JS: Because of its premiers, the concentration of tastemakers in New York, and where it falls on the calendar, the New York Film Festival helps to jumpstart the annual hype-cycle of awards season. In the press conferences one had the uncanny sensation of seeing into the future – and being able to map out with frightening predictability the coming commentary about whose performance would be the breakthrough, the comeback, the must-see of the year. And yet to its credit, NYFF manages to balance this kind of mainstream buzz with a more old school, purist approach to programming. By collecting a critical and manageable density of extraordinary work, the festival operates as a kind of yearly digest, inspiring conversations not only about the Oscars but also about the state of the seventh art and its place in the world. It’s that more historical and international conversation, so often forgotten by the American press, which we’d like to have here.
DF: Digest is perhaps the right word. At a time when other festivals routinely have 300 or more titles in their program, NYFF keeps its main slate to a lean 25 films. A staffer I spoke to noted their standard response to queries as to why the festival lacks a competition. “Being selected for the festival is itself an award,” he said. A somewhat bombastic sentiment, maybe, but given the present glut of audio visual output, retaining a stance of rarefaction is commendable – and worth the whiff of elitism it gives off.
This sense of compactness is further heightened for the press corps attending NYFF. The ordinary festival-goer can top up the main slate fare with retrospectives (this year: a wide-ranging look at Herman Mankiewicz’s work), special focuses (contemporary documentary filmmaking), or a weekend devoted to experimental cinema (now dubbed “Projections” after many years as “Views from the Avant-garde”). But the journalist attending NYFF will be firmly sequestered in the press-only screenings at the Walter Reade Theatre, half a block from the main venue at Alice Tully Hall.
There is thus a certain conviviality to these screenings: day in day out, over the course of a month, one sees the same faces, hears the same voices, is privy to the same personal quirks. The prevailing ambience recalls festivals from decades gone by, before they became the cultural juggernauts of today and were still intimate gatherings of friends and aficionados. In this sense, NYFF could even be compared to the artistic salons of 19th century Europe.
I. The Crisis of Relevance
JS: Your metaphor of the 19th century salon brings out a question I’d like to pose in relation to NYFF. How will our own time be understood decades or even centuries from now? For the critic, such a question is as important as it is almost unthinkable at present. And so one of the real virtues of a festival such as NYFF is that it helps us approach that historical perspective. Much like the salons of the 19th century it can bring into focus the artistic changes through which we are living but hardly notice.
For example, when we covered the festival two years ago, we were able to discern a collective response to the encroaching obsolescence of film. Although extremely aesthetically diverse, the great films of that year – films such as Tabu, Leviathan, No, and Amour – were all searching for new possibilities rooted in the materiality of a medium. They were creative acts of resistance in the face of a bland, homogenising digital culture.
This year, the crisis to which many films seemed to be responding was one of relevance. How can the cinema – as an artform and a bellwether – keep up with a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams? And yet, from this admirable impulse I saw many disappointing results: films with a savvy bid for impact but without any real searching. In American indie films, for example, there is a tiresome obsession with obsession. This in turn leads to a glut of psychodramas that may allow for “intense” performances but lack any meaningful connection to the social. It’s as if the screenwriting rules of a goal-oriented character have been taken to their hermetic limit: ending in single-minded fixation. On the other hand, more and more films with evident social concerns are falling into the trap of depressive miserabilism. I find this trend just as tiring: the idea that the only badge of authenticity is to sensationalise the down and out, the wretched, the traumatised. I fully appreciate the impulse – in fact the need – for an artist to examine the worst life has to offer, the most adverse situations. But too many films follow that potentially eloquent impulse into the rabbit-hole of voyeurism, misanthropy and negative escape.
By contrast, the best films of NYFF – I am thinking of the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night and Abderrahamane Sissako’s Timbuktu – managed to look at difficult contemporary situations and still, without blinking, retain a sense of humanity and hope. Films that can do this have a powerful and necessary role to play in our present moment. Unfortunately they were exceptions rather than the rule.
DF: I, too, was immensely impressed by both Two Days, One Night and Timbuktu, and I think you’re right to speak of them in the same breath. Even though they are works by filmmakers from two different continents, describing two vastly different social situations, both films possess a shared bond: they both exude a sense of warmth and compassionate generosity to their main characters, thereby rejecting a certain jaundiced outlook that is common among arthouse filmmakers, and opting instead for optimism about humanity, even in the face of formidable enemies. Placing the two films in dialogue with one another also cuts across a commonplace of today’s commentariat: that liberal capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism represent the two poles of a global geopolitical dichotomy. In these films, taken together, these two ideological formations may not be seen as adversaries, perpetually locking horns with each other, but rather as twin facets of a collective phenomenon whose foe is something deeper, something more indomitable in the human spirit.
