Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Well, a new year (2019) and a new resolve, to try to keep up with my blog, so that i can actually think about the things that i've been seeing. Of course, the end of the year brought about various polls, though this year, because of the attrition (no more Village Voice/LA Weekly poll), that left only two: Indiewire and Senses of Cinema. (Somehow, during the year, Indiewire, which used to be IndieWire, decided to go lower-case with the "w".) But before i get into the films of the year (and also the various festivals, etc. which i attended), i'll just reflect on some of the immediate viewing on television (which often means Turner Classic Movies).

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, TCM played the entire Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. It was fascinating: it turned out that i remembered who the villain was in every single case. The first two ("The Thin Man" and "After the Thin Man") are really the best: the plots are logically worked out, there are surprises, and the dialogue has a high degree of wit. By "Another Thin Man" (1939), there is a bit of coarsening in terms of the use of comedic bits, and the dialogue isn't nearly as witty. But the nadir of the series is probably "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1944), because removing Nick and Nora from an urban setting strands them. So "Song of the Thin Man" (1947), which was the sixth and last of the series, really was the swansong of the series, and it proved to be a very unusual movie. The setting is once again swanky New York, but this time, the characters aren't the usual urbane socialites that inhabited "The Thin Man" and "After the Thin Man", rather, it's a world of shady characters, jazz musicians and grifters: it is, in fact, the world of film noir, and the film has the look of film noir (and it's filled with many actors who would have prominent roles in other film noirs, such as Gloria Grahame, Marie Windsor, Jayne Meadows, Patricia Morison; even Leon Ames, who was featured in "The Lady In the Lake", and Don Taylor, whose most notable starring role was in "The Naked City", share that distinction). Nick and Nora have to navigate a world which has changed, and there is a slight disjunction, which signals that the series really is at its conclusion. The ending was also startling, probably the most violent ending to any "Thin Man" movie.

"The Thin Man" series, like other series at MGM (Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, Maisie), was a testing ground: a lot of people under contract were put in these films, and so you always got a sense of who had recently been signed, how MGM was trying to figure out what kinds of roles these people should play, who might go on to better things. "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941) has one of the rare screen appearances of Stella Adler (at one point, in the heat of an argument, Adler's voice goes from her affected cultured voice to a squawking Brooklynese, prompting Nick's comment, "Don't look now, but your accent is showing"). It also had Barry Nelson and Donna Reed, both recently put under contract by MGM, and both struggling to find their niche in the studio system. Unfortunately for both of them, they never really found much distinction at MGM, Nelson being just another male juvenile (a slightly older version of Marshall Thompson) and Reed the second-string ingenue (usually playing second fiddle, to Angela Lansbury in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" or Lana Turner in "Green Dolphin Street" or Elizabeth Taylor in "The Last Time I Saw Paris"), both would have to get away from MGM to make any impact (Nelson by returning to the stage in the 1950s, and Reed by moving into television).

What was funny was that it turned out other people i knew had decided to do the same thing, and had watched at least some of the "Thin Man" movies. And so it seemed as if a lot of film critics, while preparing for their New Year's Eve festivities (or not), had TCM on in the background during the day.

On New Year's Day, the morning/afternoon offerings on TCM were classic comedies from the 1930s, i would have said "screwball" but Capra's "You Can't Take It With You" doesn't really qualify, but i did watch "Bringing Up Baby", "The Awful Truth" and "Twentieth Century" again. Hadn't seen those in a while, and forgot how fast, stylish and witty they were. One unfortunate side-effect was that the movie which started off the evening line-up, "It Happened in Flatbush" (1942), just seemed so dim by comparison, a baseball comedy starring Lloyd Nolan as baseball team manager and Carole Landis as a socialite who inherits the team. (The evening was devoted to films starring Carole Landis, in honor of what would have been her 100th birthday.) One thing: i did get to see a movie i'd never seen before, in fact, i hadn't really heard of "It Happened in Flatbush" before. Sometimes, B movies can get by with some energy and a little inventiveness, but such was not the case with "It Happened in Flatbush". Flat, indeed.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The 54th New York Film Festival (2016) had been so spectacular, filled with so many films which were revelations, that anticipation was high for the 55th New York Film Festival (2017). In 2016, the festival had been so well organized. Some of the distributors arranged for press screenings for Main Slate selections at the end of August; the last one had been for Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come", with its ruminative investigation into the life of a middle-aged woman faced with many challenges, both professional and personal, and containing one of the two major performances by Isabelle Huppert (the other was in Paul Verhoeven's "Elle", which was also in the festival). Armed with the knowledge of how strong many of the films were, the first official press screening of the 54th New York Film Festival was for Barry Jenkin's "Moonlight", and the astounding impression of that film cannot be underestimated. From there, the festival seemed to go from strength to strength; by the end, there was no denying (certainly not among the people i talked to) that the 54th New York Film Festival had been one of the best in many years, and was a showcase of the intelligence of Kent Jones' programming skills.

