The New York Film Festival (NYFF), founded in 1963 by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, differs from most major festivals by virtue of its extreme selectivity—its main component consists of no more than 25 new feature films. The purpose of the NYFF is completely different from that of Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Chicago, or San Francisco. According to a press release, New York is “called a boutique among film festival department stores like Toronto or Sundance… focus[ing] on only the best films of the year.” And Richard Peña, the current Festival chairman, regards it as “not a panorama, but a selection.”
The minds behind the Festival take a certain amount of pride, I think, in distinguishing NY from the “film festival department stores” where the business of film distribution overwhelms the art of cinema. Their devotion to quality over quantity is admirable, but their extreme selectivity isn’t necessarily the answer. I’m frustrated anew each year by the NYFF’s programming, not because the films aren’t worthy, but because I want, precisely, a panorama not a selection. The context is important here—this Festival takes place in New York, a city in which the opportunity is greater than almost anywhere else to see films from all over the world, but where, nevertheless, the Festival presents only a small portion of world cinema. This year, even more than last, the NYFF proved itself not an opportunity to see movies which would otherwise never see the light of day (or rather the darkness of a theater), but simply a preview of the best of upcoming releases: of the 23 new features on the program, 17 had been picked up for distribution as of the beginning of the Festival. In fact, several films each year are picked up for distribution because they’ve been selected by the Festival. But it’s a waste of an opportunity, and no service to the health of world cinema, to program movies like Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001), or even Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room (2001), movies that need no help in finding an audience.
Obviously all festivals select films, more or less carefully, and it’s a blessing that NY veers away from the Hollywood product that encumber festivals like Venice, Cannes, and Toronto. Select with quality in mind, absolutely, but also with breadth, depth and a sense of adventure. Again, Peña from the Festival’s press release: “[Y]ou might not like or agree with the selection, but it’s clear that the films chosen offer a distinctive point-of-view on what’s happening in cinema today.” If the idea is to present a picture of “what’s happening in cinema today,” one would assume this can only be accomplished via a panorama, rather than a selection, because only a panorama suggests the necessary breadth and variety. For me, it’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with the quality of the selection. Rather, it’s a question of having decisions on what section of world cinema I can see already made for me. For instance, I’ve heard criticism of the decision to include Baran, the new film by the Iranian Majid Majidi, instead of new works by either Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar) or Abbas Kiarostami (ABC Africa), but putting aside the relative accessibility of Majidi’s films, what bothers me is not which one was picked but that only one was picked at all. I take issue with the Festival’s selection, not because they select for quality (all three of these films are almost certainly good films) or even because the selection committee consists of only five people, but because in the context of American film exhibition, in which the distribution companies already select what films we are going to be able to see, what is needed is an opportunity to see a broader spectrum of films than would otherwise be accessible. And in the single case of Iranian cinema, how can you show “what’s happening in cinema today” by showing only Majidi’s work and not Makhmalbaf’s or Kiarostami’s?
The problem with the NYFF’s selection is that it is geared towards the Lincoln Center crowd, towards the cultural elite, an audience with little sense of adventure or desire to experiment, and with a certain expectation that whatever it is about to subject itself to comes with a sort of seal-of-quality. This is not an audience with a deep enough interest in movies to really spend the time and energy it would take to survey a panorama. But that said, this year might’ve been a tough pill to swallow for many, with the relatively but only incidentally accessible Rivette film, Va Savoir (2001) on opening night, Lynch’s narratively complex Mulholland Drive as the centerpiece, and Godard’s characteristically dense and impenetrable though gloriously beautiful, In Praise of Love (2001) closing the event. If the focus of last year’s Festival was Asian cinema and its stars comparatively younger and little known, this year centered geographically on reliable old France and individually on a gaggle of aging cinematic heroes—the New Wave triumvirate of Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard, joined by the reportedly retired Shohei Imamura and, eldest of them all, Manoel de Oliveira.
Rivette’s Va Savoir and Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) were both minor works, but minor only in the context of their own careers. Va Savoir, despite Rivette’s new-found and somewhat inexplicable success (the movie was not only selected as the Opening Night Film but was also picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and opened the next day at, among other places, the very commercial United Artists Union Square 14 multiplex), is Rivette all-over, lighter and breezier than usual, but just as narratively complex and expansive and just as playfully modernistic. It’s missing the urgency and mystery of films like Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Secret Defense (1998), and it’s not as spontaneous and open-ended as the comparably low-key Up Down Fragile (1995), but it’s still lovely and beautiful. [For the author’s full discussion of Va Savoir in Cinema Scope, click here.]