But I wonder: is miserabilism really that hegemonic in global arthouse cinema? I can’t help but see a much more diverse field of activity than the one you’ve just depicted. And if it is, why has it become a dominant mode for those filmmakers who instinctively baulk at the prospect of becoming paid cheerleaders of the present social order? Is it simply the flipside of the escapist fantasy that is predominant in mainstream blockbuster cinema? I’m not so sure this is the case, even if, on a surface level at least, many of the films from NYFF were preoccupied with the fate of the bas-fonds of contemporary globalisation.
JS: I think the larger question has to do with the life cycles of aesthetic energies. When are certain artistic impulses fresh and genuine, and when are they worn thin? Only a couple years ago it looked as if the cinema was salvaging from the exhaustion of its medium the means for a creative renewal. Now, it seems to me the reverse. Is depressive miserabilism a dominant mode for the global art-house? Maybe this is an overstatement. But are depictions of rock bottom entering a period of mannerism? This seems to me inarguable. Meanwhile, other more confident impulses have grown so uncommon they can be reinvested with the force of genuine sentiment. Another way of putting this is to say that I never found the hope in Two Days, One Night or Timbuktu to be facile or contrived. By contrast, much of the gloom flaunted by the current darlings of the avant-garde can feel like a pose adopted for effect. I know we adamantly disagreed about Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. This was a film I found to be mannered and cold. As a hybrid of high-flown avant-gardism and theatrical documentary it may be interesting, but as a document of suffering I found it to be deeply misguided.
DF: Horse Money is evidently the film that has polarised the two of us the most – much as it has done to festival audiences across the planet, I suspect. I still can’t quite fathom the objections you have to it: when we talked about the film, it was as if we had gone to two totally different screenings. For me, Costa’s film, while its prevailing mood is unequivocally downcast, is the polar opposite of the miserabilist tendency you’ve described. Costa may begin his film with a montage of Jacob Riis photographs from the slums of turn-of-the-century New York, but in many ways this overture is a ruse. The rest of the film largely takes place not in the Fontainhas slums of Lisbon that were the site of much of Costa’s earlier work (and which have now been mostly demolished as part of an “urban regeneration” program), but in sterile hospital rooms, dimly lit corridors, and, in the film’s most memorable scene, a steel-encased elevator. Furthermore, as far as generic influences go, Costa’s film, with its de la Tour lighting, skewed camera angles and disembodied vocal deliveries, owes just as much to horror films or ghost stories as it does to kitchen-sink realism. Above all, the sentiment I had when the film was over was one of unresolved – and possibly unresolvable – mystery. Horse Money more than merits repeat viewings for those who are willing to work away at it secrets; it is a complex, densely-layered film, where the spectator is never entirely sure about the status of what is presented to them on-screen. Are the characters that populate the film living and breathing individuals, or mere emanations of Ventura’s delirious mind? Are they ghosts from the past as it is literally re-lived by the film’s marmoreal protagonist, overcome by memories of the chaotic events of the 1975 revolution in Portugal, which was experienced by this Cape Verdean immigrant slum-dweller not as a moment of liberation, but as one of fear, violence and trauma? On another level: how are we to read the febrile monologues he delivers in incantatory fashion, or the discussions he engages in with Vitalina, which are perpetually at cross purposes to one another? Are they scripted by Costa and played by the figures on screen, or are they documentary traces of Ventura and Vitalina’s own improvisations? In any case, this dialogue des sourds contained a particularly evocative exchange that haunted me more than anything else at the festival: “What happened,” Ventura asks, “to my horse Money?” “The vultures tore him to pieces.”
JS: My objection to Horse Money derives partly from its studied artfulness: the proficiency with which it turns pain into an objet d’art. Many of its images are indeed beautiful and haunting, and possess a ghostly radiance, but there is also a surgical formalism at work, as if the damage exhumed by Costa were exhibited beneath a glass case. The result is an airless, vitreous aura of futile destitution. In scene after scene we are told that the worst has already happened, and there is nothing more to be done about it. In Two Days, One Night, that kind of defeatism is precisely the demon against which the troubled heroine, played by Marion Cotillard, must struggle. And every encounter between her and her co-workers, whom she tries to convince (reluctantly at times) to forgo a bonus so she can keep her job, promises not only to give her a new beginning and purpose but also to restore a faith in humanity. In Horse Money, such a faith was never in question; it was dismissed by Costa long before he trained his lens on its absence.
I don’t mean to imply here that Costa is not a serious artist. He clearly is talented and steadfast. In sensibility he has something in common with other 20th century pessimists such as Samuel Beckett or Francis Bacon: all three share a fascination with the theatre of the abject. But Costa’s work is defined by the fact that he is a filmmaker working with living subjects. The absurd comedy of Beckett, for example, is more difficult to muster when it must share the same space as a very real and very damaged person – one whose class, education and health are significantly different not only from Costa but also the likely audience of his film. A certain asymmetry of power is inherent in all documentary practice. But Horse Money is, in my view, shrouded by the unfortunate correlation between artfulness and exploitation.
