Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Usually, the summer brings a lot of commercial releases, and the art houses are relatively quiet, but this year, New York City saw a burgeoning in the art house market, with the reopening of the Quad Cinema, and the continuing programs at Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the Moving Image, Anthology Film Archives, the Metrograph, and the IFC Center. Right now, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is undergoing one of its perennial upheavals: right after the conclusion of the BAM CinemaFest, there was an announcement that there would be changes in the programming staff; how this will affect the programming at BAM remains to be seen.

One very peculiar fact is that the 54th New York Film Festival has remained a vital source of the programming that has gone on throughout the year. Because of the incredible variety of programming at the NY Film Festival, with its many sections in addition to its Main Slate, the festival has proven to be a wellspring for alternative releases. The history of the NY Film Festival can be divided into three distinct periods: there was the initial 25 year span headed by Richard Roud, then there was the second 25 years led by Richard Pena, and now there is the festival under the direction of Kent Jones. What was important about Richard Roud was that he was very much an advocate for the modernist cinema which emerged in Europe during the 1950s, the cinema of Bresson, Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, and the Straubs. This was his passion, and he was going to make sure that this cinema had a showcase, even if it meant an increasingly diminished audience. 

But the problem was, as the cinema expanded worldwide, Roud was not willing to open his eyes to what was happening in places other than Europe. And so, when the new cinemas of Iran and Taiwan began to emerge, Roud became an adamant opponent. He refused to recognize what was happening, and as this became embarrassing artistically and politically, there was an acknowledgement that it was time for a change, and that was when Roud was removed (a move that was not easy). 

Richard Pena came in with a mandate: to keep the NY Film Festival competitive in terms of world cinema, and to make sure that the festival maintained its status as the premier film event in New York City. One thing that happened during Pena's tenure was that the relationship with the press changed. Initially, the New York press had been incredibly antagonistic to the idea of the festival. For one thing, in 1963, film distribution was at a peak, and many critics questioned whether or not a festival was needed to spotlight particular films. But by the time Pena arrived, at the end of the 1980s, film distribution was more dispersed, and it was increasingly difficult for films to find a showcase, because the commercial cinema of the period was overwhelming any attempt to develop an alternative cinema. Pena would prove to be incredibly open, and the festival would introduce directors from many parts of the world. And the NY press was ready to accept the idea of a curated festival which would provide a showcase for new films. Of course, there was the continued commitment to many of the directors who had proven to be central to the original aesthetic of modernism which prevaded the festival in its initial days. For that reason, many of the films of Resnais and Godard would find their US premieres at the NY Film Festival. And Pena made sure that the festival was alert to those directors from all over the globe. In that, he was highly successful, and he helped to keep the idea of "film culture" vital; for that reason, the press became quite complicit in its coverage of the festival, with the Village Voice and the New York Times devoting considerable space to the festival, and providing the festival with a positive profile.

And so, after 25 years, Richard Pena left the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Kent Jones took over. Jones had already worked at the Film Society, programming the theaters which the Film Society runs year round. Initially, the transition seemed seamless; in fact, the 51st festival seemed very much a continuation of the past, but by the next year, it was apparent that Jones had a more ambitious approach, and there began the development of new sections to the festival, not just the Main Slate and the avantgarde sidebar, but sections devoted to documentaries, "new media" and works that were decidedly out of the mainstream.

And in the 54th festival, though the Main Slate provided innumerable examples of films which would figure prominently during award season ("Moonlight", "Elle", "20th Century Women", "Toni Erdmann", "Manchester By the Sea"), in the other sections, there were excellent and unusual films, many of which have been given limited releases this year.

I'm talking about such films as the documentaries "Karl Marx City" and "The Settlers", films which combined acute political analysis with intense formal qualities. Of course, two documentaries dominated the discussion: Ava DuVernay's "13th" (which provided the festival with its Opening Night) and Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro", which used the writings of James Baldwin as an investigation into recent American history.

Some films which were shown in the Explorations section included Joao Pedro Rodrigues's "The Ornithologist", Oliver Axe's "Mimosas", and Alberto Serra's "The Death of Louis XIV"; these films are among the best of the year, containing some of the most exquisite visuals to be seen.

"The Ornithologist" is another in Rodrigues's explorations of gay mythopoeia, a vibrant fantasia of incredibly verdant imagery. The odyssey of a man exploring the jungle, looking to find rare birds but finding even rarer species of humanity, is quizzical, often humorous, and sometimes shattering.