Imamura has always had a subversive, unashamedly kinky sensibility, and in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge he’s come up with something like the perfect Imamura conception, a central image so inspired and hilariously liberating—a woman who sprays forth a jet of water when she reaches orgasm—that you can sense his boundless, infectious delight in having thought it up. It’s the latest, and perhaps most memorable, in a series of flamboyant, mind-blowing images of sexual desire or climax in Imamura’s work, from the porno filmmaker in The Pornographers (1965), sailing off into the distance with his nearly completed artificial-woman, to the close encounter with both whale and mushroom cloud at the conclusion of Dr. Akagi (1998). Imamura introduces Saeko and her peculiar orgasm early on (forgoing any narrative foreplay), and the first half-hour or so is exhilarating and truly inspired. But the central image may actually be a little too strong—it overwhelms the rest of the movie. Having unleashed this idea, Imamura and his co-authors don’t seem to know exactly what to do with it, how to expand it into a narrative, to fill out the rest of the film. Warm Water doesn’t quite manage to sustain its inventiveness—as the plot progresses and the characters develop it becomes rather conventional. But if Warm Water isn’t the best of Imamura, his best is evident in much of it, and that’s plenty to ask for.
The above two were the more likable of the five films; Godard, Rohmer, and de Oliveira’s entries proved to be difficult, audience-unfriendly works. Godard is that very rare creature, an artist who has not only avoided selling or burning out, but has actually grown more radical, more experimental, and certainly more inaccessible in his old age. In Praise of Love, like most late Godard, is a difficult, inhospitable terrain, impossible to penetrate in one viewing. But visually it’s a marvel. The first half is shot on 35mm black and white film and looks great. But it’s the last half hour, when Godard switches to color digital video (transferred to 35mm), that’s a revelation, a celebration of the video-ness of video, its artificiality and lack of clarity. I’m no expert on video-art, but this is by far the most beautiful use of the medium I’ve ever seen—the screen becomes a canvas filled not so much with people and objects as shifting, throbbing, Rothko-like fields of color. Whatever else is going on in this movie, the contrast between the two sections gives off an enormous charge, an almost palpable shock to the system—it’s almost too much for one movie to contain.
Godard shooting on digital video is no surprise—he’s been working with video for twenty years—but Eric Rohmer? Rohmer has always seemed like a traditionalist, not an experimental filmmaker, but The Lady and the Duke (2001) shows that he’s both—it’s a period film about a royalist Englishwoman living in Paris during the Revolution, and it’s shot entirely on DV with the exteriors consisting of paintings upon which the actors have been digitally inserted. It’s a paradoxical film, a cutting-edge, experimental movie about the past and about a conservative, reactionary woman in particular. Grace Elliot, the Lady of the title, is far from a likable character, thanks to her political views and her haughty self-assurance, but she’s not a totally uncharacteristic Rohmer heroine—his characters often walk the line between appealing and unlikable. And if Grace keeps us at arm’s length, so does the movie as a whole, which never lets us forget that the world it’s portraying is an artificial one. There have been suggestions that The Lady and the Duke is a reactionary film, but I think, on the contrary, that as much as he admires her, Rohmer’s interest in Grace is a sort of challenge, a way of forcing us to consider her conviction and her bravery (she shelters a fellow aristocrat at great risk to herself) more deeply than we would if she were easy to like. The Lady and the Duke isn’t easy to like either, but it’s a challenging, adventurous movie.
Manoel de Oliveira’s film, I’m Going Home (2001), is perhaps the most difficult of the five, the one I’m most eager to see again. My first impression was that it’s a surprisingly conventional film coming from de Oliveira, the story of an elderly actor (Michel Piccoli) coming to terms with the accidental death of his wife and daughter. But upon reflection, it becomes apparent that the film seems more conventional and accessible than it really is. The first hour is truly astounding. At one point, a series of scenes show Piccoli interacting with people on the streets and in stores. Although we see him, we cannot hear him because de Oliveira chooses to film Piccoli through a pane of glass, either from inside a store when he’s on the street or from the street when he’s in a store. It’s a technique that should be taught and studied as an example of the power of cinema to express even the most subtle, slippery emotions by showing rather than telling—for although Piccoli doesn’t appear unhappy, we’re aware of his emotional state, and it must be something like experiencing the world through a pane of glass, like being within the world but somehow cut off from everything, numb to sensation.
