NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2011 – 49th Festival
The 2011 NYFF ended on 16 October. This first Festival fully under the leadership of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new Executive Director Rose Kuo and her excellent new team was an enormous success—and the first NYFF to use our new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (the “Ellie,” or, as the industry seems to be calling it, the “Bu”).. It was one of those NYFFs where there were not a lot of films I knew about in advance or was particularly excited about in expectation; the single film I was most excited about seeing was not even in the NYFF proper (the “main slate” of approximately 30 films that are selected each year that constitute the heart of each year’s festival)—it was the tenth anniversary re-screening of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums! (The fact that next year will be the 50th edition of the NYFF has meant that the Film Society is beginning what will be a year-long revisiting of some of the great films that have been part of the festival’s history. In addition to screening The Royal Tenenbaums, there also was a screening of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel, which had been opening night film of the very first NYFF. And similar events will be occurring throughout the year, leading up to next year’s 50th NYFF.) We even had had some trepidation about the new Almodóvar film, The Skin I Live In, because of some of the way it had been described—which turned out to be completely unwarranted, as it was fabulous, and our favorite film in the festival. The truly marvelous thing about NYFFs like this one is that they so often turn out to be fantastically good—and this year was one of the best and most enjoyable ever.
There were many completely wonderful films that we saw in addition to The Skin I Live In: Le Havre by Aki Kaurasmäki, A Separation by Asgar Farhadi, and Pina by Wim Wenders being the main examples. And, as always, there was the array of incredibly beautiful, moving films one would never have the opportunity to see anywhere else which we have come to expect from the NYFF—the most wonderful of these being The Loneliest Planet by Julia Loktev and This Is Not a Movie by Jafar Panahi. There was one strange—and large—group of films in this NYFF characterized by their having been done by great directors and executed by wonderful actors, but that suffered to varying degrees from having bad screenplays. These ranged from David Cronenberg’s actually quite terrific A Dangerous Method, which was thoroughly successful despite the fact that its greatness was diminished by the underlying flaws in its screenplay, to Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Roman Polanski’s Carnage, films that were seriously undermined by the dreadful screenplays they were built upon, despite the artistry of their directors and the skill of their actors. There were some terrific Special Events (in addition to the special anniversary screenings described above), including a screening of Grant Gee’s surprisingly satisfying Patience (After Sebald), and a most informative and extremely interesting 20 Years of Art Cinema: A Tribute to Sony Pictures Classics (which itself included a special anniversary screening of James Ivory’s 1992 Howard’s End). The most completely wonderful part of the NYFF, however, was its Masterworks series, which, in addition to presenting a newly discovered print of Sara Driver’s extraordinary little 1981 film You Are Not I, included what was for many of us the biggest treat of the entire NYFF—a screening in Alice Tully Hall of Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent masterpiece, The Gold Rush, with a live orchestra doing the music. There were also some wonderful Directors Dialogues (most notable among which being the ones with Alexander Payne and Wim Wenders).
We saw 14 of the films in Main Slate of this year’s NYFF (somewhat fewer than usual because we had to be out of town for the middle weekend of this 17 day event), and I saw four other films screened that were in other parts of the festival (Nancy in addition saw and loved Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams) and three of the non-screening presentations (Nancy was able in addition to get to see the Wim Wenders Directors Dialogue, which I most regrettably had to miss). We consciously chose to stay away from the Dardenne brothers’ new film, The Kid with a Bike, as we are not fond of their work (although I hear, for those of you who are, that it is quite good), and even more so avoided Lars von Trier’s new film, Melancholia (which, while I have forever sworn off this director’s work, I am told by reliable sources was quite different from his other work, and quite good).
For those who are interested, the entire 2011 NYFF program and the Film Society descriptions of each event can be found at http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2011/schedule . My reviews of past years of the NYFF can be found at www.RLRubens.com/nyff.html.
For those of you who over the years have not noticed my subtlety in this—and who can be blamed for not looking for me to be subtle about my judgments about anything—I thought I might mention again that I have always placed my reviews of these films in approximately descending order of how much I liked them. (Had I chosen to include them along with those in the Main Slate, The Gold Rush and The Royal Tenenbaums would have been at the highest end of this list, and You Are Not I and Patience (After Sebald) would have been in the top half.)
The list is composed of active links, and clicking on a title will take one to the review of that film. All films are dated 2011 unless otherwise noted.
