Escape to New York

After a summer full of multiplex fodder, the New York Film Festival provides an unpretentious showcase for arty cinema

Unlike Sundance, where everyone and her chambermaid seems to be hustling for a deal, the New York Film Festival actually has an audience. In fact, the scene outside Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall on any given night during the two-week fest isn't so different from that around the Garden before a Knicks game, with cineastes of all sorts waving handfuls of tickets for sale or gabbing enthusiastically about the upcoming match. (Opening night had Björk going up against Lars von Trier, while the championship event pitted Chow Yun-Fat against the evil "witch-mother" of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sporting a lean roster of two dozen films chosen by unpretentious critics such as Newsday's John Anderson and L.A. Weekly's Manohla Dargis, the NYFF is a surprisingly populist forum for high art--and a relief to the out-of-town reviewer who comes wanting to see movies and not the meat market.

That said, the 1999 fest proved a tough act to follow. That year saw an all-inclusive mix of soon-to-be hits from American "mini-major" distributors (Dogma, Boys Don't Cry, Being John Malkovich); new work (albeit underwhelming, in some cases) by major international auteurs (Leigh, Egoyan, Denis, Campion, Carax, Kaurismaki, Almodóvar, the Dardennes); and Princess Mononoke and julien donkey-boy, the yin and yang of tripped-out sublimity. It was--dare we say?--one for the ages.

But that was the then. The latest NYFF--more uniform than in its earlier incarnations, for better and worse--reflected "the year of Asian cinema" as established at Cannes by screening Edward Yang's A One and a Two..., Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, along with Takeshi Kitano's screen-rippingly violent (and unfairly maligned) anti-epic Brother. And for an event that usually functions more as a Viewer's Digest version of bigger fests than as an all-encompassing measure of the Cinematic State of Things, there were a surprising number of running themes. Thanks mainly to Im Kwon Taek's innovative musical Chunhyang, Ed Harris's carefully splattered Pollack, and Terence Davies's exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (with a great deal of help from von Trier's Dancer in the Dark), the spectacle of female sacrifice was in full effect, as was the male melodrama of the aging artist somberly looking back on his life's creations (Faithless, Before Night Falls, and Krapp's Last Tape, all reviewed below).

Still, given that the vast majority of features have already been acquired for American distribution, the best way to describe the NYFF circa 2000 is to call it a preview of coming attractions, at least one of which (the Japanese Eureka) will be appearing in our town as early as next month. Five others of the more notable New York offerings--due in these parts over the next year or so--are discussed below, starting with the very best.

New York--

 

The House of Mirth

Adapting the novel by Edith Wharton, the painterly filmmaker Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) begins sketching the contours of his upper-crust heroine's ornate cage right from the opening credits, and carries it through to the bitter end. This makes the film sound grueling, I'm sure. But in inheriting Wharton's intricate narrative of a New York society bachelorette (Gillian Anderson) and her increasingly tenuous hold on privilege at the turn of the century, Davies seems truly energized by the material. The House of Mirth sees the director abandoning the near-plotless languor of his earlier work in favor of a film so tightly constructed that the loss of any one scene would cause the whole to lose its inexorable momentum. For her part, Anderson goes way beyond the scope of her small-screen work, conveying the character's dramatic arc in purely physical terms--from an almost feline seductiveness through jittery desperation to, finally, the curled fetal position of someone resigned to giving up her fight. Meanwhile, with a subtlety befitting the characters' own eloquent insinuations, Davies keeps track of the forces conspiring against his protagonist without ever isolating just one. As the complex tale of a fragile woman slowly falling prey to societal prejudices and self-determined shame, this beautiful, almost unbearably tragic melodrama proves even further what an empty ordeal Dancer in the Dark really is.

 

Krapp's Last Tape

If one of Samuel Beckett's running themes is the oppressiveness of language, Atom Egoyan's is man's (and I do mean man's) pathological obsession with technology and its limitations. Which is to say that this aptly stagy adaptation of Beckett's late-Fifties play--about an old man who examines his life by taking a final spin through his eroding audiotapes--represents the perfect wedding of a filmmaker to his material. (Egoyan, who began his career working from his own original screenplays, fared equally well meeting author Russell Banks in The Sweet Hereafter.) Nearly engulfed by the mountain of books and spools that constitute his life's achievement, the story's one character (played with disheveled grace by the great John Hurt) spends a long night lamenting the loss of his younger self. (You'll recall that this is also the essence of Egoyan's Family Viewing, not to mention The Sweet Hereafter.) Following Egoyan's belligerently unpleasant Felicia's Journey, this lean, hourlong mini-feature would seem something of a comeback--except that its ultimate conclusion vis-à-vis the exhausted Krapp is that the artist past his prime would naturally rather replay his greatest hits than extend his oeuvre. That Egoyan himself was in the house, watching his film from the NYFF's customary director's chair at the edge of the right loge, added still more reflexivity to a work that proves the auteur theory uncomfortably well.

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