"Mimosas" is a fable of a journey through the desert. In a way, it's like a Samuel Beckett story in a relocation. The symbiotic relationship of men traversing the harsh terrain suggests a continual shifting of dependency and independence. And Laxe frames his story with some truly astonishing images.

"The Death of Louis XIV" is, quite simply, one of the formal masterpieces of recent cinema. For most of the film, there is an intense concentration on the medical procedures used to alleviate the pain of Louis XIV, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud with mesmerizing intensity. Albert Serra has been a director of sometimes fanciful works, mixing wildly disparate elements to create dissonant films, but here, his approach is one of minute concentration, with a seamless continuity. And the result is a work of astonishing purity and beauty.

The ability to see works like these in a period of a few weeks, and to see them with an appreciative audience of like-minded cineastes, is the reason attending the New York Film Festival has become one of the essential experiences in the filmgoing year. In the past, when the festival was more concentrated on the Main Slate, the press screenings were always a chance to see people you knew had the same devotion to cinema. But times have changed, and many of those people, who had been central to the cinema in the 1960s on, are no longer with us. And the press screenings go through extremes: there are crowds attendant upon many of the Main Slate selections (what i always term "the big ticket items") but for many of the works screened which are in the other sections, the press audience can number in the handful. Yet these are often the most exciting works, and yet the feeling is often one of melancholy, as there seems to be little way for these films to reach a wider audience.

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 afterward, the difficult artists, or their bowdlerizers, are consumed by the mass audience.... 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." After being pummeled by so many tentpole movies throughout the year, the New York Film Festival is always a sign of life.

Celebrity deaths are often perceived in a variety of ways; in most cases, we don't know those people, but somehow, they symbolize something which we consider important to our lives. Recent examples would include the singer Barbara Cook (August 8), the actress Jeanne Moreau (July 31), and the playwright-actor Sam Shepard (July 31).

I'll begin with Jeanne Moreau. To anyone who grew up with the movies in the 1950s and 1960s, she was, quite simply, the art house love goddess. She seemed more direct, more elemental, more honest than actresses before her: she seemed to have a frightening access to her emotions and her sensuality. That was the meaning of those close-ups of her face in the throes of sex which filled Louis Malle's "Les Amants" (1958), just as the close-ups of her face as she sulked through the Parisian night in Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows" (1957) revealed so many shades of emotion, from irritation to anxiety to fear to dread to despair. She seemed to be able to register the most quicksilver shifts in emotion. And through it all, she had a commanding presence which made her every move compulsively watchable.

In her heyday, she had an adamant belief in her directors; once committed to a project, she would go to any lengths to ensure the project's completion. In one of the most notorious examples, she and Joseph Losey tried to wrest "Eva" from the producers, Robert and Raymond Hakim, to establish Losey's right to final cut; unfortunately, Moreau and Losey were defeated, and the "Eva" which we now have remains the truncated version foisted by the Hakims. However, in more congenial situations, when Moreau found out that Francois Truffaut could not raise all the money for the budget of "Jules et Jim", she simply signed on to several international co-productions (such as "The Yellow Rolls-Royce") and used her salary to make up the shortfall. She also did that for Orson Welles, and in that way helped to produce "The Trial" and "Chimes at Midnight". When Jacques Demy came to her with "La Baie des Anges", the movie, which came together very quickly, had such a small budget that there was no money for costumes, so since she was intimate with Pierre Cardin at the time, she simply went to him and asked for clothes from his recent collections, thus becoming the most elegantly dressed lady gambler in movie history.

That belief in her directors was the reason she was revered as a cinematic icon, especially in the 1960s, when the politique des auteurs was such a prevalent critical attitude. She put that belief in the director's vision into direct action. She did everything to support those filmmakers she believed in. When she saw "L'Avventura", she was so impressed that she sent Michelangelo Antonioni a note, saying she was prepared to do anything he asked. The result, of course, was "La Notte" (1961), and, once again, she proved her loyalty, because the producers, worried about cost overruns, threatened to shut down production; Moreau simply returned the fee she had received from the producers, and that money was used to cover the cost of the rest of the production. (She never did get her money back.)

Though there were occasions when i met Jeanne Moreau, i cannot say that i ever spent time with her; they were always social occasions with a crowd around. But one thing i noticed: when she was talking to a small group, she would say something, and if she realized you had reacted, she would look in your direction to acknowledge you. It was as if she wanted to draw you in, to make sure that she had made a connection with everyone in her audience. And she carried that ability into the cinema, she made us all complicit with her.

