A dialogue between Daniel Fairfax and Joshua Sperling
I. NYFF & Richard Peña
JS: A film festival is always more fun with a friend. So for this report of the 50th annual New York Film Festival we thought a dialogue between friends – rather than the usual critic’s soliloquy – would be an appropriate gesture.
Especially so for NYFF, which for two weeks every September hopes – admirably and maybe even atavistically – to turn a small corner of the Upper West Side into a humming, kibitzing ciné-club. While other festivals move closer each year to becoming depersonalised trade-fairs (or else, products of local tourism boards), NYFF, in its intimacy and energy, gives a sense of what the first film gatherings might have felt like: the debate (about the art, not the business); the excitement (about the filmmakers, not the stars); and, of course, to keep it all running – the strong coffee.
DF: Indeed – NYFF occupies a unique place on the international film festival map. In recent years it’s been a mix of the local festival – striving to provide the best of world cinema to the area’s own residents – and the global festival, obsessing over world premieres, red carpets and media hype. The biggest premieres this year were all American: Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, and David Chase’s Not Fade Away. But although the non-American highlights had already screened elsewhere, usually Cannes or Berlin, it’s par for the course to have auteurs such as Haneke, Kiarostami or Carax stop by for the afternoon to introduce their films. So there are the same big-names as the A-list festivals, but in a distinctly more relaxed setting.
JS: That’s the irony – by being in New York, the festival actually becomes less pretentious! Just to give one example: I was waiting in line in the men’s room when I noticed the man in front of me was Abbas Kiarostami. I told the famed auteur how much I admired his films. He smiled (from behind his signature Ray Bans), graciously thanked me, then excused himself. A few minutes later I saw him on stage and could have raised my hand to ask him a question. That congeniality is rare for a festival.
DF: It’s important to give credit to festival director Richard Peña for much of what makes NYFF what it is. He’s excelled at keeping a balance between ensuring that the festival stays true to its roots and engaging with contemporary trends. As NYFF celebrates its 50th anniversary, Peña, too, toasts the 25th year of his tenure. Although the promotional materials claimed this was “unprecedented”, it’s actually quite the opposite. In the 25 years preceding Peña’s own stint, the festival was also presided over by a single individual – Richard Roud, the paterfamilias of Gotham cinephilia.
That Peña should decide to call time on his incumbency this year gives the festival a pleasing symmetry to its history – neatly divided into twin quarter-century eras – and sets a daunting proposition for his successor. But his gesture also has a self-effacing quality: like a sportsman retiring when he has attained – but not surpassed – the record of an earlier master of the game, Peña chooses to stand equally with, rather than overtake, his illustrious predecessor. In the notoriously cutthroat world of festival programming, Peña was able to maintain an enduring long-term leadership over the festival, while at the same time retaining a generous disposition in all his activities. Vale.
JS: We should probably acknowledge here our personal debt to Peña; when we were hosting a film conference at Yale he generously gave his time to attend the talks and present the keynote address. Whether chatting with grad-students in New Haven or talking to Denzel Washington in an amphitheatre he lends the proceedings a sanguinity and amiability.
DF: His personality also filters through into the festival’s programming, which has kept a human scale – in stark contrast to many of its counterparts. The festival’s main slate has remained stubbornly compact – a conscious, and laudable, decision to prize quality over quantity, and resist the curatorial inflation which has affected so many other festivals of NYFF’s vintage.
The flip-side of this is that the restraint of the main slate, along with the weight of New York’s cinephilic history, has often entailed a conservative approach to programming. The latest films by old masters such as Haneke, Resnais and Kiarostami are virtually guaranteed representation, while riskier propositions find it harder to gain favour. NYFF is more a site of consecration for established auteurs, than a point of discovery for new talent. And so it was this year. In typically modest fashion, Peña did not allow the landmark of his final year as director to embark on grand, idiosyncratic follies. Instead, the festival remained with the tried and true formula he has perfected over the last two-and-a-half decades.
II. Life of Pi & Leviathan
DF: Some surprises in the program nonetheless popped up, and these seemed highlighted by a mischievous spirit in the festival’s scheduling, creating curious montage effects between juxtaposed screenings. The most intriguing of such combinations was, without doubt, the pairing of Ang Lee’s opening night blockbuster Life of Pi with a press screening of the decidedly experimental work Leviathan, made by the Boston-based pair Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel.
JS: Let’s give a sense of opening night. That Friday, Manhattan was pelted by heavy, gusting rain. Everyone was wet. Attendees queued up, huddling under their umbrellas as anticipation built for the world premiere of Life of Pi.
The stormy weather turned out to be the perfect mood-setter. Although different in almost every way, Pi and Leviathan both probe the limits of digital cinema by taking to the high seas. The former follows the miraculous survival (and religious conversion) of a boy stuck on a raft with a tiger; the latter immerses itself in the hypnotic rhythms of a commercial fishing boat and its fleet of Zombie-like sailors.
Seeing these two oceanographic films back-to-back (and still wet from the real storm outside) made for a bizarre experience. But what an incredible montage! For not only did the Pi/Leviathan double-feature typify NYFF’s own eclecticism (embracing the most corporate of spectacles and the most austere of experiments); it also threw into sharp relief two opposing aesthetic extremes: digital maximalism on the one hand (let’s call it the “CGI-sublime”) and a lo-fi, pixelated abstraction on the other – bristling with inchoate Brakhage-esque poetry: nature digitised.
