Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In the last few years, each edition of Rendez-vous With French Cinema has had a point to make. Last year, it was that women directors and women writers were being given opportunities in France (more than half the films last year had women among the creative personnel); this year, it's that French cinema is open to the ethnic communities that are now part of France. This was also proven by the results of this year's Cesar Awards. But some of the films which have ethnic characters in this year's Rendez-vous selections include: "Mon Amie Victoria", "Hippocrate", "Qu'Allah Benisse la France", "Bebe Tigre". Certainly, there's more to say, but one can say the French film industry is trying to show diversity.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

It's been months since i've last posted anything; though i've seen quite a lot since my last post, i've felt so dispirited that writing was all but impossible.

First off: tonight there's the Academy Awards. We have not watched an Oscar telecast in maybe two decades (if that). There's no interest in it. And over the years, people i've known have gotten nominated (imagine my surprise), but i have no interest in watching.

Thinking back, i have to say the moment that killed my interest in the Oscars was the year that PLATOON was in the running. Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And that was when he was still with Elizabeth LeCompte. Now, regardless of what i think of her as an artist (and i concede she is one of the premiere American experimental theater artists since the 1970s), as a person, she is the most insufferably snide, intolerably superior, hoity-toity bitches i've ever met in my life. So there she is at the Oscars, and the camera catches her at various moments (because she's next to Willem, and they're surrounded by other nominees), and she's putting on a brave, glazed face, with this sickening smile, trying to laugh at the lame jokes. Now: the Elizabeth LeCompte that i knew should have sat out the ceremony with a sneer on her face, making snide remarks about the stupidity of the whole thing. Instead, there she was, trying to turn herself into a supplicating Hollywood spouse (or spousal equivalent), and the spectacle was so grotesque that i swore i'd never watch the Oscars again. The term "grincing" comes to mind: watching Elizabeth LeCompte turn into a grincingly robotic Hollywood minion was just too much for me.

So i've given it a pass ever since. There was a period when the Oscar telecast was always opposite "The L Word", and every year, the episode of "The L Word" that was on Showtime was always one with a lot of hot lesbian sex! Watching Jennifer Beals or Katherine Moenning in the nude, or watching the Oscars: i'm sorry, is there even a contest?

That doesn't mean i don't understand the significance of the Oscars in terms of the motion picture industry. It's a signifier of respectability (at least, for the moment). And i always find out who won (now, it's instantaneous with the internet), but that's it.

So it's the Academy Awards, and people are getting bent out of shape over whether "Birdman" or "Boyhood" should win. All i can say is: good for the New York Film Festival (where "Birdman" had its North American premiere - it has previously played at the Venice Film Festival, where it won a prize - and was the Closing Night selection) and Sundance (where "Boyhood" premiered) and BAM Cinemafest (where "Boyhood" was the Opening Night film).

I've seen a lot of movies recently, but i've also been battling a cold. Yes, i know, it's going around, but this one was a humdinger! Wiped me out for at least two weeks, and i've got the remnants of sniffles. What that means is that there were several screenings which i missed, including the Dance on Camera screenings (one of my very favorite festivals, and this year, there were several films i wanted to see, such as a biography on Mia Slavenska - this film i actually saw in-progress about five years ago, so i wanted to see how they finished it - and Meredith Monk's "Girlhood Diary" and a film about the residency that Sally Gross did at the University of Wisconsin-Madison three years ago) and the press screenings for the Film Comment Selects series. While the Film Comment Selects screenings were being held, i could barely move! I've never before had such body aches accompanying my cold: it made me feel so old!

But already this year, there have been phenomenal movies in release. "Timbuktu". "Costa da Morte". "Hard to Be a God". "Queen and Country".  There was a series of Black Independent Films from the 1960s and 1970s at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which included a run of Kathleen Collins' "Losing Ground", and that was a major find.

