by Michael Vazquez
Two weeks after the close of the New York Film Festival, herewith, my first posting, by way of random notes on thirty-nine films: Prisoner 13, El Compadre Mendoza, Let's Go With Pancho Villa, Pale Flower, Silence, Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Police Incident, Nuremberg, Carlos, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Film Socialisme, Foreign Parts, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Tempest, Revolucion, Aurora, Protect The Nation, Boxing Gym, Another Year, Gatos Viejos, Black Venus, Certified Copy, We Are What We Are, The Social Network, Inside Job, The Warning, Hereafter, Career Girls, Naked, The Breakfast Club, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Sophie's Choice, The Devil Wears Prada, Medea, Scenes From A Marriage, Anti-Christ, Roger & Me, The Last of England
It's quite possible that the nine (five vintage, four new) historically-themed films which comprised my dizzying first week of press screenings at this festival may be remembered by me as the most important. None of these are main slate films; they are from the specially curated element of the NYFF and as such, they may not get as much attention, but here's why I think they hold value for you, fellow New Yorker.
To be certain, this is about a curatorial flow; more than half of these films are not new, and nearly all are available on DVD.
And it's worth noting that all of the five new films are rooted in the past, in history. Cameraman: The Life of Jack Cardiff boasts a loving study of vintage film clips; Nuremberg is a restoration, re-narration of the US government-commissioned documentary from 1948; Ceausescu is culled exclusively from Romanian state films; Carlos is a biopic about revolutionary-slash-terrorist Carlos "The Jackal's", reign during the 70s and 80s and is thus, by definition, a hub of sorts for recent history's bloody geopolitical swirl. Only the two films from Masahiro Shinoda have one hundred per cent fictitious narratives ('though Ceausescu's life itself can be called such, as it were - or perhaps "mass-hallucination" better serves) but they too bear a considerable historical weight: Pale Flower is a dually claustrophobic and cool proto-Nouvelle Vague piece set in post-nuclear Nagasaki, and Silence bears the burden of two Christian missionaries and their small congregations enduring physical and psychological torture in 16th century Japan.
So, in the first week, what you have in these nine films, -- irrespective of their settings -- is effectively the motion picture camera bearing witness and/or serving as instructive to, a good chunk of our own bloody human century (present times emphatically included), as well as the camera's various roles in history...and in the case of Cameraman: The Life of Jack Cardiff, eight decades' worth of the history of the motion picture itself, as seen through the eyes of Cardiff, who emerges like British and American cinema's Forrest Gump, through an eighty-year career of chasing light.
In fact, the unofficial theme for much of what I found best in the entire festival could be: our bloody century: a film runs through it, and I'm dealing in understatement when I say that this festival's curation comes at a time when such an examination is vital.
By way of a thread: as the lead character in Carlos devolves from committed revolutionary to mercenary, one of the ways we measure his decline is via the tendering of a cash offer from Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, asking him to blow up Radio Free Europe's broadcast headquarters; in Carlos it is one amongst many offers that come his way, but in relation to The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, it serves as off-camera action to the vacuum-packed scenes of official state-sanctioned footage which director Andrei Ujica artfully used to depict the isolation of a dictator ("The Jackal" declined the dictator's offer).
In response to queries during a videophone conference about his exclusion of violence in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, director Ujica noted that he had already addressed violence in his film Police Incident, and that this was an autobiography, emphasis on "auto".
And the extent to which I found myself contemplating the effectiveness of what's not shown in Ceausescu's "autobiographical" state images, I inevitably also found myself considering the catalog of horrors documented in Nuremberg, though, sadly, Nuremberg re-visited doesn't contemplate the far more ensnaring issues of our own historical moral breaches: complicity-by-appeasement; the non-aggression pact; though, at the post-screening discussions I attended, one person ('bless him) asked if the post-Nuremberg legal framework allowed for the prosecution of Henry Kissinger over the American bombings in Cambodia and Laos. Alas (my word, not his), noted US Ambassador-At-Large For War Crimes Issues, Stephen J. Rapp, it does not. As I write this, the prosecution of some of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge is in the headlines, amidst simmering resentments in a land that just a few decades ago, saw two million deaths over three years.
Where Nuremberg confronts the conscience of humanity in an international tribunal, the at-times hallucinatory Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives probes the reflections and self-recriminations of one man, emptying his kidneys on a primitive dialysis machine during the last days of his life, in which he experiences visitations from long-lost relatives.
During this cosmic self-reckoning, he asks the ghost of his wife if he had bad karma for killing so many communists during the civil war, and she surmises that guilt depends on intentions; in a tone of forgiveness she tells him that he "killed for nation", an observation which, some thirty years on, may serve as more than panacea or rationalization; it may constitute a necessary kind of wisdom for the healing process unique to civil war - in a nation where presently, the emergence of potentially tectonic shifts in the national mood could mean disaster.
The creation of a murky, magical sense of late dusk (sometimes filmed with day for night) into which the next step is unsure is amongst Boonmee's most enduring (amongst many worthy) tangibles. Still images of young Thai men in garishly logoed contemporary western apparel, capturing then posing humorously with a P.O.W. of sorts eerily remind one of war photos, transposing the nature of the warfare and the roles of and weapons used by its participants, perhaps suggesting that in the transition from a mutual death grip in a fight over the spread of communism to a desperate co-dependency based on manufacturing and consumption, only the uniforms and the ideologies have changed.
