NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2000 - 38th Festival
This year's NYFF has just ended what was a spectacular collection of movies: although a tough set of films (many disturbing and many quite long), there were virtually no losers in the almost twenty Nancy and I saw, all but one falling somewhere between good and unbelievably wonderful.
The truly WONDERFUL films:
CHUNHYANG. This one was the biggest positive surprise of the NYFF for us: Im Kwon-Taek is a prolific Korean film maker; but I do not know a single one of his ninety-odd films other than this newest one. CHUNHYANG is a most unusual movie. Set in the 18th century, it is essentially the traditional Korean folk tale of a young son of a provincial governor and the girl he falls in love with --the daughter of a former courtesan. The entire movie is done against the background (and sometimes foreground) of a Pansori singer, chanting the same story with the accompaniment of a single drum. Director Im explained that his intention in making the movie was as much as anything to make accessible the traditional art form of Pansori to the uninitiated viewer. The rhythmic chants, guttural whoops, and emotional range of the Pansori singer were truly breath taking. (Nancy whispered to me during the movie, "He's a Korean Tom Waits!") Interspersed with the visual presentation of the story (which often has the Pansori singing in the background), we also get to see this Pansori singer himself, on stage, performing the story. In the opening sequence, and throughout the early part of the movie, we see him head on, in traditional dress. In the latter part of the film, we see him from behind --revealing the modern audience (which we have heard, at times, earlier) to which he is performing. It is a little like a Black Gospel meeting --and, in fact, Pansori has been described as "Korean Blues": the audience replies to the story, yells out, claps, and generally becomes actively involved. The visual narrative itself is stunningly photographed: the beauty of the two lovers is matched and enhanced by the beauty of the scenery, which is ravishing. The interplay of the Pansori with the showing of the narrative action works beautifully and powerfully, with the simplistic turns of plot being made acceptable by the obvious folk tale context. This is a movie that is beautiful, funny, brutal, tender, sexy, and uplifting; it made us laugh and it made us cry. (You see, we really didn't like it all that much.) It may not be for everyone, but it is wonderful for those of us whom it is for! (To my industry friends out there: I'd LOVE to get my hands on a DVD or even VHS of this one...) IDK if it's going to get released in the US, but look for it if it does.
POLLOCK (the Centerpiece of this year's NYFF). Ed Harris produced, directed, and stars in the title role of this powerful biography of Jackson Pollock. Although Harris is an actor we have long admired and whose work we have greatly enjoyed, POLLOCK is his first attempt at directing ---and what a triumph! It is magnificently and masterfully done. It is beautifully photographed as well; but it is not a pretty film, as Pollock's life was simply not pretty. The alcoholism, despair, anger, and brutality are all quite directly portrayed, along with the brilliance and creativity. Pollock's struggle with critics (even his champion, Clement Greenberg), his sense of intellectual inferiority (as with de Kooning, played by Val Kilmer), and mostly his wrenching and unsuccessful struggle to deal with the love of his artist wife, Lee Krasner (played marvelously by Marcia Gay Hayden), and his losing fight with alcohol are all painful to watch. But Ed Harris has made a movie that really works. And this one will be released! (BTW, fans of "Harold and Maud" might want to keep an eye out for Bud Cort in this one, in the role of Howard Putzel, curator for Peggy Guggenheim --it's a bit of a shocker.)
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (closing night). In case you haven't read all the extraordinary press this one has been generating, Ang Lee's ("The Ice Storm," "Sense and Sensibility") martial arts film (yes...this IS a Kung-Fu movie) is truly incredible! Lusciously photographed, brilliantly conceived, superbly acted, perfectly executed, this movie is a totally rewarding and fun experience. It is funny, exciting, touching, and completely engaging. From its marvelous fight scenes, choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, who did the fight scenes in "The Matrix" (can you picture the sophisticated NYC crowd watching this in Avery Fisher Hall and breaking out into spontaneous applause after each martial arts encounter?), to the music by Tan Dun, some played for the sound track by Yo-Yo Ma, this movie is a joy. We sat through the whole thing with smiles on our faces. It manages in every way to confound your expectations by its novelty and originality --but it does it in a way that you can only sit back and rejoice in. It was the singly most successful movie of this year's Festival. Sony Classics will be releasing it; and, unless they have completely taken leave of their senses, it will get a big release and will be a huge hit. Whether you are an aficionado of the Honk Kong action movies or have never seen one in your life, look for this movie and see it!