THE MAIN SLATE of FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
SPECIAL EVENTS (in no particular order)
MASTERWORKS (in no particular order)
The Main Slate:
The Skin I Live In. (La piel que habito). (Spain, Spanish with English subtitles,117min. Sony Pictures Classics) Based on Tarantula (a novel by Thierry Jonquet), The Skin I Live In is yet another fabulous film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. The NYFF publicity for this film said, “At ‘The Cinema Inside Me’ program at the 2009 NYFF, Almodóvar surprised many when he spoke of his great love for American horror and science fiction films—a clue, it turns out, to what he was then just planning.”; and this new film does partake in some elements of those genres. But please do not be misled (as I had been): it is actually not meaningfully a part of either of these genres. The Skin I Live In is a true Almodóvar film, with all the emotional nuance, psychological complexity, and cinematographic subtlety we are accustomed to expect from this master filmmaker. It is a film of great beauty; but it is also a film that is built around a gripping, engaging, and wonderfully surprising plot. Dr. Robert Ledgard (powerfully and effectively played by Almodóvar regular, Antonio Banderas) is a famous plastic surgeon, whose wife was burned to death in a car accident, and whom we see at the beginning of the film at a scientific meeting, arguing for the development of a transgenic, tougher human skin. On one level, this is a plot line crucial to the compelling story we are about to see; on another, it is the foundation of metaphoric themes that are more subtly central tensions within the film: the vulnerable and damaged, natural as opposed to the powerful, impervious unnatural; perception as opposed to reality, the surface as opposed to the underlying essence. Secretly, Dr. Ledgard has illegally been putting his theory into practice, doing some kind of experimentation on a mysterious beautiful young woman, Vera (played in an extraordinary fashion by the gorgeous Elena Anaya, who made one brief appearance in Almodóvar’s earlier film, Talk to Her), imprisoned in his mansion. I shall not ruin the pleasure of experiencing for yourself the unfolding of this amazingly well-constructed film by describing the movement of the story through time, plotlines, and other characters. Suffice it to say that this is a true masterpiece—as entertaining as it is beautiful and completely gripping throughout. (There is one brief moment that was too violent for me in a way—if I dare to make such a criticism of a director I consider to be an absolute master—I felt to be unnecessary; but I am hyper-sensitive to violence, and I may therefore be wrong about this; and it is a minor problem, at most.) See it as soon as it comes out!
Le Havre. (Finland/France/Germany, French with English subtitles, 93min. Janus Films) I knew to be looking forward to this film written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, whose The Man Without a Past, was a film I had loved in the 2002 NYFF; and this new work in no way disappointed! In my 2002 review, I mentioned that Kaurismäki had reminded me of Jim Jarmusch, and with this film I believe I understand more why that is so: in addition to continuing the tradition of what I described in that earlier film as being “a somewhat bizarre, dark, strangely funny, off-beat film that succeeds in being hilarious and heart warming,” Le Havre made me realize that there was an underlying lyrical, musical sense to Kaurismäki’s work that is similar to the musicality that is so rewardingly at the foundation of Jarmusch’s films. Le Havre is the story of an aging shoe shiner, wonderfully named Marcel Marx (and marvelously portrayed by André Wilms), who has retreated to the port of Le Havre, away from his former artistic career, and is now dividing most of his time while not shining shoes between his neighborhood bar and caring for his sickly wife (hauntingly played by Kati Outinen). An African boy, Idrissa (very successfully and enigmatically portrayed by Blondin Miguel), illegally making his way to London to find his mother, enters Marcel’s life in a transformative way for all concerned. Le Havre is a fabulously deadpan treat, which quite whimsically tells a story that is at the same time deeply moving. Along the way, many other wonderful characters move in and out of the story: a fellow shoe shine man, Chang (which, it turns out, is a false identity which he is living to himself hide from the immigration police—his real name being Quoc Dung Nguyen, who, in a wonderfully playful Kaurismäki twist, is played by the actor Quoc Dung Nguyen); some neighborhood women (played by Elina Salo and Evelyne Didi) and neighborhood men (one played by François Monnié and the other by none other than Jean-Pierre Léaud—so appropriate that he [who played the boy in Truffaut’s 400 Blows] be in a movie about a young boy on the run!); a police inspector, Monet (dressed always completely in black, and perfectly played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin); a down-and-out local rock music legend named “Little Bob” (played by Roberto Piazzo—who actually is a well-known local rock musician who performs under the name Little Bob), and even a wonderful dog named Laika. The film is warm, gentle, funny, moving, entrancing, and just plain entertaining. It also subtly has a sense of underlying rebelliousness against irrational authority: Kaurismäki has said he was inspired by his wish to have lived during the French Resistance (and there are delightful allusions in this film to films about that period—including a musical nod to Casablanca); and there is an important theme in this film about the meaningfulness of personal action, even in a pretty absurdly meaningless world. This film is simply a gem!