But you can only program what is available, and that was true of the 55th New York Film Festival. On paper, it seemed to be a perfect festival, with many tried-and-true filmmakers included in the mix. Three examples: the opening night film ("Last Flag Flying") and the centerpiece ("Wonderstruck") and the closing night film ("Wonder Wheel"). Richard Linklater had been on a career high since his 2014 "Boyhood", and the idea of a collaboration with the writer Darryl Ponicsan seemed enticing, so it was hard not to look forward to "Last Flag Flying". Though the idea of the film as a "loose" sequel to "The Last Detail" was quickly dealt with, the film turned out to be a solid drama about the effects of the "endless war" now engaged by the US in the Middle East on military families. It was good, with sterling performances by Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne; what it wasn't was somehow transcendent. The film never reached beyond the confines of its story to suggest some other dimension which would provide some deeper meaning to the narrative.

In the case of "Wonderstruck", Todd Haynes had reached a plateau with his last three films: the cubist "biopic" of Bob Dylan's life, "I'm Not There", the exquisitely faithful adaptation of James M. Cain's novel "Mildred Pierce", and the stunning romance of "Carol" (based on Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt"), so anticipation for "Wonderstruck" was keen. Once again, the film turned out to be a solid achievement, but it seemed rather flat-footed; it never quite took flight, it never became magical. The commingling of the two time frames (with black-and-white imagery for the 1920s and color for the 1970s) proceeded diligently, without any sense of a vital connection, so that when the revelations of the ways the stories were intertwined came, there was more a sense of coincidence rather than inevitability.

Of course, Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel" was met with a great deal of skepticism. The Tennessee Williams derivations which had worked in "Blue Jasmine" seemed to be warmed over and threadbare in this new incarnation. And the period stylings in the Coney Island setting has been done before in Allen's work, so the sense of deja vu became the most prominent aspect of "Wonder Wheel".

And the sense of mild disappointment began to seep into many of the films. Two of the most celebrated of French directors, Arnaud Desplechin and Claire Denis, were represented with works that proved wildly uneven, Desplechin with "Ismael's Ghosts" and Denis with "Let the Sun Shine In". There were two films by the Korean director Hong Sangsoo, "The Day After" and "On the Beach at Night Alone", which proved to have some charm but did not provide any major new dramatic insights. Enough of these films, and sometimes it seemed as if the 55th New York Film Festival was a chore.

Yet it proved that the programming committee was taking seriously the need to diversify the Main Slate, and the number of women directors represented was impressive, more so because these films provided some of the best of the festival. Having already discussed Lucretia Martel's "Zama", i'll now discuss two of the films which really impressed me, Valeska Griesbach's "Western" and Chloe Zhao's "The Rider".

In "Western", a group of German workers are sent to a remote region of Bulgaria, to construct a hydroelectric plant which will provide electricity for the region (that's how remote this place is). Yet the interactions between the workers and the townspeople are fraught with misunderstandings. One of the workers begins to try to find ways to get to know the townspeople; his actions are met with suspicion from the townspeople and hostility from his fellow Germans. The title "Western" is purposefully ironic, stressing the idea of invading settlers confronting a native population. The film's narrative is understated, and in keeping with the neo-realist aesthetic, Griesbach does not resort to melodrama, so that the tentative reconciliation which ends the film is a signal of optimism.

