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.

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