This year’s NYFF is a decidedly mixed bag of tricks
The 2003 New York Film Festival offered a number of outright baffling selections and not nearly enough stunners. What’s known pejoratively as “old Europe” has in the past been the source for many of the festival’s best, but this year it was ho-hum. Not that the United States fared much better, the festival yet another sign that homegrown documentaries are among the best that American filmmaking has to offer. NYFF 2003 included a most welcome expanded avant-garde section, with special screenings of work by Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and Michelle Smith. Of particular interest were I Began to Wish by Julie Murray and Robert Breer’s What Goes Up. Boomers could relive their younger days with a remastered version of The Kids Are Alright, including the short Quintrophenia, a collaboration of rock historian Martin Lewis and John Albarian with previously unreleased performance footage. Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney, a combination that seems less willed than fated, collaborated on Destino, which was given its first public screening at the festival. The six-minute film was set aside in 1945 for lack of money and rescued from obscurity by director Dominique Monfery and producer Baker Bloodworth. Disney shared Dali’s titillated, romantic approach to sex and their styles meld seamlessly. Piccadilly (1929), recently restored and too-long unseen, premiered its newly composed score as part of the film’s re-release. Yasujiro Ozu stole the show, a superb retrospective of his films supplying the dazzle missing from so much of the rest of the festival.
NYFF 2003 opened with the clunky, overbearing, and specious Mystic River. This Clint Eastwood colossus epitomizes the worst of serious mainstream movies, the production A-list right down to the gaffer. Every cast member with the requisite Oscar nomination or win, captained by Clint Eastwood who has achieved that rare moment in American celebrity life when he can simply do no wrong. Sean Penn leads the team, supported by Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and Laurence Fishburne. Penn, Robbins, and Bacon are working-class Boston childhood buddies reunited by a murder; as Bacon’s brother officer, Fishburne has a few thankless scenes meant to point up the bonds among the three men. What pass for women’s roles, occupied by Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney, are mere caulking for the important male characters. Burdened with portentous, ungainly cinematography that swoops up every few scenes to give us another bird’s-eye reminder of the Neighborhood, Mystic River has also to bear the freight of its intrusive mood music. Ostensibly a tale of lost innocence, the film merely presents a collection of expository vignettes, culminating in the out-of-nowhere transformation of Linney and Penn from a less-than-perfect working-class couple into the Boston MacBeths. Like so much of Mystic River, the scene asks us to believe only because it tells us to.
Sean Penn gets a chance to do some real acting in 21 Grams (which closed the festival), but neither his performance nor the steady unpredictability of Benicio Del Toro rescues Alejandro González Iñárritu’s underwritten and overwrought story. This tale of three strangers whose lives intersect because of a fatal car accident feels forced, its mysticism manufactured. Naomi Watts, on whom the story hinges, has neither the material nor the chops to work with, her half-note performance hysterical rather than urgent. With mostly handheld camerawork and in a vehemently disjointed style, the film, like its title, labors far too hard to be meaningful — 21 grams the weight every human body loses at death — mistaking bathos for pathos.
Alongside these contrived dramas were several films attempting to come to terms with the legacies of wars distant and not so. Even more than half a century later, Stalingrad gives most Europeans pause, the city was a modern-day Waterloo for the horribly unprepared German army. Sebastian Dehnhardt’s three-part documentary Stalingrad, originally made for television, draws from Russian and German sources to give one of the most exhaustive accounts of what was termed, because of its prevalence of street-to-street and sometimes hand-to-hand combat, “the War of the Rats.” Unfortunately, extensive and first-rate archival footage got lost in too many snazzy computer graphics. Worse was the unfortunate decision to dub into English, undermining much of the film’s power: it felt more like a required course than the elucidating lesson it should be.