When asked about the metaphorical significance of the fantastic visuals during the post-screening Q&A, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul explained his love of creatures from the dying Thai folklore and the royal costume dramas of his youth, adding that audiences are always free to interpret his films as they understand them.
New York Film Festival Program Director Richard Peña jokingly enquires: "What actually goes on between that catfish and the princess? We have ratings here; we have to know these things"
During an earlier scene of cooperative fruit picking with Cambodian and Laotian refugees, we are offered an opportunity to meditate on a pan-Asian Thailand of agrarian-pastoral well-being, and a move away from the tense border security of the 70s when refugees from Cambodia and Laos led Thailand to turn sharply to the right. We are also invited by the director to muse on an aging princess, surrendering herself to a catfish (prompting festival director Richard Peña to jokingly enquire: "What actually goes on between that catfish and the princess? We have ratings here; we have to know these things"), Chewbacca-like red-eyed hill guerillas lurking as ghosts, their light-beam eyes not unlike those of laser-sighted weapons, and the filtering action of Boonmee's kidney, which to my feeble mind created a gritty, valiant metaphor for the healing process undergone by a nation poisoned by war.
Another such meditation - albeit a far less allegorical one -- on semi-recent history and by extension, a nation-state's internal reckoning, is found in director Pablo Larrain's Post Mortem, which for me, emerged as one of the most powerful films of NYFF#48.
I found great value in Tony Manero, Larrain's prior Pinochet-era film -- but where Tony Manero was an idiosyncratic look at human nature during a very mean time, a sate of siege, Post Mortem, by virtue of taking place earlier, during the actual coup, is informed by a more focused moral high-mindedness in a universe where one is compelled to act: the time before the nothing is true, everything is prohibited (unless you can get away with it) world of Tony Manero.
For Post Mortem, Larrain re-cast Tony Manero's leading man Alberto Castro, who looks like Roberto Benigni's undertaker brother -- and in Post Mortem he plays Mario, an undertaker, or rather, the undertaker's autopsy typist, fictionalizing for posterity the details of thousands of slaughtered humans, supporters of popularly elected president Salvador Allende, exterminated in 1973 by a right wing military cabal led by A. Pinochet.
I asked director Pablo Larrain about the current dialogue in Chile, regarding their past reign of terror, and he pointed to present-day contradictions within the national psyche.
"You know when you talk to people who were in those days you get so many different opinions you know and it's always something so strange to try and build one whole idea of what happened; it's not possible to design something objective. This is not a documentary or something like that -- and when you get to talk to people everything is so different you really question yourself if people were in the same country."
All of which makes Post Mortem's simple dramatization of culpability-through-passivity set in the front lines (the city morgue) during the secretive assassination of a president and the military slaughter of civilians, a very proper dose of filmed agitprop, and I mean this as a compliment. More specifically, despite my general inability to suspend disbelief during history films and biopics, the simple staging of heaps of newly dead surrounding Mario's colleague Sandra (Amparo Noguera), the last person with a conscience in the coroner's office -- screaming to her two colleagues and a young general, that what is happening is wrong and someone has to say something, is for me, an experience actually enhanced by the absence of suspension of disbelief; it's nothing short of the kind of dramatic staging of events in recent history that the biopic and historypic genres could certainly use more of.
Wardrobe-wise you have to love her violent red shirt, cloaked by a blue worker's smock indicating her loyalty and soon to be shed blood, as seen against his cloaking in the white, assumed purity of a medical lab-coat, under which he wears the off-white of indecisiveness, of spoiled mayonnaise.
Photographed beside him, she and all women appear dead: during his neighbor Nancy's (Antonia Zegers) first visit, she frames herself in his doorway as if trapped, her arm over her forehead in a Guernica-like contortion of Gothic, fatal woe, and when (after a dinner of fried eggs, white rice and a mutual cry) they attempt sex, the camera remains only on her neck and torso, boxing her, in a close-up which depicts violence, not Eros; the panting sounding disturbingly like suffocation.
The total brutality in the visual poetry of the fatal door frame pose and the seemingly boxed-in torso are given a coda when, after he brings food to her at the shed she is hiding out from the death squads in, he discovers that her boyfriend is with her, and in an act of rank jealousy, locks them in and assembles an unmovable blockage of lawn detritus - chairs, table, bicycle, etc., condemning them to death, through an act of volition which, piece by piece, also serves as a metaphor for the will and violence inherent in passivity, and the gradual -- and then sudden -- irreversibility of collective passivity over time.
This shed-locking scene also grimly mirrors an earlier scene when, as Mario drives Nancy home after she is fired from the cabaret where she was a dancer, the street is overtaken by a river of demonstrating Allende supporters including her boyfriend, who whisks her out of the car, declaring matter-of-factly "No one stays indoors these days" leaving the morgue typist in his car, unable to move, denied a woman's love and left behind by the sweep of history.
Post Mortem has several indelibles, the description of which still won't soften one's experience which, to be certain, is heightened by the underlying moral breaches: an "autopsy" on the body of President Allende in the presence of the cabal of generals sends one reeling through time, pulled dizzyingly fast by the weight of history, as the counterweight of forgetfulness snaps free.