The Rendez-vous With French Cinema series is now having its press screenings. I went to two days. The first day i saw "Mon Amie Victoria" (directed by Jean-Paul Civeyrac), "La Vie Sauvage" (directed by Cedric Kahn) and "La French" (directed by Cedric Jiminez). Actually, these films were quite good. The second day i saw "Metamorphoses" (directed by Christophe Honore) and "Le Dos Rouge" (directed by Antoine Barraud), and those films were so bad that it made me think i never wanted to see a French movie again. (I should qualify this: "Metamorphoses" is a modern-dress and undress of Ovid; it's terminally whimsical but it's easy to sit through. "Le Dos Rouge", on the other hand, begins very charmingly: a man is living with a woman who is cast in a play. Since she can't spend as much time with him, she has him call a friend of hers to go with him on his art jaunts. So the man and the woman, played by Bertrand Bonello and Jeanne Balibar, go to museums and galleries, looking at art, and they invent a game, where they have to find the monster in each picture. This part of the film lasts about half an hour, and it's charming, beautifully done with lovely camerawork and wonderful music, mostly classical. And the actors have a conspiratorial ease which is delightful. But then the movie takes a turn, and becomes intolerably pretentious, and it's more than two hours.  That first half hour made me think of Joanna Hogg's art narratives - "Unrelated", "Archipelago", "Exhibition" - which had been featured at the 2013 New York Film Festival, and were given at run this past summer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center - as well as some of the films of Eugene Green, such as his recent "La Sapienza". But Hogg and Green were able to sustain their narratives, and those films are just wonderful, but "Le Dos Rouge" shows how difficult it is to sustain this kind of artiness with any real conviction.)

Well, watched "Girls" (this has not been such a good season) and now watching "Grantchester". (I wish people who claim to have no interest in the Oscars would actually just stop watching: i hate reading people's stupid updates about the Oscars. Really: if you aren't in the Academy and don't vote, your opinion is useless, so shut up!)

Monday, January 12, 2015

I've found it difficult to focus on trying to articulate my thoughts. Too often, current events have been overwhelming my consciousness. And i start to feel inadequate in terms of understanding what's happening.

During the month of December, a lot of time and energy was spent on the various polls. This year, i was invited to three: Film Comment; the Village Voice/LA Weekly; IndieWire. And it proved to be tricky, because all the polls were different: it wasn't as if you could just plug in the same choices. The Film Comment poll was the easiest: it simply asked for a list of twenty films (ranked) and then a list of best undistributed films. For that poll, i couldn't think of a list of undistributed films: actually, one of my choices was Paul Harrill's "Something, Anything" (which i saw at BAM Cinemafest), but just before the deadline for the Film Comment poll, i got a notice that "Something, Anything" would get a one-week run at the IFP's Media Center. And then i got notices about one other film which was on my list, and i was so flustered that i couldn't go back and try to figure out other films seen at festivals which hadn't yet been given any sort of release. But i was able to list my Top Twenty.

I know that a lot of people were complaining about 2014 as a bad year for film, but i have no idea what they're talking about, because it seemed an extraordinarily rich and varied year in terms of the films which were released.  But i'll have to go into all that on my next post.

Just to say: the Sony hacking proved the vulnerability of communication in this electronic media age; the assassinations in Paris of the Charlie Hebdo staff was a chilling reminder of fundamentalism as a sociopolitical force. It seems as if every day, there are more reports of horrors around the world.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The New York Film Festival ended on Sunday, October 12th, and i must say that it proved to be an exceptionally good festival. Not only that, but i have to say that it might be considered a defining festival, because this is the second festival under the directorship of Kent Jones, and it definitely established itself as distinct from the festivals under the fist director, Richard Roud, and the second director, Richard Pena; most specifically, it ended on a high note, one which (i think) proved to be historically significant.

During the first week of press screenings, there were indications that there might be special events which were not being revealed at the time. Last year, the "sneak preview" screening which had been introduced three years ago (the film was Martin Scorsese's "Hugo") was not included. The problem has been the brouhaha over the sneak preview of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"; the critical acclaim for that film (and for Daniel Day-Lewis' performance) drowned out whatever critical reaction attended such films as Robert Zemeckis's "Flight" (with its performance by Denzel Washington) which had been the closing night selection. So the distributors and studios which had their films booked as part of the Main Slate of the festival felt duped, and there were complaints. This year, the sneak preview turned out to be Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" which, though it got a solid critical response, did not swamp the hype around David Fincher's "Gone Girl" (opening night) or Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" (centerpiece) or Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman" (closing night).

But the film which trumped every film in the festival was the surprise film that had its press screening and its public screening on Friday, October 10th: Laura Poitras's "Citizenfour"! By this point, the film has opened in several major cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. There's a lot to say about this film, but i should like to say that the screenings on October 10th were galvanizing: it felt historic! The New York Film Festival was taking a bold stand, and the focus on documentaries which is becoming a defining characteristic of the current artistic direction of the Film Society of Lincoln Center had premiered a documentary which was truly a part of history. And in this, Kent Jones was making a bold statement about his stewardship of the New York Film Festival. I can only say that this documentary about Edward Snowden was extraordinary, truly thought-provoking and brilliantly structured so that it was informative and politically volatile. What a coup!