Set in occupied Poland, Jan Jakob Kolski’s Pornography is an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s novel. The film follows Fryderyk (Krzysztof Majchrzak) and Witold (Adam Ferency) on their visit to Hipolit (Krzysztof Globisz), a gentleman farmer and sometime Resistance worker. Their visit is a combination of harsh realities — German soldiers, desperate partisans — and sexually amusing diversions — distracting young women and their men. Witold is the witness, Fryderyk the revealer, and his secret uncovers staggering parental betrayal. Shot in a saturated sepia-tone, Pornography takes its time getting to its central dilemma, a decision similar to and equally fraught as Sophie’s Choice. The gravity of this monumentally self-serving strategy tempers some of the film’s earlier preciousness but not all.
Similarly obsessed with a World War II past is Claude Chabrol’s Flower of Evil. Sadly, Chabrol’s fiftieth film doesn’t rank as one of his best, though he provides a reliably dank family atmosphere for incest, adultery, and even murder to thrive and the sure pleasures of watching well-dressed and impeccably mannered people savage each other. But the Flower of Evil doesn’t manage to convince. Nathalie Baye is uncharacteristically implausible as a small-time politician, and it makes the rest of the actors seem mere stand-ins as well. Only Suzanne Flon compels, her Tante Line evocative of other publicly well-behaved Chabrolian malefactors, raising the standard for her fellow actors in her scenes.
The sins of more recent conflicts were revisited in S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Director Rithy Panh details the several encounters of two former prisoners with a dozen of their former torturers at the Security Bureau in Pnomh Penh. Of the 17,000 prisoners held captive there from 1975-79, three survived. As the victims and film crew walk around the abattoir-like ruins of the former cellblocks, the guards pantomime their former routines, their poker-faced detachment occasionally giving way to an eerie excitement. The guards, some of whom were as young as 12 when they began their work, see themselves as mere order-obeyers; equally oppressed, they insist, as their charges. Relentless and unsparing, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a difficult and crucial film summed up best by one of the survivors: it’s not about revenge but it is about not forgetting.
As a background to some of the actions that facilitated the Khmer Rouge and on its own terms, Errol Morris’s Fog of War was one of the highlights of the festival (and its centerpiece). In this extended interview with Robert McNamara, Morris portrays the former Secretary of State with gimlet-eyed sympathy. He doesn’t aid and abet McNamara’s project in recent years to atone for his actions, but he does show a complicated and deeply troubled man refreshingly aware of the fearsome power he wielded. McNamara attributes the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis at least as much to luck as negotiation and makes the rather breathtaking assertion that had the U.S. lost World War II, McNamara and his commanding officer General Curtis LeMay “could very well have been tried as war criminals.” Karen Schmeer, Doug Abel, and Chyld King edit the spectacular archival footage with such grace it appears to have been shot for this project. Particularly striking are images of weapons factories, a choreography of machines worthy of Dziga Vertov. Morris shoots McNamara in a kind of Mondrian ice box of frosted glass — unreflective and blurry, a shadowy echo of McNamara’s psychic blindness. Morris’s open and curious attitude, his willingness to let McNamara be occasionally unreasonable and deeply flawed, only serves to highlight one of McNamara’s key arguments: that rationality will not save us.
Not that irrationality is any answer, either, as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a kind of interpretive dance about Columbine-style shootings, makes very clear. His unsuccessful conceit is to focus on the other students at a high school rather than the two plotters. Although blame can certainly be apportioned to the American educational system, among other institutions, for these episodes, action makes movies. Van Sant’s Elephant is all about the Other, specifically teenagers as the Other with which he’s so smitten he has no distance and the device feels contrived. From the opening shot — a telephone pole against a deep blue sky — and throughout, the cinematography aims for a monumental feel, culminating in a thunderstorm that felt like a bad day in a Maxfield Parrish painting. The images owe a great deal to the antiseptic style of still-photographers Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff; in Elephant, shot frames often serve as a mere holding tank as the actors move in and out, the camera as fixed as a tree. The problem is that even with this determinedly unobtrusive method, the moseying camera is less observer than admirer. Inevitably, the film gravitates toward the two perpetrators, the only ones taking clear action; yet they never seem angry enough or truly dangerous, a problem exacerbated by the illusion-destroying inconsistency of having their weapons delivered by overnight courier. Van Sant ups the ante by having the boys kiss, a decision that feels more audience- than character-driven, not least because one joins the other in a small shower stall. Certainly Van Sant is right to point up the sexual element in any kind of combat situation, but this tenderness should startle. Instead, like the rest of the film it feels awkward, the result wan and winsome.
Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions takes other well-known violence — the September 11 attacks — as its backdrop. A follow-up to his Decline of the American Empire (1987), Barbarian Invasions revisits many of the earlier characters as they face later life and mortality. Tokens of various social changes — drug addiction, redundant intellectuals, wildly materialist and wealthy young professionals, overtly sexually active older women — crowd around in this film, each person a mouthpiece for various views, centered on Rémy (Rémy Girard), the mortally ill college professor whose reconciliation with his impatient stockbroker son restores a kind of order to their lives. Though many political and philosophical ideas surface, Barbarian Invasions plays less like a seminar than a continuing education lecture, with all the players guaranteed a passing grade.
Admirable in intention but flawed in execution as well is The Best of Youth, directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. Tracing Italy’s massive social, political and economic changes in the last 40 years through one well-heeled family, The Best of Youth hits all Big Events: strikes in Turin; the crisis in psychological care (Italians alarmingly slow to give up on electroshock); the flood in Florence; the rise of terrorism; and the Mafia trials. Originally made for television, this glorified soap opera makes historical events feel like stepping-stones conveniently laid out for its characters. Despite appealing young Italian actors (especially Luigi Lo Cascio and Maya Sansa) and well-used historical footage, The Best of Youth seems cobbled together in service of dates rather than motivated by character.
In some ways, Good Morning, Night had a similar problem: too much exposition and the whole enterprise outweighed by the events themselves. In his take on the 1978 kidnapping of President Aldo Moro, Marco Bellocchio focuses on Chiara, the only female member of the terrorist cell, played with real verve by Maya Sansa. Some elements work extremely well: Bellocchio conveys the fear and suspicion of the cell members hiding out in an apartment purportedly inhabited by Chiara and her husband, who are as much prisoners as their hostage. But, for those not versed in this seminal episode of modern Italian history, Good Morning, Night is underwritten and lags in the middle. Though Bellocchio uses archival footage to great effect and the costuming and details are just right for 1978, the entire film is upstaged by the final news footage of the once-spry Pope John Paul II performing Moro’s state funeral.
Most disappointing was Barbara Albert’s Free Radicals, which brought Delphine Gleize’s Carnages unpleasantly to mind; like Gleize, Albert builds up coincidences and then tries to call it fate. From its opening, when Manu (Kathrin Resetarits) chooses to listen to the “Macarena” (the first of many simply appalling music choices in this film) while she packs in Rio and is then swept away in a freak tornado (the crash scenes actually cut away to a fluttering butterfly, presumably the proverbial lepidopteran initiator of such disasters), Free Radicals asks us to care about unengaging characters and to believe in untenable situations. With no rewards in the writing, the cinematography, and dismal acting, that’s asking way too much.
A much more interesting near-miss was Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold. Told in circular fashion, it opens with an unforgettable and startling jewelry store heist, the would-be thief a great hulking erstwhile pizza delivery man driven to madness by the inequities of modern-day Iran. Crimson Gold depends significantly on more knowledge about Iran than the average American viewer possesses, which can make it feel slow and hard to follow. But particularly in the scenes of shared meals, Crimson Gold makes of its various parts a far more complicated whole. An odd element of this film deserves special mention: hiccups and burps are a prominent feature of the ambient sound and put to great use.