We are, through Post Mortem, made witness to an individual's foregoing of all moral responsibility in the service of survival, and to the abject title of civil servant, which Mario says with a contemptuously desperate insistence when Sandra tells him that they must act, and when a desperate mother standing outside of the morgue asks if he knows anything.
And we know all is lost during one of the film's greatest, quiet scenes, in which the sound of slow rusty wheels evoke the painfully slow lurch of history, as he pulls his flatbed of dead towards his office and one of the bodies rolls onto the floor. He clumsily lifts the dead person back onto the pile of freshly killed human corpses, slumping over it in exhaustion, his lab coat cloaking the heap, but not entirely covering it.
While recently declassified documents reveal--or rather, confirm an unholy trinity comprised of Nixon's CIA, the ITT corporation and the Chilean military in the overthrow of popularly elected president Salvador Allende, the fine details about whether Allende was assassinated or committed suicide before being ousted are irrelevant -- and worse, distractions. The issue - for purposes that serve as morally instructive rather than mere America-bashing -- is quite simply, as always, complicity.
Speaking of which, for a very short time as a teenager I actually bought into the domino theory about Latin America, but this only lasted a few months.
As I type this, a BBC announcer says "There, at the bottom of the mine, will remain Pinochet's ghost" -- a well-meaning statement, though perhaps this is not a matter for a foreign journalist to estimate.
The recent mine rescue in Chile is an international success story to be certain, but it is also a scenario where workers' safety was clearly not a priority, and now the question of who owned and profited from the mine will be taken up by both proponents of domestic stewardship, as well as foreign companies.
I'm reminded of Che Guevara's observation on Chile circa 1952, in The Motorcycle Diaries, just a few 'graphs down from his observation that 40,000 supporters of then last-place presidential candidate Salvador Allende had been denied the right to vote:
"There are the necessary mineral resources to transform it into a powerful industrial country: iron, copper, coal, tin, gold, silver manganese and nitrates. The biggest effort Chile should make is to shake its uncomfortable Yankee friend from its back, a task that for the moment is at least Herculean, given the quantity of dollars the United States has invested and the ease with which it flexes its economic muscle whenever its economic interests appear threatened."
I watch the rescue operation on the news and see Salvador Allende's daughter, Isabel Allende, now a senator, visiting; I also see a man singing and playing a guitar near the President, and I imagine the Chilean folk singer and playwright Victor Jara at the site, serving as the elder statesman he might have become. Jara was imprisoned in a stadium, along with many others during the coup of '73; he performed for prisoners and was eventually tortured, then killed.
I look for some of his lyrics online, and an ad pops up, offering Victor Jara ringtones, and this gets me thinking of the copper that's used by the telecommunications industry which, in my mind leads again to thoughts about ITT's support of Pinochet, as Allende was seeking to nationalize resources.
My head begins to spin and I grimly realize that an ad may appear alongside this very posting, just as an ad for investing in nuclear energy appears in my posting on the BP oil spill in which I mention the perils of our president's and nation's untenably blasé attitude about nuclear energy. 'Eternal thanks to Akira Kurosawa for the third story in Dreams, depicting a nuclear reactor disaster and the energy company executive's horrible admission about his responsibility.
Suffice to say, the appearance of ads selling investment opportunities for the exact opposite of what I'm talking about, is frustrating to me. By way of inserting my own public service message, you can listen to and legally download the entire concert, An Evening With Salvadore Allende, featuring Melanie, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and others
Online, I also find transcripts from this very telling conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, in which they agree on their public line, after having done just enough to incite a coup and a reign of terror, while maintaining plausible deniability.
What's most disconcerting is that these men are lying to themselves -- not about their complicity, but about their ostensible anti-communism. It's imperative to not get this twisted: They were not protecting the citizens of Chile from tyranny -- because they had no problems with a Stalin-wannabe like Pinochet.
To wit, Nixon and Kissinger, on September 16, 1973 a few weeks after the bloodletting. You can also read Salvador Allende's final radio address on September 11th, 1973
Nixon: Nothing new of any importance or is there?
Kissinger: Nothing of very great consequence. The Chilean thing is getting consolidated and of course the newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.
Nixon: Isn't that something. Isn't that something.
Kissinger: I mean instead of celebrating - in the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.
Nixon: Well we didn't - as you know - our hand doesn't show in this one though
Kissinger: We didn't do it. I mean we helped them [garbled] created the conditions as great as possible
Nixon: That's right and that is the way it is going to be played
Of course, geopolitics are "played" in this manner more often than not, all of which make it eminently worthwhile to dramatize a life lived much closer to the tip of the spear amidst the harrowing interconnectivity between the good, the bad, the willing to kill and/or be martyred self-inducted "soldiers of the revolution", and the state and non-state actors who love and are willing to fund and manipulate them, in Carlos's depiction of an increasingly inchoate revolutionary's battle with the cult of personality, which also affords us challenging meditations on the question of boundaries for the principled stance in the face of institutionalized establishment monopolies on violence and injustice; blowback; idealism and disillusionment - and as is woefully obvious, our own present times.
