Film festivals – like film shoots, or warzones – waver between exhilarating and dull. One minute you’re thanking the heavens that something as wondrous as Ash Is Purest White, the latest Jia Zhangke film, exists, and the next you’re counting the seconds until the end of some vanilla indie you can’t even sleep through because you drank too much of the lukewarm coffee they serve in the lobby. Even so, the 56th installment of the New York Film Festival was one of the best in recent years. The good entries were very, very good, and many of the misfires were still fascinating.
Maybe in part because its plot mirrors the emotional extremes of NYFF, Christian Petzold’s Transit was my favourite film of the festival, and one of the most virtuosic I’ve watched in a long time. It’s adapted, loosely, from a 1944 novel by Anna Seghers about a concentration camp escapee who steals a dead man’s name in the hopes of earning a visa, and ends up waiting, and waiting, and waiting, in the Mexican embassy. The book predates Godot and Vertigo, both of which colour Petzold’s direction here (his last film, also brilliant, was Phoenix (2014), an even more Hitchcockian riff on doubles and split identities). Without quite “updating” Seghers for the present day, he packs Transit with decidedly 21st century signifiers: the homeless travelers we meet at the embassy could have come from Syria or Haiti, and the black-masked troops hunting them down are dead-ringers for the ones currently policing the Austrian border.
The miracle of this film is that its postmodern stratagems and nods to the news never feel contrived, never feel anything but essential to the story Petzold is telling. Enough praise cannot be given to the ingenuity of the screenplay – again and again, it curls outward, reaches an inflection point, and then proceeds, very slowly, on a new path: at first an adventure, then a Beckett-esque season in Limbo, then a cat-and-mouse noir, then, finally and most surprisingly, a kind of romance. I won’t reveal what happens in the last two minutes of the film, only that they left me weak-kneed and unable to get out of my chair for a while.
Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary Monrovia, Indiana, another work that’s both “of the moment” and yet proudly not, studies a town of 1500-odd people that may soon sink back into the fertile soil on which it was built. Like Wiseman’s 1967 debut Titicut Follies, the film ends with a burial service. But where Titicut includes a brief, symbolic epilogue showing that the Bridgewater State Hospital will live on, Monrovia simply fades to black. Aside from one important scene set at the local high school, the film is mostly populated by men and women whose age shows in their faces and bodies. Even that high school scene has a gently elegiac feel – the town, we learn, was home to one of the finest basketball teams in the country, but that was more than half a century ago.
You could argue that Monrovia, much like Wiseman’s At Berkeley (2013), suffers from a kind of polling bias, which causes most of its subjects to be in or past middle age and skews the tone toward themes of deterioration and valediction. Of course, you could also argue that this isn’t bias at all, just an accurate account of the way things are, or at least feel, for millions of Americans who don’t live in New York or California. America is still torn over what to make of its white, working-class citizens, and reaching a consensus anytime soon seems unlikely – here it’s worth remembering that, as recently as 20 years ago, there were scores of futurologists willing to bet that the Internet would fuel the growth of small towns instead of hollowing them out. Wiseman is at his best, as always, when he complicates these sorts of easy generalisations and focuses on day-to-day processes – of local government, of farming, of religion. The name “Trump” is never heard in his documentary, and while some seem to have interpreted that as a dodge, to me it felt like a breath of fresh air.
Errol Morris may be the most respected American documentarian after Wiseman, but in American Dharma, essentially a 90-minute one-on-one with ex-Trump consigliere Steve Bannon, he seems to fall short of what he’s aiming for. His combative interviewing technique, which worked beautifully on Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, less so on Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, fails to draw much blood this time around: he yells and accuses, and Bannon dodges and smirks. Recently there’s been a lot of debate, what with Bannon’s abrupt dismissal from the New Yorker Festival and Milo Yiannopoulos’s appearance on Maher, about the need for challenging controversial figures on a global stage. Why, when this next-to-never happens, are the challenges usually so half-assed?