In The Hollywood Reporter, Richard Gere wrote about his relationship to Sam Shepard: Gere had been in two productions of Sam Shepard's plays off-off-Broadway at the beginning of his career, and then the two of them were cast in Terence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978). And then i realized, of course, one of those off-off-Broadway productions had been "Back Bog Beast Bait" in 1973, and i had worked on the set! Sam Shepard had a dual career: on the one hand, he was a man of the theater, one of the most renowned playwrights of his generation, with a reputation which was established pretty early in his career; on the other hand, he was an actor, appearing in any number of popular movies, including "Steel Magnolias", "Baby Boom", and "The Right Stuff".

As a movie actor, he was almost a prototype of the tall, silent American, along the lines of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. He never did much, and that riveted attention. In "The Right Stuff" (1983), Philip Kaufman uses Shepard very cleverly, by having him at the beginning, and Shepard's stoic calm as the test pilot Chuck Yeager becomes a contrast to the frenetic preparations which attended the training of the early days of NASA's space program.

It was as a playwright that his legacy will be based. When he first appeared on the scene, i think it should be said that his presence preceded him. He used his presence to create the idea of an American archetype, the American cowboy (and his constant dressing in jeans and boots and cowboy hats helped with the image). His plays were full of outrageous imagery, a surreal American West filled with sex, violence, and florid language.

His career as a writer came into contact with Performing Arts Journal in the 1980s, because he had written occasional prose pieces, and Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta decided to publish them in book form. And some of his pieces were quite unusual, because he often allowed direct emotion to be on display, a very tricky proposition because in his plays, there's a lot of obfuscation. Shepard hated direct address: his plays could be torturous in their circumlocation of emotional affect.

One thing that hasn't been much remarked upon was how his career began in the off-off-Broadway scene of the 1960s, in particular, with the more experimental approach of Joseph Chaikin with his Open Theater. Chaikin's approach stressed two things: one was the physicality of the performer; the other was the theater as a medium of archetypes. The intense psychological approach of Method acting, where the nature of the theater becomes the interior workings of the actor, was something that Chaikin was trying to get around, because he wanted to find the essence of theater, which he defined in terms of an archetypal theater of physicality.

And Shepard, along with Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Susan Yankowitz, would be one of the playwrights on whom Chaikin relied. I think it's become lost that Shepard's approach to character and narrative comes from this approach to acting defined by Chaikin in his work with the Open Theater. Remembering some of the early productions of Shepard's plays, such as The Performance Group's production of "The Tooth of Crime", it was easy to see how the productions stressed the surface of the plays, almost as if the plays were live-action cartoons, though trafficking in themes far more extreme and grotesque. But that whole off-off-Broadway scene has long since been dispersed.

Off-off-Broadway really began in the 1950s, when Broadway was becoming rather calcified. During that period, there were a number of musical ingenues who were becoming prominent, among them were Shirley Jones, Florence Henderson, and Barbara Cook. In terms of show business, the movie musical was on its way out, and so there was little interest in these performers from Hollywood. Rodgers and Hammerstein had put their imprimatur on Shirley Jones for the movie versions of "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" and she was the only one to flourish in Hollywood; Florence Henderson and Barbara Cook never did have movie careers.

What happened in terms of Barbara Cook's career was that, when her heyday as a musical comedy ingenue was over, she spent time trying to redefine her career. By the 1980s, the burgeoning cabaret scene in New York City became the site for her career reinvention. Instead of trying to fit into the new musicals developed for Broadway, she decided on a career as a concert artist.

During the 1950s, there were cabaret/nightclub singers who were called "chanteuses", singers who used the songs they sang to tell stories. And Barbara Cook turned herself into a chanteuse, using the Broadway songbook as her vehicle. By making Broadway songs into "art songs", Cook was elevating the Broadway musical as something more than entertainment.

And that's why there has been such an outpouring of emotion over Cook's passing. Instead of the ingenue of "Candide" and "The Music Man", here was an artist who used her voice to tell a story, to explore the subtexts of the American songbook. She acted the lyrics, not by acting out, but by concentrating on the musical form, imbuing the lyrics with as much emotion as possible. She was also a survivor, in show business terms, and her forthrightness was part of her appeal. (In this, her career was similar to Rosemary Clooney's, though Clooney came to her career through the route of the big band singer, rather than the Broadway musical ingenue.)