While I understand that the title of the film is Carlos, it seems that the persons behind the personas of those who joined him might have been developed more richly, especially since it was a very long movie, and more importantly, since we are living through a time which sees more and more genuine and valid disaffection on the part of often privileged individuals whom find in the world's inequities and contradictions, indictments of their own upbringings and existence, and subsequently self-activate towards violent opposition.
Rewinding a century, Fernando De Fuentes's Mexican Revolution Trilogy looks at the lay patriots, revolutionary idealists, the landed gentry and the betrayals that comprised the real Mexican Revolution just two decades before: Prisoner 13, a morality tale (by way of a cautionary dream) on booze and bad husbandry shows the interconnectedness between all classes, and delivers the villain - a haughty, petit-bourgeois carabiñe supervisor tempted by a bribe -- a way out before it's tragically too late; El Compadre Mendoza also revolves around a single act of corruption, this time positing into the dilemma a rich landowner who, after a failed harvest is bribed to betray the principled Zapatista who saved his life and is the godfather to his child; Let's Go With Pancho Villa's foot soldiers are depicted with an anarcho-individualistic insight into the hearts and minds of those whom are the first to fight and die for nation, reminding me of a comment by Gregorio Luke, director at the Museum of Latin American Art on the great Mexican actor Cantinflas: "To understand Cantinflas is to understand what happened in Mexico in the last century."
And perhaps one can better understand the ongoing, complex relationship between Japan and the West through Silence's examination of the imposition of cultural borders, statecraft, religious persecution, state-sanctioned torture in 16th century Japan, and Pale Flower's post-war stylization of the alienation unique to life on the outskirts of the second city in human history to watch its skies die and its people burn in a nuclear hell on earth.
Thus passed the first of four weeks of screenings, and it was very odd to find myself so enthusiastic for a history-heavy curatorial slate; generally I consider the historypic and biopic (fictional period pieces excluded, as I dug the epic, occasionally disjointed, Mysteries of Lisbon) to be a uniquely, inherently flawed format, simply a metaphysical impossibility.
I was heartened to hear this notion elaborated on with some intensity by filmmaker Cristi Puiu during a Q&A in which he challenged the empirical underpinnings of biopics (and well, Everything, really) while also characterizing film as "the first art", citing that, insofar as we innately tell visual stories, the filmed story corresponds to our primary mindset.
Puiu's Aurora is sort of like Meursault (in possession of a far more complex internal monologue) starring in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? in its tackling of the now-familiar issue of workplace killings-slash-parricides (some dictionary definitions of parricide include in-laws, though in the film they are in fact, his ex-in-laws). In what amounts to a useful self-dialogue, herewith his post-screening conversation.
Returning to the point, simply put: to my mind, biopics - perhaps by definition -- play too fast and loose with their subjects. And despite disclaimers explaining the relationship between fact and artistic license that precedes so may of these films, I still feel them to be a kind of lower-case crime against humanity...which I'll admit is narrow-minded, but a disclaimer about artistic license doesn't negate the memory of a film, once viewed.
For example, why should I think of the otherwise very talented Meryl Streep's buffoonery in relation to Julia Child or Anna Wintour? You see, for me (and likely, only me) it always feels like an insult to the subject portrayed, be they living or dead -- and completely irrespective of whether the portrayal emphasizes villainy, heroism or that beloved one-word-fits-all: "nuance". Suffice to say, there are light years of difference between Sophie's Choice and The Devil Wears Prada. And I fear we are in the age of the cheesy biopic, especially as music and manuscript publishing companies in need of whole new revenue streams, flagship enterprises, business models, unbind their vast inventories to develop projects.
Of course, there can also be the development of rich literary projects that can be done inexpensively, with the aforementioned Mysteries of Lisbon, adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco's novel, exemplifying this beautifully. Completed for under two million dollars and with a last-minute (and very young) replacement director of photography, this made-for-TV (on Planet Proust?) epic boasts an impressive production value, though its character list and plot lines get hazy. It was particularly rewarding to have the writer Carlos Saboga onstage (As I've just started work on my first script, it would be nice to see this more often). He and producer Paulo Branco both spoke of director Raul Ruiz's total command over the material, noting that when, very late in the editing, they had to cut an additional two whole hours from the film, he hesitated not, and knew exactly what to cut. Saboga also explained that the novel from which this was derived was a serialized work, and on more than one occasion the author himself quite literally lost the plot, and subsequently, the completed work remains inherently disjointed.
Irrespective of my prejudice against history pics and biopics when this festival began, I found many of these flicks to be heartening for the simple reason that film, the uber-art, can and should still be at times very effectively in the service of awareness and overcoming global political denial, which kinda reminds me of my first NYFF, where a new movie titled Roger & Me by a then-unknown director named Michael Moore was screened, ushering in a new age and style of documentary filmmaking.
Main slate selection Inside Job follows in the tradition of Roger & Me - and by way of expanding things, I earnestly suggest the eminently worth-watching Emmy award-winning PBS doc, The Warning, which chronicles the harrowing, true story of how Brooksley Born, head of the Commodities Future Trading Commission, sounded an alarm about the massive fraud that created the mass hallucination of an economic boom of the 90s, only to be cruelly silenced by Bill Clinton's Working Group on The Economy aka Alan Greenspan, Arthur Leavitt, Robert Rubin, et, al.