However, there’s a shift halfway through I’m Going Home, after which it becomes more and more distanced, less and less emotionally straightforward. This shift begins with the film’s close examination of Piccoli’s professional life, his discussion with his agent about a TV show deal and his experiences appearing in a film of Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m Going Home ends up in very similar territory as Va Savoir (which is just where it began—with an extended excerpt from a performance of a play, Ionesco here rather than Pirandello in the Rivette) in terms of the comparable fluidity between reality and theater, with reality behaving more and more theatrically. Ultimately, the crucial shift in perspective is significant—rather than encouraging us to inhabit Piccoli’s state of mind, de Oliveira ends by turning the camera away from him almost completely, training it first on the face of the American film director (John Malkovich) as he watches Piccoli self-destruct on set, and then on the face of Piccoli’s surviving grandson as he watches him climb the stairs muttering to himself, a broken, senile old man.
Rivette, Godard, Rohmer, Imamura, and de Oliveira—it’s hard to imagine tougher competition in a film festival (if they were one Super-Director, he would be 392 years old). Even directors like David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Nanni Moretti come off as upstarts in comparison, and their films did little to crack their elders’ armor. In contrast to last year’s Festival, which featured filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, Shinji Aoyama, Jia Zhang Ke, Edward Yang and Wong Kar-Wai, there were only a handful of films this year to suggest that in fifty years time, the 2050 NYFF will be as well-stocked (though I missed Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien  and Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou ). The most exciting films by filmmakers under 70 were Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001), Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There? (2001), and Laurence Cantet’s Time Out (2001).
I’ve only seen one other Breillat film (her recently re-released debut, A Real Young Girl ), so I can’t put Fat Girl in proper context; however I liked it much more than I expected to. It’s provocative but not cheaply so. Breillat never lets the provocation work at the expense of the characters who are rendered generously but unsentimentally. The relationship between the two sisters, one unattractive and ignored, the other desirable but more naïve, is especially convincing—they despise each other, of course, but their love is as intense as their hate. The characters’ complexity and contradictoriness heightens the provocation, rather than softening the blow. Fat Girl is a tough-minded, unsparing portrait of adolescence, but Breillat draws us in too close to her characters for us to be able to dismiss the darkness she finds within them.
Some are calling Tsai Ming-liang’s fifth feature, What Time is it There?, a step down from his earlier work; others are declaring it his finest film yet. I’ve seen all five of his features and I find the act of ranking them impossible (and pointless). Many of the greatest directors return compulsively to similar thematic terrain, with an arsenal of characteristic stylistic tools; but Tsai’s artistic progress has been more peculiar. His body of work consists not so much of five separate films but of one film seen from five different angles, or perceived under the influence of five different moods. Like Piet Mondrian’s paintings, their similarities are, at first glance, more striking than their differences; but precisely because they’re so similar, the differences take on a great significance.
Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of a Neon God (1992), is perhaps his most conventional, the most straightforward and accessible. But it turns out to have been a sort of template—the following four films have been abstracted, distilled versions of Rebels, each organized around a strong, unifying, and metaphorical central image: the vacant apartment in Vive l’Amour (1994), Lee Kang-sheng’s neck ailment (and perhaps the water leaking into his father’s bedroom) in The River (1996), the hole in The Hole (1998), and now, in What Time is it There?, the related concepts of time and distance. What Time is marginally lighter than the earlier films, the humor perhaps a bit more dominant, but the comedy is nothing new—it’s present in all the others, even the darkest (The River)—and it’s as full of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection as any of them. Tsai’s tone is absolutely unique – deeply sad though with moments of deadpan humor, highly metaphorical though stubbornly concrete. His scenes are almost always static—they don’t develop or progress, they simply last—and taken together they don’t so much form a narrative as they do simply accumulate. All of this goes for What Time every bit as much as for the others—if there’s a difference it’s not a crucial one, but more in the manner of an adjustment of the levels on a stereo.
What is different about What Time is that Tsai has expanded his canvas geographically to take in Paris as well as Taipei, and thematically to take in the subject of the cinema, represented by The 400 Blows (1959) (which Lee Kang-Sheng’s character studies as a way of reaching out to Chen Shiang-Chyi, traveling in Paris) and by an actual appearance by Jean-Pierre Léaud (encountered in a cemetery by Chen). And as a sequel of sorts to Rebels of a Neon God and The River (all of which center on the same family), What Time includes a significant development. In The River, Lee Kang-Sheng established a kind of connection with his father (though it was as disturbing and problematic as it was healing). Here, there’s a suggestion of some sort of connection with, or at least tenderness towards, his mother.