A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin). (Iran, Persian with English subtitles, 123 min. Sony Pictures Classics) Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, this is a sophisticated, intense film which won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, as well as that Festival’s acting prizes for all four lead performers. We have deeply enjoyed the works of other Iranian directors (viz., Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi) at the NYFF over the years; and, while Farhadi was new to us, we shall certainly keep an eye out for his work in the future, as this was a most impressive film! Beginning during the credits with a couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Naader (Peyman Moadi), obtaining visas for themselves and their 11 year old daughter Termeh (played by the director’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi) to leave Iran for the United States, the starting point for the story quickly develops from the husband’s refusal to go because he is caring for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) in the latter stages of his decline into Alzheimers, through the wife’s attempt to divorce him and take her daughter to the US by herself, to the court’s refusing both requests, but permitting her to leave alone should she want. And this is just where the story begins. What ensues is a complex human drama, in which each of the parties—soon joined by a deeply religious servant, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), hired to take care of the household and Nader’s father in Simin’s absence, her out-of-work husband (Shahab Hosseini), and their very young daughter—plays out his individual longings and desires (all be they in highly conflicted form), confronts (at varying levels of awareness) the dilemmas produced by the pursuits of his desires, and needs to confront some truths about himself in the process. There is an emotional intensity and a plot tension that is riveting throughout this fast-moving film. Nevertheless, what makes it extraordinary is that Farhadi never is reductionist about the human dilemmas and moral complexities that the film is depicting. There are incredible conflicts that grow within each of the characters—and rather terrifyingly so in the children; and Farhadi powerfully respects what Carl Jung referred to as “the terrible ambiguity of immediate experience.” (Psychology and Religion. 1938) A Separation is a deeply engrossing, emotionally wrenching, and intellectually stimulating film. Moreover, it has a perfect ending—which is a particular achievement, since so many lesser filmmakers would have chosen to end this story quite differently—and quite badly. One should always appreciate a good ending, they are a rarity. A Separation has distribution, and it will be released theatrically—it is already a commercial success in Europe. See it as soon as you can!
Pina. (Germany/France, German, English and French with English subtitles, 106min. Sundance Selects) This is another one I was especially looking forward to: we like Wim Wenders’ films (his documentaries, like the wonderful 1999 Buena Vista Social Club, are most relevant to this project; but it is films like his fabulous 1977 The American Friend which made us such fans [that is a film which, if you do not know it, you should run to your Netflix account to rent!]), and we have been entranced by the dance of Pina Bausch (for a sample, go watch Almodovar’s Talk to Her again, and pay particular attention to the dance performances at the beginning and toward the end of the film—they are by Bausch and her company, and they are amazing). So, a film by Wenders about Pina Bausch rates as an immediate must-see by us. We had not known that Wenders and Bausuch had been close friends for decades, and that this was a project they had discussed and wanted to do together for decades. Over that period of time, however, Wenders had declined to make the film, as he was never able to envision how it would be possible. Bausch’s unique style, a form of “Tanztheater” (a form of German Expressionist dance of which Bausch was the main inheritor), very actively blends the dancers’ movements, the very specifically created dynamic spaces of her sets, and the music—the overall composition of all of which she insisted be created with the active and extensive collaboration of her dancers who would ultimately be the performers in each specific piece. The elegant and moving complexity of the spatial/movement/musical/emotional world of Bausch’s Tanztheater seemed impossible to capture on film. That all changed with the advent of modern 3-D film technology: it gave Wenders a way that he felt could meaningfully capture some of the sublime experience of the movement of emotion and energy in space that he so loved in Buasch’s choreography and her dancing. They worked out a plan together, and were about to begin shooting when Bausch died suddenly in 2009, just shy of her 69th birthday. Wenders aborted the project, only to resurrect it a year later at the insistence of her company, who wanted to do it as a tribute to her. The result is astounding—and the 3-D experience is an unbelievable effective presentation of the exhilaratingly powerful and movingly beautiful work. Pina includes three of Bausch’s most famus pieces, “Café Müller,” “Le Sacre du Printemps,” and “Kontakthof”; but these performances (done on stage in the theater in which the company has always performed over the years, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch) are interspersed with “interviews” with all the members of the company. Wenders poses a question to each of them, and asks—as Bausch herself was accustomed to do—that they answer in dance, rather than words. (Some also give verbal responses as well, and these are most brilliantly and effectively presented as voiceovers while showing a portrait shot of the speaker, seated on stage, but not actually speaking at the time. This is also the format by which Wenders is able to state the questions which are being asked of the performers.) The incredibly powerful dance “responses” to the questions are filmed in various outside locations around Wuppertal, Germany—the city which supported Bausch, her work, and her company for almost four decades. I am not one to go to a lot of dance movies, but this one is not to be missed—and it will open at the Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater on 23 December!
