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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The last month has been traumatizing: it's gotten so that it's hard to look at the news. Ferguson, Missouri; Gaza; Syria; the Ebola crisis in Liberia; the Ukraine... it's too much!

An artist i know on Facebook posted a statement to the effect that he's had to tune out some of the news, because if he dwelled on it, he would be too depressed. But it's not like he's insensitive; rather, he'd be almost paralyzed if he really concentrated on current events. And i know exactly how he feels.

But i'd like to try to focus on matters that i feel competent to write about, but even that's getting to be dicey. I didn't realize i was so depressed until about a month ago. So i shall explain.

In the last few days, there have been some discussions on Facebook among my friends. One was a thread started by the filmmaker Saul Levine; it began with a discussion about efforts to restore some films by Marjorie Keller. And it became a discussion about many filmmakers whose works are too little known or remembered. Of course, this is such a big issue now, when this whole history of the avantgarde cinema is muddled by conflicting perspectives. At one point, i mentioned a screening i attended (probably around 1970) of films by Jerry Joffen, and there was some comment about the fact that he was one of those filmmakers that was mentioned by a number of people (including P. Adams Sitney) as an influential artist. At one point, Bill Brand wondered when i was going to write about my memories of these filmmakers and artists, and i really didn't have a reply.

And the other day, Sturgis Warner posted a video interview with Jeff Weiss, with whom he'd worked. One thing that Sturgis mentioned was that Jeff believed in the theatrical experience, and he didn't want his work filmed or videotaped. And so Jeff Weiss's work exists in the memories of those who had the very good luck to be able to see it.

In a way, that's how it used to be with performance events. In the past, there was a reliance on eye-witness accounts: reviews, written testimony. Reputations were created through the critical literature of the time. It is through that critical literature that we have the records of great performances.

What's happened with the traditional valuations of art is that the notion of the avantgarde has called into question traditional values. As Susan Sontag noted, "For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter.... Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another valid sensibility - is being revealed."

The problem hasn't been the acceptance of other valid sensibilities, it has been the devaluation and the lack of comprehension of the traditions of high seriousness, high culture. It is a situation of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as well as throwing out the bathtub.

But i've been observing a lot of the evolution (or devolution) of the arts in New York City since the 1960s; i've written about it, i've edited and published other people's writings about it, i've curated and produced and presented exhibitions and works about it.

None of that seems to matter any more. In the last few years, i've found out that whatever i have to say, no one wants to listen.

A few years ago, i was asked to write about the Judson Dance Theater on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary. I did; the article was never published. I never even heard back; i sent it in, as requested, and nothing. And that's happened to me so often. Or take this as an example of how much my opinion matters. Last summer, i suddenly got e.mails from someone i know, asking me about some performance artists of the 1970s. So i answered. How was i supposed to know that this person i know was involved in curating an exhibition about Performance Art of the 1970s? Except he hadn't seen a lot of the performance artists involved, so he had to ask someone who had seen them. My opinion was so important that i wasn't invited to the party; i wasn't even invited to the opening.

So when Bill Brand asked when i would get to writing about the art/film/performance since the 1960s, i wanted to answer, no one wants it. And i already know that. If that's not enough to make me depressed, i don't know what is enough.

Ok: i'll give another example. Two years ago, when the New York Film Festival was celebrating its 50th Anniversary, i wanted to write about the fact that so much of the actual history of the festival was being elided and ignored. The reason was simple: Richard Pena, who had been the director of the New York Film Festival for the last 25 years, had just announced his retirement. So the celebrations for the anniversary of the film festival were tied to events in honor of Richard Pena. Which is fine. Except that, during the spring of 2012, Amos Vogel had died. In 1962, when the New York Film Festival was started, the founders of the festival were Richard Roud and Amos Vogel. Richard Roud died about a year after his retirement from running the festival, but Amos Vogel was always at events at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and it wasn't unusual for Amos and his wife Marcia (who had served as the administrator of the festival in its earliest days)  to attend screenings for the New York Film Festival. So it would have been fitting for some sort of memorial event to have occurred during the anniversary celebration, to honor one of the actual founders. But it never happened. In fact, the Film Society of Lincoln Center totally ignored Amos Vogel. (Anthology Film Archives wound up having a series of screenings in his honor.) But no one seemed to care about the hideous slight that the Film Society of Lincoln Center was doing to Amos Vogel. Certainly, no one involved with the New York Film Festival.

I would like to write about these things, but i'd like to know that they won't just be ignored. But since that's been the case, it's left me in a quandry.