DF: I don’t know if I would equate Costa with the misanthropy of Beckett and Bacon: for me, a sense of profound solidarity and even love exists between him and Ventura, one which has encompassed the films they have made together over the course of more than a decade, even if they come from disparate social backgrounds. And how exactly can artists avoid aestheticising the unsavoury sides of human existence? Should violence only be presented in the form of “ugly” rather than beautiful images? Or should they refrain from depicting suffering, misery and anguish altogether.
JS: As you said earlier, it’s as if we went to two totally different screenings. You sensed solidarity and love where I felt the reverse: a clinical distance that paraded a trauma. Nevertheless, we both seem to agree that the relationship between filmmaker and subject is at the crux of the matter. Perhaps the work of one of Costa’s contemporaries, Joshua Oppenheimer, will add a point of reference. Both Costa and Oppenheimer are well-educated people working with deeply impaired non-western subjects. Both have gained prominence through blurring observational documentary with theatre – often the absurdist theatre of a traumatised psyche. Of course Costa works primarily with victims while Oppenheimer made his name working with perpetrators. And although I, like many other viewers, was initially dazzled by the formal gambit and cleverness of The Act of Killing, I now am more suspicious of that cleverness. I see it as part of the film’s bid to intellectualise its way out of the ethical corner into which it painted itself. This seems to be a process Oppenheimer is continuing with The Look of Silence.
DF: There is a sense, of course, that with The Look of Silence Oppenheimer attempts to atone for what many critics – ourselves included – saw as the moral failings of his earlier work. His follow-up for the most part adopts the standpoint of the victims of the Suharto massacres that was so glaringly absent from The Act of Killing. Throughout almost the entire film we follow a 44 year-old optometrist called Adi – born two years after his brother was hacked to pieces by Suharto’s butchers – as he confronts a cavalcade of former death squad leaders, many of whom have profited tidily from their positions of social power. And yet, while The Look of Silence is largely devoid of the showy gimmicks that catapulted Oppenheimer’s previous film to prominence, one retains a familiar sense of blatant manipulation: both on the emotional level (here, in particular, the scenes with Adi’s centenarian parents), and on the cinematic level. The construction of scenes in the film is such that their impact usually relies more on the editor’s scalpel than it does on any pre-existing tension. Such criticism should not, of course, take away from the courage of those Indonesians involved in the project (many of whom have to remain anonymous for their own safety, in a country which is still far from coming to terms with its grisly past), or from the film’s broader pedagogical value. In an opening prelude, evidence of US collusion with the Indonesian government comes in the form of footage of an NBC report on the massacres, which blithely regards the killing of hundreds of thousands of communists as a regrettable necessity of Realpolitik. But such tidbits generally take a back seat to the “current affairs”-style confrontational interviews that seem to have become Oppenheimer’s cinematic trademark.
JS: What I find so frustrating with Oppenheimer’s work is that he is clearly very close to a project of immense historical importance: a genocide that has not been fully broached, let alone worked through. But the films he ends up making very often show more interest in their own hall-of-mirror effects than in the atrocities they circle around. There is no doubt about the difficulties and sensitivities that attend such a horrific subject. But what I find so disappointing with Oppenheimer is that his films are not particularly interested in truth. Instead, they are interested in their own encounters with a traumatised community and the resulting voyeurism of moral ambiguity.
DF: A contrasting model of documentary filmmaking could be found in Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. With her Maysles-like cinéma vérité approach to the documentary format, Poitras strives for her own invisibility – the contradiction being that she herself had become centrally involved in the story of this film, having been selected by Edward Snowden to be one of his first points of contact. The filmmaker’s narrative skills are adept when introducing the NSA whistleblower: after a slow-burn prologue relaying the necessary background information, Snowden seems to materialise from out of nowhere, seated comfortably in an armchair of the Hong Kong hotel room in which he is holed up, now on the run from an inconceivably powerful state organisation. From this point, we remain confined in the claustrophobic chamber with Snowden, Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen McAskill, and Poitras herself, desperately attempting to remain off-screen, as the group deliberate on when and how to blow the cover on the NSA’s mass surveillance program – a decision that will essentially mean that Snowden, in a best case scenario, will never set foot in his home country again. When the story finally does hit the media, the film takes on an even more uncanny twist: we now see Snowden watching the coverage of himself on 24-hour news channels, before absconding from the hotel under the cover of a grey hoodie. This footage is of such an indescribable tension and such a rare fortuity – comparable to a filmmaker being on hand for Gavrilo Princip’s final moments before assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand – that it overwhelmingly dominates the film as a whole. Once Snowden is in Moscow and far from Poitras’ camera (symbolised by a brief image of him at home cooking dinner with his girlfriend, shot at a distance with a telephoto lens), the film loses direction somewhat, but in truth there is not much to criticise in the segments surrounding the Hong Kong footage. And yet the viewer in me would have been perfectly happy had these extraneous sequences been completely discarded, and had the entire film – lasting four, six, eight hours – simply shown Snowden in his hotel room, with his finger poised over the red button to drop a mediatic nuclear bomb, and then surveying the landscape when the bomb goes off.