The Loneliest Planet. (USA/Germany, English 113 min.) Julia Loktev, who wrote and directed this film (based on a short story by Tom Bissell), has created a deeply beautiful, richly sensuous, and profoundly involving work of art. It begins in somewhat inexplicable tension: we watch a young woman repetitively jumping up and down in the grayness of a primitive shower (evoking in me thoughts of patients in old psychiatric facilities), beautiful in the starkness of her total nakedness, but against the disconcerting grating, obsessive quality of the soundtrack. After this confusingly disturbing but sensual opening, we find that we are actually following a young couple on their vacation trip to the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. The woman in the opening scene turns out to be Nica (the female of the couple, played by Hani Furstenberg). She and Alex (played by Gael García Bernal), are a few months away from their wedding. They are embarking on a backpacking hike in the Caucasus, led by tour guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). They are apparently quite happy with each other and quite close in their friendship, as well as in their sexual relationship. Whatever the tensions of the opening sequence had been, we quickly find ourselves enjoying the eroticism of their sexual encounters, and the breathtaking beauty of the landscape they are walking through—which we see in languorously gorgeous landscapes, sumptuously directed by Loktev (who is bravely willing here to take the time to create the slowness of mood that so contributes to the success of this film) and beautifully filmed by Inti Briones, the film’s DP. There is a single, intense, inexplicable moment that disrupts all this bliss; and the rest of the film takes place against the tension that is created between Nica and Alex. This film is a psychologically sophisticated, artistically elegant work: it is a textural unfolding of an emotional drama, expressed more in subtle gesture and nuance than by action in the plot, and integrated on every level into the tapestry of its lush and beautiful settings As much as I loved the slow pace and exquisite, meandering evolution of the story, I must say I thought the film would have profited from being 15 or 20 minutes shorter—not that I would have speeded up any moment in it, but rather that I would have chosen to have fewer of them. But it is still a most worthwhile film.
This Is Not a Film (In fIlm nist) (Iran, Persian with English subtitles, 75 min.) We have very much liked Jafar Panahi’s earlier films (particularly The Circle from the 2002 NYFF, and Crimson Gold from the 2003 NYFF), so we were looking forward to his latest film, which he made in collaboration with the Iranian documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Nevertheless, we did not know what to expect from this new film, particularly since it was described as “a remarkable day-in-the-life chronicle that…finds a rich middle ground between fiction and reality. Shot with a digital camera and an iPhone, the movie is almost entirely confined to the director’s apartment, where he discusses his films and an unrealized script, while the outside world imposes itself through phone calls, television news, a few comic interruptions, and the sound of New Year’s fireworks.” We knew that in December 2010, Panahi had received a six year jail sentence and was placed under a 20-year ban against giving interviews, leaving the country, or making any movies. What we did not know was that This Is Not a Film was a project he did subsequent to this ban (thus the name of the “film”), while waiting to hear the expectedly bad results of his appeal of his sentence. The biggest surprise was how powerfully emotional and deeply moving this little piece turns out to be. Essentially Panahi has called his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to come to his apartment and film him talking about a script that of his that he had wanted to turn into a movie, but was now enjoined from doing so by the ban. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb films him setting up the story, laying out with yellow masking tape on the floor of his apartment the set for the film his is envisioning, and then proceeding to describe—in understandably extremely visual terms, but surprisingly in emotionally moving terms, as well—the action of the film. The script is about a young woman from a lower class family; she has been accepted into a university, but her parents are refusing to allow her to matriculate; to keep her from doing so, they are keeping her locked in a room in their home. Panahi describes in the first scene of the script the details of the physical conditions of her confinement. When he starts to describe the chair she has positioned in the middle of the room that she intends to stand on to hang herself, he stops, tears up, and cannot go on. The poignancy of this moment—and its implications for the years of confinement he is facing—is truly heart-rending; and this description may convey a bit of the emotion that is present at the very foundation of This Is Not a Film. Nevertheless, in good Panahi form, there is also a great deal of upbeat emotion and humor in the film. It is a pretty amazing little piece of “non”-filmmaking, and even the fact that Panahi begins using his iPhone to photograph Mirtahmasb photographing him actually works quite effectively. Of course, beyond the filmmaking, there is the fact that this is an act of courage and principle, so characteristic of Panahi (and part of what got him into trouble in the first place)—but also so typical of his entire circle of filmmaker Iranian friends, all of whom risk such dangers with every film they make. In the final credits, Panahi thanks certain individuals in that community; but the people he thanks appear simply as blank lines instead of actual names, in order to protect their safety.
