I went into the Tribeca Film Festival with an open mind and a large slate of films to see. As I mentioned in my review of Journey to Planet X, I find myself more interested in celebrating the good in movies than the bad, so even if a movie wasn’t my normal cup of tea, I was determined to find something good to say about it. Thankfully, Tribeca was very cooperative on that front. Almost all of the films that I watched presented me with something interesting to write about – even movies that were kind of jumbled, like Francophrenia or The Fourth Dimension, were engaging because of their messiness, not despite it. Some movies I liked more than others, but until the closing night of the festival, I did not consider any of the films to be a waste of my time.
Until First Winter.
I know that a lot of people will enjoy the film. The round of applause that occurred after the film finished did not sound, to my trained ears, as obligatory festival clapping. The crowd at the theater had just finished two weeks of a cinematic marathon, and at that point, I’m sure the audience would be too jaded to clap simply for the sake of clapping. So people will like it. However, I also counted no less than five people who walked out of the movie, and Tribeca general admission prices aren’t cheap. If you’re the sort of person who trusts quantitative data above qualitative, you have one (1) round of applause and five (5) people who gathered their belongings and quietly slid out of the theater. Weigh that as you may.
If you’ve been following the festival reviews, then by now you know that First Winter is a movie about a group of Brooklyn hipsters who survive an apocalyptic blackout. You are also likely familiar with the main character of a charismatic cult leader, played by a particularly un-emotive beard. I would venture a guess that there is an actor hiding underneath all that facial hair, but by the time the dialogue finds its way out, all that is left is a muffled, flat delivery, so I feel it is unfair to measure the performance of the man behind the curtain. These hipsters celebrate life and adhere to a new age spiritualism, all of which is tested when their food and supplies begin to dwindle. What will they do? Who will they turn to? Will they make the tough decision to limit their number of sexual partners to one instead of two or three? These are the types of real-world issues these characters face.
I recently listened to far too much of a conversation in a bar where a man complained bitterly about the stereotypes of the Brooklynite. He argued passionately that shows like Girls or Two Broke Girls presented the people of Brooklyn as unmotivated and underachieving slackers when, in reality, they were just as hard-working and dedicated as anyone else. First Winter is quick to present its characters as hedonistic and possessing the types of ideals that can only come from an indifference towards money. A few lines of dialogue early on suggest that the movie may be presenting these characters as stereotypes who will fall apart under the stress of the situation; at this point I was willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, as the pretentiousness of the characters could not possibly survive in a post-apocalyptic setting. And yet, their problems continued to be distinctly first world in nature. The group may be running out of food and firewood, but a great deal of screen time is spent portraying the jealousy of one of the girls that the cult leader is more interested in another girl during their threesomes. I still clung to a shred of hope. I wanted this to be satire; in order to enjoy the movie, I needed this to be satire. But the film’s ending suggests that the group’s new age philosophy is precisely what allows them to survive, which invalidates any of the possible commentary on their actions throughout. A group of unappealing characters who learn nothing and are rewarded for their hedonism; if nothing else, it makes an interesting companion piece to John Hillcoat’s The Road.
If not acting and story, then could the movie at least be pretty to look at? Not so much. This is the first feature of Benjamin Dickinson, whose background in music videos is painfully evident in the handheld long takes and closeups of the characters. This was the Drive or Shame school of cinematography, where languid shots are intended to be interchangeable with narrative. It is a crutch of independent cinema that serves only to annoy me even when done well; but First Winter is somewhat amateurish in its efforts, and in desperate need of having some of its fat trimmed. All issues with character and plot aside, the visuals are stretched at the feature length, and many shots end up feeling redundant.
As the credits began to roll, I found myself wracked with questions about the film. How had the commune managed to survive through winter on the one deer that they are able to shoot? What sort of additional food supply were they able to find? Why did they not, at any point in the movie, send someone out to look for help? As I asked myself these questions, I was struck with a realization: all of my problems with the movie amounted to the fact that I wanted more of the characters to die. It is not a comfortable situation for me to be in. I do not particularly want characters in movies to die, and I take no enjoyment in wishing that the entire commune had been devastated by famine and disease, even if that would have been the most logical conclusion. Rather than wish ill upon the Brooklynites, I find myself resolved to never think too hard about First Winter ever again. It is the one act of kindness that I can afford the film.