JS: I was similarly riveted by Citizenfour. The film succeeds both as a fascinating whistleblowing procedural and as an eerie mood-piece about the digital panopticon the world is becoming. As the third in a trilogy about post-9/11 America, Citizenfour made me think of Poitras in relation to Kathryn Bigelow: both women have created work about the impact and overstepping of American power. Both have adopted a terse, almost dispassionate stance – observational rather than didactic – before the difficulty of their material. And yet this comparison also revealed something unexpected: that the real difference between the two may lie less in their separate cinematic modes than in the fact that they approach the same themes from opposing perspectives. Poitras’ My Country, My Country, for example, followed an Iraqi doctor running for local office in the wake of the US invasion. The Hurt Locker, by contrast, found its way into Iraq through the eyes of American personnel. And while both Zero Dark Thirty and Citizenfour depict a new breed of American intelligence gatherer, one focuses on an internal renegade goading her superiors to do more while the other focuses on a disillusioned whistle-blower reacting against limitless power. Both filmmakers possess a critical stoicism to what they portray, but as an American examining American power, Poitras has distinguished herself by her willingness to truly incorporate non-American and dissenting perspectives.
My one reservation about Citizenfour, however, also regards an ambiguity at the heart of Poitras’ method. There is often a tension in her work between character-driven narrative and larger political commentary. Citizenfour left me electrified, yet I also had lingering questions on both levels. In particular I was not fully convinced by Snowden’s change-of-heart narrative. I wanted to know how someone with his politics could have ever worked for a cyber security firm in the first place. Poitras has said she meant Citizenfour to be about courage – and in this she succeeds powerfully. The sangfroid Snowden evinces is impressive and inspiring, and surely derives in large part from his moral conviction. But the film sheds no light on how such a powerful conscience was born to begin with. In other words, it is a whistle-blowing procedural that begins after the decision to blow the whistle has been made and braced for. Poitras’ earlier film, The Oath, about a former bodyguard to bin Laden who later cooperated with Western anti-terrorism forces, offered a human story pitched on the complexities of that change-of-heart. In The Oath (which I consider to be Poitras’ best film, both the most understated and the most haunting) our political assumptions are challenged not only by what the human narrative illustrates, but also by its essential humanness, which is to say its complexity and ambivalence.
II. Modernism after Modernism
DF: In the world of fiction, by contrast, many of the films screened at the festival shied away from an obvious social or political relevance. Instead, a number seemed to be more concerned with stylistic rather than thematic matters, working – with varying degrees of self-awareness – in the modernist tradition of European cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Hong Sang-soo, despite resolutely Korean settings, has so frequently been compared to Éric Rohmer that the cliché almost doesn’t bear repeating, but the latest film by the prolific filmmaker shifts, in subtle but beguiling ways, the boundaries of the stylistic paradigm with which Hong has been associated. A pleasingly brief 66-minutes, Hill of Freedom almost entirely contains dialogue spoken in the halting, broken, heavily-accented English that is now the lingua franca for much of the planet’s cross-cultural communication. The distanciation effect of this linguistic impediment is narratively motivated by the visit of a Japanese man, Mori, to Seoul, in order to re-connect with an old flame. Fruitlessly seeking her out, Mori writes a frenetic series of letters to Kwon, which similarly forms a narrative motivation for Hong’s second gambit: Kwon drops the letters on the ground, and, picking them up hurriedly, proceeds to read them in a disordered manner, which is also the sequence in which the film’s episodes are relayed. The modern viewer, Hong seems to wager, has become so adept at deciphering and re-ordering the chronologically scattered narratives of so much of arthouse (and even blockbuster) cinema that a filmmaker can literally show the events of an entire film in a totally randomised order, without overly impairing the audience’s comprehension of the film.
