Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.
At the announcement of the first New York Film Festival in 1963, critics were already questioning whether the city needed a film festival at all. The reasoning being that any film worth its salt, home-grown or “foreign,” would be opening at one of the city’s then-abundant cinemas. The burden was on festival directors and programmers Amos Vogel and Richard Roud to prove the necessity for such a showcase.
Amos Vogel, who from 1947-1963 was executive secretary of America’s largest and most successful film society, Cinema 16, was more than up to the challenge. He had with Cinema 16 established a reputation for introducing local audiences to an unknown cinema of forgotten international filmmakers; independent and experimental young artists; and a series of short films most exhibitors thought too difficult and obscure for a general audience. Richard Roud, an American, had by that point spent a few years working as a film critic and programmer in Paris and London. Working with the National Film Theatre, Roud helped establish the London Film Festival, not necessarily meant to world-premiere new works, but rather compile and present for a local audience the best films shown that past year at festivals. At its start, the New York Film Festival’s objective was the same as London’s, a greatest hits festival of sorts, often repeating much of the same slate as its transatlantic partner.
With this formula in place, the early years of the festival helped introduce the country to the Nouvelle Vague (Roud being a lifelong Francophile); cinema verite; the New American Cinema; “second wave” filmmakers like Bertolucci, Oshima, Straub, Rocha, et al; as well as the latest works from all of the greats who in the 1950’s helped establish “foreign film” as a legitimate market for exhibitors here, most famously Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa.
It was in December 1968, just five years after it all began, that Amos Vogel resigned from the festival, citing Lincoln Center’s refusal to establish, as promised, a permanent and year-round home for film in its arts complex (he would be hired by Grove Press and the Evergreen Review months later as “film consultant”). Vogel would claim that one of the board of directors dismissively suggested, “if the Center were to include film in its program, then we might as well include baseball.” Strangely, by 1969 “The Film Society of Lincoln Center” as we now know it was officially established.
Ironically, today the best and most vital part of cinema at Lincoln Center isn’t its “Film Festival,” which it worked so hard to establish, but rather its year-round programming at the Walter Reade Theater – exactly what Vogel hoped to be a part of 40 years ago. Programs like “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema,” “Film Comment Selects,” and any number of other consistently challenging repertory and world cinema series are far more exciting and necessary to our contemporary film scene than the festival in its present form. It is now the festival that feels out of place, a dinosaur left over from a long-gone generation, a loss leader struggling to (re-)define itself.
Beginning with Telluride in 1974, Toronto in 1976, Sundance in 1985, and TriBeCa in 2002, a variety of film festivals sprung up across North America, establishing themselves with strong identities that New York could no longer claim a monopoly on: small finely selected slate, major national and international premieres, buyer-friendly, critic-friendly, award-friendly, party-friendly, etc. Now, almost a half-century later, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what relevance the New York Film Festival currently has. With the simultaneous onslaught of the digital revolution and the “financial crisis,” all forms of art and media, as well as the institutions that have been constructed around them, are being forced to, like Vogel and Roud in 1963, prove why they still deserve to exist in a new era.
Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux displays a particular brand of indulgence, both from the filmmaker himself and the art-house industry which supports him. Ashes Redux is a nonsensical film held together only by the extraordinary photography of Christopher Doyle. As much as Wong’s back-to-back unrequited-love stories Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000) are heart-breakingly beautiful and touching classics, they now serve only to remind us that he hasn’t made a good film since. For Sony Pictures Classics to theatrically re-launch a “re-constructed” version of his flawed fourth feature Ashes of Time (1994), shows a shameful laziness on the part of the filmmaker, distributor, and programmers involved, and is a cynical insult to the audience. If any film called for direct-to-video treatment, it’s this one.
Jaime Rosale’s Bullet in the Head at first comes off a compelling experiment in genre – political thriller (Costa-Gavras) meets structural film (Michael Snow) – utilizing similar techniques as seen in the recent work of Michael Haneke and Gus Van Sant (slow, quiet, patient, ominous). But ultimately Bullet ends up a gimmicky curiosity – a “festival film” in the worst sense of the term.
The inclusion of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is particularly baffling. For the last 20 years “The Man with No Name” has done his best to be seen as an auteur, acting only in films he’s also produced and directed. But a Hollywood hack is a Hollywood hack, no matter how old and revered. That a film distributed by Universal, which went on to earn over $100 million dollars, should take the much-coveted place of any one of hundreds of more worthy films, who need the support far more than Dirty Harry, is one of those perennial confusions unleashed each year by Lincoln Center.
