Eric Alterman, Cub Reporter, Goes to the Hamptons Film Festival

11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Eric Alterman Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

So every year, I close my house for the weekend of the Hamptons Film Festival, and this year I managed to catch eight films, of which I stayed for all of six, which is a much higher percentage than usual, given that movies seen over a single day tend to offer diminishing marginal returns. Usually, at festivals, I try to see movies I may not get to see otherwise, and so I tend to avoid the highest-profile screenings, unless I have a hole in my schedule, as I did with The Wrestler. The HFF is an interesting festival because even though the prices are pretty high, the audience is mostly real people, an awfully high percentage of whom are retirees who live there year-round. I suppose it has the normal amount of glitz, but it does not detract from the films -- as it can at Sundance, etc. Somehow, seeing a movie that you may never have the opportunity to see again intensifies one's relationship with it, although if you really love it -- and I really really loved one movie and pretty much loved another this weekend -- it tends to be a little heartbreaking if it doesn't get picked up or win any awards. The medium is such that one becomes attached to certain films -- which are, after all, inanimate objects -- to an irrational degree.

And the winner should have been ... the Israeli film, For My Father (Dir. Dror Zahavi -- with Shredi Jabarin, Hili Yalon), in which "Terek is a young Arab traveling to be a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv, but everything changes when his bomb doesn't function." This is quite simply the most powerful, and moving film I can remember seeing in years; actually, right now, it's just about the most powerful and moving film I can ever remember seeing. The rest of the audience struck me as feeling the same way. People I met on line were talking about it all day and the next. I could not believe it did not win any awards on Sunday. Anyway, it was a near-perfect film.

I also loved Lemon Tree (Dir. Eran Riklis -- with Hiam Abbass, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Ali Suliman, Tarik Kopty, Doron Tavorym), in which "a Palestinian woman's cherished lemon grove is endangered when the Israeli Minister of Defense and his kind-hearted wife move in next door and deem the area unsafe. The two women find themselves reluctantly implicated in a dispute that mirrors the vast complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict." It too demonstrated exquisite sensitivity and humanity, as well as speaking to larger more disturbing truths. It lacked the transcendent quality of For My Father but it's a really unfair comparison. Both films left one feeling both hopeful and hopeless about the future of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but also marveling at the contradictions of a society that mixes everyday life with war, oppression and the constant threat of war, terror, and capricious land and property expropriation, thereby sowing more hatred, thereby starting the whole cycle again.

While we're dealing with the Israeli portion of the program -- done in honor of its 60th anniversary -- I always admire the Israeli director Amos Gitai's complicated films, and One Day You'll Understand (Dir. Amos Gitai - with Jeanne Moreau, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Dominique Blanc), in which Jeanne Moreau stars as Rivka, the elegant, elusive mother who refuses to dwell on the past, and Hippolyte Girardot as Victor, the son whose obsession with it threatens to unbalance his life, is about how people deal with how other people dealt with the occupation of France and the deportation of the Jews. It's the kind of serious, emotionally complicated film one expects from Gitai, but that rarely finds a home in the U.S. market. I see the Museum of Modern Art is going to have a retrospective of his films next week, though, so that's a rare and valuable opportunity.

The final film that left me in a great mood this weekend was one called Dunya & Desie (Netherlands, North American Premiere) Dir. Dana Nechustan -- with Eva van den Wijdeven, Maryam Hassouni, Christine van Dalen, Theo Maassen. Eighteen-year-old girlfriends Dunya and Desie could not seem more different - one a reserved Moroccan from a traditional Muslim family, the other a Dutch native sporting skimpy clothes and mistaking sex for true love. This entertaining road movie explores cross-cultural identity in a shrinking world. Also, it's the Netherlands' Oscar entry for foreign language film.

I saw four films I did not love. One of them I rather liked, The Brothers Bloom (Dir. Rian Johnson -- with Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo). The Brothers Bloom is "a whirlwind of action, deception and romance as the best con men in the world swindle millions with complex scenarios of lust, intrigue and the most complex literary-inspired setups imaginable," but I felt no sense of solidarity with it. Another, The Wrestler (Dir. Darren Aronofsky - with Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood), in which "master filmmaker Darren Aronofsky triumphs with this stunning and quintessential portrait of an aging professional wrestler struggling to come to terms with his life's choices at the twilight of his career," which I really admired, but it was my third film of the day and it started late and really, it was awfully depressing. It made me want to get in bed.

Another small indie film, Luke and Brie Are On A First Date (Dir. Chad Hartigan - with George Ducker, Meghan Webster, Keegan DeWitt) in which, yes, "Luke and Brie are a young couple embarking on that all-important first date. Throughout the night, earnest Luke does his best to defend his big night from a who's who of interlopers, hoping that his charm and wit will help him win the girl in the end," it was OK and inoffensive and kinda smart but ultimately the kind of film that I need to be doing something else while it's on.

Two Lovers (Dir. James Gray -- with Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas), in which "Leonard lives at home with his parents in Brooklyn. He goes from being lonely and forlorn to suddenly being torn between two lovers, one chosen for him by his parents, and one who comes into his life out of nowhere and changes it forever," well, again, last movie of the day, not too much emotional connection, and I got the feeling it couldn't end well. Gwyneth looked great though. Finally, I was not able to see The End of America (Dir. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg), which is a "profound and eye-opening film, Award-winning documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg accompany Naomi Wolf as she discusses America's dangerous passage towards a society of fear and surveillance, and chronicles her journey to raise awareness about our threatened democracy," but I did go to the party, and while walking with its subject, my old friend Naomi, by the pool, she lost her footing and took an unexpected swim. Everyone turned around of course and I looked guilty as hell. I wasn't and Naomi was a great sport and so she deserves a plug here just for being such a great girl and a great American. Given the track record of Stern and Sunberg, I'm sure it's a great film.

As the movie business focuses more and more on big dumb films on more and more screens with fewer and fewer opportunities for those kinds of films that expand our understanding as well as our hearts, I felt really fortunate for the opportunity to see all these films. And given the fact that my favorite two films -- by some distance -- were both Israeli, I'm particularly pleased that it is being followed in New York by an Israeli Film Festival that begins this week.

To read the rest of today's Altercation, click here.