As I type this Elizabeth Warren is earnestly emphasizing her intentions for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in an interview; at the press conference for Inside Job, director Charles Ferguson was asked to his estimate the new appointee's power to make a difference, and he stated without hesitation that she simply could not possibly make a real difference in her dealings with the kinds of issues these films are covering. He also stated how disheartened he was when a newly inaugurated Obama named his economic cabinet: "I knew then that it was status quo."
Oddly, Brooksley Born is mentioned only very briefly in Inside Job, and she's omitted from the fairly comprehensive timeline and dramatis personae that are included in the press kit, which is filled with fun facts, including the forewarnings of IMF economist Raghuram Rajan - and the instantaneous, harsh attacks from Larry Summers - but not also documenting the decree from Summers to Born, as noted by a colleague of Born's, in The Warning: "You're going to cause the worst financial crisis since the end of World War2." Apparently, Summers had thirteen bankers in his office that had advised him of this. "Stop, right away. No more."
Seeing Larry Summers in Inside Job, I was instantly reminded of the scene in The Social Network when then-Harvard president Summers dismisses the two students accusing Mark Zuckerberg of stealing their ideas -- which they insist could be worth millions. If this scene actually took place, it makes Henry Kissinger's Nixon-era comment about Summers -- that he should "Be given a White House post in which he's charged with shooting down or fixing bad ideas", all the more disgustingly poetic.
I'm wary of grand statements about films and generations, such as Rolling Stone's billboard-ready declaration that The Social Network is "the best movie of the decade, which also defines the decade", of which the latter half may be right, but the glass is still fully empty, as this doesn't make The Social Network nor the decade very good. For me, (and likely only me) the film's swift pace was both fatal flaw and thus redeeming mercy, and its hypnosis-through-schadenfreude left me feeling cheap afterwards.
So for me, seeing Jean Luc Godard's Film Socialisme after The Social Network felt like a proper eye-rinse, and though I resented being late by about three minutes to Film Socialsme on account of The Social Network, slipping into my cozy spot on the bench at the Walter Reade Theater, I was the most excited I'd been at the beginning of any screening during the entire festival.
In addition to providing an instant eye-rinse, Film Socialisme also synthesized, in its way, all the prior week's heavy, historical flotsam and jetsam by simply videotaping a cruise ship holiday, visiting historical ports of call with a fictitious family whose members spar almost hypnotically (in that classic art-film way of not necessarily looking at each other when declarations are made) over history's contradictions and how to live authentically within the family, polis and planet, much of it making for potent koans, alongside the great stand-alone socio-cultural and political meditations which characterize the cine-essay feel in so many of Godard's films, all of which render the blunt cohesiveness some crave, irrelevant, though I'll say I enjoyed Film Socialisme's disjointedness infinitely more than say, King Lear's .
If Carlos serves as a mini-hub of our recent history's bloody geopolitical swirl, Film Socialisme is the intellectual's cruise through the cradles of civilization, revisiting an inventory of the horrors and heights of same, all the while trapped in an icon of absurdity: the modern ocean liner - how better to grapple with history in a world too far gone?
From this ship of fools emerge great historical one-liners, like: "Germany enters Paris. Great day for Indochina."; "Africa started wrong. No part of History." All of which make me think that Godard would send great tweets; at his best, his flashing texts are moral signposts serving as a never-ending scrutiny of history, between which we get endless visual pot shots at life on a cruise ship. Recurring cell phone footage of the ship's dance floor explodes with totally distorted audio, grossly pixelized video for a dual feel, both eerily like the moments before a bomb goes off, or the metaphorical subtext of the inherent violence of absurd privilege on the high seas of a world drowning in oppression.
Apparently the workload for Film Socialisme was split with three colleagues, making it not quite an omnibus film, but also not a 100% JLG project -- neither of which constitute a disservice to this funky lil' flick, from which more folks bolted than any screening I've attended at this festival. As the credits rolled, someone I don't know said to myself and another person:
"If it was made by anybody other than a French New Wave director, it wouldn't get any attention"
I'm perhaps too quick to react: "Oh yes, it would, I would pay money to see this, even by an unknown."
"It didn't make any sense", another person told me.
"Did this last century make sense?" I asked bitterly, defensive, unintentionally dramatic.
Simply put, I'll see anything Godard does, anytime, even if he presently says silly things like he put Patti Smith in his film "So that there would be one good American. Someone that embodies something other than imperialism" Whatever, dude. You still have to give it up to him for making the trailer for Film Socialsme out of the entire film, simply sped-up. It's also cool that it was made available via a free stream for just one day, May17th, which happened to be my birthday.
I adored Film Socialisme for the same reason I like what's been curated at NYFF 2010 -- they make for a healthy, necessary and informative look at the perils of the present through the ghosts of cinema past.
In fact, I found in much of NYFF 2010's curation a reason to wish again for the days when Cinema Village, Thalia SoHo (where I worked briefly in post-adolescence), Theater 80 St. Mark's, et, al, were back in business.
It seems hard to believe but the fact is, my beloved NYC doesn't have a proper revival house. Sure, I love what's already up, but none of these are revival houses as in, two films a day for, let's say, 8 to 10 bucks. 'Every day a different two or three films; sometimes one single long movie, sometimes trilogies, but a calendar's worth - the kind you thumbtack to your wall - of old movies.