Jacques Doillon’s Raja was another imperfect but absorbing story of love and power, this one set in Morocco. Fred (played to unctuous perfection by Pascal Gregory) falls for Raja (newcomer Najat Benssallem) the first time he sees her working the garden of his villa. At 19, Raja has learned to expect little from life except that everything has its price; she’s used to getting nothing, while Fred is accustomed to getting everything. Shot in a straightforward style that shows the natural beauty in which Raja lives without minimizing the poverty, the film strikes an unusual balance between seriousness and lightness. Its almost literary rhythm effortlessly captures the shifting power between Fred and Raja. This money-driven tale of obsessive lust is both sad and absurd, often simultaneously.
The Moroccan A Thousand Months takes place in the Atlas Mountains during Ramadan. The muted colors echo the narrow expectations of the central family, who have been shamed into the margins of their hierarchical, unforgiving community because the father is in prison. Director Faouzi Bensaïdi shot the film in Cinemascope and in half-light. It’s less romantic Magic Hour than a washed-out look, as though color is being leached out by the encroaching dark. A young boy, Mehdi (Fouad Labied), carries his teacher’s chair with him to keep it from disappearing from the school; everyone he encounters finds a use for the chair until finally his grandfather sells it to clothe Mehdi, unleashing further ire of the townspeople. Bensaïdi finds great ways to show the frustrations of the shunned family, particularly in a terrifying scene in which Medi’s mother is divested of an unexpected windfall, her neighbors plucking the bills off her so violently it’s as if they’re stoning her. A Thousand Months is at once extremely true to its location and universal, a powerful riff on the theme of the rejection of the family played out in communities around the world.
If Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner had been a disc jockey, he’d have been Rodney Bingenheimer, subject of George Hickenlooper’s documentary The Mayor of Sunset Strip. The spookily boyish Bingenheimer’s list of pals is like a year’s worth of E! television stories; he’s credited with introducing glam rock to the States. Bingenheimer — whose mother worshiped so devoutly at the shrine of celebrity she left her preteen son at Connie Stevens’ doorstep — is the perfect fan: affectless, unassuming, diminutive, and tenacious. He’s a kind of mascot for the outsized egos he so gladly strokes (his ultimate compliment being to deem this or that one “the godhead”). He got especially close to Sonny and Cher, though Cher’s reminiscences seem less about an actual person than a favorite pet. Hickenlooper is fortunate in Bingenheimer, whose slightly unsettling detachment is far more compelling than the filmmaking itself; the film could have done with quite a bit less of Lance Loud and could have been shortened altogether. The list of the famous who appear runs nearly as long as the Hollywood Walk of Stars, but the most revelatory moments belong to Bingenheimer’s father — Bing — and his stepmother, and monstrously to impresario Kim Fowley, who could have modeled for Dorian Gray’s stay-at-home portrait.
Every clan has its tale of riches that could have and should have been theirs. In Bright Leaves, Ross McElwee tracks down all the information he can on his great-grandfather, who created the “Bull Durham” tobacco brand only to be done out of his fortune by the Duke family. The film takes its name from a Gary Cooper film that McElwee believes was based on the story of his family’s bad luck. McElwee works very hard to tie his nonfiction film to the feature, interviewing its surviving leading lady, Patricia O’Neal, who nixes McElwee’s unconvincing arguments. Though it’s not dull and the idea of examining tobacco’s profits as an American mixed blessing is laudable, McElwee wants so much to be on the side of the angels that Bright Leavesteeters on disingenuousness. A repeated sequence contrasts the lavish grounds of the Duke estate, a tourist draw, and the poorly maintained little afterthought that is McElwee Park (two benches and a sapling on a lawn the size of a suburban front lawn just outside erstwhile McElwee warehouses). This heavy-handed humor is worsened by McElwee’s touch of self-righteousness. Like Michael Moore’s flat-footed efforts to rail against corporate mischief, Bright Leaves takes aim at safely barreled ducks. There’s plenty to be said about tobacco companies’ overt hiding of the lethal facts of their product (and, these days, of their salivating at all those developing world markets), and the film works best when McElwee gets outside himself to talk to people who live with tobacco’s ravages.