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Spent the past three weeks at the press screenings of the New York Film Festival, and was all set for this week's final lap when i wound up waking up all achy with a stuffy nose and sore throat. I usually wind up getting one cold a year, but each time, it's a real knockout.

I'm hoping to get to the last of the screenings, but i'll see how i feel in the morning.

The screenings were very pleasant, but i was rather disturbed by the fact that there weren't many people at most of them. Of course, for Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner", the place was packed (and that's where i'm pretty sure i got my cold, since there were people hacking all over the place). In fact, that was the last screening i attended, before waking up after the weekend and feeling like i'd been hit with a ton of bricks. But for Eugene Green's "La Sapienza" or Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" (two of the best movies at this year's festival), you couldn't give seats away. And there weren't many people for the Dardenne Brothers' "Two Days, One Night" or Pedro Costa's "Horse Money" or even Godard's "Goodbye to Language". (Aside from the full house for "Mr. Turner", the only other screening that was filled was for Mathieu Amalric's "The Blue Room".) And i thought i was being very careful, and avoiding the big ticket items on the program (Fincher's "Gone Girl", Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash", Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice").

But this has been a very strong year. There were only a few films which i thought were egregious. Even those films had some merits.

Last year, the festival introduced a sidebar about the work of emerging filmmakers. Last year, there were two: the Mexican Fernando Eimbcke (who had made three features: "Duck Season", "Lake Tahoe" and "Club Sandwich") and the British Joanna Hogg (also three features: "Unrelated", "Archipelago" and "Exhibition"). This year, there isn't an emerging filmmaker sidebar; instead, there is a "filmmaker-in-residence", the Argentine Lisandro Alonso (represented by his latest film, "Jauja"). Now, i've seen three of his previous features ("La Libertad", "Los Muertos" and "Liverpool"), and found him to be a genuinely accomplished filmmaker. "Liverpool" was an extraordinary movie: a film of long takes, often in longshot, of a sailor returning home to a remote village in Argentina, and the snowy wintery landscapes which seemed to express his alienation from his home, as he sought to reconnect, only to find nothing there.

"Jauja" is his attempt at a "big" film: a cast of professional actors (including Viggo Mortensen and Ghita Norby) and a period setting. Something was off from the very beginning: the movie never seemed to find its center, and it dragged fearfully. For a filmmaker whose work is predicated on the precision of his visuals (since his work often features long sequences without dialogue), the attempt at a visual conceit (to create within a square frame, like the old apertures) seemed rather paltry. In a way, this was an example of the Film Society of Lincoln Center playing catch-up: Alonso's films had been shown at Anthology Film Archives, and i actually caught up with his films when they were shown at the Arsenal in Berlin four years ago. So "Jauja" should have been a work which pointed to a major filmmaker, but it was the wrong film. In this, it reminded me of the situation of Edward Yang: his work was ignored by every "major" film festival in North America, so his early films ("That Day, on the Beach", "Taipei Story", "The Terrorizers") were all shown at the Asian-American International Film Festival. When the New York Film Festival finally caught up with Yang, it was with a lesser film, "A Confucian Confusion." But those are the breaks, and so it is with Lisandro Alonso.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What began to happen by the end of the 1970s (and which precipitated the ouster of Richard Roud) was the sense that the boutique status of the New York Film Festival had to change. There were changes in the film industry, and the rise of independent films in the United States. Actually, there had been a sidebar at the New York Film Festival, which was held at the Paramount Theater (which was the funny semi-underground space at Columbus Circle, which is now where one of the Trump buildings stands); this was the precursor of the Independent Feature Film Project. I remember seeing a few of the films in the series. If i'm not mistaken, one of the films was Victor Nunez's "Gal Young Un"; i remember Richard Roud saying that he felt this was an important change in American film, and that this independent and regional filmmaking would prove to be where the art of cinema would develop.

The trajectory of the New York Film Festival was, initially, as a two-week event held at Philharmonic Hall (which was, of course, one of the grand concert halls in New York City, though there were always problems with acoustics); then, it became an event where the Opening Night and Closing Night were held at Philharmonic Hall, but the rest of the screenings were held at Alice Tully Hall (a smaller venue, slightly over 1,000 seats, as opposed to the 3,000 of Philharmonic Hall). The shift meant that, in most cases, the films were scheduled for two screenings.

