paused at this one: his daughter couldn’t be more than twelve. I thought of my friend’s early days, a kid with car-living roots and breakout hopes. He bet on the digital-cheap future of the industry and scored: independent filmmaking has grown in unprecedented ways.

“To put in perspective, the first year of Tribeca in 2002, we had 1,300 submissions, and in this last year, we had 5,500,” Tribeca’s departing Program Director, David Kwok, told Indiewire. “So, in less than ten years, our submissions have quadrupled and I know that is the case with other festivals. We knew more films were being made, especially when digital [filmmaking] hit and more people could make films and more countries were making films than ten years ago.”

With the promise of cheaper movies coupled with the emotional birth of Tribeca, I can’t help but wonder about responses to disaster in my homeland: the financially and morally exhausted Greece. “I think it’s our duty to remind people that it’s not all depression, that life goes on; we can still believe in creativity,” Orestis Andreadakis, the artistic director of Athens International Film Festival, told the Guardian. It’s heartening to see culture holding up during Greece’s combat for survival. Maria Leonida, a Greek film producer and co-founder of Karpos, a nonprofit group that provides classes about film language to people of all ages, said, “We believe that all people should have a better understanding of the media language and that they can be more critical viewers and, if they want, become producers themselves. They can tell stories.”

You bet the ongoing Greek tragedy has stories, but it’s unlikely that Athens will have Tribeca’s cultural and economic turnaround. Tribeca had an infusion of millions of dollars in federal funding, an army of movie stars for endorsement, and a ubiquitous American Express sponsorship. See, Tribeca may not be the coolest or sexiest festival, but there is nothing naïve about it. “Money,” De Niro answered when he was asked what drew him to Little Fockers, the third part of the Meet the Parents trilogy. “It is what it is, and you have no control over that, other than to take advantage of it,” he added.

In 2006, when one of the daughters of Qatar’s emir worked as an intern for Tribeca, few could have imagined that three years later Doha Tribeca Film Festival would be launched under a multimillion extravaganza in Qatar. “Guiding vision comes from Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani” (got that?) Craig Hatkoff told The Huffington Post. The alliance raised eyebrows. With two film festivals already close together in the Middle East, one in Dubai and another in Abu Dhabi, the opportunity cost of Tribeca’s decision to expand to Doha came into question. Wouldn’t deprived regions and film industries, say in Greece or the Balkans, do more with such a license? Plus, the undying question: can billionaires rush their way into becoming the next cultural center by throwing in tons of cash?

It’s hard to tell what De Niro was really thinking—remember, he doesn’t like to talk much. There may have been a political angle (in fact, Qatar has been WikiLeaks-linked to Al Qaeda). Even an “are-you-terrorizing-me?” De Niroism. Maybe he is stocking up favors and cash before announcing his Balkan Tribeca Film Festival. Either way, the decision to go east, coupled with a beyond-geographies expansion via Web streaming and video-on-demand system (yes, Tribeca now distributes), calls to mind De Niro’s “it is what it is and you have no control over that, other than to take advantage of it.”

Whoever accepts the utilitarian principle (the greatest benefit to the most people) should be willing to look beyond resources and focus on benefits. But community and globalization don’t always go hand-in-hand. Controversies of over-expansion need to be addressed even if in the name of incubating independent creativity. Tribeca seems to answer these difficult questions by insisting on highlighting its reach across geographies, genres, media, and a mix of nonprofit with for-profit ventures. By choosing Frederic Boyer as Artistic Director (a festival expert characterized as bohemian if not unconventional) to work with Geoff Gilmore (a 20-years Sundance veteran and head of for-profit Tribeca Enterprises) Tribeca sticks to its diverse leadership and projects. Ten years after the sirens of 9/11, Tribeca’s numerous and often contradicting offerings, the festival’s own “noise,” can silence the sharper more independent sounds of creativity in Lower Manhattan.

[1] A weeklong pagan event in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada described as an experiment in community and extreme self-expression.