Each summer for the past four years, I’ve eagerly awaited the New York Film Festival like a kid anticipating Santa’s Dec. 25 arrivalscanning major festival feedback, poring over “first look” pieces, checking and rechecking the final schedule. This year, advance word from Cannes was mixed, and Berlin’s usually strong festival proffered only a handful of potential standouts, but as always New York’s lineup appeared strong. Following a flurry of planning-related e-mails and phone calls, I finalized my flight arrangements on the morning of Sept. 11. Five minutes later, I turned on the TV as the second tower collapsed.
After my initial shock passed, and the persistent dull ache became bearable, I briefly reconsidered my festival plans. To be honest, there wasn’t much debate. During the past weeks, film has provided not only a welcome respite from the ongoing TV-mediated nightmare, but also an unexpected channel to reconnect with ongoing life, with other cultures and concerns. If Redux’s climactic theme park of rotting corpses and mindlessly obeisant natives seemed even more gratuitous and irresponsible, then Taboo’s elegant end of an era appeared more poetic and profound, and The Circle’s blunt humanist outrage more powerful and gripping. I hoped that some (if not many) of the NYFF’s “best of the fests” selections would provide similar opportunities for catharsis, insight, engagement, even healing.
At the very least, the festival lineup promised a generous preview of cinema’s best seasonsomething actually to look forward to. Scheduled at the end of the festival circuit, the NYFF often serves as a final testing ground before theatrical release. In fact, four of the festival’s very best films opened nationwide during the NYFF’s two-and-a-half-week run, while several others debuted soon after. Inevitably, the festival’s selections dominate critics’ year-end lists (if not Oscar’s Hollywood-centric nominees), and this year’s 27-film roster certainly promises to enrich and enliven Nashville’s screens well into 2002.
So what can we expect in the upcoming months? Past masters at or near their creative peak, next generation hopefuls fulfilling much of their tremendous potential, and at least two promising young contenders (both Argentinean!); provocative and entertaining explorations in narrative and a bounty of fully realized digital video experiments; dense, lively ensemble pieces and fresh, revitalized takes on the age-old coming-of-age; graphic, unromanticized sex and sincere grapplings with mortality, providing solace and even hope.
We can also expect, quelle surprise, a handful of exceptional American films. Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, already something of a known quantity, follows the ever-evolving dream wanderings of its unnamed protagonist, sketching a loosely connected narrative of discovery à la Slacker. But despite its pseudo-profundities and late-night undergrad ramblings, the film’s ultimate meaning is grounded in its hypnotically pulsating images. Shot on DV and then computer-animated with the assistance of 31 artists, Waking Life fashions a truly democratic, technology-enhanced universe of spontaneity and possibility.
Exploiting a similar vein of rich materialsa labyrinthine dream narrative, alluring surfaces and texturesDavid Lynch’s justly lauded Mulholland Drive is darkly subversive yet genuinely engaging. Ostensibly a cautionary tale of Hollywood’s vampiric allure, the film weaves a contorted nightmare-scape in which grim flesh-and-blood reality inevitably twists and perverts our fairy-tale imaginings. Inhabiting a far more impoverished “dream place,” Todd Solondz’s Storytelling presents an equally fabricated reality, but without Lynch’s saving humor, ambiguity or charm. Revisiting the barren wasteland of an imagined upper middle class suburbia, the director creates an artificial arena in which one-dimensional straw men are tortured, dissected and ultimately discarded. The film’s purportedly inventive self-reflexivity, intended to short-circuit critical backlash, merely registers as yet another substanceless feint.
In contrast, Wes Anderson peoples The Royal Tenenbaums with a varied assemblage of expansive, three-dimensional characterseccentrics perhaps, but broadly and lovingly conceived. Detailing the attempted rapprochement between prodigal paterfamilias Royal Tenenbaum and his willfully individualistic family members, the director creates an enchanting New York story with the novelistic sweep and command of a great Dickens tomerich, luxuriant and deeply satisfying. Though the film’s masterful blend of comedy and pathos recalls the remarkably enduring Rushmore, Anderson’s gifts for narrative, character and the just-right pop referent continue to evolve and surprise.
Mind you, though America’s fringe certainly delivered several choice offerings, they were merely part of a greater whole. The NYFF’s focus on recent gems of world cinema helps locate our film culture in a larger, more pluralistic contexta context that corporate Hollywood aggressively ignores. Last year’s festival doubled as a joyous celebration of East Asian cinema’s deep, resilient strength; this year’s program adopted a more classical approach, with seven French productions and almost as many co-pros. And though it’s always dangerous to draw even cursory conclusions from such a small sampling, the festival’s apparent retrenchment was symbolically affirmed by its opening and closing night selectionsnouvelle vague mainstays Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard.
The former’s Va Savoir is a spry, engaging comedy of manners chronicling the romantic misadventures of three couples. Some have dismissively characterized the film as Rivette-lite, but despite its modest scope and tone, the work actually revitalizes many of the director’s favorite themes, injecting them with winning freshness and invention. Rivette constructs his narrative around a production of Pirandello’s As You Desire Me, reflecting and refracting his characters’ tangled relationships through the play’s prismatic surface. Appropriately enough, their increasingly theatrical interactions culminate in a farcical extended set piece played out onstage, a gently ironic “happy ending” that effectively entraps each character in his/her adopted role.