Looking beyond the absence of a revival house, I'll note that in NYC delivery options via cable and television feel paltry compared to the rich history of film that's simply languishing: PBS's Cinema Thirteen - at least in NYC -- is now a threadbare entity showing fun but totally insignificant American "classics" reflecting further the erosion of PBS's cultural relevance; on cable, Sundance and IFC occasionally deliver something worthwhile, but perhaps more often promote films that match their distribution agendas, to the exclusion of the great curation they could be doing; suffice to say I now have basic cable, which is a total scam, perpetuating the myth that C-Span is "Cable's gift to the American People" (beware of Greeks bearing gifts - monitoring government's daily business is something we should do ourselves) to the bizarre presumption about limits to Public Access, especially given the First Amendment, and also the simple fact that cable companies' business model of utilizing taxpayer-funded public infrastructure to pipe-in pre-selected garbage owned by media monopolies - is, as the late Dirk Konig of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center told me during an interview, "A license to print money", but I digress.
On the streets of New York there are no doubt numerous worthy options: Film Forum is fun, but it's not a revival house proper, nor is Village Cinemas (formerly Cinema Village) nor IFC which sometimes shows old movies but they're mostly safe bets in between programming which again largely serves its distribution interests. Sure, Angelika and many, many others - uptown, downtown and midtown - show (sometimes great) mainstream small market films, and I love Anthology Film Archives and pray they stay in existence forever, and I love MOMA and MOMI...but at none of the above-mentioned will you see different films every day, 365 days a year. And that's not how my New York City should be; life here doesn't feel right without a revival house.
It's also worth noting how, while NYFF is generally (and correctly) known as a nobly less commercial affair it may also thus be misperceived as not accessible by all.
Simply put, given how international NYC's citizenry is, many of these films hold an appeal far beyond film buffs and intellectuals. It'd be fun to see and hear The Mexican Revolution Trilogy scored live. And when you think about it, what would it be like for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to collectively in 2010, take a look back at the Mexican Revolution, 100 years hence? Or for any Peoples? I frantically wrote this question in the dark, during the screening of The Mexican Revolution Trilogy, not realizing that Revolución, an omnibus film by 10 contemporary Mexican directors -- all visiting the subject of Mexico since the Mexican Revolution -- attempted to answer this question.
The first short, Fernando Embicke's The Welcome Ceremony could have been the warm-ups of local bands preparing for the arrival of Ceausescu, though in this case it is the patiently endured absence of an actual leader which informs the important, off-camera story; Patricia Riggen's Beautiful and Beloved felt like As I Lay Dying, set in the even deeper South - namely, SoCal to Mexico -- as a patriarch who fought in the revolution is granted his deathbed wish of a burial in Mexico, by his identity-denying Mexican-American grand daughter, who during the journey gets a proud grip on her raices; Mariana Chenillo's The Estate Store tells the quiet story of a romance that might have been, when a mousey clerk is asked out by her manager at the company store, until the mouse roars, obtaining an activist attorney after trying to pay for her new front tooth (which she wants to have for her date with the manager) with the company's illegal vouchers. Such vouchers were actually used by large companies in lieu of cash, to steal a huge chunk of workers' wages by making them shop in company-owned stores. The manager proves himself a worm and she is fired, though the scene of her taking out her front denture and eating an apple as she climbs up hill to her home, reveals her poor-but-honest pride, and the coming fall, as it were, of the estate store.
Amat Escalante's The Hanging Priest seems to indict Church relevance insofar as the only thing a cross-eyed priest facing his own doubts is able to do for two nomadic innocents who rescue him after he is left for dead hanging upside-down from a tree, is to ask if they are sanctioned by God, and bring them over a border to beg for enough to eat at a fast food joint; the extent to which the stubborn burro which died rather than enter la gran cuidad (as the priest implored the child "Beat him! Beat him") serves as a metaphor for the soul of the country being pulled away from its better judgment--is for the viewer to decide. Gerardo Naranga's R100 depicts a short, sharp bout of highway violence wherein a man drops boulders from an overpass onto moving cars, finally deciding on a two-wheeler from which he shakes the bloody driver and mounts his badly injured companion as the two head off, apparently to start their own Moped Diaries.
Diego Luna's Pacifico posits a Mexican-American in the middle of a fight with the mother of his child during a visit to Mexico to check on whether oceanfront land that was bequeathed to him has been sold, leaving him with choices about how seriously he needs to look after both. Carlos Reygadas' This Is My Kingdom brings together the various personalities of a town in Mexico during a homecoming-slash-media opp visit by a local boy made good, the camera capturing the assorted individuals and voices with an insouciance that is underscored by the end title which is simply the words "This Is My Kingdom" over a burning car. Gael Garcia Bernal's Lucio finds a young boy rejecting the "images" of his Granny's Christianity and heading for a mountaintop - whether he returns like Moses or Zarathustra remained to be seen, as the hybrid film print with digital audio track fell out of sync and eventually the picture vanished, and so the screening was rescheduled, with Revolución to be the last film screened at NYFF 2010.
