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.


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