Dogville is the first of three films Lars von Trier plans to set in America, though he has in fact, famously, never been here. That’s not much of a disadvantage since American popular culture has never been more accessible; Europeans have been surrounded by it for several generations. Dogville has some very serious flaws (not least its 178-minute length), yet it’s an important film in because it interprets and reflects aspects of America that play a great part in European views. Writing in The New York Times, John Rockwell noted the German influences on von Trier, and in many ways Dogville extends Brecht’s selective and highly interpretive take on the idea of America. Set in a small town in 1930s Colorado, Dogville plays out on a black stage, the houses chalked-in, the props very few though the costumes are quite detailed. On the lam from a man, Grace (Nicole Kidman) appears one day and is sheltered by Tom (Paul Bettany), who talks the close-knit townspeople into letting her hide with them in return for various chores. But soon Grace’s help isn’t enough; the townspeople want her risk to reflect theirs, and the whole film starts to feel like Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. There’s a lot of Brecht in this film, in staging, in point of view, and in types (gangsters, folksy townspeople, etc.). But von Trier also incorporates many conventions from American television and movies, above all the assumption of goodness among simple folk and the American love of the underdog.
Community exile is a theme in Distant, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s subtle story of cousins who room together for a short while in Istanbul. Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) opens the door one afternoon to find his country bumpkin cousin Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) come to stay at his apartment in the middle of winter. Melancholy and set in his ways, Mahmut is a disillusioned photographer whose former wife, now remarried, is about to leave Turkey permanently, a decision depressing to Mahmut. Yusuf arrives expecting to find work on a ship and travel the world, but quickly realizes that this won’t work out. Mahmut hires his cousin as his assistant, but rather than drawing the two men together, this separates them further and finally Yusuf leaves. Nothing momentous happens, and yet the two men are revealed through their tiniest actions with a wry humor, as when Mahmut screens Tarkovsky’s Stalker for his cousin, who becomes bored and goes to bed, freeing Mahmut to trade the Russian heavyweight for a porn tape. Or when Yusuf brings back a wind-up belly-crawling soldier action figure, his childish fun put to a speedy end when Mahmut snatches it away. In mood, this reminded me of Tsai-Ming Liang’s What Time Is It There?, much of the movie being played out on the superb actors’ faces in a similar story about the sundry difficulties of connecting. The actors work so well together with minimal dialogue it’s as though they’re making music rather than acting. In some ways a demanding film, Distant is also deeply beautiful, the shadowy and quite chill cinematography unobtrusive. Unlike so many films these days, the photography calls no attention to itself and yet it keeps the film together, the camera often widening the shot well into a scene to reveal another element in what appeared to be a complete picture.
The exceptional Since Otar Left was the best of the new the festival had to offer. Julie Bertucelli’s first feature details a household of three generations of women living in Tblissi, Georgia. Otar, their son, brother and uncle, has some time ago gone to Paris ostensibly to study medicine and probably never to return. Eka (the affecting Esther Gorintin) dotes on Otar and takes her daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze) for granted. Marina resents the situation and complains to her daughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova). But when they hear momentous news about Otar and decide not to tell Eka the truth, the whole situation changes. From its opening in which Eka makes a careful choice of cake and the two younger women sit gloomily in a café in Tblissi while Eka girlishly gobbles up her sweet, Since Otar Left delineates characters of rare complexity and sympathy. Even more astonishing is that they’re women, the performances without a trace of sentimentality. Along the way Since Otar Left shows the difficulties of living in modern-day Georgia, where basics like electricity and running water disappear regularly. Eka plays a real old woman: not cute, not coyly sexy, but not a complete pushover either, Eka speaks her mind and takes unexpected but credible actions, the story pivoting on her. The dialogue skitters from Georgian to French, the family having grown up with both, with France esteemed as the zenith of intelligence and culture. The somewhat unexpected and slightly poignant ending feels inevitable, a believable conclusion to a chapter in lives we know a lot about. The film has a lush look, several scenes shot in late evening, the mood lightly pensive. In an uneven festival, Since Otar Left provided rare unalloyed delight.