Chloe Zhao's "The Rider" shows the process of rehabilitation undergone by Brady, a young rodeo rider who has suffered a catastrophic head injury after being thrown from a horse. The film is methodical and detailed, yet visually suffused with the incredible beauty of the American West. The backstory of the film is as fascinating as the film itself: Chloe Zhao met Brady Jandreau when she made her first feature film, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me", another study of Native American life; Jandreau, a young bronco rider, had helped Zhao learn how to ride a horse. She had wanted to make her next movie with Jandreau, but during the editing of "Songs", Jandreau met with an accident during one of his rodeo appearances; Zhao then decided to make a film about his rehabilitation, and she worked closely with Jandreau and his family to create the narrative. "The Rider" is an astonishing work, a genuinely empathetic work which presents an unsentimental look at the current lives of Native Americans.

Add to these Agnes Varda and JR's "Faces Places", Agnieszka Holland's "Spoor", Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" and Dee Rees' "Mudbound", and there was no denying the mastery shown by these women directors.

So there are always discoveries to be made at the New York Film Festival, and that's why it's central to the filmgoing experience now.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

In June, Jordan Ruimy invited me to participate in a poll he was conducting for Awards Daily: it was a summing-up of the first half of 2018, and he was asking for a list of ten of the best films released from January to June. It turned out that there actually had been quite a number of exceptional films released during the first six months of 2018; i started with a list of over 20, and finally winnowed it down to ten (unranked): "Zama" (directed by Lucrecia Martel); "The Rider" (directed by Chloe Zhao); "Lean On Pete" (directed by Andrew Haigh); "24 Frames" (directed by Abbas Kiarostami); "The Guardians" (directed by Xavier Beauvois); "Tehran Taboo" (directed by Ali Soozandeh); "Western" (directed by Valeska Griesbach); "Summer 1993" (directed by Carla Simon); "Good Luck" (directed by Ben Russell); "I Had Nowhere to Go" (directed by Douglas Gordon). (The other films which i had included in the initial list were "The Death of Stalin", "Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc", "This Is Our Land", "Disobedience", "En El Septimo Dia", "Bernard and Huey", "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", "First Reformed", "In the Last Days of the City", "Ava", "Tully", "Where Is Kyra?", "Claire's Camera" and "Black Panther". And a few films which i'd seen just before or right after i'd handed in my list included "Leave No Trace", "Nico, 1988", and "The Captain".)

What this list reminded me was the central importance of the New York Film Festival to my cinematic experience: at least half the films on my "top ten" had been at the New York Film Festival ("Zama", "The Rider", "Western", "Good Luck" and "I Had Nowhere to Go"). These are the kinds of films which exhibited a degree of formal integrity as well as stylistic inventiveness, and also proved to be substantive in terms of content. I'll give the example of "Zama": it started out with subtle dislocations in terms of the soundtrack, and the sense of alienation which the slight aural disjunctions create becomes symptomatic of the alienation of the main character, a European grandee who has been sent to govern in "the New Land". And often, the visuals show the characters dwarfed by the lush landscapes of the tropical jungle. What Martel is doing is creating a visceral framework, with the dislocations of sound and the overwhelming of sight, for the audience to experience the alienation of the Europeans who come to "rule" a land which already had its own population. And the driving narrative is so brilliantly handled, so that the complexities of colonialization are formally foregrounded.

The New York Film Festival has been so much a part of my cinematic education, and though there have been ups and downs, there are always worthwhile films in the mix. Also: the number of sidebar events (the focus on documentaries, the "views from the avant-garde", and so on) means that there will be any number of works which might not be "mainstream" but which will be challenging.

Right now, a controversy has arisen, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has added a new category, relating to what they are calling "Popular Film"; they're adding a category to account for the "tentpole" movies, the "popular" franchise movies. Of course, this is coming at a time when many of the franchise movies haven't done as well as expected: the "Star Wars" movies seemed to have plateaued, and the profits on the Marvel and DC movies have not been as expansive as before. Of course, there are exceptions, relating to the novelty factor ("Black Panther" proved to be even more successful than had been predicted, and it was a critical bonanza as well), but the Motion Picture Academy started out in 1928 with two awards, one for Best Picture ("Wings") and another for Unique and Artistic Production ("Sunrise"), and now the Academy seems to want to return to those distinctions. After that first year, the Artistic Production award was discontinued, but in recent years, that would be the designation for so many of the winners, and this has meant the ratings for the Oscar telecast have reflected this fact accordingly.