DF: Take the same raw material – the solitude of life at sea – and pass it through contrasting aesthetic filters. In the first case, you will get the pure digital spectacle of Lee’s “film”, in which there is barely anything cinematic, and CGI-fantasy runs rampant. To the extent that the inanities of Yann Martel’s novel remain intact, Lee is faithful to the original text, but beyond this he transforms Pi into a “Best Of” album of the last 15 years of blockbuster cinema, briskly flitting from Slumdog Millionaire to Titanic to Castaway, while giving the whole a 3D treatment which handily demonstrates the aesthetic bankruptcy of this technique.
By contrast, Leviathan is pure cinema. The fact that it, too, was shot on digital does not detract from such a status. Rather, it demonstrates that there are really two digital aesthetics: the fantasy digital practised by the likes of Ang Lee, and the “ontological digital” at work in this film. Or rather, it demonstrates that the digital/analogue dichotomy is more a question of aesthetic principles, of philosophies towards filmmaking, than of technology – and in this case, Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s work falls squarely on the analogue side of the divide. The waterproof prosumer cameras used to extract the extraordinary imagery of Leviathan are tasked simply with recording the real. They do so to such a visceral extent that at certain moments – when the masses of dead fish squirm about as they pile up before the camera – Leviathan can feel like a horror film, an effect which the Gothic writing on the film’s title card would suggest is intentional. In a way, it possesses a more truly three-dimensional quality than the tawdry gimmicks of Pi could ever hope to attain. Our absorption in the film’s unrelenting diegesis is enhanced not only by the immersive camerawork, but also by the unsettling surround-sound audio, which I felt was reminiscent of Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac. And, lo!, Grandrieux himself was in the audience for Leviathan’s press screening, having just embarked on a road-trip with the filmmaking duo, where, as Castaing-Taylor related, they whiled away the hours by discussing Deleuze.
The film’s carefully composed soundtrack, a symphony of squelches, is evidently influenced by noise music – but, pleasingly, extraneous foley effects were minimal, and the sounds were for the most part captured in situ, by the surprisingly capable microphones fitted into the cheap little cameras used for filming. Leviathan’s grandeur, nonetheless, comes from the fact that it is a film which is felt more than it is seen or heard, and, as such, it stands as an epitome of what a good Deleuzian would call “haptic” cinema.
JS: In French there’s an expression, les extrêmes se touchent (“the extremes touch each other”) and I wonder if that isn’t the case for these two films. First of all both Pi and Leviathanare textural – rather than structural – films. They are both “felt” as you say, rather than thought and understood. If you wanted to push it, both are spectacles that require a theatre setting for the proper experience. This parallelism bespeaks an irony pervading contemporary cinema. By downplaying narrative in favour of moment-by-moment immersion in environment (landscape, dreamscape, etc.), “slow cinema” and Hollywood blockbusters have become strange bedfellows in this “haptic” aesthetic.
I want to ask an even weirder question. Why the ocean? What is it about the sea that makes it more than a setting ripe for (narrative) adventure but one of the supreme testing grounds for cinema itself? Beyond the obvious production dangers (that make studio executives nervous and can often foil small crews), the sea challenges filmmakers to think beyond the “window” and “language” film theories (schools of thought that have dominated film theory for decades) and focus on other modes of sensory experience. Not just the tactility of wetness but the ebbs and flows of a moving, living medium. Both Pi and Leviathan use digital cinema to disorient the viewer: to warp our usual Euclidean axes of the horizon line and gravity.
DF: But let’s not forget the trenchant differences between the films. Pi is a digital blockbuster for the middlebrow-set – accompanying the thrills of its catastrophic setpieces (the sinking of the cargo ship is undeniably compelling) with a dose of ethno-zoological intrigue, and underpinning the whole with a message of hollow profundity. In contrast, I can’t help but feel that the most appropriate audience for Leviathan, is the one which Straub/Huillet felt was ideal for their films: cavemen and children – precisely because they are most capable of simply going with the flow…
JS: Flow. Let’s think about that word for a second. Throughout Leviathan––and in the Sturm-und-Drang sequences of Pi – we experience a cinema of invisible forces and rhythms. It’s not just a haptic cinema, it’s a “proprioceptive” cinema, or “vestibular” cinema. The difference is that Leviathan is relentless. It makes you dizzy, imbalanced (not just sea-sick but cinema-sick!); it risks boredom and even honest-to-god nausea in the name of all-out immersion. Pi, meanwhile, gives you the thrill of risk while keeping you dry.
That seems to me to be the fundamental (or if you like, ideological) difference between Pi and Leviathan – alongside the ontological divergence you speak of. The illusion of danger is innocent enough – and may even be blockbuster cinema’s function in a sterile society; but what is more problematic is the deliberate conflation of belief in the computer-generated spectacle with belief in the divine. The former is meant to give pleasure; the latter, enlightenment. Maybe all storytellers (even ancient ones) feel the urge to elide narrative faith with religious belief. But there’s something neurotic – either richly paradoxical or just downright disingenuous – about a culture that marshals its most advanced technology to weave a spectacle meant as a rejoinder to the very science that allows for the spectacle itself.
III. Tabu, The Last Time I Saw Macao, Araf & Holy Motors
JS: The other great montage of the festival occurred within a single film. The Portuguese chef-d’œuvre Tabu first presents itself as an inscrutably slow-paced portrait of listless Lisbon pensioners. But when Aurora (a sad and compulsively altruistic woman at the film’s centre) dies, an old lover is summoned to tell of her past life in Africa on the slopes of Mount Tabu.
