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.


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