When "Chariots of Fire" won the Oscar for Best Film in 1982, the Film Society of Lincoln Center issued a press release, because "Chariots of Fire" had been the Opening Night of the New York Film Festival. In the last few years, the New York Film Festival has been one of the fall film events which have premiered many of the award season contenders (the others include the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival). From the point of "Chariots of Fire" on, the New York Film Festival had become a significant guarantor of "quality" in terms of prestige, and many films which passed through the festival have gone on to serious contention. But that's not the reason the New York Film Festival has been so valuable to those of us who really consider film as an art: we're there to discover something revelatory. And at its best, that's what we get at the New York Film Festival.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

This summer, PBS showcased a new miniseries based on "Little Women"; it was, in many ways, rather lackluster, without the sharp narrative focus which could be found in the best adaptations (the 1933 version, and the 1994 version). But one thing: though she was wildly uneven, Maya Hawke as Jo was the only actress since Katharine Hepburn to have the proper tomboy quality. And this pointed out the fact that, no matter how skillful a performer may be, if that performer possesses the right qualities for the role, that may be more important than acting skill per se.

This summer, Dan Callahan's book, "The Art of American Screen Acting 1912-1960", was published, and it featured twenty chapters on a range of American screen stars from Lillian Gish to James Dean. At his best, he is one of the most acute and sensitive chroniclers of screen acting that i know. The chapter on Marlene Dietrich, for example, is unparalleled: it might be the best thing i've ever read on Dietrich as an actress. One reason his writing on Dietrich is so insightful and original is that he doesn't try to define her in terms of "acting": he notes the ways in which her work with Josef von Sternberg ran through various modes of presentation, not just "acting" in the classical theatrical sense of the word, but the ways in which photographic representation could redefine acting, and this is very important in considering Dietrich's work in von Sternberg's films.

In her essay on Marlon Brando, Pauline Kael had defined Brando as "the major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties" and explained, "I mean by protagonist the hero who really strikes a nerve - not a Cary Grant who delights with his finesse, nor mushy heartwarmers like Gary Cooper or James Stewart with their blubbering sincerity (sometimes it seemed that the taller the man, the smaller he pretended to be; that was his notion of being 'ordinary' and 'universal' and 'real'), but men whose intensity on the screen stirs an intense reaction in the audience. Not Gregory Peck or Tyrone Power or Robert Taylor with their conventional routine heroics, but James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson in the gangster films, John Garfield in the Depression movies, Kirk Douglas as a postwar heel. These men are not necessarily better actors, but through the accidents of casting and circumstances or because of what they themselves embodied or projected, they meant something important to us. A brilliant actor like Jason Robards, Jr., may never become a protagonist of this kind unless he gets a role in which he embodies something new and relevant to the audience." It was in this sense that Kael defined Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis as the "two great heroines of American talkies". And it is in this sense that Katharine Hepburn "means" something that Miriam Hopkins does not.

As time has gone by, and Brando's centrality as a representative of America in the 1950s has become timeworn, it is important to remember his versatility: with his first film role, (in "The Men"), he played a crippled veteran, and there was a great deal of publicity around the fact that Brando had spent time in rehabilitation wards, closely observing the various therapies and treatments for these veterans. His second film role was, of course, his recreation of his famous stage performance as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named  Desire"; he followed that with his portrayal of the Mexican rebel Emilio Zapata in "Viva Zapata!", and then he did Marc Antony in "Julius Caesar" as well as the biker in "The Wild One", and then he did "On the Waterfront". With those roles, he showed his range as well as his mastery, from contemporary drama to Shakespeare, from biographical drama to ripped-from-the-headlines stories. And he succeeded in all these roles, and brought the audiences with him. Though Montgomery Clift and James Dean were also "Method acting" stars, neither showed the range that Brando showed, nor did they take the chances that Brando took. People always mention the fact that, by 1955, after Brando had done "Desiree" (done to fulfill a contractual agreement with 20th Century Fox; he'd already passed on several other roles, and if he didn't do this one, Zanuck was threatening a lawsuit) and "Guys and Dolls" (to prove that he could do musical comedy), his career started its decline. What few people seem to realize is that Brando's life was profoundly disrupted in 1955: his mother had died, and he had counted on her as the one he wanted to make proud. Without her guidance, his career fell apart. But the strength of his image (culled from "A Streetcar Named Desire", "The Wild One", and "On the Waterfront") as some sort of inarticulate "rebel" superceded the actual evidence of the work he had done. (On the stage, his first Broadway role was as Nels, the brother in "I Remember Mama", then he did his famous turn as the person who has the seizure in "Truckline Cafe", then he played Marchbanks in Shaw's "Candida" opposite Katherine Cornell - this was the role that most people saw and remembered, because "Truckline Cafe" had a very short run, but "Candida" had a fairly good run, and then the production went on tour, and that's where most of the country got to see Brando; when Brando returned to New York from the national tour of "Candida", his next project was "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.) But it's important to remember that Brando had done Shaw and Shakespeare, both to great acclaim, and so he had proven that he could be a "classical" actor as well as a star, and he had done contemporary material which had galvanized the audience. In all these ways, Brando had been an important actor as well as a truly popular star.