At this point, the film turns on a hinge and enters its luminous second half. We have sailed into a cinematic diptych. Aurora was once a beautiful bride who betrayed her husband (a wealthy colonial administrator) for a rakish hunter and musician – the very man who is narrating their illicit passion together. What we took for dust (the oppressive, wistful boredom of the film’s first half) was in fact the ash of past fire. Although the extended flashback is straight out of the “Colonial Romance” genre (Out of Africa, The English Patient, et al), the cinematic style it employs is breathtakingly original. Or rather – both original and antiquated at once. This is the paradox Tabu reveals of silent film: it is both (still) young and (now) old.
Tabu’s flickering 16 mm images of Mozambique shimmer with a talismanic aura. They manage to reincarnate (rather than simply reference) the early travel films of Schoedsack and Cooper, Flaherty (whose South Pacific collaboration with Murnau lends this film its winking title), and the myriad amateur and semi-professional “Safari Adventure” films of the 1920s and ‘30s. These images are to be savoured. Meanwhile, the elderly lover’s voiceover is so omnipresent as to resemble the “Benshi” of early East-Asian film, and so full of poetic longing and regret as to evoke an epistolary novel. Alongside this literary soundtrack, ambient sounds reminiscent of Tarkovksy (dreamlike rather than lifelike) give a ghostly intensity to the drama. As the melodrama climaxes, we see the characters screaming and crying – but all live-action dialogue has been suppressed. It is as if the words have been lost and only the sounds of the weather and the visual memories remain. In this way Tabu echoes Hart Crane’s dictum: “to trace the visionary company of love, its voice / An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)”. What we see on celluloid are the traces of the past; the past itself has escaped elsewhere.
Considered as a whole, Tabu becomes a poetic meditation not only on the secret pasts (and long afterlives) of individuals but of the cinema itself. Like Tacita Dean’s recent celluloid works, Tabu will surely spawn much discussion about the aesthetic opportunities – and poetry – to be found in obsolescence.
DF: Tabu, in my opinion, stands alone as the best film of the year. More, even, than the lyrical lines mellifluously intoned on the soundtrack, its poetry, as you point out, derives from the peerless beauty of its black and white, resolutely celluloid images. As Portugal teeters on the brink of economic oblivion, the little country is experiencing an unprecedented flourishing of its cinema, with Gomes joining Manoel de Olivieira and Pedro Costa on the list of Lusitanian luminaries. Maybe, therefore, Tabu’s qualities can be ascribed less to Gomes’ individual genius, and more to the rude health of his nation’s filmmaking – and this was suggested by the flair of Portugal’s other representative on the main slate. João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao – a follow up to Rodrigues’s scintillating 2009 effort, To Die Like a Man – is a very different film to Tabu, and yet it shares with Gomes’ work both an attachment to literature and the auratic presence of a masterpiece from the cinema’s past.
But here it is the essayistic memoir which is the literary genre, and, while allusions are made to von Sternberg’s Macao throughout the film, it is Marker’s Sans Soleil which unmistakably constitutes its main inspiration – a point stressed by Rodrigues in the screening’s Q&A, correcting a befuddled audience member who wondered if his film was influenced by La Jetée. Co-director João Rui Guerra de Mata, who spent his early life in Macao when it was still a Portuguese colony, is also the film’s main character, but is never strictly seen on-screen. Instead, a kaleidoscope of lurid images from this Oriental Las Vegas is accompanied by a voiceover charting his futile attempts to track down the enigmatic Candy, an old acquaintance who is caught up in a web of criminal activity, while an impending storm menaces the “besieged peninsula”. Macao is rough-hewn in all regards, the narrative is loose and digressive, and its coarse mini-DV visuals underscore the fact that it was filmed on a budget of trois fois rien, but it is a beguiling, even haunting film, whose ending, with Jane Russell breathily singing “You kill me, you knock me out” on the soundtrack, will reverberate in the viewer’s mind long after the film has finished.
Turkish filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu’s Araf: Somewhere in Between might lie on the opposite end of the arthouse spectrum to Rodrigues’ film. Araf is an accomplished work – so accomplished as to be nearly worthless. With the film’s low-key narrative (centring on the sexual whims of a teenage girl, Nehra, in a desolate part of central Turkey), taciturn characters embarking on inscrutable courses of action, overt thematisation of interstitiality, and languorous shots panning over decaying industrial non-places, shot in exquisitely framed but frostily detached high-definition digital video, Ustaoglu contents herself with recycling tropes from a range of her arthouse contemporaries. Ceylan and Akin unavoidably loom large over the film, but it also cherry-picks from figures such as Jia Zhang-ke, Lisandro Alonso and Cristian Mungiu. Indeed, its sedated pacing links it to the Romanian’s fellow NYFF entry Beyond the Hills, while a key scene involving an induced miscarriage (which, I confess, made me so queasy I had to momentarily leave the cinema) harks back to his rather more celebrated previous film, 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days. If Araf represents anything, it is a warning signal, pointing to the danger festival-films run of simply becoming paid-up members of a homogeneous, dull entity that would go by the name of “world cinema”, and of rigorously conforming to the attendant clichés, formal hallmarks and narrative expectations that such a genre would entail. Films such as this may make a few festival appearances, and be politely applauded at each one, but they will be forgotten almost instantly, and will decidedly not leave their imprint on the cinema.