The Walter Reade theatre’s audience, meanwhile, was sharply divided about the New York-born but emphatically Europhilic Eugène Green – mainly on the question of the correct pronunciation of his name. On a surface level, perhaps, the affected, haute bourgeoise qualities of his new film La Sapienza mirrored the pretentiousness of saying “Err-zhenn Grehnn” rather than “Yoo-jean Green” (Green’s own preference is unknown, but the presence of an added accent grave to his first name would suggest his inclination for the former). The deliberately stilted acting of Fabrizio Rongone and Christelle Prot Landman as a discontented middle-class couple embarking on a trip to Italic parts from their home in Paris, combined with languorous views of lusciously filmed baroque European architecture, has the potential to make for a deadeningly mannered affair, but the film was significantly leavened by Green’s taste for moments of fiendish humour – most notably, in this film, an episode involving an Australian tourist made irate by a blasé museum warden, the wanton display of broad stereotypes in which had me wishing to lodge a complaint with my local ambassador about Green’s insult to my nation.
JS: But that moment was the highlight of the film! In fact, it is only when La Sapienza verges on camp that it comes alive. Otherwise, it is a dull, ingratiating affair. It takes place in an imaginary Europe more likely to be found in Orlando than Paris, while its style seems to be patched together out of half-remembered tidbits from nearly every trend in the European art film. It was only when I put on the appropriate parody glasses – when I began to see the film as a spoof – that I started to enjoy it.
A related, although more poetic, change of spectacles occurred during my viewing of Godard’s Goodbye to Language, even though I kept my 3D goggles on throughout. About halfway through the film, which consists of interwoven fragments shot in and around Lake Geneva, I realised I was watching two films at once. On the one hand it was the latest philosophical tome by Europe’s greatest living filmmaker. On the other hand, it was simply the home video of a retired Swiss dude. And what was surprising for me was that it was this latter film I preferred. I found it to be genuinely, quietly, moving: more in line with the personal cinema of Brakhage or Mekas than the militant ciné-sociologue of years past. To be sure, Godard’s staple interests were still there – Marx, Mao, De Staël – but these references now belong to an introverted imagination, not to a loudspeaker. There was the same discursive, fundamentally aphoristic intelligence at work, but there was also a new poetry to Godard’s gaze: an interest in lingering on animals and nature. Godard’s pet Labrador turned out to be the star of the film. Its playing in a stream became as significant in its way – in the intimate camera of its keeper – as any momentous historical event.
DF: After several viewings of the film, this was the element that struck me the most. Adieu au langage is above all a film about equality. In an interview he gave years ago, Godard outlined his idea for a film in which, after women staged a revolution to gain equality with men, children then launched their own revolution for equality with adults, and finally the animals hatched a revolution to win equal status with humans. Taken together, his last two films, Adieu and Film socialisme, seem to have acted on this radically egalitarian vision. Not only is the dog Roxy equal to the human characters of the film, but when he plays in a stream, even the water of the stream attains this same level of equality. Everything has the same right to be present in front of the camera. Godard’s vieux camarade Jean-Marie Straub was fond of quoting Rosa Luxembourg to the effect that the fate of an insect is just as important as the outcome of the world revolution, and a similar sentiment pervades this film. Perhaps the key line of dialogue in Adieu is the lament of a woman to her boyfriend, while he is sitting on the toilet in their well-appointed chalet: “I speak of equality and you speak of shit.”
There is, of course, a problem when the most energising, rambunctious and inventive film of the year was the work of an 83 year-old man, who has been doing this sort of thing for more than five decades: this would hardly point to a condition of generational renewal in the cinema. Indeed young, formally adventurous filmmakers are a rare commodity on the festival circuit at present. But one of the most interesting exceptions to this state of affairs is the New York-based Argentine director Matías Piñeiro. With The Princess of France, Piñeiro continues his project of freely adapting Shakespeare’s comedies. Based on Love’s Labour’s Lost but set, like The Stolen Man and Viola, in modern day Buenos Aires, Piñeiro’s new film opens with one of the most beguiling images in recent cinema: with Schubert playing on the soundtrack, a camera pans over a patch of nocturnal Buenos Aires before resting on a football court. In a static long-shot, we watch a game take place in which, periodically, a player from one team will leave the frame and return in the uniform of their opponents. Although this image has little overt connection with the rest of the film, it acts as a graphic primer for the vacillations of the narrative to come. While the ensuing plot is nonetheless a challenge to decipher – even identifying distinct characters from among the gaggle of female thespians who populate the world of Princess of France is a considerable undertaking – Piñeiro’s direction is of such a grace and dexterous charm that we nonetheless remain entirely enchanted by the proceedings throughout the film’s 70-minute run. Building on the visual and narrative workings of his earlier films, Piñeiro is one of the precious few new filmmakers to be developing a recognisable style of his own.