Rodrigo Garcia's 7th and Alvarado, the last short film in Revolución and the last thing I saw before I left the Walter Reade theatre 'til next year, provided one of the festival's most arresting sequences: horse-backed citizen-soldiers of the Mexican Revolution dressed in full battle regalia, riding silently, invisibly amidst the street traffic and peoples of downtown L.A., filmed in slow-motion to a monumental -- if a bit literalist - effect, fusing generations, though woefully remiss in its absence of soldaderas and soldaderos razos - the women who accompanied their men on battle journeys, and the women who fought alongside the men -- and in their own brigades during mortal combat.
I note the absence of women not by way of inclusiveness for the sake of inclusiveness, but rather for what I think is a matter of historical veracity, and well, gender - no, rather, compatriot respect.
I asked Mariana Chenillo and Patricia Riggen -- who happened to be the only two females amongst Revolucion's ten directors -- about the exclusion of soldaderas and soldaderos razos in the De Fuentes trilogy and also Revolucion, when apparently, the actual war boasted a unique fighting female presence. In a case of poetic injustice, as Miss Riggen speaks very candidly about how women are generally depicted in Mexican films, the camera blurs her face; at times, looking at the giant head on screen I felt like the kid in the beginning and final sequences of Persona.
By way of extra-credit reading, here's some very worthwhile research from Diane Goetze, whom I don't know and I've never met but I thank profusely for her work:
As noted in Rodrigo Plás' 30/30 soldadera means something very different 100 years ago, from what it meant on the banner adorned by the beauty queen being paraded amidst politicians who've so easily determined her fate (the fate of a nation?) in a superficial and short-term way, in this vignette about Pancho Villa's grandson becoming disheartened during celebrations for the revolution's centennial - not unlike, say the Indian crying at the side of an American highway from the 1970s PSA, unable to reckon past and present.
The clash of old and new was also manifest in Foreign Parts, which like veteran director Frederick Wiseman's The Boxing Gym was a quiet documentary, but not wholly fly-on-the-wall, like Boxing Gym, which is about exactly that.
I found an interesting interplay between the different answers given by Boxing Gym's director Wiseman, and Foreign Parts' co-directors Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, to the same question raised during different press conferences, about how they handle the moments when their subjects develop a reflexive awareness of the camera, and become disingenuous or inorganically dramatic.
Wiseman, citing the fine-tuning through the years of his "bullshit-meter" said he simply turns the camera off when subjects become too self-aware of their on-camera presence, while Paravel and Sniadecki noted that the instances in which a documentary subject becomes aware of the camera and begins to play to it, can be as valid and worthy of capture as the totally natural moments, insofar as the documentarian's aim is to capture what is before the camera, and that can include the subject's development of an at times self-reflexive awareness. Both were right and it's a fine, interesting line they walk.
Populated by a subculture comprised of wizened mechanics, poignant, heroic street urchins, crack-addicted car dwellers, Foreign Parts is a documentary about the fading Steinbeckian (to deal in euphemism) marketplace that is the Willets Point car repair strip in Queens, NY, where a cluster of garages with deep inventories of all manner of car parts from all manner of vehicle, furnish countless savvy, budget-conscious New Yorkers with daily miracles plucked from endless shelves and heaps. When one of the film's subjects delivers the brutally elegant summation of life at Willets Point: "You gotta go out every day and make what you can", Foreign Parts oddly and powerfully had me thinking of Inside Job and again, Roger & Me, and how the very same words reflect the mindset of the persons who populate those films, from the politicians and developers who'll be bulldozing Willet's Point's M.A.S.H.-like compound, to the sheriff's marshal making a good living overseeing evictions in Roger & Me to the brokers, comptrollers, media analysts, executives and lifelong theoreticians of Inside Job.
At my aforementioned first NYFF where I saw Roger and Me, I also saw the late Derek Jarman's The Last of England, which I reviewed in a long, mangled mess for Spin magazine. I told my then-girlfriend that in a just world Tilda Swinton would win an Oscar (even though it was an, ahem, non-linear film in which she did a dervish). Jarman, like Jimi Hendrix, was one of those rare, rare artists about whom it is likely valid to say their best work truly laid ahead.
So it was fun to see Julie Taymor's The Tempest, which used far less computer-generated imagery than you'd guess. Here's a quick clip of her explaining to me that after cutting the final speech from The Tempest, she decided to put it back via the song in the end credits, which, she felt, had to be performed by the mighty Beth Gibbons, best known as the willowy, wounded - and occasionally wrathful - voice of Portishead.
"Beth came to mind because she has this incredible - she feels like Helen to me; she has the vulnerability and the power, simultaneously. So the song was written with Beth in mind; there was never any question of anyone else, and we were very proud that we could show her the film and she said 'Yes' when she saw it. And we've actually had some people think that it's Helen singing, but Helen will tell you that she doesn't"
I don't know if, in sum, it's a more just world even though Tilda's won an Oscar, but I agree with her opposition to a golf course in a decidedly interesting case in Scotland.
I do know that walking by the poster in the lobby at Walter Reade Theater in which a once-mohawked film buff reminisces on "$7 movie tickets and something called the world wide web" makes me feel really old, as I go back to two flicks for five bucks at the above mentioned, long-gone revival houses, in the 80s.
It's at these revival houses that cinema and its history -- and by extension an ongoing global cultural history of sorts, one enriched with each film watched -- stays alive within our bosoms.
Note to NYFF: next year, please be sure to also print the "special selections" somewhere on the centerfold calendar, because some of us still hang these up on our walls.