JS: I’m surprised by both the antagonism and – I admit – the persuasiveness of your response to Araf. But first let me say that I was deeply touched by the film. I savoured its tone-poem of colours: the infernal glow of molten steel, the glassy Michael Mann hues of linoleum blue and snow at dusk. But most of all I was taken in by the female leads. When Nehra, played by the gorgeous Neslihan Atagül, is caught off guard by first-passion, I became slowly but utterly enveloped inside her performance – which is quiet and ferocious, fragile yet recalcitrant. You mentioned the viscerally horrifying scene of the miscarriage; but for me, it was the monologue given by Nehra’s older caretaker (Nihal Yalçın) about her own youthful affair with a soldier that I found totally overwhelming. The picture Ustaoglu presents in Arafis of a country of women who have been clouded by the pain of thwarted passion – yet who are ultimately survivors.
It seems to me you’d have to turn to the tradition of American melodramas, rather than world-cinema festival favourites, to find similar stories of victimhood and resilience. The illicit attraction at the film’s core, between the stoic truck-driver and the teenage rest-stop worker, evokes the rapture of first-passion better than most recent Hollywood romances – with the possible exception of Brokeback Mountain. And like that film, the scenes of passion in Araf – silhouetted against a twilit lake – beautifully elide (inarticulate) emotion with (resonant) landscape. Although the film will likely have too meditative a pace for an American audience, I think it nevertheless bears as much in common with The English Patient or Brokeback Mountainas with Jia Zhang-ke’s anti-romantic, Antonioni-inflected meditations – to which, I agree, it bears a strong debt.
What I think you’re getting at in your response to Araf is a sense that a “cinema of discovery” (as our advisor Dudley Andrew has put it) may be slowly becoming nothing more than a genre – with a certain tone and look – which, given the meaning of “discovery” makes no sense. Although I do agree that Arafraises some red flags in that regard, I also think we should also be careful to allow for local discoveries that may be new for a country or even a region if not for World Cinema itself. Furthermore, I think there’s a big difference between conforming to the clichés of an incipient genre and returning to enduring themes that could conceivably animate a hundred, a thousand, films. I’m thinking here of what I’ve been told Alain Bergala has called the two principle concerns of the cinema: the state of women and the process of urbanisation. To think that a few privileged auteurs can mark such universal ground as their own – that’s simply ridiculous.
DF: I’m not trying to say that the titans of auteur cinema somehow exercise eminent domain over certain thematic areas. But maybe my attitude towards Araf is coloured by the nature of viewing films in a festival setting. As we said before, NYFF is far from the barrage of cinema that festivals like Rotterdam or Berlin represent, but even here the avid festival-goer will pack an ungodly number of screenings into the space of a couple of weeks. In these conditions, I can’t help but look more fondly on the weird and idiosyncratic – even if not entirely successful – film over a work which, no matter how capably made, ineluctably echoes any number of contemporary counterparts. While Araf exemplifies the latter category, for me Holy Motors, a genuine shock to the system for any Lincoln Center denizen, is the archetype of the former. Even if the film occasionally threatens to sink under the weight of its own excess, who, in the end, can fail to be captivated by its euphoric verve and unabashed exuberance?
JS: It’s funny that you mention Holy Motors. That, for me, was one of the few true clunkers at NYFF. I was never a big fan of Carax to begin with, even though sometimes I think I should be. And I was prepared to like Holy Motors: it started off great and I was excited by its premise of limo-sampling. But ultimately (in my view) the film descended into an indulgent postmodernism. I had thought that tendency was on the way out – the whole nothing-is-real, post-structuralist thing: that the only thing a medium can do is play games with itself. To me that means surrender. Of course film can comment on itself (Tabu does; Something in the Air does) but it should also be about the world, about life. I have little tolerance for those films that seem to come only from other films. Which, ironically, seems to be your gripe about Araf!
DF: Carax may have little concern for the broader political environment, but he is a rare filmmaker to truly put his soul into the films he makes. Of course, such self-absorption can sometimes be exasperating, and even the exhilarating moments of Holy Motors are offset by the false notes and flat sequences which they are interspersed with. But I don’t know how you can call him a post-modernist; to my mind, Carax is the very opposite of the “cinéma du look” which he was often lumped in with early in his career. Rather, he strikes me more as a refugee from a previous era – not just from an earlier, more naive period of the cinema, but from a time before the cinema. His nearest artistic cousins, to my mind (and Holy Motors demonstrates this more clearly than any of his prior films), are Lautréamont, Nerval, even Hölderlin…
IV: Frances Ha, Something in the Air, Not Fade Away & No
JS: Frances Ha was screened for the press immediately after Araf, and is similarly about a young woman caught “in between”. Although what a different (post-Ivy League!) in-between it is. As the unexpected adjacency of Araf and Frances Ha revealed, there is something guiltily unsettling about our spoiled concerns here in upper middle-class America. If “world cinema” often follows the desperate sacrifices of silent young people, “mumblecore” is all about the over-educated volubility of quarter-life ennui.
