The 47th annual edition of the New York Film Festival kicks off tonight at Lincoln Center. Except for last year’s paternity leave I’ve attended every one since 1994. Back before I acquired grown-up responsibilities I’d see (and pay for) upwards of half of the annual selections, spending weeknights and entire weekends at Alice Tully Hall during its two-week run. I remember getting up early one Saturday to see a splendid four-hour Japanese drama (Eureka—which was sepia-toned, no less), then sitting happily through three more movies—and doing pretty much the same thing the next day. I may have even fit a commercial release or two at the nearby multiplex during breaks.
The good times. Ed Wood at midnight. Vertigo, Playtime, and the 2007 restoration of Blade Runner in 70mm. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and numerous other movies with the creative personnel in attendance, seated feet away from me in the cheap seats (the ones closest to the stage and podium). Discovering prominent international filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers—The Son was the film of theirs that really knocked me out. Hooting at Gaspar Noe’s putrid I Stand Alone—he did stand alone, before the most hostile audience I’ve seen.
If there were an easier way to access the year-by-year festival lineups online, I’d stroll down memory lane for an entire column. (One more: My sympathy for the unemployed protagonist of the film Time Out, when I was in the same unhappy boat.) That’s one bone I’d pick with the festival, whose archiving could use work. Then again, there are memories I’d rather block out. Like the snide questioner who asked Boogie Nights writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson how much the film cost, to which he shot back a temperature-lowering “Was it worth it?” when Anderson replied $15 million. The audience questions in general tend to be migraine-inducing, particularly when asked in three parts—but I have to say that the Q&As after festival press screenings, with professional journalists raising their hands, aren’t always that much more enlightening. Then of course there are the many tepid-boring-bad movies I’ve paid an escalating price for, from $8 fifteen years ago to $20 today; I’d regret them more if I could summon them from the web and actually recall them.
The New York Film Festival is a capital-A Art event. There is no market, and no prizes—the honor is in being selected (then chosen for a more prestigious weekend slot; there is a pecking order). But it’s also intensely insular, with a taste for institutionally flavored culture-vulture programming, and it tends to cherry-pick from festivals earlier in the year rather than break new ground. Chairing the selection committee since forever is Richard Pena, the program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Every year he gets the same questions about why the festival is so inbred, with the same filmmakers coming back year after year, even if the films are lackluster. One year I asked them, for Newsweek.com, for an article that seems to have fallen into the same dead zone where the festival archives reside. I’m pretty sure he gave the same, patient answers: It wasn’t a banner year for more commercial cinema. The committee, a selection of diverse individuals, felt these were the best ones. Who doesn’t love Hou Hsiao-Hsien?
OK, he didn’t say that. But the Taiwanese filmmaker has gotten a more-than-usual share of wet sloppy kisses from the selection committee, some of them careless. There seems to be a Hou Hsiao-Hsien slot reserved for his latest film in early fall in New York. I don’t really begrudge it; in a flat-lining marketplace for foreign-language cinema this may be the only exposure the film gets anywhere in the U.S. But there seem to be a lot of these slots, filled by the same auteurs.
Sharing this year’s Headline-Grabbing Provocation slot are three festival darlings: Lars von Trier, whose Antichrist has been churning ink since Cannes, the no-longer enfant but still terrible Harmony Korine (whose Trash Humpers is described as “a new form of freak-folk art”), and Todd Solondz, whose Happiness (which I saw on a memorable festival Friday in 1998 right after Rushmore) was truly provocative, but whose career has been less-than-happy since. (Advance word on Life During Wartime, which I’m seeing, doesn’t suggest a turnaround—and Noe’s new one, Enter the Void, must be really lousy for it not to show.) Slots are filled by countries in vogue with cinephiles, hence the Romanian slot (Police, Adjective), the China slot (Ghost Town), the Korean slot (Mother, who I’m also visiting this year), and the Filmmakers I’ve Never Liked and Don’t Know Why They Keep Returning slot (Bruno Dumont, come on down!). Again, maybe they’re all outstanding works of art. But if you keep up with the trends, you know what’s coming well before the lineup arrives in your mailbox before Labor Day. It has cohesion. It lacks sizzle.
I’ve seen three of this year’s selections, including tonight’s opener and the closing night film. They fit in nicely.
Occupying the Morose Intellectual Director, or maybe the Heavygoing Thesis, slot is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, an initially intriguing film that sputters over 145 minutes. No, I don’t much like Haneke, not either version of Funny Games or even the highly regarded Cache, but I have a grudging respect for his insinuations. Told as a mystery, The White Ribbon unfolds in a rigidly cloistered German community in 1914, where a series of misfortunes seeds a cloud of suspicion over the townspeople. The villain is fascism, which is practiced in various ways, some more petty than others but all of them leaving a stain, particularly on the younger generation that will inherit the soon-to-be-shattered country. The sheer beauty of Christian Berger’s black-and-white cinematography is meant to show how ugly things can take root in pastoral surroundings—but the snowfall and fields are so pretty it’s impossible to believe anything bad could actually happen. The bleak message is continually undercut by its bountiful look.
Occupying the Pedro Almodovar slot is…Pedro Almodovar, whose Broken Embraces closes the festival. As usual the plot is a tangle of fateful intersections, at least one of them literal, but as Almodovar turns 60 the tone is more introspective (and the splashy sex and violence of “the early, funny ones,” to quote Woody Allen’s equally self-reflexive Stardust Memories, toned down). It’s hard to dislike one of his pictures, especially one where his vivacious good luck charm, Penelope Cruz (pictured above), wears a bunch of wigs and outfits and has a ball in the movie-within-the-movie, which is a lot like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Trouble is, you’ll want to stay in that movie, or on the beaches of the volcanic island locale of Lanzarote, rather than spend the excessive time given over to its blinded director-turned-writer (Lluis Homar). The somewhat-noir, sort of-comic film has its compensations, but they’re spread a bit thin over 128 minutes. After the sturm-und-drang of the preceding two weeks, though, the overcast Broken Embraces is likely to feel downright sunny.
The Old Master slot, a fiercely competitive one each year (the festival, to its credit if not always to its credibility, respects its elders), is claimed by the 87-year-old Alain Resnais, who is determined not to go gentle into that good night with the opening night film, Wild Grass. It’s wild, all right, as the filmmaker who bent time and space with the classic Last Year at Marienbad uncorks his inner David Lynch. A daffy non-sequitur ending caps a series of misadventures set in motion by a purse snatching. My best guess was that the lovelorn lead, played by Andre Dussollier, was suffering from dementia as the dead ends, coincidences and absurdities piled up around him and the dentist-aviatrix (Sabine Azema) he thinks he loves. But there’s no guessing—I don’t know what brought X-Files composer Mark Snow together with Resnais but it’s the sort of merger that catches you off-guard. This is a poker-faced romp, not the usual pomp-and-circumstance opener…and, yes, quelle surprise for a festival that could use more of them.