A storyline bordering on the incomprehensible was also a mark of P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice – in fact, I’ll correct myself: Inherent Vice goes beyond the incomprehensible and into a zone of pure delirium. The first official adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel (an author I have never warmed to), the film left me in an ambivalent mood: while virtually all the aspects of filmmaking – the cinematography, mise en scène, pacing, acting, even the soundtrack – were carried out with consummate aplomb, it was difficult to detect an inner core to the film, a deeper purpose for its existence beyond the wheeling out of audiovisual pyrotechnics. A cameo from the always-appreciated (but all-too rarely seen) Martin Short aside, the film’s legacy may turn out to be as yet another exhibit in the case for Joaquin Phoenix’s consecration as the only truly great actor of the contemporary era. Once again, Phoenix was able to exude an intensity of screen presence that, simply put, is absent from any other actor working today. And, once again, his media duties only served to cultivate his idiosyncratic persona: turning up to NYFF’s press conference in a shabby tracksuit, the actor maintained a studious silence throughout, refusing to answer any questions put to him.
JS: We are all running out of words to praise Joaquin Phoenix. Two of my favourite films from last year relied on his genius: The Immigrant and Her. More than any other contemporary actor he can project, with either poignancy or levity, a conflicted inward existence: the perpetual inner struggle for some kind of reconciliation. Alas, in Inherent Vice, the reconciliation he is called upon by PTA to provide is not really his character’s to give: it belongs to a fundamental obstacle at the adaptation stage. Pynchon’s novels never really “make sense” in any conventional way, and rely on an extreme stylisation of language for them to cohere. I personally would have preferred to see Anderson free himself from the storyline of Pynchon’s novel (where plot twists are more like inside jokes than a recipe for suspense) and produce an homage to Pynchon’s world: the gleeful, psychedelic paranoia of California.
Even if I was expecting more from Inherent Vice, I was charmed by Phoenix, the film’s retro look and its stoner humour. This was a common reaction of mine to the films working in a more stylised mode. With Jauja or The Princess of France (or La Sapienza in its campy moments), I was charmed rather than challenged or moved. I enjoyed Mathieu Amalric’s Simenon adaptation, The Blue Room, as an exercise in atmosphere, and found the world of the film, a rainy, noirish provincial France, utterly captivating. But the narrative was most effective when it was simply a garnish for mood and ambience. This was the case with most of the films just mentioned: and perhaps tellingly they were all strikingly – charmingly – short.
Here I am reminded of something Sissako said to me when I talked to him about Timbuktu. He stated that he has always seen stylisation to be something dangerous for the cinema – something he tries to avoid. His choice of words I found interesting: dangerous. And I think what he was saying was that when films become overly affected they can turn inward: they become engrossed by their own powers and forget about the world going by all around. If there is something that runs through many of the films we’ve been discussing – whether Horse Money or La Sapienza – it is their penchant for stylisation. This is perhaps why I have reacted against them: and especially against those films with apparent social concerns.
There is of course the question of whether stylisation, or theatricality, could ever be truly avoided in art. And nearby, too, is the question of realism. These are debates that go back at least a century and a half. There is no point rehearsing here all of the conundrums surrounding representation. But I do think that Timbuktu and Two Days, One Night were the only films of the festival that deserve to be considered meaningfully realist. By this I mean they concern themselves with the everyday processes of life. They look with genuine compassion at a range of people in different classes and situations – and they are interested in how these people are connected to each other, and how each person is also connected to history.
This is perhaps the central difference between the work of Sissako or the Dardennes and a third film at NYFF I admired, but not as profoundly, Time Out of Mind. In this film we follow an aging New Yorker (played by Richard Gere) after he is evicted from his apartment and falls slowly into homelessness: first sleeping on benches, then pawning his clothing, finally ending up in the scary, bureaucratised spaces of New York’s homeless shelters. I was impressed by this film – and especially its soundscape, which presents New York as an aural fabric of self-involved lives overheard – but I also found it to be weak at the very point that Timbuktu and Two Days, One Night were strong: at the point of connection between the individual life and the lives surrounding it. To invoke another term from earlier aesthetic debates, Time Out of Mind is a work of naturalism, not realism: it presents a fragmented reality without any attempt to explain that reality or show the processes that connect and undergird it. It serves as a valuable exercise in compassion (the phrase was used by the director, Oren Moverman, in the press conference) but it does not really stimulate the moral imagination of the viewer to move beyond charity toward solidarity. Of course not every film must do this – and the drawback I have just described is partly addressed in the film’s final scene, which suggests the rekindling of the last remaining bond between Gere’s character and the collective life beyond. But in today’s atomised media climate, those films that can find their way to a meaningful hope have accomplished something special.
III. The Ego of the Artist
DF: Having become an aging art – only just recently stretching past the lifetime of a human being – the cinema is clearly in a state of introspection, and this self-interrogation burrows more deeply than the common questions brought about by the shift to digital. It reaches into the very status of the artists (the directors, writers, actors) who bring it to life. It would therefore seem to be no coincidence that four key films at the festival – Birdman, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Listen Up Philip and Pasolini – concerned themselves with the question of artistic endeavour, and the egos, anxieties and relationships that accompany this process. The results of these efforts, however, varied significantly.