Which is not to say good, even great, films can’t be made about privileged neurosis. Woody Allen made a career out of it and Noah Baumbach, from the looks of it, wants to follow in his footsteps. His latest film, which photographs New York in Manhattan-esque black-and-white postcards, focuses on the innocently homoerotic friendship between two straight and single best friends and their uneven transition to adulthood. At first, Frances Ha resembles an episode of the HBO show Girls. (Adam Driver as the love-interest in both further encourages the comparison.) But thanks to Baumbach’s and Gerwig’s inspired script – and especially the latter’s captivating and charming performance – the film transcends mumblecore’s almost in-built mediocrity. Compared to the Lena Dunhams of the genre, Frances (Gerwig) is livelier, lovelier and more mature. Her spaciness feels genuine rather than querulous. As she wanders about New York – with brief trips to Sacramento and Paris – her optimism reveals a poignant undercurrent of melancholy.
That the film takes a quick trip to Paris, by the way, and recycles the classic music from The 400 Blows places it in self-conscious (but not annoyingly self-conscious) dialogue with the Nouvelle Vague. Like Wes Anderson, Baumbach obviously has a soft spot for Truffaut and his over-sentimentalisation of impish adolescence. But Frances Ha invites another, more refreshing, comparison – not to Truffaut but Godard and his inspired, empathic experiment, Vivre sa vie. Like that film, this director looks lovingly on the caprices of his real-life girlfriend and muse. Like Vivre sa vie, Frances Ha’s form teeters on the brink of inscrutable arbitrariness. It’s a film that keeps you on your toes, blurring the line between meaning and whimsy.
DF: Charting the passage to adulthood was one of the leitmotivs of the festival – with Frances Ha joined by Not Fade Away and Something in the Air in covering this terrain. Not Fade Away marked David Chase’s move from TV to the feature-length film, but in many ways he has not significantly departed from the televisual aesthetic honed to perfection in The Sopranos. If Frances Ha vibed with Girls, then this film – following the stuttering efforts of ‘60s teen Douglas Damiano to form a rock band – had the air of an extended episode of The Wonder Years.
Like Not Fade Away, the post-‘68 teen-film Something in the Air is imbued with autobiographically-tinged retro-nostalgia – in this case, however, it is burnished by the cinematic credentials of director Olivier Assayas. But Something in the Air, if I can be blunt, is an offensive film, and one of the most egregious examples of left-wing posturing in recent cinema. Assayas is meticulous in getting the details of the period correct – right down to the obscure shibboleths of competing “Mao-Spontex” splinter groups in the early 1970s – but such scrupulous labour is expended to convey the tritest of political messages, celebrating the emancipatory impact of the era’s music, fashion and art, while bewailing the corrosive sectarianism of the far left. Four decades on, and this is all we have to learn from that tumultuous time? Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers continues to be the only true film of May ’68, wherein the politics of the era is transformed into pure visual poetry, and the unfolding of events is imprinted into the very structure of the film itself. By contrast, Something in the Air marshals the most superficially glamorous aspects of youthful radicalism in order to craft a deeply conservative film, whose form does not bear the slightest trace of the revolutionary politics it portrays. In his most obscenely calculated manoeuvre, Assayas thinks to have forestalled such criticisms by including debates over the nature of radical cinema within the film itself. But this does not change the fact that a self-professed devotee of the Situationists makes film after film that his venerated Debord would unhesitatingly denounce. What kind of a filmmaker – what kind of a human being – could persist in doing so with such a glaring contradiction hanging over him? The answer, I am afraid to say: either a cretin or an opportunist… Or am I being unduly harsh?
JS: This film must have pushed the wrong buttons in you; for me, it pushed the right ones. I left Something in the Air in a kind of ecstatic reverie. I’m sure it wasn’t the “best” film of NYFF, but it may have been my favourite.
One of Truffaut’s famous prophecies was that the “film of tomorrow” would be “an act of love”. This seems to me what Assayas’s film succeeds at being. Truffaut wrote – and excuse me for quoting at length but I think it is pertinent here:
The film of tomorrow will be even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them. It may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation… and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new…
Among contemporary filmmakers, Assayas hews the closest to Truffaut’s wish. He depicts experience, rather than character or narrative. I’m speaking now of his early work – not Carlos or Summer Hours (both of which I think are overrated), but, rather, more personal films like Cold Water or Late August, Early September. These films have been like a favourite book to me – the kind that you pick up at random only to discover that it found you just at the perfect moment. Something in the Air may be formally unadventurous but it isn’t formally contrived. It uses the freedom of a picaresque structure to reanimate the 1970s milieu – the culture and the politics – and to take it seriously. When I interviewed Assayas, he felt very strongly that the ‘70s had become something of a black-hole in our culture, or a kind of collective joke, precisely because they were dangerous years when young people were willing to bet their lives on their ideals. It’s ironic that you view the film as an instance of posturing; for me it was precisely about a generation that hadn’t yet given into posturing as the only expression of rebellion. That was the last moment when you could speak of a counterculture and not simply a subculture.
DF: I’m still not convinced: the problem I have with the film is due precisely to the personal connection I have to the subject matter – not to the period itself, of course, but to the ideals, ideals which I still, to a large measure, hold onto. Assayas-the-interview-giver may peddle a different line, but the evidence on offer in the film itself betokens a blend of fond reminiscence about a distant past with a detached resignation towards its supposed irrelevance for the present. I can’t help but bridle at such a viewpoint.