The films that were just "GREAT":
CIRCLE. This powerful Iranian film by Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon") presents a disturbing look into the position of women in modern Iran. Following the intersecting "circles" of the events in a brief moment in the lives of three young women, all in trouble in ways that are only eventually and partially made clear, Panahi presents an impressionistic, rather than narratively coherent, collage of the life of women and of the "outsiders" in general. Recurrent themes like the prohibition against women smoking in public and the inability of women legally to travel unaccompanied by a man drive the message home in a visceral way. There is no attempt to place these women in a broader context-- not even within the history of their own lives, nor is there any attempt to idealize or even to justify them or their actions. Panahi wants to give an even larger sense of the "circles" that are involved in human lives --beyond just those of women, or lower classes, or even of Iran; but the film is most powerful where it is closest to the immediate experience of these particular women.
FAITHLESS. Directed by Liv Ullmann, this screenplay by Ingmar Bergman is a vaguely autobiographical look at his own life and work. The film is a look at the central figure, an aging filmmaker named Bergman (wonderfully and powerfully played by Erland Josephson), confronting his past and eventually himself. It progresses through an interaction with a woman, Marianne (Lena Endre --a stunning performance by this beautiful, sexy, and talented actor), whom he "conjures up" in the film in order to imagine or, more probably, relive his past. The narrative centers on the affair between Marianne and Markus, the close friend of Marianne and her conductor husband, David, which has a devastating effect on all concerned, but particularly on the young daughter of David and Marianne. (The figure of Bergman periodically keeps looking painfully at the photograph of the young child he has in a drawer in his desk.) Ullmann explained at the NYFF that Ingmar Bergman saw this screenplay as his confrontation with the one episode in his own life, 45 years ago, about which he was truly guilty and pained. The film is even broader than that, however, as it has the sense of his confronting the larger questions of his life. Ullmann has succeeded in directing a truly Bergmanesque work here --including the fact that it is two and a half hours of emotionally painful soul-searching. Beautiful, powerful, but extremely difficult.
SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE. In this Iranian film, the main character, Bahman, is an film director who has not been allowed to make films in Iran for the past twenty years. While the story itself is not autobiographical, the director, Bahman Farmanara (who also does a magnificent job of playing the role of Bahman in the film), is someone who was a key figure in pre-1979 Iranian movie making, and who is making a return to film making after a twenty-four year absence. Bahman, desperate to make a film of some sort, has apparently accepted an assignment to make a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian funeral rites. The story begins to be about his own funeral and about his obsession with his own death. Interspersed with declamations about funeral rites from a dour Imam, we see Bahman going through the upheavals of his life. Although the film makes an intensely powerful political statement, it does so through a story that is amusing and entertaining. There is anger and bitterness, but also wisdom and acceptance.
THE TASTE OF OTHERS (Le Gout des Autres). Written by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (the same collaboration that produced the screenplay for --and acted in-- Alain Resnais' "Same Old Song," which was such a hit at the 1998 NYFF), and ably directed by Jaoui, this film was something of anomaly at this year's NYFF because it was simply so light-hearted! The film is buoyant, funny, and tender, without overlooking the fact that things do not always work out. In it, various segments of Parisian society intersect, interact, and have an impact on each other in amusing and unexpected ways. The acting by the entire ensemble was wonderful: Bacri masterfully plays a wealthy industrialist named Castella who is doing an important deal with some Iranians and falls in love with an actress in a terrible play; Anne Alvaro is excellent as Clara, the actress; Jaoui herself plays Manie, the beautiful and sexy hashish dealing bartender who unexpectedly turns out to have some form of relationship with virtually all of the other characters; Brigitte Catillon does a remarkable job of playing Castella's very unlikable wife, who is a decorator who never works, for a very good reason; and I'm not sure who played the wife's dog. (It may be the only film in history, however, in which I was hoping the dog would get run over by a car in the end...) The characterizations are not necessarily deep, but they are telling --and very amusing. The plot requires one to accept a rather unbelievable degree of development in Bacri's character, but it ultimately works --just like the flute playing of the chauffeur. It is a fun film; I hope it gets distribution in the US.