Shame. (UK, 99 min., Fox Seachlight) Steve
McQueen has created a most unusual, interesting, and absorbing film...about
what could be a most off-putting subject—sexual addiction. The main
character, superbly played by Michael Fassbender (who certainly in this NYFF has put in a
couple of bravura performances), is a clearly bright, seemingly engaging and
successful man, who uses his professional skills to achieve business triumphs
and his potent interpersonal talents very effectively to approach and seduce
innumerable women into intense sexual contacts. While on the one hand we begin
to develop some appreciation for him and his prodigious talents (and other
endowments!), nevertheless at the very same time we are increasingly made aware
of a growing dark sense of his unattractiveness and dysfunctionality.
As the addictive aspects of his personality begin to be exposed to us, we
simultaneously begin to learn that his obsessive involvement with pornography
and masturbation reveals a side to his "interpersonal" sexuality that
is not much differentiated from it; and that prostitutes can serve just as
well—or perhaps better—than more "intimate" connections. His
sister (very effectively played by Carrey
Mulligan), their relationship, and her more blatant—but ultimately
revealingly similar—borderline pathology, create an awareness of his
dysfunction—and of the suggestively implied (but not explicitly explored)
disturbing family history. Speaking of "explicit," there is a
lot of explicit nudity and sexual activity in this film. Most
interestingly, despite all that (or because of it?) and the rather beautifully
attractive bodies revealed in it, there was, for all with whom I spoke, little
or no erotic thrill in this film. There was, for all of us, one
profoundly important exception: the one more interpersonally meaningful
sexual encounter he has, which, despite the minimal explicitness, was enormously
erotic—and revealingly different in its outcome. Ultimately, I am afraid
the film fell far short of the amazing potential it created: while it so
successfully evoked a complex, sophisticated, and deep understanding, on such a
direct, visceral level of an aspect of human activity so off-putting that we
usually decline knowledge about it, the last several minutes of the film went
in a much less sophisticated, shallower, more melodramatic direction—with
precisely the sort of obviousness absent from the rest of the film. Oh,
that it had stopped 10 or 15 minutes earlier...
There was a moment would have made a perfect, sophisticated ending; but,
instead, McQueen continued on past the fade out to black, to the film’s great
The Descendants. (USA, 115min. Fox Seachlight) I had very much liked wonderful last two NYFF films (in 2002 About Schmidt, and in 2004 Sideways), so I was very much looking forward to this new film. (There was also a wonderful HBO “On Cinema” 90 minute dialogue Payne did with the Film Society’s Richard Peña the day before [q.v., below, under Special Events], which had heightened my anticipation) I was sadly disappointed—and, once again, the problem was a stupid screenplay. The film was beautifully filmed (DP Phedon Papamichael captured some amazingly gorgeous landscapes—particularly of Kauai [which Nancy and I particularly enjoyed, having been there in September 2010—even having stayed at the Princeville St. Regis Hotel, which figures prominently in the film, and having hiked through and flown by helicopter over some of the coastline which is of concern at the heart of the film’s plot]; and Payne’s visual directorial decisions were, as always, excellent), well-acted (George Clooney effectively did what he was supposed to do to portray Matt King, a lawyer and trustee for the estate of his family’s enormous swath of undeveloped land on Kauai, and husband of a woman who has just ended up in a coma following a motorboat accident, and the father of their two daughters—the angry, drug-addicted Alex [well-played by Shailene Woodley], and the pre-adolescent Scottie [also well-portrayed by Amara Miller])—if actors playing characters that are totally ridiculous and unbelievable can be understood to be doing a good job when they correctly create what a stupid script calls for; and the experience is actually pretty successfully involving (it moves one on through its action with involvement and interest)—if one overlooks that what it is involving one in turns out in the end to be offensive drivel. In case I am being too subtle, I thought the inanity and stupidity of the screenplay ruined this film—and, as one of the writers of it (along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rush), Alexander Payne deserves a great deal of the blame. I have so come to expect psychological sophistication and mature nuance from Payne, I was completely shocked by the lack of it in The Descendants. (I must assume that the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel on which the screenplay was based also deserves a great deal of the opprobrium I am handing out for bad writing that ruins movies.) So as not to reveal the details of this ridiculous plot, I shall not specify more than to say the following: the character of Matt makes no coherent sense, nor does that of his daughter Alex, nor does their relationship (aspects of which were infuriating to me—not so much if we were going to be viewing Matt as a hopelessly insensitive, horribly flawed mess, but inexcusable if we are asked to go where we are asked to go about him); the screenplay keeps inserting coincidental aspects into the plot that are beyond ridiculous and vitiate the power of what might have been an interesting drama. Importantly, Payne does not manage successfully to integrate his comic elements into this emotionally charged story as he was able to do in the two earlier films; there are quite funny moments in this film, but they do not add to the depth of the experience as they so sublimely do in his other films. The texture of this film simply is not sophisticated enough to support the integration into it of the many diverse element of which Payne is usually capable. The Descendants is, nonetheless, quite watchable—and that is a tribute to Payne and his cast.