And though there are any number of actors who have shown such versatility and skill since, there have not been any to have become that central a figure in American culture. And a lot of that has to do with the ways in which our recent media landscape has fractured. And that's why it seems (at times) as if (to quote from "The Shop Around the Corner") "we might be in the same room, but we are not on the same planet."

Monday, August 06, 2018

Today was Katharine Hepburn day as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars. I watched "Little Women" again, for i don't know how many times; it remains one of my favorite movies. What i have found depressing is that, in the decades since i first saw the movie, it has been downgraded; instead of being celebrated for what it is (a quite precise approximation of Louisa May Alcott's novel, with many of the performers - such as Edna May Oliver and Henry Stephenson - performing in the theatrical style which was part of the professional theater of the period after the Civil War, and with Katharine Hepburn giving a definitive performance, as George Cukor always stated, it was the role she was born to play), it is now derided for its sentimentality, for its "miscasting" (why, the actresses playing the March sisters are adults) and for sundry other infractions which were totally part of the theatrical tradition which this particular production grew out of.

And i have to admit i'm also tired of people i know always trying to downgrade Katharine Hepburn. Yes, it is true that, starting in the late 1960s, Hepburn did as much to destroy her own reputation as anyone else, giving performances which ranged from misjudged to egregious. It's hard to deny that she gave some terrible performances. But at her best (which would be her work in the 1930s), she represented something that was unique. And that's important. Another thing people say is that so-and-so was a "better" actress (i have friends who would claim Miriam Hopkins, or Barbara Stanwyck, or Myrna Loy as "better" actresses) and that may be true, but they never signified something the way that Katharine Hepburn signified something.

It's rather like Diane Keaton. Starting in the 1970s, Diane Keaton signified the neurotic, post-analytic woman. Now, was Diane Keaton actually a skillful actress? Maybe. Maybe not. Were there better actresses out there? Yes. Blythe Danner is an example. Blythe Danner was a brilliant actress, with far greater depth, immense range, and incredible expressivity. But Blythe Danner never became a movie star, and she certainly didn't incarnate a specific archetype. Diane Keaton did.

And so it was with Katharine Hepburn. In the 1930s, she represented something unique: a defiantly independent woman, a post-suffragette heroine. She brought a specifically political perspective to her work. She had a rather limited range, and there were roles she definitely couldn't play (and when she was cast in some of those roles, such as the hillbilly in "Spitfire", she was dreadful). But when she was right for a role, she brought more to it than other actresses could. And she did that with "Little Women", which was, by the way, the most successful movie of her career (until "The Philadelphia Story").

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

It's been almost a year since i've posted anything on this blog; i've been seeing a lot, but mostly i post a short notice on Facebook, and usually those short takes get read. I also spent a year posting a daily "birthday tribute" to directors and actors (also on Facebook). One important feature was my attempt to highlight the contributions of women. I especially wanted to make sure that women directors were featured, and i tried to make sure these were as international as possible.

But actually my lack of interest in maintaining my blog has to do with my depression: the fact that we are now living under a fascist regime is the cause of despair. There's no other word for it: we must face the fact that we are no longer a "democracy" (whatever that is) but a country ruled by an autocrat who was elected on a technicality (the Electoral College) that was facilitated by foreign interference. And he is abetted by the Republican Party. Exactly what can be done is open to question.

And so one marches, one signs petitions, one donates to causes (Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Move On, et al), one does what one can.

However, since my last post, there have been: The New York Film Festival (which is fast approaching once again), New Directors/New Films, DOC NYC, Rendez-vous With French Cinema, BAM CinemaFest, as well as various smaller film events. And so i'll be reporting on my experiences at these film events.

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.)