The only real revelation of the Festival for me was Laurence Cantet’s Time Out, his follow up to Human Resources (1999). Time Out is about Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), a man who loses his job as an executive but cannot bring himself to admit the truth to his family, preferring to spend his days and nights driving aimlessly, constructing a fictional new job and struggling to maintain this deception. Vincent lies not simply out of shame for losing his job but out of a desperate need for a sense of purpose, of engagement with the world. Like Human Resources, the new film shows a remarkable sensitivity towards its characters’ social spheres and a deep interest in the relationship between work and identity. But in contrast to Human Resources, Time Out is much more hypnotic and mysterious, the filmmaking more expressive—there are several scenes, including Vincent’s trespassing in an office building, passing through the border into Austria, and hiking with his wife on a mountain-side, which reach an almost unbearable level of intensity.
Above all, Time Out is a much more interior film, more fixated on one character. The film belongs to Aurelien Recoing who gives an astounding performance, communicating Vincent’s desperation, panic, and his self-deception, without ever condescending to the character. Vincent could so easily have been an overly transparent character, more case-study than human being, but Recoing reminds us, with breathtaking subtlety, that in some part of his being Vincent is fully aware of what he’s doing.
The American films in the Festival were all disappointing (although I missed Todd Solondz’s Storytelling ). Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was certainly the best of them, trashy fun and the wackiest film he’s made so far, but also one of the most forgettable (for better or for worse—Wild at Heart  and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me  are unforgettably bad). It’s a fun movie, but I miss the Lynch of Eraserhead (1977), Elephant Man (1980), and Blue Velvet (1986), films that are truly, deeply weird, that have the inexplicable power and logic of a dream, rather than the extravagant, reflexive, unmoored bizarreness of almost everything since Twin Peaks (1989-90). His earlier movies get under your skin; the recent ones are weirder on the surface but almost nothing in them sticks with you.
The frantic, eager to please The Royal Tenenbaums was the big disappointment of the Festival for me. Not that it came as a big shock—as much as I love Rushmore (1998) (and like Bottle Rocket ), it was too early in Wes Anderson’s career to count on great things from him. He’s got talent to the gills, no question, but where Rushmore transcended its cleverness thanks to its beautifully drawn, original characters (and of course, Bill Murray’s genius), The Royal Tenenbaums is all cleverness. It’s full of great ideas, but it’s too full—Anderson throws so much into it, so many characters, so many jokes, so many visual puns, that there’s no time for anything to develop or build. The film practically begs for approval, leaving nothing to chance, no room for spontaneity—everything is in its place, waiting to be noticed.
Scorsese presented a documentary he’s been working on for several years now about the Italian cinema up to the early ’60s, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (2001). The first hour (out of four) is quite moving thanks to the personal spin Scorsese puts on discovering Italian films—it’s easy to forget that, despite his stardom, Scorsese is utterly sincere in his love for movies. He describes how important the Italian films were to his parents who watched them on TV, almost as accounts of their war-torn homeland. And at one point, he includes footage, found only recently, of his grandparents, parents and the neighborhood just before his birth. But after this first hour or so, the film becomes a kind of cinematic Cliff Notes, leading us down the most tiresomely obvious, depressingly linear itinerary of Italian cinema—Rossellini to DeSica to Visconti to Fellini to Antonioni. Partly this is just a matter of the target audience—he’s appealing to people who are new to film history. But it’s worse than that—Scorsese’s approach is linear and unimaginative even within the sections devoted to individual directors, moving from one film to the next, and within each film, taking us through the plot from beginning to middle to end, almost scene by scene. This is a pointless approach no matter who the audience is—completely redundant for anyone who’s seen the films and a spoiler for those who haven’t.
After Time Out, the more modest discoveries of the Festival were two films from France, Deep Breath (Damien Odoul, 2001) and That Old Dream That Moves (Alain Guiraudie, 2001), and two from Argentina, La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001) and La Libertad (Lisandro Alonso, 2001). All four are linked by their extremely free approach to narrative, concentrating more on conjuring a certain atmosphere, exploring a certain small corner of society, and focusing on the down-time between events, than on telling a story. Deep Breath is the strangest, something like a cross between the earnest, earthy Bruno Dumont (L’Humanité ) and the manic, anarchic Slovakian filmmaker, Juraj Jakubisko (Birds, Orphans and Fools ). That Old Dream is the most unpredictable, a portrait of a working-class community that gradually shades into something much more unexpected; La Cienaga, the most perfect, a languorous yet brilliantly precise portrait of a decadent upper-class family; and La Libertad, the most radical, an unembellished portrait of a rural wood-cutter’s mostly solitary routine over the course of one day and night.