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA, 101 min. Fox Searchlight) When, in the introduction to this film, it was noted that it was a continuation and expansion of Mary Last Seen, a short film that Sean Durkin (the writer and director of this full-length film) had screened at an earlier NYFF, my heart sank, as I had not yet connected Martha Marcy May Marlene with that short, which we had not liked, in which a young woman is essentially kidnapped and taken to a farm in upstate New York where she finds herself with a group of other similarly held young women. Martha Marcy May Marlene is about a young woman Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from a farm compound and is taken to live with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a New Yorker at the Connecticut country house she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). What ensues is a rather naively conceived comparison between the obviously mind-numbing, claustrophobic repressiveness of life in the cult and the more covert version of the same repressiveness in the bourgeois lifestyle of Martha’s sister. There is a somewhat successful temporal back and forth in the flashback revelations of the terrible truth of what Martha’s years in this cult actually were like, as Martha herself seems to be recovering her memories about the experience as she moves farther from them—and this parallels the slow revelation of the shortcomings of Lucy’s life. Martha Marcy May Marlene is relatively well done: it is beautifully filmed (by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes), Durkin is quite successful in creating and maintaining an involving tension that works on the story level as well as the overall level of visual flow, and in general it was a far better film than I feared when I learned it was by the same person who had done that short film. But, as many films in this year’s NYDD, it suffers from an essentially bad script: the ideas behind it are poorly conceived and immature, there are aspects that simply are not credible, and too much of the underlying thinking it reflects is annoyingly naïve.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World. (USA, 208 Min. HBO Documentary Films) Martin Scorsese’s epic documentary on George Harrison has some very interesting archival footage of the Beatles—and, I suppose that if I were a rabid Beatles fan, that might have sufficed; and, to be sure, if one were madly enthralled with Harrison himself, 3½ hours about his life might be irresistible—but I am not. Scorsese’s film is extremely well-done, but I was painfully bored through most of it. Most of all, I was uninterested in hearing Harrison’s rather pedestrian version of Eastern thought: I was not impressed by his foray into mysticism back when it was happening, and I am no more impressed with it now. (Harrison’s journey into Indian music, on the other hand, was quite interesting—as is the opportunity to listen once again to the likes of Ravi Shankar.) Just because someone is a talented musician (or a talented visual artist), I do not automatically assume that he will be verbally talented; and often it simply is not the case that an artist’s intellectual profoundness is proportionate to his other skills. As Keith Jarrett once told me he replied to an interviewer asking him to explain something in his music, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t need to play it.” And, to my mind, Harrison—while a good guitar player—was simply a shallow thinker. He also in my opinion was not much of a song writer—with the notable exception of “Something,” which is extraordinary in ways none of his other songs even approach. But most objectionable was having to listen to the extensive “philosophical” ramblings of his ex-wife (Patti Boyd) or the even more extensive gibberish from his widow (Olivia Harrison, who has an unforgivably large role in this film, I suppose because she was a co-producer of it). In the penultimate half hour of this cinematographic marathon, we get to see something of his interaction with the Monty Python people, and this does two things in the film: first, the wit and vitality of verbal geniuses like John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam showed how empty and lifeless all the film’s other verbal outpourings had been; and, second, it made me aware of what I now consider to be George Harrison’s greatest contribution to culture—his personally financing the production of The Life of Brian. (I knew Harrison had been friends with Eric Idle and close to the Pythons in general at one point; but the film tells a story I did not know: when the CEO of the studio producing the film finally read the script, he was so unhappy with how “blasphemous” it was, that he entirely pulled the funding for it, and Harrison stepped up and provided the rather considerable sum of money necessary.) So, if you’re an obsessed Harrison fan, I suppose this is the perfect experience for you. For me, it was mostly torture.