Additional random notes, in brief:
My favorite thing about festivals? The way the film stills printed in the screenings calendar are forever changed...before I see the film, they are one thing: provocative or indifferent or curious; afterwards, after I've seen the film, they're enveloped in an almost post-coital aura.
What I missed during NYFF due to shoulder dislocation and food poisoning:
The Emergency Room at St. Vincent's Hospital. This cannot stand. St. Vincent's has to be re-opened.
Of Gods And Men
Le Quattro Volte
Robinson In Ruins
Tuesday, After Christmas
And the award for The Host With The Most goes to...
Walter Reade Theater Director Glenn Raucher, whose one-liners made early morning screenings a little easier. To wit, his explanation of why 102 year-old director Manoel de Oliveira would not be doing a press conference: "Ladies and gentleman director Manoel de Oliveira could not be here this morning for a press conference as he's busy preparing his next film for entry in the 2025 New York Film Festival..." From your mouth to the Cinema Gods' ears.
File under heartwarming moments:
Sobbing when a subject in Foreign Parts sang "Puerto Rico"
Being handed bound printed matter -- AperiTIFF the official publication of the Transilivania International Film Festival which came with a DVD, New Romanian Shorts 2009 - 2010
Sitting alongside first-time director Candice Reisser (Protect The Nation) as she faced her first ever screening - in a room full of critics - and filming her sharing very candid thoughts just before:
Two film critics walk into a bathroom, and one says to the other...
In the bathroom, midway through Carlos, two crits:
"I don't know, it has too much of a TV movie feel"
"Yeah, but TV movies are done on a different level there, 'better production value"
"Look, I lived in Spain, I lived all over Europe, TV movies are pretty bad over there, too"
I can only think of two European made for TV movies: Medea, Scenes From A Marriage...
Best press kit:
Inside Job, which includes a timeline of US banking, photos, short bios, a glossary, and a graph revealing the massive abuse of credit ratings, making for a disheartening read...what I don't understand is how - and this is not the director's fault - there was so much laughter at the "gotcha" moments when the interviewees faltered in their rationalizations, during the screening; it makes me worry that the film's impact will be limited. Maybe it should be a made-for-TV movie.
Carlos, hands down. 'Great to hear Wire, who remain under-heralded. Hearing The Feelies reminded me of Susan Siedelman's very worthwhile honest and gritty debut film, Smithereens, which might have also been shown during the Film Society's 80s flashback series as a counterpoint to Seidelman's sanitized-for-mass-consumption Desperately Seeking Susan.
File under anti-climax:
Another Year, Gatos Viejos:
There's no doubt that in both films you have very capable persons creating characters, dialogue and mundane situations which are well-informed, but this doesn't make their kitchen sink drama the slightest bit interesting and I'll disclaim that this is a matter of personal predilection, not any fault on the directors. I'm sure folks will love these films.
This simply came off as underdeveloped, rather than the subtle film which it aimed to be. Eastwood's selection of a newscaster to undergo a transformation from filter to communicator reminded me of the line in Film Socialisme about the media (paraphrased: We start wrong; instead of distributing, we must create.
A nice idea, but it came off a bit gimmicky and mildly overacted, though the six seconds or so in which Bincohe puts on lipstick in front of the mirror and wrestles with earrings (in another example of how a film still takes on a different meaning after one has screened the film) were very good. Too often though, Binoche just comes off as too cute in a forced way, like she knows it. Highlight: her son's character reminding us of why Siddhartha named his son Tether.
Festival historical note: Certified Copy's renowned director Abbas Kiarostami was denied a visa to enter the US in 2002, prompting festival director Richard Peña to correctly and courageously note at the time: "It's a terrible sign of what's happening in my country today that no one seems to realize or care about the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entire Muslim world."
Single line from a film, which transcends the story and is instructive for our times:
From Black Venus, the punishing story of hermaphrodite Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman: "Maybe her existence is a sign of some kind from God." Hang on to your armrest: The autopsy and dissection of Baartman; where Post Mortem gave a tragic dignity to the deceased, the cutting up of Baartman as a specimen to be bottled was simply a final indignity to a life filled with indignities. The Black Venus is well worth your viewing time.
Winner of the First Annual Huffington Post Jury-of-One "Uncertain Regard" award:
Somos Lo Que Hay, the one film before which Mexican food would not be advisable (and after which, impossible). This movie gave a whole new meaning to the phrase: "I feel like Mexican tonight" Seriously, this was actually a very good film. 'Not since the first Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer have I seen such a gripping, straightforward look at murder (albeit, with a very different motive).
Best reason to start showing up early to screenings:
Snooze and you may found yourself stuck in a rollover screening of The Social Network with what I can only guess were the Women's Film Society of Ronkonkoma, countless friends-of-a-friend who went to Harvard when Facebook was formed, and a few angry feminists in a film club, sternly and with menace in their voice reminding the fratboys sitting behind them to stop putting their legs against the back of their chairs. I base this on the notes I took of conversations by the persons immediately around me, before the screening began...one of the Ronkonkamites scanned my laminate, asking me who I was "with", and if I was writing down what was going on, and why I was wearing sunglasses in a darkened theatre. Touché. They're prescription, actually.
Extra-credit reading and viewing: