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Splendors and Challenges at the New York Film Festival

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Perhaps no film event, with the possible exception of Cannes, comes in for more scrutiny than the New York Film Festival. Unlike other fests, the NYFF has no agenda other than to present what its selection committee considers the best in global cinema. So the lineup inevitably invites the question, Why this film and not another?

But this year's 47th edition, unspooling from September 25th to October 11th at a spiffed-up Alice Tully Hall, has engendered outright bursts of hostility. And this despite an exciting lineup of films by artists working deep within their own vision. Last Saturday's screening of AntiChrist by Lars Von Trier was greeted with derisive titters and groans of disgust. And at the Q & A following the screening of The Art of the Steal, Don Argott's doc about the priceless Barnes collection of art, one audience member yelled "elitist bullshit."

The perception of elitism has long dogged the fest, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, because, except for donors and other deep pockets, tickets have been hard to score. (Mara Manus, the Society's new Executive Director, is working to expand access, beginning with a half price rush line). Then, too, the fest's lineup is heavily tilted toward the work of European auteurs -- an "elite" of filmmakers -- many drawn from Cannes, and often perceived as inaccessible to all but initiates.

Yet why the hostility among the event's usually reserved audience? Chief among the reasons, I suspect, is that this year's films are especially challenging, both formally and thematically. For the culturally insecure, the implication might be, You don't like "the best?" Then you're an idiot. For every batch of culturally savvy New Yorkers, you can find another out of touch with their own taste, who rely on the judgment of a few critics to tell them what they think.

Other attendees are turned off by the relentlessly dark tenor of the films dominating this year's edition. After viewing in succession AntiChrist, Lebanon by Samuel Maoz, and Trash Humpers by Harmony Korine you might conclude the planet is one great hell-hole.

Cinema, though, has a way of reflecting back the state of the world. Some of the best films out of Toronto slammed economic inequities and corporate skulduggery in America. But those films' revelations were offset by the implicit hope that lucidity -- the ability to name the enemy -- lays a seedbed for change.

No such hope offered by one of my faves at the NYFF, Harmony Korine's nightmarish Trash Humpers. But it's a confoundingly original -- and often funny -- nightmare, a one-of-a-kind "found object" that captures an underbelly of America you never dreamed existed -- or exists only in the fevered imagination of its creator.

"The title is to be taken literally," reads the deadpan description of Trash in the Playbill. It follows a band of loonies in grotesque masks as they also hump trees, hydrants, whatever; spank the upended bottoms of fat ladies in garters; brutalize dolls -- taking time out for the odd tap dance -- all the while reciting moronic ditties, cackling insanely, and grunting like rutting boars. The film is shot with cruddy disposable cameras to echo the degraded content.

Korine was inspired by a place he grew up in near Nashville and some shady locals who scared and horrified him, he told Richard Pena, Programming Director of the NYFF, during a Q & A. "I don't even want to call it a movie," Korine added. "I wanted to make an artifact that was found, like, in a ditch." Some viewers saw echos of the painter Francis Bacon, others saw elements from Freddy Krueger horror movies or The Theater of Cruelty. But Korine claims he was referencing no one, just into the idea of making a film "as quickly as I could think."

A damn shame Trash hasn't yet been picked up by a distributor. Any takers out there? Fortunately for cinephiles, the peerless Sony Pictures Classics has stepped up to the plate and acquired Venice's Gold Lion winner Lebanon by Israeli Samuel Maoz. The entire film unspools deep inside the iron belly of a tank imprisoning four Israeli soldiers during the '82 Lebanon war. The dynamic is altered by the arrival in their midst of a Syrian captive. Revisiting the same conflict so memorably limned in Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, Maoz draws on his own trauma sustained during that war.

With claustrophobic intensity and a thunderous soundtrack, the film offers a snapshot of camaraderie and terror, spiked with gallows humor. It's so vivid you all but smell the stench inside that tank. Inevitably, Lebanon will trigger comparisons with that other account of wartime horrors, Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker. But Lebanon is the larger film. Hurt Locker examines a particular -- masculine, I might add -- adrenalin rush that addicts fighters to living a heartbeat away from death, while Lebanon is emotionally compelling and more in the mode of classic humanism, exploring matters of conscience and the ironies of fate.

In a wrenching moment at the end, a character in the tank pisses at length and in real time. How, you ask, does a filmmaker get an epiphany out of that? Trust me, he does.