The Artist. (France, 98min. Weinstein Company) To be fair, I might have found this film less problematic had we had not earlier in the NYFF seen Chaplin’s 1925 silent masterpiece, The Gold Rush. In The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius has created a 21st Century silent film, in black and white, ostensibly in the style of the 20s, and I suppose that is an ambitious and noble undertaking. It tells the story of a dashing silent film male lead (Jean Dujardin, who, while fairly good, for reasons I cannot understand won the best actor prize in Cannes) whose career is about to fall apart with the advent of talkies, and his relationship with a young starlet (Berenice Bejo, who actually is quite good), who, surprise, surprise, is going to have a meteoric rise in the new medium. The Artist even worked for a little while: the first portion of the film is reasonably successful and entertaining; but Hazanavicius simply does not have the skill or talent to pull this undertaking off, and the film quickly becomes pedestrian and quite dull—dragging on interminably, and feeling unbearably longer than its 98 minute length. If one did not know what was possible in silent filmmaking, one might have considered this an excusable limitation of the genre; but it is simply not true—totally engaging, deep, extraordinary works like Chaplin’s powerfully make that point. So, in the end, this being a silent film turns out merely to be a gimmick, and the underlying weakness of the film—and of the filmmaker—is painfully apparent. (There were those who seemed thoroughly to like this film, but I am willing to wager it is because they do not know what real silent filmmaking can be.) There are two moments—one of them even quite successful—when Hazanavicius plays on the fact that this is a silent film by briefly having sound intrude. Nevertheless, even this is pretty unimpressive if compared to the all-too-similar—and far more profoundly wonderful—moment created by Mel Brooks in his Silent Movie, wherein the only sound in the entire film is a single word—uttered so wonderfully paradoxically by the world renowned French mime, Marcel Marceau. This whole film is a gimmick, not a real adventure in silent filmmaking. And, without falling for the gimmickry, it is an unforgivably mediocre experience. There should be a current distribution for The Gold Rush instead, and the world could get to see authentic silent film magic.
20 Years of Art Cinema: A Tribute to Sony Pictures Classics. Sony Pictures Classics has been the source of so many films in the NYFF (and I believe five in this year’s festival). And it has been so essential to the whole genre of “art cinema,” the Film Society chose this year to honor the founders of SPC, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, their company, and the films they have made possible. Twenty years ago, Michael and Tom left Orion Pictures to start SPC, and they have distributed and produced an unending stream of wonderful and successful independent and foreign-language films. Before the presentation (which took place in the Beale Theater in the Bu (what the industry seemed to be calling the new Film Center—which we had been calling the Ellie), there was a wonderful series of photographs projected (mostly take by Tom Barker himself) which was like a montage of all the people who figured in the history of the NYFF. It was followed by an incredible reel of clips from the huge number of films SPC has presented at the NYFF over the years. The heart of the program was a discussion conducted by Richard Peña with Michael and Tom—joined at the end by their third partner, Marcy Bloom. It included many insights into the development of “art cinema” and how the nature and finances of the industry have changed—from the days of the isolated art houses, through the rise and fall of the prominence of college film societies, to the advent of huge theater chains, and on into the current chaotic day in this arena. Following the talk, there was a screening of SPC’s inaugural release: James Ivory’s 1992 Howards End, which grossed more than $25 million at the U.S. box office and earned nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
The Royal Tanenbaums. (2001, USA, 110 min.) I love this film, in large part for how much sheer enjoyment it brings me every time I watch it, which I have done innumerable times through the years since I first saw it in the 2001 NYFF. Here is my review from when I first saw it:
This new film by Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) had its premier at the NYFF, and it was the festival's hottest ticket. If you are one of those people who didn't get Rushmore, you may not like this film either (although its star-studded cast—Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow, in addition to Wes Anderson regulars Bill Murray, and Luke and Owen Wilson [the latter being the co-author with Anderson]—give such terrific performances that you may like it anyway. If, like us, you LOVED Rushmore, you are going to go wild over this madcap romp through Wes Anderson's incredible imagination. If you haven't seen Rushmore, for God's sake, go out and rent it! (It is easier than explaining what Wes Anderson is about. The FF describes it as, "[a mingling of] romance, tragedy, social observation, and unforgettable characters in this dense but buoyant film about a family of eccentric geniuses living in a parallel New York (where Helvetia is the only typeface and all cabs are Gypsies)."