JS: We can agree to disagree – especially given the personalised nature of the film and our responses to it. But I would take issue with your suggestion that the film capitulates to a sterile nostalgia. Instead, I think the film presents a nuanced dissection of tensions that exploded to produce the atomised cultural environment we recognise today. In particular, Assayas seems to get the bifurcation that occurred to counter-cinema just right. There was a fork in the road. If you were a young cinephile, you could choose either a politically Manichean third cinema or a depoliticised but aesthetically exuberant experimental cinema – which would later become the music video. That Assayas himself (and his film) seems to choose the latter doesn’t mean it’s any less honest.
Pablo Larraín’s brilliantly ambivalent Nohomed in on similar tensions. This Chilean film, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal (and thus has a shot at wide-release in North America), chronicles the true-story of the media campaign to unseat Pinochet in the plebiscite of 1988. Bernal is shrewdly cast as Rene – a hip advertising executive who gets recruited by the anti-Pinochet forces to give their campaign a face lift. When he sees a short propaganda film the old-fashioned leftists have produced (essentially a version of the third cinema option Assayas pointed to), Rene puts the matter bluntly. Speaking to a room full of elderly Marxists he says “Comrades, this film moves me as much as it moves you all; but I’m sorry, it won’t sell.”
No is an unstable – which is to say complex – film because it chronicles the left’s successful use of manipulative, consumerist semiology to attain an unquestionably good end, namely the removal of Pinochet from power. On the one hand, the plot functions much like those sports films about a savvy coach who shapes up a bunch of unlikely slouches into a winning team; on the other hand, the sport here is justice – and it’s saddening for us (and ultimately for Rene as well) to see a victory come from selling people democracy like it’s a bar of soap.
What’s especially intriguing about No, beyond its nuanced critique of the left’s “pact with the devil” (as the director later put it in the Q&A), is its formal gambit. Shot entirely on analogue U-matic, No inconspicuously blends real archival footage from the late ‘80s with its own fiction. To see the real crowds celebrating Pinochet’s removal from power ressucitates the tradition of observational cinema that has played a key role in Chile’s self-understanding. I’m thinking here, of course, of Patricio Guzman’s panoramic masterpiece, The Battle of Chile – one of the most remarkable and necessary acts of witnessing recorded on film. No makes for a poignant “sequel” to Guzman’s film. Or better yet, a docufictional counterpoint to Guzman’s own act of revisitation, Chile: Obstinate Memory. To see Larraín’s film next to Guzman’s is to revisit the tragic defeats, phyrric victories, and necessary compromises that make up one nation’s recent past.
V. Views from the Avant-garde
DF: Taking place on the other side of 65th Street, Views from the Avant-garde teed up for its 16th edition, overseen, as ever, by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten. The past year, however, had seen a translucent overpass constructed to connect the two facilities, and this year’s program seemed uncannily linked to the Main Slate – and not only because of Peña’s daring swoop on Leviathan, which would ordinarily have been more at home in Views. While Smith and McElhatten presented a reliably strong panorama of experimental shorts, this year’s triumphs seemed mainly to coalesce around works adhering to the feature-length format – in duration, if not in structure.Nicolas Rey presented us with, if my maths is correct, one of the 362,880 possible permutations of Anders, Molussien. A loosely conceived adaptation of the little-known German author Günter Anders’ interbellum work Die molussische Katakombe (which, with its allegories of contemporary political events transposed to an imaginary realm, is reminiscent of Brecht’s Me-Ti: Buch der Wendungen), the nine reels of the film are to be screened in randomly determined order, leading to montage effects which veered from the humorous to the sublime. The thrill of arbitrary montage-acts was also present in New York filmmaker Jeff Preis’s Stop, a two-hour look back on the past decade. Filtered by the Bolex-shot, 16mm home movies showing the affecting transformation of his child, Preis worked with one overarching principle in mind: the jarring, often frenetic assemblage of views in Stop was retained in strict chronological order.
David Gatten, however, displayed the most daring with his 175-minute The Extravagant Shadows. A conceptual piece, building and yet departing from his earlier 16mm work, Shadows consists of a single, digitally-composited shot of a hand (Gatten’s own) repeatedly painting different colours over a pane of glass, while fragmentary passages from Henry James novels appear on-screen. That even this most abstract of all films is, thanks to its photographic dispositif, still subject to the incursion of the real was palpably demonstrated when, periodically, a fruit-fly would land on the dripping paint, only to invariably be smothered to death by the implacable paintbrush. These tiny creatures – unforeseen, uncontrolled, uncooperative – are the cinema. Every film is a fight to the death, one between the hand of the creator and the material circumstances of the filming process. In time, as the insectile corpses amassed on screen, The Extravagant Shadows became a bloodbath.
The program’s retrospective line-up included tributes, as to be expected, to Raúl Ruiz (with The Blind Owl) and Chris Marker (with Sans Soleil, an excessively obvious choice, but a belated premiere for NYFF). By far the most intriguing retrospective offering, however, was Friedrich Khittl’s Die Parallelstraße, which threw together Super-8 footage of ancient ruins, tropical islands and, perhaps most incongruously, an abandoned railway station in Western Australia, and subjected all these images to a Kafkaesque bureaucratic inquest as to their ultimate meaning. Little is known about Khittl – presenting the film, Smith was clueless about the German filmmaker’s biography, throwing in the supposition that he had died sometime in the 1970s – but he has left us with a stirring memento of a historical moment, 1962, when the rest of the West German film industry was so moribund that it refused to give itself an award for best film of the year.