This still left the problem with those films which were defiantly non-commercial, even anti-commercial. How can you fill 2,000 seats for a film like "Othon" (by Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet)? Well, the answer is: you really can't. So there would always be those films where there'd only be one screening, because practical considerations had to come into play. I think there started to be some tension, because you couldn't keep programming films which you knew wouldn't attract an audience. Of course, for Richard Roud, this wasn't an issue: he felt that the education of sensibility was crucial, and that an audience would develop if information was provided. That's why he started the Cinema One book series with Penelope Houston and Tom Milne through the BFI (in the US, it went through several different publishers), and two of the books were his monographs on Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub.

Yet in the earliest days of the New York Film Festival, there was the disparity between the Philharmonic Hall space and the films. I remember that Renata Adler mentioned this when she reviewed Jean Renoir's "Toni" when it was shown: the delicacy of this black-and-white film made in 1935, swallowed up by the cavernous space of Philharmonic Hall. The incongruity of showing a film like the Straub-Huillet "Not Reconciled" at Philharmonic Hall wasn't lost on anyone.

And now, with the many different spaces available to the Film Society, the festival has changed and grown. Within the last decade, there was a capital campaign which Richard Pena had undertaken; one of the results was the building of the Elinor Bunim Murray Film Center, a three-theater complex. This was in addition to the Walter Reade Theater; of course, a number of the Main Slate screenings are still held at Alice Tully Hall, but the variety of theaters has allowed. Last year, for example, in addition to the Main Slate, there were different sections: Emerging Artists (a focus on two filmmakers, the English Joanna Hogg and the Mexican Fernando Eimbcke), a Spotlight on Documentaries; two specific documentary foci, "How Democracy Works" and "Applied Science", as well as Revivals and Restored Film, a Retrospective, and Views from the Avant-Garde.

Is this expansion of the New York Film Festival really necessary? That i can't answer, but i'll say two things: as a curated event, even in the many sidebars, the quality of the films has been quite extraordinary. For example: among the documentaries shown last year were "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq", "The Dog", "Fifi Howls from Happiness", "Manakamana", "What Now? Remind Me" and "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" All of those films were released or broadcast to great acclaim. The second point i'd like to make is that i understand all these film organizations are trying to change with the times, but i can't help but feel nostalgic for the days of the exclusivity of the old New York Film Festival. Even if you didn't like some of the films, you knew that there was a selection committee and that someone had fought for that film.

I mentioned that Richard Roud had ignored a number of significant filmmakers and film movements. By the end of the 1980s, this actually worked to my advantage. The reason was that the Asian-American International Film Festival picked up the slack. If Roud had no interest in films from Iran, well, that was ok, we showed Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up"; if Roud had no interest in films from Taiwan, that was ok, since we showed the early films of Edward Yang (all his films up to and including "A Brighter Summer Day") and Tsai Ming-liang. But Richard Pena's reign at the New York Film Festival was marked by a more flexible aesthetic. Richard Pena really did try to include films which marked significant advances, or films from areas of the world which had not been explored. He tried to make sure that the Film Festival was representative of the best of the current cinema, rather than representative of his particular perspective on the cinema. Now we're in the second year of Kent Jones's directorship of the Film Festival, and the retrospectives that have come under his supervision (Jean-Luc Godard last year, Joseph L. Mankiewicz this year) certainly are indicative of his previous work as a film programmer and curator. But one of the emphases seems to be having some Main Slate selections which are part of the award season package: last year, these films included "Captain Phillips", "Her", "Nebraska" and "12 Years a Slave". Perhaps notably there were also those films which caused considerable consternation; seeing the languid tableaux of Tsai Ming-liang's "Stray Dogs", it reminded me of the rapture i felt watching Marguerite Duras's "The Truck" while most of the audience were ready to riot. In this sense, the New York Film Festival remains true to itself, a test of the audience's endurance. It's nice to know some things never change.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

This year, the New York Film Festival will show the latest film by Jean-Luc Godard (his 3D "Goodbye to Language") and the last film by Alain Resnais ("The Life of Riley"); during the first New York Film Festival, Godard was represented by the omnibus film "RoGoPaG" and Resnais was represented by "Muriel"; what was so striking about "Muriel" was that it was greeted with what seemed to be universal derision. Of course, there were a few exceptions (Andrew Sarris and Susan Sontag wrote essays about the film which were salutary if not laudatory), but "Muriel" brought out the beast in a lot of people covering that first festival, including John Simon, Dwight MacDonald, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, and Judith Crist.