Beyond the strategy of using the actor Michael Keaton to play an ironised version of himself – a washed-up actor principally known for a superhero role he had played twenty years ago – Birdman is primarily marked by the formal device of presenting almost the entire film in a digital version of Rope-style continuity. The former, Keaton’s performance, is the film’s strength, as it charts his efforts to present a Broadway play that is clearly beyond the limits of his talent, and is stymied by the upstaging antics of a manic Edward Norton, as well his own demons, which assume the form of his erstwhile Birdman-character whispering thoughts into his ear. The latter, however, in obliterating any sense of mise en scène and subjecting the entire film to a floating, languid camera, whose roughly 100-minute long opening “take” is patched together from numerous shots that span interiors and exteriors, day and night shots, and “reality” and “fantasy” sequences, is its major drawback. Pulling this off logistically is, in a way, an example of cinematic prowess, but only in the most banal sense of the term: the virtuosity of the feat serves mainly to dissimulate the vapidity of the broader enterprise.
I felt similarly about Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria. While doing without the visual ostentation of Birdman (if we make an exception for the “Maloja snake” cloud formation that serves as a protracted metaphor in the film), Assayas’ work, in my view, was a slight affair, a little undercooked, and content mainly to nod appreciatively to the world of “great art” – in this case, the socially rarefied world of sanctified bourgeois theatre, with its gala receptions, black tie dinners and exclusive hotels – rather than engage with it in a more frontal fashion. But I know, Josh, that we have contrasting views of Assayas.
JS: That’s right: as you know I’m an admirer of Assayas. I also held Birdman in higher esteem than you, but maybe not as high as appears to be the mainstream critical consensus. I applaud Iñárritu for reinventing himself tonally, and making a zany, manic film. Birdman wants to be perpetually perched – ready to fly off in any direction at any moment. The problem is that the rhythm, camerawork and acting of the film are all so pitch-perfect as to hide the fact that the message has worn thin by the end and the film risks becoming precisely what it was so intent on avoiding – namely flat and predictable.
But back to Assayas. I should say at the outset that, unlike you, I love many of his films. But not all. He has had several misfires, one of which was his first collaboration with Juliette Binoche, Summer Hours. With that film I would accept all of your aspersions: undercooked, slight, bourgeois, and so forth. But not so with The Clouds of Sils Maria!Okay, I’ll concede that it is bourgeois, but surely not undercooked or slight. Instead, I found it to be spontaneous, fresh, full of life. The onscreen rapport between Binoche (an aging actress) and Kristen Stewart (her young assistant) is electric and ambiguous without ever being simplified into the expected rubric of power and desire we’ve already seen in Ozon’s Swimming Pool, for example, or in Fassbinder, whose Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was the model for the play-inside-the-film. Instead, Binoche and Stewart possess a chemistry that is exuberant and playful. As middle-aged and young, French and American, they acknowledge and flirt with the attendant cultural or generational clichés so as to turn them on their heads. This process is delightful and refreshing to watch, just as the artistic triangle at the heart of the film – Binoche, Stewart and Assayas – makes for something special to behold.
What is undeniable, however, is that Assayas possesses a romantic conception of the artist, of the life lived for art. There are neuroses and challenges, but these are faced in, well, the clouds of Sils Maria – which is to say in the beautiful surroundings of the Swiss Alps. Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, by contrast, seems to take place somewhere in Prospect Heights – and unearths all the dirty, paltry, narcissistic secrets about the artists who live in and around there. Philip, played wonderfully by Jason Schwartzman, is a grumpy young literary man: impatient, condescending, solipsistic. But, it turns out, he is talented, and this excuses, or at least enables, the rest of his many faults. Whereas Assayas’ film possessed a feminine composure (Binoche commissioned the film partly to bring what she called a much-needed dose of womanhood to the cinema), Perry’s radiates a desperate male status anxiety that the film both celebrates and skewers in its caricatures of literary types: the aging “lion” Ike Zimmerman (a version of Phillip Roth in all but name), the jealous colleague (a beautiful French professor vexed no longer to be the youngest faculty member on campus), the rival author (based, it seemed to me, on David Foster Wallace, whose every move – even his suicide – is seen to be a ploy for greater publicity). This is a world where cynicism and bitterness reign. In short: it’s the New York publishing scene, and the broader “Culture of Narcissism” Christopher Lasch famously fulminated against. Given how shrewd, uproarious and accurate the film’s satire was for a certain echelon at New York (the laughter at the press screening had the reverberating tenor of collective self-recognition), Listen Up Philip became, for me, both impressive and depressing in equal measure. In Philip we see the sour inversion of the rebellious idealists so beloved by Assayas.