If latter-day Rivette has become more accessible and generous-spirited, then his contemporary Godard has opted for a more rigorous, cerebral approach. Though structured as a densely layered “director’s quest,” In Praise of Love is simply a formal extension of the celebrated iconoclast’s recent essay films. Presented in two distinct sections, the movie is, at the very least, a visual delight, with present-day Paris filmed in nostalgic black-and-white and an incident from two years earlier shot in oversaturated, expressionistic video. A Cannes favorite, In Praise of Love arrived in Manhattan a de facto masterpiece, but its overt anti-Americanism (characterizing the U.S. as an omnivorous consumer nation without identity, culture or a proper name) seems even more facile and reductive in light of last month’s atrocitiesthe cramped, claustrophobic musings of a genius crank.
Catherine Breillat’s clinically explicit 1999 feature Romance faced similar charges of ascetic intellectualism; thankfully, her latest, Fat Girl, is more emotionally engaged and wholly formed. Focusing on a pair of vacationing sisters, seductively budding Elena and her emotionally tormented younger sibling Anais, the director’s narrative unfolds with a cool, inevitable precision. The older sister meets an Italian law student, and soon after, Breillat’s camera is recording her sexual initiation, an extended tour de force of romantic lies, feigned tenderness, bullying and guilt. The early seduction ripples and echoes through the film’s corridors, coloring the family’s interactions while presaging Fat Girl’s brutal shock endinga disruptive act of primal violence.
Va Savoir and Fat Girl were without question festival standouts; unfortunately, many other French entries, though varied and often adventurous, were disappointingly uneven. Hailed by many as a major statement, Laurent Cantet’s Time Out revisits the antiseptic corporate environs of his compelling first effort, Human Resources. Charting the progressively debilitating psychosis of a recently dismissed middle manager, the film’s eerily mysterious tone ultimately falters as its intricate web of deceptions becomes increasingly absurd and pointless. Meanwhile, other promising selections, from Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke (an intriguing DV conception) to the Berlin-fêted Initimacy (unexpurgated naturalistic sex), proved merely ordinary.
As for last year’s cause célèbre, East Asian cinema assumed a more modest role, contributing only three featuresone of which, All About Lily Chou-Chou, was decidedly unremarkable. The other selections, Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge and Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?, though ultimately flawed, provided winning showcases for their creators’ wildly idiosyncratic visions. Revisiting a familiar universe of small-town eccentrics, Imamura’s lively, ramshackle narrative often threatens total collapse, yet its central conceit, a woman’s overflowing orgasms as life-giving elixir, remains undeniably original. Tsai’s latest exercise in urban ennui expands his tableau, rhyming events across continents while raising the emotional stakes, but the film’s languorous pacing and near-static compositions risk tedium. Both works function as restatements or reworkings of past successes, but without the formal or emotional accomplishment of Anderson’s and Lynch’s triumphant artistic summations.
With Asian cinema reduced to mere ancillary status, several strong Central and South American features impressed, announcing an emergent, unjustly neglected cinematic bounty. Both La Ciénaga and Y Tu Mama Tambien explore frequently marginalized cultures with tremendous insight and invention. The former, a Faulknerian family drama of torpor and aimless activity, visits a decaying summer manor seemingly lost somewhere between civilization and the Argentinean wild. Alfonso Cuaron’s popular success Y Tu Mama Tambien, a raunchy, often perceptive teen road comedy, charts a similar journey, venturing ever deeper into a sparsely populated Mexican countryside of simple pleasures and emotional candor.
Notwithstanding both entries’ many virtues, the festival’s most rewarding discovery was Lisandro Alonso’s seemingly modest featurette La Libertad. Recalling Iranian cinema in its distinctive blend of documentary and fiction, the Argentinean director’s assured debut patiently details the dawn-to-dusk activities of a lone woodcutter. Adopting a simple, contemplative tone, the film basks in the forest’s lush, green glow while recording the incidental incursions of a suddenly foreign “modern” world. Alonso’s understated work provided a welcome glimpse of life-as-lived in a festival haunted by the ghosts of recent horrors.
Not surprisingly, the events of Sept. 11 became an inadvertent artistic barometer, forever recontextualizing and redefining works in its wake. If In Praise of Love seemed a fussy relic of Eurocentric snobbery, then Manoel de Oliveira’s elegant, elegiac I’m Going Home became a universal poem of mourning. Following an ominously portentous performance of Ionesco’s Exit the King, the film’s aged theatrical legend Gilbert Valence is struck by tragedy, an offscreen car accident killing his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Suddenly cast adrift in an unknowable ghost world, Gilbert retreats into a life of routine, forestalling grief through a series of repetitive tasks. De Oliveira records the actor’s tentative, often touching efforts to reconnect with the living against a bustling, indifferent urban backdrop. Hardly a dour, funereal dirge, the 92-year-old Portuguese director’s gentle memento mori is bittersweet and generous, graced by moments of profound empathy and redemptive humor.
One to two weeks following the terrorist attacks, festival organizers began calling featured directors regarding their plans to attend the NYFF. De Oliveira noted that prior to Sept. 11 he was undecided, but following the tragic events, he felt compelled to attendin camaraderie with the festival, New York and the medium he loved. My spirits buoyed by at least a half-dozen masterpieces or near-masterpieces, works whose timeless vitality and warmth inevitably inspired hope, I emerged from Lincoln Center’s darkened theaters ready to sample Manhattan’s many enduring pleasures: a memorable Greek dinner with recently engaged friends, Orlando Cachaito Lopez’s propulsive fusion of Cuban tradition and electric Miles, a lazy afternoon idyll at my favorite East Village tap room. Waiting in the checkout line at Katz’s Delicatessen, I spotted a familiar poster with a telling addendum: “I Love New York More Than Ever.” Yeah, me too.
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