This year’s strong, idiosyncratic line-up reminds us that moviegoing can still be more than “a museum experience”
Even as the means of delivery and distribution proliferate, the public privacy of going to the movies remains a draw. Demand for mainstream American productions continues to grow, with an admittedly slender 2 percent rise in ticket sales this year. In recession terms, those numbers verge on robust. At least some of the dwindling stateside audience for international cinema is a problem of access: even in cosmopolitan New York, subtitled films are virtually banned from the largest commercial screens. That’s not to discount the most stubborn problem: a persistent American insularity, especially when it comes to movies. Although more people watch international DVDs, “it’s very difficult,” as Claire Denis pointed out in a festival interview, “to discuss a film if you see it on your own. Loneliness is not a good way to question oneself about film.”
This 47th edition of the New York Film Festival (NYFF) included 29 films from 17 countries and a new Masterworks sidebar with canny selections from revolutionary China (“Re-inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society 1949-1966”) and Guru Dutt (“A Heart as Big as the World: The Films of Guru Dutt”). The invaluable though somewhat anachronistically titled “Views from the Avant-Garde,” composed of 61 filmmakers, 21 of them making NYFF debuts, was a festival within the festival. Devoting much of the first weekend of the NYFF to this ambitious program offered veterans such as Chick Strand, Peggy Ahwesh, Harun Farocki, and newcomers a chance to expand their audience. Of particular note was by La Rabbia di Pasolini, Giuseppe Bertolucci’s 2008 reconstruction of Pasolini’s 1963 cine-essay. Working from the original script and culling from images that would have been available to Pasolini at the time, La Rabbia captured Pasolini’s intellectual showmanship and verve so well that it felt fresh, specific to its time but not dated.
Although members of the selection committee are announced, the pool of available films from which they drew is not. As I’ve mentioned in past write-ups, previous NYFF slates included unnecessary mainstream films (such as Mystic River, Capote, or Marie Antoinette) with plenty of studio support. (Not to say there’s no room for unabashed crowd-pleasers: this year’s 70th-anniversary screening of The Wizard of Oz surely thrilled younger viewers who know it only from television or DVD.) The closest the NYFF came to such a concession was Lee Daniels’ consolingly provocative Precious, which seemed more about attracting a new audience than trying to compete with the multiplexes. Too bad the film’s undeniable boldness in according an overweight black teenager (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) sympathy and nearly two hours of screen-time was undermined by its credulity in uplift and closure. Opening with Alain Resnais’ charmer Wild Grass and closing with Pedro Almodóvar’s misfired Broken Embraces was not exactly an unpredictable choice for the NYFF’s blue-chip international track record. Selecting Precious as the centerpiece film did at least recognize slightly less familiar American fare.
Overall, this was a strong year for the NYFF. Among the bona fide stand-outs was Sweetgrass, an indelible documentary on Montana sheepherders by Ilisa Barbach and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Made over the course of several years and culled from 200 hours of material, Sweetgrass manages to both de-mystify iconic American West landscapes and to make them seem completely new. Giving equal importance to sound and image, the directors set a new standard for observational documentaries.
In a completely different way, Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon uses careful observation to put a new spin on the war picture. Set virtually entirely inside a tank during the June 6, 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the film conveys the rawness of even apparently well-organized maneuvers. Reminiscent of similarly claustrophobic scenes in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra, Lebanon conveys the noise, feel, and even smell of terrified men unsure if their armored vehicle is cover or a death trap.
Claire Denis’s White Material looks at a different kind of war. Set in the present in an unnamed African country, the film, co-scripted by Denis and novelist Marie N’Diaye, draws deeply from the spirit of Doris Lessing’s work (in particular, The Grass Is Singing). Coffee plantation boss Isabelle Huppert defiantly refuses the reality of a battle between the army and rebels (mostly child insurgents) that is squeezing her and her family into non-existence. Denis is one of the few filmmakers sensitive enough to show compassion without taking sides. The graceful, lyrical compositions that are her hallmark expose the horror of child soldiering to full effect. Including White Material was one of the NYFF’s best decisions.
A completely different kind of folie, this one à-deux, drives Joon-ho Bong’s Mother. Hye-Ja Kim plays the mother and Bin Won her slow-witted adult son falsely accused of a grisly murder. Though both performers shine, Kim creates a subtle, sympathetic personification of mother-love gone mad that haunts you long after the darkly funny and deeply unsettling final sequence.