In her classic essay "Film and the Radical Aspiration" (originally presented as a lecture at the third New York Film Festival), Annette Michelson gave one of the most articulated analyses of "Muriel"; here is her conclusion:

"The two explicitly political passages in these films are both distanced, bracketed as spectacles or diversions. In 'Hiroshima (Mon Amour)', the anti-war demonstration is inserted as a film sequence enacted within the film, while, in 'Muriel', the Algerian war is evoked, not shown, in an amateur movie, by an agonized verbal commentary (the account of a young girl's torture by French soldiers) in counterpoint to the series of innocuous amateur shots that parody the myth of barracks life hilarity.

"This sequence constitutes the most brilliant, the definitive articulation of the disintegration of a cinematic arena for political discourse. The despair over that disintegration is the film's central political 'statement.' The 'statement's' intensity, however, is further amplified through the further distancing of bracketed statement from itself (the distance between image and commentary). Its isolation within the texture of the total work, its particular, stylistic disjunctiveness, its own colorless color, are slightly at odds with the disjunctiveness and invented color of the whole. Through a speculative and stylistic refraction, Resnais proposes an image of the shameful scandal that generated the Fifth Republic. His trope is that of the caesura. The crack, the flaw, the rhythmic visual gap or caesura created by this interlude or 'diversion' is the form of Resnais's declaration of aphony. It declares his nostalgia for the film that could not be made; it incarnates the artist's struggle with the dissociative principle and the politics of dissociation."

Through her analysis of the usage of disjunction and dissonance as the structuring device of "Muriel", Michelson articulated the disapprobation which greeted the film at its New York Film Festival premiere, as the symbol of the extreme formal experimentation which was at the heart of Resnais's practice at that time. And it crystallized the negativity which surrounded most of the coverage of the New York Film Festival in its early years, as a site where the simple pleasures of movie-going were being elided in favor of works which demanded special attention.

By the fifth New York Film Festival, a lot of the initial animosity towards the New York Film Festival started to abate; in 1968, Pauline Kael wrote:

"In recent years, the movie audience has split into the audience for popular films - the mass audience - and the art-house audience, and movies, once heralded as the great new democratic art, have followed the route of the other arts. The advances are now made by 'difficult' artists who reach a minority audience, and soon afterwards, the difficult artists, or their bowdlerizers, are consumed by the mass audience. Yesterday's interesting, difficult new directors become commercial, and their work becomes part of the film industry's anonymous product, which will never be compared to Chartres. Infrequent moviegoers are likely to be irritated when they go to a highly recommended art-house picture and find it bewildering and obscure. What they may not be aware is that in this new, divided world of film the commercial movies have become so omnivorous and so grossly corrupt that frequent moviegoers may, for the first time in movie history, be looking for traces of talent and for evidence of thought, and may care more for an 'interesting' failure than for a superficially entertaining 'hit.' During the last New York Film Festival, I, for example, was impressed by a film called 'Signs of Life,' written and directed by a young German, Werner Herzog, even though the film was maddeningly dull and lacked flair and facility, because Herzog was clearly highly intelligent and was struggling toward a distinctive new approach. As a casual moviegoer, I might have thought: What a bore! As a constant one, I thought: This young man, I hope, will invent the techniques he needs, and the movie itself is a sign of life."

The New York Film Festival became, for many of us, a de facto "academy" in which our cinematic sensibilities were educated, as "difficult" works were absorbed and investigated. In a sense, one of the delights of the festival was sitting in the audience for a particularly difficult film, and watching as a large part of the audience decamped during the course of the screening. Part of the comedy of the festival was the fact that, year after year, Richard Roud would insist on programming these filmmakers (Bresson, Jancso, Straub-Huillet, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Rivette) who were sure to try the patience of the movie audience. However, it should be stated that there were cracks that started to develop by the mid-1970s; although there were always films which had been programmed as a concession to popular taste, there was also a resistance by Richard Roud to some of the more innovative cinema, particularly in regards to formal radicalism as related to feminist and gay sensibilities (i'm thinking in particular of Chantal Akerman and Werner Shroeter; in both cases, their films were not screened at the New York Film Festival, but at The Museum of Modern Art due to the programming efforts of Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia). By the 1980s, when Roud willfully ignored the currents of international cinema coming from the Middle East and Asia (in particular, the films from Iran and the films from Taiwan), there was the beginnings of the disaffection which would cause his ouster. But for a quarter of a century, Richard Roud established the New York Film Festival as the site of a genuine education in cinematic sensibility. I can certainly say that i benefited from having my knowledge of cinema tested through screenings at the New York Film Festival from its earliest incarnation to the present.