Critical consensus suggests that Morris lets Bannon off easy in American Dharma, though curiously there seems to be very little agreement about which points, exactly, Morris should have pressed harder – some critics have granted Bannon his criticisms of the political establishment or his predictions of a revolution, while others have sneered at both. Come to think of it, that may be the real, sneaky achievement of American Dharma: to offer us a series of weird, indeterminate inkblots that say nothing in themselves but trick us into revealing far too much about how we see the world.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers’ latest jauntily violent Western, is a whole series of inkblots: six short tales, each one allergic to easy interpretation, that push the viewer to choose sides and, taken together, sum up the schizophrenic character of storytelling itself. That, at least, is the sort of thing I was tempted to write about the film as I walked out of the theatre. Then I remembered that the Coens don’t like fancy interpretations of their work – I still cringe thinking about the NYFF Q&A session for Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), during which some unfortunate fanboy asked the brothers about the cyclical structure of their latest, which he seemed to think was similar to that of Miller’s Crossing (1989) and The Big Lebowski (1998). They turned to each other, smirked, turned back, and said in unison, “Uh … sure?”
In any case, I’ll venture this much about Buster Scruggs: it’s the Coens’ most overt attack on their own audience since the multiplex scene in Burn After Reading (2008), itself a big middle finger pointed at the drooling masses (the same masses, by the way, who shelled out a quarter of a billion dollars to watch True Grit ). The third segment, “Meal Ticket”, in which a traveling impresario played by Liam Neeson sells out in the most loathsome way imaginable, is particularly scathing in what it implies about American tastes. The film as a whole has a grumpy, vindictive brilliance, but its first segment is the best: a big, barbaric yawp, one of the most frightening – and joyful – evocations of the indigenous American berserk I’ve ever encountered.
Much as we cinephiles love to gab about “mainlining” movies, there are very few of us who really believe that watching three a day for two straight weeks is the ideal manner in which to appreciate their artistry. After a while, directors, plot points, and performers start to blur together (it got particularly bad a couple festivals back, when Kristen Stewart and Adam Driver seemed to show up in every single movie). But while festival fatigue sometimes blinds us to the greatness of certain new features, it can also clarify what’s lacking in others. The latest films by Olivier Assayas and Jean-Luc Godard are about many of the same things: the ubiquity of technology, the homogenisation of culture, the difficulty of finding a stable centre in the new neoliberal world order. Watch one right after the other, however, and it becomes clear how square the younger Frenchman’s approach is.
Non-Fiction, Assayas’s first feature since 2016’s Personal Shopper (speaking of Stewart), lacks that earlier film’s charismatic lead and never quite makes up the difference. Yorick Le Saux, one of the director’s regular collaborators, shoots the interiors in the sluggish glow of an IKEA store. Much of the dialogue consists of rehearsals of arguments about the decline of Western culture that are themselves a little stale. Like Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), loved by many but not by me, the film purports to offer an insightful look at the state of the arts but keeps dancing around the existence of the middlebrow, preferring to view everything through an obsolete lens of high and low.
The best way to criticise a movie, Godard said, is to make another one. Without meaning to suggest that The Image Book, his 44th feature, was intended as a response to le cinéma d’Assayas, the film doesn’t just overshadow Non-Fiction but practically refutes it point by point. Godard has never flattered an audience in his life, and it’s for precisely this reason that his inquiries into Western culture feel inspired rather than rote. He’s been called irresponsible for some of the associations he’s drawn in his recent films (in Goodbye To Language, for instance, he seemed to attach great significance to the fact that Hitler made his first significant speech in the year of the television’s invention), but he also argues, persuasively, that images are by definition messy, uncontrollable things, their meanings forever crisscrossing in perverse ways. An early section of The Image Book studies trains on film while making occasional allusions to the Nazi death camps; later passages invoke the Holocaust once again.
Godard – unlike, say, his late, one-time fellow New Waver, Alain Resnais – has yet to direct an autumnal, swan-song-y film; his latest is too disillusioned for complacency. Orientalist paintings by Delacroix give way to low-resolution footage of riots in the present-day Middle East, suggesting an unbroken chain of Western domination, one which Godard can ironise but not break altogether. He remains, just like the rest of us, an image addict, even as he understands that his addiction is part of the problem. But there’s more inventiveness in his new film (check out the way the aspect ratio changes back and forth, keeping us on our toes) than in almost any other recent film-essay, unless that recent film-essay is Goodbye to Language.