As usual, the avant-garde section of the NYFF was a completely separate animal from the Festival proper, with its own curators (Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten), its own venue (the Walter Reade theater rather than the much ritzier Alice Tully Hall), and its own audience (mostly members of the NY avant-garde community). I only got a chance to catch two of the programs but just about everything I saw was impressive. The first was made up of only three films, a short by Stan Brakhage, one of his hand-painted films, pretty but familiar, and new films by Nathaniel Dorsky and Robert Beavers. Dorsky’s Love’s Refrain (2001) is the fourth in a growing series of films that, like Tsai Ming-Liang’s, are the same only different. His films are collections of impressions, silent, serene, and sensuous. In his own words, Dorsky utilizes a hunter/gatherer rather than an agricultural method of filmmaking, wandering about collecting impressions rather than “staking out a patch of land, planting seeds, and praying for rain.” His films consist of short, silent glimpses of fleeting events, the motion of flowers in the wind, the play of light and shadow on a curtain, the gestures of a couple conversing on the other side of a window, the succession of feet floating past on an escalator. His own description of his films is the most graceful: rather than revolving around concepts or ideas, they are the cinematic equivalent of “someone touching you lightly on the shoulder, bringing you back to the present.” Love’s Refrain is distinguished from the others by its mood of muted joy and relative contentment. But it’s just as modest and beautiful as its predecessors.
The Ground (Robert Beavers, 2001) has a similar physical immediacy—it was shot on one of the Greek isles and it’s driven by the almost palpable presence of and contrast between rock, water, sky, and body—but it’s a much more rigorously formal, concentrated film. Unlike Dorsky, Beavers very literally stakes out a particular patch of land (a rocky hill-side with a view out over a bay) and reduces it to just a few representative images (a small cave, a ruined fort, a man hammering at a rock, a solitary tree), which he interweaves and repeats in musical fashion. The unifying image, the one that sets the film in motion, is of a man’s hand cupped against his chest. As the film goes on, he cups and uncups his hand repeatedly and eventually starts using it to pound his chest, suggesting first the small cave (with birds audible within) and then the hammering of the rock.
The other avant-garde program I saw included films by Robert Fenz, Ip Yuk-Yiu, Leslie Thornton, Kerry Laitala, and Matt McCormick, but the standouts were Britany Gravely’s witty, resourceful found-footage film, Introduction to Living in a Closed System (2001), and Jennifer Fieber’s hypnotic and beautiful Their Idols Disintegrate (2001).
The sidebar was devoted to the Argentinian director, Leonardo Favio, an actor turned director turned singer whose films are treasured in Argentina but little known elsewhere. I only managed to see his first three, which reportedly are of a piece, his later films striking out in a very different direction, but they were all three masterpieces. Chronicle of a Lonely Child (1965) is the most straightforward and naturalistic of the three, a portrait of a juvenile delinquent’s hard-luck life and his experiences in, and his temporary escape from, a state-run children’s home. The Romance of Aniceto and Francisca (1967) is a very short, very perfect film, in which the main characters’ romance is established within the first ten minutes and then collapses over the remaining sixty, thanks to Aniceto’s self-destructive desire for another woman. The story has a fable-like simplicity, and Favio accentuates it by distilling everything to its essence, reducing what would normally be an entire scene to a nearly wordless single shot, and combining multiple scenes into one by letting the soundtrack communicate one thing while the image communicates another. It’s an amazing movie. He followed it with The Employee (1968), a Kafkaesque nightmare film that’s the Argentinian equivalent of (and possibly an influence on) Lynch’s Eraserhead. It’s as highly concentrated, feverishly intense a film as the first two, but in every other way it’s as different from them as they were from each other.
It’s difficult to fault the movies in the NYFF, but a film festival should be more than a collection of quality films. It should be an opportunity to experience not just a representative sample of the best of world cinema but, as much as possible, the whole playing field. Most of the best films this year were by the big names—the New Wavers, Imamura, de Oliveira, Tsai Ming-Liang, Lynch, and so on. And while it would be naïve to assume that their place in film history guarantees their films will find distribution, it’s certainly the case that New Yorkers, if they are adventurous and actively curious, will get a chance to see these movies in the near future. The more pressing need is to be able to see the smaller, perhaps even slightly inferior but still valuable films for which a film festival is the only chance at reaching an international audience. The press notes boast that, “No award has ever been associated with the NYFF, as inclusion into the event is considered an honor enough to most filmmakers,” an assertion that sounds impressive but suggests that attending the NYFF is like going to Cannes or Berlin or Venice and only being allowed to see the prize winners. I’d prefer a film festival that left the choice up to me.