The most anticipated event of Views – if the hum of expectation from the audience packing into the Francesca Beale Theater was anything to go by – was the twin screening of Nathaniel Dorsky’s two latest works: August and After and April. Both films are haunted by death (they were made at the time that Dorsky’s close friends George Kuchar and Carla Liss were succumbing to fatal illnesses), but they are also imbued with the idea of rebirth, of the blossoming of new life. While Dorsky openly repudiates allegorical interpretations of his films, the theme of mortality seems eerily apt for the impending demise of the celluloid era. No filmmaker will have their art destroyed more conclusively by the cessation of celluloid production than Dorsky, for whom working with digital video is unthinkable (electronic films “have no weight”, he feels) and who is so sensitive to the capabilities of specific film stocks that he adopts a moral imperative to the decision as to whether to shoot on Fuji or Kodak. Dorsky is still heroically resisting the digital-onslaught – we would expect nothing less – but the Quixotic nature of such a struggle is perhaps intimated, in April, by one of the most poignant images of perceptual oppression in the history of the cinema. In spite of his consummate ability to extract beauty from his chosen material, Dorsky’s camera-eye can see nothing but a colossal plasma-screen billboard of a bikini model hawking the spring H&M line-up, as it imperiously looms over the sterile atrium of a 21st-century shopping mall.
VI. Flight & Amour
JS: The festival closed with Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking, but it seemed as if Haneke’s Amour would inevitably have the last word at NYFF. Indeed Amour (which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) would have had the last word at any festival in which it appeared; it is, in my view, the film of 2012.
But before we discuss Amour on its own terms, I’d like to propose we put Flight and Amour beside one another (Robert Zemeckis and Michael Haneke!) and see what happens. Apart from their blunt titles, they seem to have little in common: one is about an alcoholic airline pilot; the other, terminally ill octogenarians. But in fact – it seems to me – both are the “operas” (the alpha-children) of their respective cinemas, and so reflect the deepest impulses of their cultures.
Flight is a studio melodrama and character-study. Denzel Washington proves himself yet again to be America’s homegrown Daniel Day Lewis – that is, an actor so virtuosic he can only star in “psychological portraits”, in dramas of the individual. Here, he plays Whip Whittaker, an airline pilot prematurely lionised for a miraculous landing; but (the catch) he landed the plane high on coke and booze. After this first exciting setpiece, Flight (like Whitaker himself) crash-lands into a slow-burn of addiction, damage and recovery.
To be American is to be damaged; to need help – this seems to be the deepest message behind Flight. And the first step to recovery, as AA tells us, is to admit your problem. Not only does Flight reflect the therapeutic tendencies at the core of American cinema (the climax comes in the form of a psychological confession/cure), it joins a deep-seated trend in our fictions (especially our literature – from Infinite Jest to Oscar Wao) that recognises addiction to be the defining feature of contemporary experience. Damage can be diagnosed and, ultimately, treated.
Not so in Amour, which eludes psychological (psychoanalytic) theorisation and operates on an level reminiscent of the postwar existentialists. Like those writers, Haneke here seems to have made a work of art that captures the human condition by admitting its absurdity. What a different, more philosophical (and less helpful) admission than AA’s call for self-acceptance. If American filmmakers seem to have spent a lot of time in therapy, or rehab, or both, it looks like the best European directors were weaned on Beckett and Camus – or maybe (and here’s a crazy idea) Buddhism.
DF: Flight is a surprisingly ambivalent film. Whip Whittaker is to be condemned for piloting a plane while drunk, but it was only his inebriation that enabled him to forestall an even greater catastrophe. Moreover, it is only as a result of sinking into a similar stupor that he can absolve himself by confessing to his malfeasance. It is curious, then, that Zemeckis should load such an ethically ambiguous film with religious allusions: a wing of the plane decapitates a church steeple as it crash-lands in a field, while the director has tersely described Don Cheadle’s character, a lawyer for the pilot’s union defending Whittaker, as “the devil”. Curious, too, is the fact that the plane crash served more as a tease to tempt audiences into a languid tale of moral redemption, rather than the heart-throbbing climax of a cinematic spectacle. A huge portion of the film’s considerable budget must have gone into the brief moments showing this digitally-crafted catastrophe, and yet Zemeckis seemed to underline its perfunctory role in the film by mainly depicting the incident through the filter of the low-res camera-phones held by gawking bystanders.
In contrast to Zemeckis’s film, Amour offers not even a slither of redemption, and its vision of death as horrifyingly mundane and irredeemably ineluctable is absent of any spirituality whatsoever. A phlegmatic Haneke took questions from the audience in the post-screening press conference, and joined Castaing-Taylor, Rodrigues and Dorsky before him in baulking at the prospect of a symbolic interpretation to his work. Judging by Room 237 – a sidebar entry highlighting the sheer insanity that excessive exegesis of a film such as Kubrick’s The Shining can lead to – Haneke is absolutely justified in eschewing such a hermeneutic approach.
And yet, strictures such as this may merely have a constraining function, robbing the film of any potential ambiguity in its message. This was the second time I watched Amour – after its premiere at Cannes – and I was left with no fundamentally different idea of the film to that which I gained from my initial viewing. Haneke amply demonstrates his peerless mastery of cinematic technique, but this only leaves me wanting the filmmaker to embark on something riskier, something more intrepid, even if it entails a potentially disastrous misstep.
JS: I hate to play the good-cop yet again but it seems to me that Amour is a radical leap forward for Haneke. Although he does return to his vintage subject (the bourgeois family) he does so with newfound tenderness and a calmer, more restrained hand. Gone is the Haneke of gleeful malice – the mad surgeon lobotomising an uneasy European conscience. What we have instead is Haneke the shaman, the medicine-man: penetrating the substratum of existence where compassion and severity overlap.