DF: I agree that Perry’s greatest strength – apart from his uncanny knack for creating characters that are endearingly annoying – is the perfect pitch of his satire. Like all good satirical takedowns, it is at once completely outrageous and perfectly believable, and contains a generous dose of affection within the stew of acerbity. Perhaps the retro book covers with pastiche titles that are sprinkled throughout the film are the perfect emblem of Listen Up Philip’s overarching tone. Thankfully, his films do not get swallowed up by their own cynicism, and retain a warmth even when their characters are at their most witheringly obnoxious. I know the professional envy in the line Philip proffers with respect to the recently-suicided rival writer – “I mean, it’s a good thing he’s dead and all, but just think of the publicity he’ll get” – stood out for both of us, while the opening scene, in which a late-running date sends the protagonist into an apoplectic rage, was a bit too close for comfort for me.
But the film is also extremely well-crafted, from the Super 16mm visuals of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, to the carefully measured twists and turns of the plot, and this almost marks it out at the antipodes of the anarchic meanderings of The Color Wheel, the director’s previous outing. Perry’s literary references – Philip Roth, as you mention, but also William Gaddis, whose debut novel The Recognitions apparently provided Perry with the inspiration for the digression of the film’s middle part (also its weakest section) – can sometimes weigh a little too heavily on his films. And yet his emergence in the last few years marks the filmmaker out as one of the most promising young talents in an American independent cinema which too often suffers from the crushing effects of its own imago.
All these films, however, were overshadowed by the achievement of Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini. Having suffered the fate of many an aesthetically maverick American director – neglect in his own country mirrored by acclaim in France – 2014 may well come to be seen as a key year in Ferrara’s enduring career. As with Welcome to New York (which premiered during but not at Cannes earlier this year), Ferraradoes not shy away from directly representing the criminal act at the heart of Pasolini, but in both films the depiction does nothing to resolve the maelstrom of questions surrounding these milestone events. In both films, too, Ferrara’s methodology of unhinged excess results in both the sublime – here, the Sodomo-Gomorrahite orgy pilfered from Pasolini’s preparations for his follow-up to Salò, Porno-Teo-Kolossal – and the gauchely ill-judged (most notably, the use of Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa” over the top of the concluding scene showing the aftermath of Pasolini’s death, which unavoidably made one think of Susan Alexander’s grating rendition in Citizen Kane). With a great deal of help from his physical resemblance to the filmmaker, Willem Dafoe’s performance as PPP has generally been critically well-received, but the casting decision also entailed the use of a mish-mash of Italian and English throughout the film. Dafoe himself switches between the two languages, and while I usually have little tolerance for such manoeuvres, which generally leave films reeking of overly abstracted Euro-pudding ensembles, I found that on this occasion it seemed to be oddly fitting. The linguistic mélange ends up becoming an adventitious metaphor for the antithetical registers that dominated Pasolini’s life: gloomy Marxist intellectual on the one hand, and hedonistic pleasure-seeker happy to slum it with borgate kids on the other. It is this contradiction, Ferrara suggests, which brings about the Italian filmmaker’s downfall.
The presence of Pasolini at this year’s NYFF – even if in the spectral form of a character in a fictional film – perhaps underscores the lack the two of us have perceived in the festival, a lack which points more to a systemic malaise than to any possible failings on the part of the festival programmers. Interesting films, good films, even great films are in plentiful supply – the festival-industrial complex demands it. But how many of these films matter beyond the confines of the cinema? The ones that had the potential to do so, those by the Dardennes, Sissako, Godard and (in my view, at least) Costa, will ineluctably be intercepted by the border guards of the global culture industry. Perhaps a certain model of the intellectuel engagé, which, let’s say, begins with Rousseau and ends with the death of Pasolini, has passed into obsolescence, or perhaps it has merely gone into remission, waiting for a more propitious time to be reawakened. In the meantime, artists – whether in the cinema, the gallery or the literary world – are inadvertent parties to a global Faustian pact: they may have a historically unprecedented freedom to produce, but their work ends up reverberating in a thinly populated echo chamber, without the broader public resonance that the best of it deserves. The world we live in is fertilised with the ashes of Gramsci.
The challenge for a film festival, then, is to counteract this state of affairs, to be a pinprick, at least, in the iron shield of cultural exclusivity. Some, NYFF included, perform admirably well on this level, even with the inevitable compromises with commercial and institutional realities that it has to make, and even if it is firmly ensconced in a high-culture bunker (the Lincoln Center) located in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world. The enemy is indeed formidable. But culture, as Pasolini said, is nothing more nor less than the possibility of struggle.
New York Film Festival
26 September – 12 October 2014
Festival website: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2014