Films that were very good:
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS. This film, directed by Julian Schnabel, is an interesting and emotionally moving montage about the life of Reinald Arenas, who has been described as "one of the major talents to have emerged from the Latin-American literary boom of the 1960's... and who ran afoul of the Castro regime as both a political dissident and an openly gay man." It is a beautifully photographed film (at least in parts), and in that sense demonstrates some of Schnabel's visual talent as a director (even if I have never really appreciated him as a painter). Schnabel also made some interesting directorial decisions about language, which I found very effective: although it is an American movie, much of it is done in Spanish with English subtitles, and much of the English is done with a heavy Cuban accent. This both created an effective mood which he manipulated quite well, and it gave him the ability to utilize some of the poetry of Arenas in its original form. The acting was very good, with Javier Bardem (a very successful Spanish actor) giving an inspired performance as Arenas. (There were also some very interesting cameos-- one by Sean Penn [which, while rather extraneous, was fun if only because I always love to see him act in anything!], and two [or should it be considered as one?] by Johnny Depp.) I was expecting to like this one much more than I did, however; and I think there were two problems (possibly related) that I had trouble with. First, I realized that the film did not succeed in making me accept Arenas as the literary genius he was presented as being. Now, in fact, he may be; but I don't know it. And, although the film assumed it and was built on it as a given, it did nothing to establish it. We were not particularly impressed by the writing as presented, and it was difficult to differentiate between his being a sympathetic and romantic but rather pathetic figure, and one whose stature gave his struggle a more tragic dimension. (It was actually hard to buy the notion of his promiscuity as a political act, for example; while it was easy to understand and be sympathetic to his victimization for being an openly gay man under a totalitarian regime.) Second, I felt that some of Schnabel's shallow superciliousness and pretentiousness (so obvious in his speaking at the NYFF) came through in the film and importantly undermined some of its potential. (It is even possible that that adversely affected my ability to embrace Arenas as having sufficient stature.) Still and all, it is a powerful and interesting film, worthy of your consideration.
CHRONICALLY UNFEASIBLE. Directed by and, in part, written and produced by Sergio Bianchi, this is an extremely disturbing, difficult, depressing, but amazingly powerful and passionate indictment of Brazilian society (and, more broadly, the problems in that society that are ubiquitous in the modern world outside of Brazil as well). It ranges widely over all corners of Brazil's geography and spins its way through all levels of its socio-economic and regional stratification and tensions; yet it revolves loosely throughout around a Sao Paulo restaurant --the film's six main characters being management, staff and customers of that establishment. Rather than progressing through a coherent dramatic narrative, the film takes up intersecting vignettes that in aggregate create the meaning. Some of these vignettes go back and repeat a nearly identical scene with some alterations in the details of the participants or the meaning --simply inserted as alternative possibilities or revisited themes. Dealing with poverty, suffering, sexual mores, class struggle, and personal struggle, it is most harsh in that it offers no answers to the problems it confronts us with --and no particular sense of hopefulness that there are answers to be found. It is a film that has engendered intense debate in Brazil, but that raises questions that need to be considered by us all.
The one clinker we saw:
HOUSE OF MIRTH. I don't know, maybe I should recluse myself from comment on this one, as I am not a big Edith Wharton fan to begin with. But...this is Terrence Davies' adaptation of Wharton's first novel, set in New York at the turn of the century. If the novel is as great as it is said to be, Davies did bad things to it, rendering it slow, unappealing, and mannered. It was beautifully photographed, but this fact, too, may have contributed to its being too precious. It was most difficult for me to accept the stature of the main character's quest and her suffering: rather than tragic, she seemed pathetic. (On some level, it was hard for me to accept the notion that her great misfortune was that she was not going to have the privileged life she aspired to, even if it was unfair the way she was denied it. The low point for me was when she was unable to keep her job as a milliner --and it turned out it was not just because she was clumsy at sewing, but because her attendance at work at been unacceptably poor.) Anyway, I hope the novel was better; the movie was terrible.
Films we didn't see but heard were good:
We did not go to the opening night presentation of "DANCER IN THE DARK," partly because I still have not forgiven director Lars von Trier for "Breaking the Waves," but mostly because it was also the night of our friends' breast cancer benefit, Artists for the Cure, at Carnage Hall (which turned out to be just as wonderful as anticipated, BTW). As much as I am still angry about his last movie, I must report that the word on "DANCER" is that it's worth seeing...difficult, disturbing, and not great...but worth seeing. (It's already been released.)
"BOESMAN AND LENA," John Berry's version of Fugard's play is also one we didn't see because of conflicting schedule (this time, the Broadway version "THE FULL MONTY" --which is a MUST SEE, BTW). The report was that it was good, but also depressing and difficult...and that there probably was no reason to have made it into a movie, as it was better as a play.
"KRAPP'S LAST TAPE," the Samuel Beckett piece directed by Atom Egoyan is said to be wonderful.
Edward Yang's "Yi Yi" is great by all accounts. The only negative fact is that it's 3 hours long...but I'm told it is completely worth it. This Taiwanese/Japanese film is playing the art house circuit in NYC (currently at the Film Forum).
"AMORES PERROS," by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu is a Mexican film that is said to be stunning.
"PLATFORM," a Chinese/Japanese film is also said to be a masterpiece...although this one is almost 3 1/2 hours long!
NYFF SPECIAL EVENTS (I doubt that there will be a chance to see any of these, but they were SO wonderful, I'm going to describe them anyway):
BODY AND SOUL. This 1925 silent film was produced and directed by Oscar Micheaux, the African American filmmaker whose Micheaux Film Corporation was the one successful Black cinema enterprise in the early years of film. The film, while featuring a plot that was a melodrama in the manner of filming of that time, delves more deeply into the question of race and human interactions than most of his white contemporaries. The power of the film is enormously enhanced by the performances given by its star, Paul Robeson (who in the film plays twin brothers). Even without being able to utilize his world renowned voice, Robeson creates a performance that is gripping in its power and depth. The film is remarkably successful and communicative, even 75 years later, to an audience unaccustomed to viewing silent pictures. (There is in the film an example of the one anomaly for which Micheaux has repeatedly been taken to task: the heroines of all his films are invariably light skinned to the point of looking White.) The film, which often had been shown in its day accompanied by a jazz ensemble, was presented at the NYFF with a new jazz score, written by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. While there were many interesting elements in the score, we did not find it successful as a score to accompany this particular film --a problem exacerbated by the fact that the music, played by the Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (a problem all its own, to those of us who do not believe that this man's generic but soulless, technically adept but lowest common denominator music ought to be what people should think of to represent Jazz), was unnecessarily electronically amplified, and played at a volume that distracted from the movie rather than supported it. It may be that this film may get a release, and, if it does, it is very worth seeing.
PASSION AND DEFIANCE: SILENT DIVAS OF THE ITALIAN CINEMA.
This series of silent Italian films from the teens and twenties was a real surprise. The unbelievably melodramatic story lines ("beautiful young woman has to sell herself into prostitution because..." "beautiful young woman is seduced and abandoned by an aristocrat who...") were actually made into moving and powerful films that actually still work today. We saw three --"ASSUNTA SPINA" (1915), "VEDI NAPULE E PO' MORI" ("See Naples and Die," 1924), "LA STORIA DI UNA DONNA" ("The Story of a Woman," 1920)-- and they were all wonderful! And the live accompaniment provided by the pianist, Donald Eosin, at each film actually worked well, in contrast to the score for BODY AND SOUL.) The three "divas" involved in each --Francesca Bertini, Leda Gys, and Pina Menichelli, respectively-- warranted the title: they were "operatic" in their stature, in their posturing, and in their emotions. A series of unexpected treats!
VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE.
We only got to see one of the four programs that were presented (it was at the end of the 18 days of the NYFF, and exhaustion had set it), but it was wonderful. Entitled "BENEATH THE SECOND HAND," it was a collection of 11 films, ranging in length from 2-22 minutes each. Experimental film can be dangerous territory for the viewer, but every one of these was at least interesting, and the majority were unbelievably good. To mention just some favorites: We loved the opening piece, a light-hearted, two minute film by Michael Snow entitled "PRELUDE." In it sex, food, violence, and music occur as visual image, sound, and verbal discussion --but not in all three forms simultaneously (I actually wondered if, like a crab canon in music, the sound and the visual were moving in opposite directions from each end in time), coinciding only at the middle of the film. The two films by Janie Geiser, "SPIRAL VESSEL" and "LOST MOTION" were masterful: the first an exploration of the body (especially the female body and motherhood) using a puzzle from an old psychology test kit, old scientific drawings from chemistry books, and textures and materials; the second using antique miniature figures, doll house furniture, toy trains, and my old erector set (not really), to tell the story of a man's psychological journey. "ZERO ORDER" was a wonderfully inventive film by Bobby Abate --clever, humorous, painful, moving-- dealing with homosexuality, sexuality, and identity, against the backdrop of and interwoven with "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (can you imagine "Moon River" played backwards?). Personally, it might have been my favorite had its 34 minutes not been very overly long for what he was doing. "BLITZE" by Dietmar Brehm and "SLOW DEATH" by Stom Sogo were also good. The final piece, "IN ABSENTIA," a 22 minute exploration of obsession and madness by the Quay brothers, stunningly filmed mostly in black and white but at times in color, and always in CinemaScope, with music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, was a marvelous if frighteningly painful view into the world of a woman's psychosis. (It contains the most dramatic scene of sharpening a pencil that will ever be done on film.)