The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’s final, incomplete feature from the ‘70s, has been edited into a kind of completeness by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’s friend, protégé, and costar in the film itself. Like The Image Book, it’s intricately and overwhelmingly stitched together, and I’d need to see it several more times before I could honestly say I’ve seen it. Both films have an air of cocky, “just trust me” inventiveness that’s inseparable from the swaggering personae of their directors – not for nothing is the obvious Welles stand-in played by John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind described as “the Hemingway of the cinema.” After one viewing of the Welles, I counted a handful of superb seriocomic scenes, some Hollywood inside jokes that flew miles above my head, and a lot of tough connective tissue. Still, I suspect that the film, even with its chaotic post-production history, is built to last.
I felt similarly about High Life, the 13th feature directed by Claire Denis and starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. It’s a futuristic tale, set onboard a spaceship where prisoners from planet Earth must submit to bizarre experiments as they near a black hole – although, this being a Denis joint, none of that information has been made particularly clear even by the halfway mark. More than any filmmaker I know of, Denis’s works ripen and intensify in the memory. Immediately after watching High Life at NYFF, I got the peculiar sensation that I was still waiting for the film to kick off – there was little of the queasy fascination I’d felt during Beau Travail (1999), 35 rhums (2008), or Un beau soleil intérieur (2016). A month later, the various pieces of the film still haven’t come together, so I’m reduced to naming some of the ones I liked. I admired Pattinson and Binoche, both of whom gave intelligent, surprising performances that revealed aspects of their selves I didn’t know they had in them. And Yorick Le Saux’s cliché-allergic cinematography more than redeems his work in Non-Fiction – he makes the red and blue LEDs of the spaceship glow with terrestrial warmth.
The weak link, if I had to pin it down, is the screenplay. English-language debuts sometimes prove treacherous for internationally renowned filmmakers, with the dialogue acquiring a heaviness that can usually be sidestepped with subtitles (attendees of NYFF 53 may recall the indelible line, “It’s like Google translate is your real son!”). Early in High Life’s planning stages, the novelist Zadie Smith contributed scenes but left after rumoured creative differences with Denis, who’s listed as one of three screenwriters. This, I suspect, has manifested as a certain roughness in the film’s chattier stretches, where Denis was trying to convey something closer to rough lyricism. But I need to take another listen, and another look – writing about Denis reminds me of Nabokov’s dictum that one cannot read a book but only reread it.
The festival’s centrepiece film, Roma, was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and while I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes taken him for granted (a fact I suspect has something to do with Gravity’s  box office returns), his newest work confirms that he’s easily one of the most talented filmmakers now at work. Set in Mexico City in the early ‘70s, Roma (it’s named after the hoity-toity part of town) revolves around a well-to-do family and their live-in maid, Cleo. For some reason, most of the reviews I read gave the impression that Cuarón’s direction is uncharacteristically restrained here. I think the truth is more complicated. Roma certainly lacks the macho, “how’d they do that?” long takes of Children of Men (2006) or Y Tu Mamá También (2001), but the camerawork remains highly choreographed and attention-grabbing – in its own way, it’s every bit as showy as that of the earlier films.
The first shot shows Cleo scrubbing the floors of a house, in which we see reflected an airplane crawling through the clouds. Cuarón is always present in these moments, nudging our eyes here or there, reminding us that this thing we’re watching was carefully, painstakingly constructed. If this makes Roma sound somewhat cold or artificial, it shouldn’t – thanks in large part to the two incredible lead performances by Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, the film can be very moving, biting off big themes like love, death and revolution without losing its grip on the everyday.
Both Roma and The Other Side of the Wind, along with several of the other films at NYFF this year, were produced by Netflix and released for streaming the same day they hit theatres. It occurs to me that the warm, symbiotic relationship between Cleo and her employers is a kind of idealised metaphor for the relationship between art filmmakers and obscenely wealthy media companies. When Cleo gets into trouble, her boss doesn’t throw her on the streets; instead, she helps her through the ordeal and keeps paying her. That’s what a lot of us are hoping the relationship between Netflix and its directors will be like – and so far, the company seems to be doing a fine job. Still, I know I’m not alone in being nervous that the future of filmmaking is now partly under the control of the company that gutted its collection of pre-WWII films to make room for Castlevania, Lovesick, Set It Up, Ibiza: Love Drunk, Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie, and Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. Thanks in part to Netflix’s sponsorship, NYFF 56 was one for the ages, but I fear that the current Renaissance could vanish at the slightest quiver in the market. Which reminds me, I need to catch up on my FilmStruck watchlist before it’s too late.
New York Film Festival
28 September – 14 October 2018
Festival website: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2018/