Steven Soderbergh’s Che is an unfortunate and offensive biopic, lacking majorly in gripping action, affecting human drama, political engagement or sympathy, and, generally speaking, any sort of overarching purpose. And at 4 hours, that’s a tall order.
That the film has been as praised as it has speaks not to Soderbergh’s achievement, but to a critical desperation for narrative films of any worth or gravity. Benicio del Toro’s performance as Che has been widely acclaimed, to some degree justifiably, but the on-screen character the writers gave him was little more than a Latin American Tarzan, “see Che shoot,” “see Che run,” “see Che impart wisdom.” The film’s Che was cartoonish and empty, which may or may not be a reflection of how the producers and critics see Che the man.
It’s worth noting that in a press conference after the screening Soderbergh revealed that the film was initially just supposed to be about Che in Bolivia, now released as “Part 2: The Guerilla.” This is of course the story of a failure; how guerilla warfare can be crushed; how the revolutionary ego can spite the struggle, etc. Luckily for the project’s historical veracity, when Soderbergh was brought in he felt a backstory was needed, so interjected “Part 1: The Argentine” – a feature film of its own, about Che’s victorious rise. But what agenda is at work when an American production company decides to show Che’s life only at its bitter defeat? Does seeing Che as fodder for a major feature film drama preclude seeing him as a true revolutionary hero?
Notably reclusive American auteur Terrence Malick was one of the filmmakers initially set to write and direct Che, developing the script simultaneously to that of his 2005 masterpiece The New World – the far more successful, political, and memorable film, by any imaginable standard – he would eventually leave Che to complete. We can now only dream of the transcendent grace and romance Che’s life on film would have had in Malick’s hands.
Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman is an excruciatingly boring waste of time and talent. It’s the type of film misguided critics twist into pretzels trying to justify, too cowardly to call out manipulative indulgence when they see it. The film is Martel’s third consecutive appearance in the festival.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a remarkable directorial debut from the British visual artist (he was awarded the Golden Camera at Cannes). The film is well-written, visually and formally stunning, features career-making performances, and is politically relevant. Taking on the story of Bobby Sands and the IRA’s 1981 hunger strikes in the Maze prison, it is everything Soderbergh’s Che wants to be – charismatic, frightening, and stylish. Hunger is one of the more memorable and timeless films to be released this year.
Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day is the most entertaining and genuinely funny entry. A simple “fish-out-of-water” story about a Korean painter who ends up in Paris while on the run from police, Night’s writing is fresh, the cast charming, and the tourist-like photography of Paris endearing. Hong has a seemingly effortless directorial style and off-beat sense of humor reminiscent of the naïve comedies of the Nouvelle Vague; and the brilliant performance of lead actor Kim Yeong-ho brings to mind Jean-Pierre Leaud at his best. Hong is one of the better filmmakers to be given auterist treatment from the NYFF, with Night and Day being his fifth consecutive entry in the festival.
Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis is an awkward perversion lacking credibility or drama. The film is a waste of a good set, a rundown porno theater in the Philippines, and an interesting twisted-family ensemble-cast structure. Everything good about Pablo Larrain’s similar Tony Manero, about a dance group in Chile obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, was lacking in Serbis.
Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours is the most tear-jerking film from the festival, taking the perfectly-honed formula of Yasujiro Ozu’s films (and a bit from Sirk) and applying it to contemporary France’s bourgeoisie. A multi-generational story about shifting definitions of family values, tradition, and home, Assayas appears refreshingly comfortable working with such a superficially conventional plot. The film’s narrative and subject are nothing groundbreaking, just as Ozu’s innovation was not on the page but in tapping into our collective souls. Summer Hours works because of its sensitivity, earnestness, and universality; certainly helped along by a strong cast, and a beautiful French villa as its setting.
Tony Manero succeeds in combining an irreverent plot, about a murderous middle-aged dancer obsessed with John Travolta-as-Tony Manero; a biting critique of the colonialist aspect of American pop culture; and the desperation felt throughout Latin America in the wake of our CIA’s string of sponsored dictatorships. Manero has a strong ensemble cast, impressive direction from Larrain (Fassbinder meets von Trier/Bruno Dumont), and a devastating lead-performance from TV-actor Alfredo Castro, who also co-wrote the film. The film was Chile’s official entry for the best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards – that takes some balls.
Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan is the without-question classic of the bunch. Taking place on the brutal and desolate Hunger Steppe in southern Kazakhstan, Tulpan’s stunning photography is matched only by its emotional weight, drama, and universality. The courage of both cast and crew to make this film in that location alone makes this a masterpiece. Tulpan features not one but two live-action cattle birth scenes – enough to humble even David Attenborough – which, when woven into the film’s narrative, become as transcendent as any moments captured on celluloid. The repeated codas of an adolescent girl, our lead actor’s niece, singing (or shrieking?) traditional folk music during dinner are some of the most haunting scenes I’ve encountered in years. An absolutely breathtaking film, profoundly moving in all ways.
Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is without question the most overrated film of the festival, dramatically and stylistically empty, lacking courage and creativity, and relying only on its own hipness to get by. After the promising Old Joy (2006), this is a disappointing follow-up, showing little to no artistic growth in the Reichardt, as well as little to no backbone in the critical response the film received here in New York. Combine a beautiful indie actress in Michelle Williams; Vittorio De Sica’s melodramatic neorealist masterpiece Umberto D. (1952); and the Dardennes brothers’ Rosetta (1999), and apparently you’ll have hordes of out-of-touch cinema intelligentsia gushing all over an overly precious and a tad hysterical little film.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (though along with Eastwood’s Changeling had little reason to be included in the festival, already having been picked up for distribution, and with Mickey Rourke’s performance hailed as soon as anyone saw the dailies) is one of the most enjoyable Hollywood films I’ve seen in some time, capturing perfectly late-80’s suburban New Jersey culture and its aftershocks. In the film Rourke is every bit as good as you’ve heard he was, his freakish looks perfect for the part. And Aronofsky, for better or worse, has given his career a rebirth as a bankable commercial filmmaker, just as David Gordon Green did earlier in 2008 with the hilarious Pineapple Express. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by...
The festival’s “Special Events” slate was in some ways more memorable and exciting than the festival films themselves – with feature-length dramas being such an old-fashioned and disposable form of art these days.
The panel discussion, “Film Criticism in Crisis?,” (The Film Society’s version of Cineaste’s “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet” symposium in their Fall 2008 issue) was stimulating, albeit perhaps to a very limited audience, which may in fact account for the “crisis” itself. Guests included Film Comment editors Gavin Smith and Kent Jones, America’s best film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, GreenCine Daily pioneer David Hudson, Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine film critic Jessica Winter, and the most entertaining of the bunch, Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau. If you’re interested in what they said, you probably already know what they said, so I won’t get into it here.
The screening of Guy Debord’s 1978 final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, was a landmark occasion. The film, co-presented by the “Views from the Avant-Garde” division of the New York Film Festival, was, I’m told, the first authorized presentation of any Debord film in the United States. So it was no small feat, indeed. Confrontational, sloppy, boring, inspiring, hypnotizing, it was in its failure as exciting as a 30 year old film could be. A nihilistic collage of French culture, In girum is the cinematic document of its author’s attempt to distance himself from his very process – interpreting and responding to society through art.
The panel discussion after the Debord screening, moderated by Gavin Smith, and featuring Greil Marcus, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Olivier Assayas, presented three people with absolutely no chemistry, nor any interest in each other’s opinions. A series of fragmented statements on the truth and work of Debord, it was a prime example of the confusion he still inspires.
Views from the Avant-Garde, curated by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten, featured one of the best films of the entire festival, James Benning’s RR. A structural landscape film consisting only of 43 trains – each take lasting from the time the first car enters the frame until the last car leaves it – shot throughout the country. Benning’s sensibility is that of a twisted and perverse Americana, his work implicitly political, destroying all notions of both cinema verite and experimental documentary. Like the early work of Warhol/Morrissey meets Frederick Wiseman in an empty field – Benning usually the only human for miles, his camera’s eye focusing on the after-effects of the industrial revolution on America’s mythic plains and frontiers. A road movie without the road, a travelogue for unknown trainmen, Benning’s shots are full of over-loaded metaphors, fetish objects, strung together as an enigmatic and transcendent vision of the United States in the 21st century. Like Dziga Vertov, Benning aestheticizes industry in nature, a paradoxical spiritual materialism. RR is a masterpiece.
That there aren’t more films featured in this piece is the fault of the 10am press screening times. To rise, eat, bathe, and commute to Lincoln Center by 10, you figure an alarm clock would have to be set to around 8 in the morning. If I could do such a thing, I would probably be working in a field far more lucrative than film criticism; something my parents might be proud of. Cinema is an art of the dark, the night, by and for night people. Instead of having press screenings before the theater opens, in the brutal AM, The Film Society might consider holding them after it closes. Say, at midnight. What they lose in attendance, they may gain in insight, critic’s minds working far more sharply in the middle of the night.