Differently dark and far more absurd, Police, Adjective firmly establishes Corneliu Porumboiu in the first rank of European filmmakers. Set in a small town near Bucharest, it follows Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young undercover cop ordered to arrest a teenage hash user. Suspecting that Romanian drug laws will soon loosen up to match the rest of Europe, he’s reluctant to mar the kid’s life for outdated principles. Porumboiu pushes the boundaries of classic policiers and language to arrive at a finale both inventive and inevitable. Like the director’s previous film, Caméra d’Or winner 12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective zeroes in on the Wonderland aspects of post-1989 Romania where what’s before your eyes may not be what you see, especially if you’re using a dictionary.
Unexpected, last-minute reversals are at the heart of Manoel de Oliveira’s bracing Eccentricities of a Blonde Hair Girl. Told as a confession, the film centers on the eponymous blondine (Catarina Wallenstein) with whom Ricardo Trêpa had been obsessed. With the elegance of a chamber quartet, their romance (they live across the street from one another) proceeds despite his uncle’s objections. Only on the brink of marrying does he discover that his uncle was right for the wrong reasons. A swift 64 minutes, Eccentricities has de Oliveira’s telltale elegant stasis with a sting. Even if you pay close attention, the last shot will make you wonder – delightfully – whether you saw the film at all.
Something of that sense of being shown one thing and seeing another also haunts Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard. The film juxtaposes period scenes of the fairy-tale with two 1950s school-age sisters. The younger, a stand-in for Breillat, taunts her sibling with Bluebeard’s gory uxoricides, all the while imagining herself as the triumphant widow. As in The Last Mistress, Breillat glories in lavish color, texture, and textiles, though the atmosphere has all the bare-bones feeling of a puppet theater – exactly in keeping with a mid-20th-century French girl’s frame of reference. In this severe simplicity, even Bluebeard’s foregone beheading chills anew.
And certainly childish sangfroid (possibly sang-free) rules the small village in northern Germany in which Michael Haneke’s remarkable Palme d’Or-winning White Ribbon unfurls. Set in 1913, this color-to-black-and-white transfer has the homey look of a well-preserved family photo album. Though rigorous in its recreation of German Protestanism, this cautionary “deutsche Kindergeschichte” (German nursery tale, in the subhead to the title), the bitter-almond aftertaste of The White Ribbon leaves no doubt as to the many faces and versions of fanaticism, around the globe and right up to the present.
Even though most of the NYFF’s selections eventually surface at movie houses in New York and around the country, no venue can match the acoustics, swank or screen-size of newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall; it’s one of the advantages of being at Lincoln Center. Discounted rush tickets this year added a level of spontaneity to an event often seen as clubby. The NYFF also did well to continue the series of conversational interviews (this year featuring Daniels, Denis, Haneke, and Marco Bellocchio). The program offers a small audience the chance to hear a director speak, to pose questions and to exchange a few words over a glass of wine.
As several major studios teeter on collapse, the trend will be to more sure-bet projects – “basically trying to make Star Wars over and over again, because it’s a business,” according to Francis Ford Coppola’s recent Guardian interview. He further suggested that to survive, going to the movies needs to become more like a performance, with directors on hand for their screenings “like the conductor of an opera. Every night can be different.” Better yet, expand the interaction to editors, cinematographers and other crew members.
Scattered around New York are outposts of a once-vibrant art house scene. The NYFF honored two of the era’s key players, Dan and Toby Talbot, whose New Yorker Films offered a first glimpse of, among many others, work by Jean-Luc Godard, FrancoisTruffaut, Federico Fellini, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Abbas Kiorastami and Jia Zhangke. The kind of audience cultivated by New Yorker Films was less a community than a mindset. Contemporary moviegoing is, of course, completely different and any attempt to revive that particular mindset will fail. With a new film center in 2010, the NYFF and the Film Society have an unusual, significant opportunity to alter film-viewing culture. Extending a version of the rush ticketing year round; making the viewing more interactive; and emphasizing large-scale screens as a fundamentally different viewing experience will go a long way to avoiding the loss of what David Thomson terms “passion” for the movies. It’s made, as he notes in the New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “by the dark, the brightness, the very large screen, the company of strangers and that knowledge that you cannot stop the process or even get out. That is being at the movies and it is becoming a museum experience.”