Reeling in the Apple

MORE SO THAN Sundance, The New York Film Festival is the movie reviewer's nirvana: Time gets measured by the length of a film, schedules arranged around the possibility of cramming four or even five features into a single day. The relationships that matter most are those between critic and festival staff (Are there any seats left?); critic and film publicist (Do you have any photos or cassettes?); and critic and cab driver (How fast can we get to 65th and Broadway?). And money factors only to help feed the poor film junkie's addiction. At one point during my week-long, 18-movie tenure at the NYFF, I found myself with exactly enough coin to buy an apple-and-granola-bar dinner, a scalped ticket to a sold-out screening, and a midnight subway ride to a friend's fold-out couch in the East Village. I was reeling.

Here, outside concerns don't seem to exist, as the powers of collective spectatorship overwhelm all else. Only a nuclear war or The Trial of the Century stood to divert attention away from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and either would have amounted to mere subtext for the movies. To wit: A few days after the Hughes Brothers' Q&A for Dead Presidents had seemed to polarize the jam-packed crowd around race lines (this was a black thing so I wouldn't understand, one African-American viewer told me), the O.J. verdict became the film's accompanying short-subject, playing to a miniscule cult audience huddled near a portable radio in the festival's press office.

You could say that the NYFF offers a recipe for those who want to cook art, industry, politics, and entertainment under a single flame. It's escapism at heart, but of an unusually educational sort, since the films on view here provide far more room for varied interpretation than most art-house fare. And certainly, the festival's programming selections inspired enough power issues to help us film scribes feel serious. Supposedly, the all-powerful Miramax was pissed that only one of their already acquired films--the New Zealand documentary Cinema of Unease--had been chosen in '95; last year, they owned not only Pulp Fiction but a half-dozen other high-profile pictures. Given that the Disney-owned Miramax empire has recently stretched to include the likes of Halloween 6, this justified "snubbing" indicates the commitment of the programmers (including The Nation's Stewart Klawans and The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum) to genuinely independent cinema. In fact, a full half of the chosen movies weren't initially tied to a mini-major distributor--though chances are they soon will be.

More significant was the case of Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad. Having earned the NYFF's prestigious opening-night slot, Zhang was scheduled to introduce the screening and meet the American press. But unfortunately, the director was forced to bow to pressure from Chinese officials who were incensed by a festival showing of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a three-hour, American-made doc about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Since Gate's directors were still in the editing room as recently as two weeks ago, the decision about the film's offensiveness was made sight unseen. More ironically, Triad is by Zhang's own admission the director's least political movie in years.

The personal-is-the-political message seemed apt for Triad, which represents a small triumph of auteurist filmmaking. Set in the 1930s, the movie's basic plot follows the build-up of tension between a brutal Triad godfather (Li Baotian) and his nightclub- singer mistress (Gong Li). Yet as the film leads at a hypnotic snail's pace to a conclusion involving separation and cruel betrayal, it becomes impossible not to read the film mainly as the director's melancholy surrender of his on-screen star and off-screen love interest (Zhang and Gong Li had hit a relationship impasse during the film's making). In Zhang's overwhelmingly sad, carefully calibrated finale, the Gong Li character mysteriously vanishes from the frame, leaving the viewer to wonder where actress and director will go from here.

As the festival's main event, Triad came accompanied by a wealth of pre-established context. But one of the rare virtues of a film festival is being able to see movies that have had no advance press; the best features seem to come out of nowhere. Where the Sundance roster is padded with an abundance of pre-hyped studio films and straight-to-video fare, it's possible at the NYFF to walk blindly into a movie you know nothing about, and come out believing you've witnessed the future of cinema. That's perhaps too flattering a statement to ascribe to the Brazilian Sixteen-Oh-Sixty, although its black-comic blend of Bun~uel, Renoir, and Almódovar does approach visionary proportions. Depicting the class struggle in Sao Paolo through the relationship between a vulgar businessman (he's introduced seated next to his refrigerator, gnawing on a chicken bone), his self-obsessed wife and son, and the impoverished family they're forced to take into their mansion, the movie satirizes every character who crosses the frame. The film's hilariously caustic attitude extends even to the poor mother who compels her ailing son to quit taking his penicillin in a shocking attempt to maintain their temporary housing.

For his first feature, director Vinicius Mainardi reveals a stunning command of the medium, from the noir-style black-and-white cinematography and the surreal characterizations to the brilliant use of sound effects and the subversive wit of the script. At press time, Sixteen-Oh-Sixty hadn't yet been acquired for distribution, although it's only a matter of time before industry bigwigs start hailing Mainardi as the next Tarantino.

For a festival that offered plenty of cinematic self-reflexivity, it seemed fitting that the last NYFF movie I saw was At Sundance, a Pixelvision documentary about the intoxicating insularity of the film-fest world. Shot on location in Park City by Michael Almereyda (whose vampire movie Nadja was in Sundance's dramatic competition), the movie is comprised of interviews with auteur luminaries such as Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Richard Linklater, all of whom hold forth on the difficulty of maintaining personal style in a money-minded industry. These three also make some valid points about the dangers of using movies as a substitute for real experience (something we die-hard buffs could no doubt take to heart), yet the movie's most compelling dialogue comes from B-movie master Abel Ferrara, whose hilarious spewings pretty well nail the obsessive nature of the film addiction: "We own The Addiction ourselves, and if no studio buys it, we'll burn the fuckin' negative. How's that for independent filmmaking?"

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