Sunday's race wasn't the only marathon in town. As the New York Film Festival approaches year 50, the team at the Film Society of Lincoln Center is curating a year-long countdown, transforming Tuesday nights in this city into cinematic time capsules as they screen every opening-night film in the festival's history.
Next up (tonight) is 1967, year number five for the NYFF, where the opening-night film, The Battle of Algiers , delivered a uniquely important cinematic understanding of colonialism, guerilla warfare, the media, and ultimately, history (sound familiar?). If the radio broadcast of War of The Worlds freaked audiences out by tampering with their reality, The Battle of Algiers was a cinematic, political, journalistic and historical reality check, and those fortunate enough to attend tonight's screening and Q&A are very lucky.
Although very young at the time, festival committee chairman and Film Society of Lincoln Center director Richard Peña (who had already attended the NYFF) has distinct impressions about the film, the times, and the festival itself:
"The festival, even at the fifth year, was [still] a new experience. Obviously, foreign films had played New York, but there had never been anything in New York on the scale of the New York Film Festival, [something] that was really created to celebrate film as Art, and, you know, it was at Lincoln Center, it came in with sort of a breathless quality to it and for me, and, I think [for] a lot of people, it did have that sort of quality of going to something incredibly special.
One of the things we heard [about The Battle of Algiers was that it was banned in France. And that, of course, made it even more attractive. And also, there's a certain romance about liberation struggles, you know, this is already the '60s, Algeria had already been one of those struggles. I mean, at least for me, you grew up with the idea of people fighting for their freedom; whether it be American colonists or the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, or something like that, it's very romantic, so yeah, I think the film carried a lot of that and later on, when I studied film, I think the achievement of the film on a cinematic level became very clear to me.
And then, years later, I got to know Gillo Pontecorvo very well, and loved his company, and spoke with him at length about the film. So that's just been my trajectory with it, but when it actually came out all I can actually remember was that it was sort of forbidden fruit because it had been banned in France, and there was curiosity about it and all that."
Fast-forwarding to the present-day, and The Battle of Algiers emerges as an incredibly timely opening night selection to re-visit; I ask Mr. Peña to posit it alongside 2011 selection Tahrir, a documentary about exactly that, which I would call a Hegelian update of sorts to The Battle of Algiers.
"I mean, obviously, I think nowadays, within our televisual world, we're just used to, you know, news being served up to us immediately -- that was like, the whole lesson of the Vietnam War, that you know, the war came right into our living room and people didn't like what they were seeing, so that led to protests about it.
Back then, I thought, films were though of very much as a reflective medium: you would reflect on that and it would tell you something about it. Tahrir, I mean, is [a case of] trying as much as you can - I think doing it successfully - to give you the immediate experience, almost as if you are there. Battle of Algiers was an achievement; it was telling you the story, the same way Eisenstein was telling you the story of the October/November Revolution.'
Staying on the subject of historical epics, I ask about Abel Gance's Napoleon , a story of empire and over-reach being screened in America, circa 1967. Of course, Peña was not a curator in '67 but he notes:
"For the retrospective films, a lot of times that was something that it just becomes available and the festival wanted to be the first ones to show it ,so they jumped right on it. As you say, it also has a very curious resonance to everything that was going on, that's for sure, and that happens sometimes, you know? You just pick a film just because you like it, and then you realize it's a film that's startlingly relevant."
Drawing from his august tenure, he shares a few opening night experiences in the unmistakeable tones of a fan expressing unceasing fascination.
"Opening night is a kind of pleasure and a danger; it's a pleasure in that it's obviously great: you get a huge amount of attention for a film, you're launching something -- but on the other hand, it's a very tough crowd because you have, at that evening, you have patrons and donors, people who are very generously supporting the films, but are not always kind of what you would say, the deepest cinephiles. I mean, they like movies, of course, but there's just not that sense that they want to be the most adventurous in terms of what they see.
On the other hand, you don't want to pick something just for opening night, you want to pick something that is a part the body of the festival and you know, that indeed complements everything else that you show, and sometimes we get something like, I felt in 2010, when we opened the festival with The Social Network, which was for me, a grand-slam -- you know, we had a film that was to me one of the very best American, sort of Hollywood films in, you know, a decade, and at the same time, we had a film that would be embraced by a broad audience, and that was really great."
(For the record, in my write-up of NYFF#48, I was the lone dissenter who hated The Social Network, claiming I needed an eye-rinse after seeing it.)
"This year, Carnage did pretty well, but I think was perhaps not as warmly received -- but again, we don't make 'em, we just try and pick 'em, and some years, you know, we have a great deal of films to choose from and other years there's really nothing out there, and we just sort of go with what we can."
I press for an opening-night all-time low, and he gamely recalls a "lose-lose" scenario during his third year as director, and a decision that was appraised cruelly, myopically, in the first draft of history.
"One that sticks out in my mind is Miller's Crossing, which we opened the festival with in 1990, and that was a film that I still love very, very much, I think it's probably my favorite Coen Brothers film. And you, know we showed it, we were delighted to show it, and everything was great...and then it just got an absolutely devastating review from Vincent Canby in the New York Times -- and not only did Canby attack the film, but he went on to say: 'Uh, well, you have to feel sorry for the festival, because you know these opening nights are for all these donors, whatever, so you have to give them something that you know, that they can understand' - "And I felt it was a lose-lose proposition you know? And just, I would say about twenty minutes into the film people began streaming out of Alice Tully Hall -- it was a disaster all around; I think the Coen Brothers felt miserable; I certainly felt miserable; it was really, very badly received.
I feel vindicated because certainly as time has gone on, the greatness of that film has been apparent to many people, and I used to gloat and kind of collect the kind of comments of how it was amongst the great films of the 90s, and amongst the two or three best Coen Brothers films, things like that, you know? And even, I heard - he never said it to me, but I heard from other people that Canby was later kind of encouraged to re-see the film by friends because they felt he was so off-base on the film, and he did, and he kinda said 'I think I was too tough on the film' "But you know, be that as it may, fortunately the Coen Brothers have gone on to great careers. So there's one where I felt we were right, but you know, unfortunately, the audience and the critics just weren't there for it.
There were others that again, I thought would do better than they did, but you know.... and others that have been phenomenal successes -- the year 1999 when we opened with All About My Mother, that was a fabulous evening; I mean, people just went out of their minds over the film, as well they should, it's a great, great film. So there have been a number like that. A number that have been not successful. I think the successes are you know, more than the non-successes. "
Saadi Yacef, the baker-turned-revolutionary whose memoir, Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger , inspired The Battle of Algiers' screenplay, will hold a Q&A session after tonight's screening. Tickets and more information can be found HERE
By way of an additional universal cautionary note from cinema history, here's a telling clip from Duck You Suckers, delivering an unimpeachable down-to-earth treatise on human nature in post-revolutionary society. This films isn't playing at theater near you, but it is my hope that this 50 Years of NYFF series which effectively turns Lincoln Center into a Tuesday night revival house will whet appetites for two-a-day bargain, vintage cinema. Curation is great, but there are too many films that need screenings which only a revival house can provide.
Martin Scorcese will participate in a Q&A after the anniversary screening of Mean Streets (NYFF, Class of '73). It is not yet known whether Robert DeNiro will join him. If you are reading this Mr. DeNiro, there's many a New Yorker that would love to hear you share some cinematic memories with Mr. Scorsese