What was striking to me about Amour was how much it looks like other Haneke films – with the same macguffins, the same uneasy tracking shots – and yet how different it feels. As our friend Patrick (who is writing a dissertation partly on Haneke) pointed out after he saw the film: this may be the one instance where Haneke doesn’t kill the animal. I’m speaking here of the pigeon who gets accidentally caught inside the couple’s apartment. The pigeon isn’t there, as it would be in Haneke’s earlier films, to twist the audience’s suspense in curly-cues or to shock them with man’s in-built cruelty. I can’t exactly say why it’s there, except to give an added layer of resonance.
DF: For me the pigeon functions pretty clearly as an unwanted intruder into what is otherwise the hermetically sealed environment of the elderly Parisian bourgeoisie – an echo, as it were, of the mania about burglars which grips Trintignant throughout the film, but also (maybe just a little bit, Herr Haneke) an allegorical figure for that other unwanted intruder which makes its way into the couple’s lives. Interestingly, when watching the film I instinctively thought that the pigeon was a CGI-concoction – its movements seemed too deliberate and measured to be those of a real animal – but no, apparently Haneke did employ a living, breathing pigeon on set. Even birds, it seems, must submit to his meticulous control over mise en scène!
JS: Then what about the sequence that comes about two-thirds of the way through Amour– the one that features a succession of painted canvases? The paintings are those that hang in the couple’s apartment; but why show them in such close detail, and why then? The decision is inscrutable from a narrative vantage point; but philosophically, the effect was similar to a chapter in a recent John Berger novel – a chapter titled “Some Fruit as Remembered by the Dead”. These canvases (silent, yet brilliantly, musically alive in their colour) were similar: scenes of life as remembered by the dead.You know, there’s a lot of talk about cinema’s current obsession with apocalypse. And I can see how Amour could be grouped with other films – such as Von Trier’s Melancholia (which, for all its merits was as much a piece of juvenilia as melancholia). But I think Haneke’s film, by focusing resolutely on the couple, the body, the home – on aging and mortality and not on grand catastrophe – puts the contemporary anxieties aside to focus on the much more ancient question of death itself. At its best, Amour does what Life of Pi couldn’t: it gives you faith. What exactly that faith is, I can’t say, but I think that’s the paradox of the film: in its resolute naturalism one finds the seeds of some kind of spirituality. I admit this initial impression of mine was bolstered when I saw Haneke on stage looking like John Lennon – like a new-age guru
* * *
JS: I started this report by saying a festival was always more fun with a friend. I have to say, Danny, you’ve proven me right – and not least because you’ve let me play the good cop to your bad cop so many times!
DF: I honestly didn’t intend to come across as such an evil ogre!
JS: But in all seriousness, I was very impressed by the films NYFF chose for its main slate. If I can further winnow their selection (and ours) down to the films we agree upon as of lasting originality and quality, we have, Leviathan, Tabu, No and Amour. Four tremendous films from four different parts of the world: North America (although the directors are foreign), Portugal (although half of Tabu was filmed in Mozambique), Chile (although its central actor is Mexican) and France (although the director is Austrian). We seem to have fully entered (and are no longer “entering”) a globalised era of film. And the result has not been strict homogenisation but also exciting collaborations and locally-inflected experiments.
Speaking of experimentation – three of these four films experimented with non-traditional materials: Leviathan was shot on consumer grade digital cameras; Tabu was shot half on B&W 16mm; No was shot entirely on U-matic (finding those cameras was apparently no easy feat); only Amour was shot on standard equipment.
What I think we can say about these films, however, is that they invoke non-traditional materials meaningfully. It was never a hipster gimmick. Leviathan discovered a nocturnal, amphibious camera; Tabu invented its own ersatz silent-film, using celluloid like a Ouija board; while No, whose U-matic ran the greatest risk of becoming nothing more than an ironic Urban Outfitters pose, used analogue to push its docufictional concept.
And then there is Amour – the most aesthetically traditional of our four “favourites”. Perhaps it is fitting the best film of 2012 (in my view) should be about death. We hear a lot about the “death of cinema” and in reflecting on NYFF in this way I’m reminded of Don DeLillo’s famous declaration, “If I were a writer, how would I enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating to work in the margins outside the central perception.”
DF: What we can sometimes lose sight of is the fact that this is truly a privileged historical moment to be engaged with the cinema. On almost every level – plastic, aesthetic, thematic, institutional – the medium has splintered apart, and is still far from congealing together along new lines. Contemporary filmmakers thus have a rare moment of liberty in the type of images they can create, and the best of them (our carré d’as, if you will) make this audiovisual plurality the core of their works.
JS: The result of senescence may be a liberating brightness. Serving as a prism, NYFF made the different spectra of contemporary cinema visible. There were the sunlit bands of realist drama, the fluorescent glare of CGI, the ultra-violet avant-garde, and the infrared of smaller, more personal stories. Thinking of Life of Pi (whose digital tiger dons the flyer for NYFF), I can’t help but switch metaphors and compare the festival’s density to that of a zoo – or better yet, Noah’s Ark – shepherding the various species of a middle-aged cinema onto a single ship (or theatre) in New York.
New York Film Festival
28 September – 14 October 2012
Festival website: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2012/