The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador). (1962, Mexico, Spanish with English subtitles, 94 min.) We knew we could not see the screening of this 1962 masterpiece by Luis Buñuel, so we rented it from Netflix and watched it before the NYFF started. What an amazing, disturbing, and completely wonderful surreal piece of filmmaking! Go rent it. (Meanwhile, one of the times I got to chat with Pedro Almodóvar at the NYFF [he was around quite a bit, seeing a number of films other than his own], he told Michael Barker and me that we needed to see Buñuel’s film Él, which neither of us had ever seen. I for one have just purchased a copy [it is not available on Netflix, unfortunately] and intend to watch it my first free moment. Who am I to ignore a suggestion from Pedro?!) Here is the Film Society note about The Exterminating Angel:
In anticipation of the New York Film Festival’s historic 50th edition in the fall of 2012, the Film Society is proud to inaugurate a year-long retrospective of highlights from the festival’s past 49 editions, curated by current and former members of the NYFF selection committee. We begin with the opening night film of the very first NYFF, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, described by festival director Richard Roud thusly: “For ninety hypnotic minutes Buñuel shatters all conventional notions of social logic and ethics. Never before has he been able to give such free reign to his vitality, wit and iconoclasm, his power to surprise and shock. Buñuel has been a great name in world cinema for over thirty years now, and we are proud to open the first New York Film Festival with his most remarkable film.”
Luis Buñuel wrote and directed this 1962 classic, set in Mexico and starring the popular Mexican actress Silvia Pinal. The Exterminating Angel is unique as it offers characters taking actions which are never explained. You know something is off when service staff for an upscale dinner party decide to abandon their duties without telling anyone. They rush out as if to say: “I do not want to be here tonight.” Later, we see a group of apparently well-to-do folks who decide not to leave after their meal. Maybe they were too lazy, maybe they couldn't be bothered. In any case, we witness these guests slowly descend into inexplicable savagery—or is it inexplicable?
The Gold Rush. (1925, USA, Silent, 90m) This film should be declared a national heritage site! It is certainly a national treasure. Our screening of it was introduced by the Film Society’s founder Martin Siegel and David Rockefeller, both of whom having been instrumental and bringing Chaplin back to the U.S. after his long exile abroad. And it was screened in a restored print of the original 1925 silent version (there was a 1941 version redone with sound, but Chaplin never approved of it) with a live orchestra (fifteen members of the New York Philharmonic), conducted by Timothy Brock, who was responsible for composing the new restoration of the film’s score. It was a thrill for every single member of the audience, including the children of all ages who were in attendance. We were sitting near two 8 year old girls who were literally quivering with joy and excitement throughout the whole film—and I was virtually doing the same. Chaplin’s genius is completely apparent in this masterpiece: while it is hilariously funny on every level of humor from the slapstick to the sublime, it is also deeply moving and emotional. The idea that so much depth and complexity could be conveyed by physical gesture is staggering. But it is also a perfect cinematographic experience, entrancing and entertaining us while it totally involves us in its story, touching every one of our heartstrings along the way. I could have sat and watched it again right there…and I am sad that it may be a long time before I again have the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen.
You Are Not I. (1981, USA, 48min.) This 1981 short film by Sara Driver, based on a short story by Paul Bowles, was definitely the biggest positive surprise for us at this year's NYFF. It was not part of the Main Slate, and we mainly decided to see it because we had known that Jim Jarmusch had been the DP for the film. (It turns out that Jim also co-wrote the screenplay with Sara; and Tom DiCillo was part of the camera crew—and Nan Goldin did the still photography for the film!) There was also an odd backstory to this screening: since 1982, there basically has been no print available of this early project by Driver (save one, virtually unwatchable, deteriorating print she herself had); a year or so ago, a print was found in an unmarked cardboard box in the collection of Paul Bowles--in Tangiers; and, beyond all reasonable hope, it was in excellent condition. The film itself is a starkly shot black and white journey--more internal than external--with Ethel (played with minimalist, but incredibly intense emotional flatness by Suzanne Fletcher [who, along with Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch, was present for this screening]), an inpatient from some sort of psychiatric facility who has wandered off the grounds and is exploring the scene of a nearby automobile accident. As we watch Ethel "relating" to the several corpses, we listen to the monotone recitation of the thoughts she is having as she idiosyncratically reacts to and interprets what is going on around her. She makes it as far as her childhood home, where her sister is living. and where there is a quite wonderfully odd denouement which occurs. While the piece is somewhat roughly done (Driver was in her early twenties when she made it), You Are Not I is eerily effective and profoundly successful. I don’t know whether there will be an occasion when you will be able to see this one, but do so if the opportunity presents itself. It is a treat.