Escape to New York

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

 

Faithless

As in Krapp's Last Tape, the elderly artist in repose looks back on his life. Here the artist is Ingmar Bergman, whose semiautobiographical screenplay for this adultery-sucks melodrama is rendered all the more personal under the direction of Liv Ullmann, his former muse in similarly gut-wrenching works such as Scenes From a Marriage. No doubt that "adultery sucks" tag of mine sounds flippant and perhaps even crass: I use it, however, by way of saying that Faithless is a film whose two-and-a-half-hour length does little other than convey the interminable anguish of marital infidelity. The ambiguity of whether the old filmmaker (Erland Josephson)--seated, like Krapp, at his desk, but in the presence of a woman (Lena Endre)--is casting the lead in his next picture or just imagining the one he trysted with decades ago is, alas, not ambiguous enough. (We already know the film is semiautobiographical; knotty affairs are the order of the day.) And while multiple flashbacks appear to detail the uncontrollable lust that caused the then-middle-aged Bergman (Krister Henriksson) and his lover to betray her husband (Thomas Hanzon), who was also his best friend, the total unlikability of these selfish, immature characters makes you wonder what any of them ever saw in each other. Even more than before, Bergman seems to have remembered the pain, but not the passion that brought it about.

 

The Circle

"Storytelling time is over," proclaimed Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami in a recent issue of Film Comment, having reached the end of the narrative line in his latest cine-philosophical quest, The Wind Will Carry Us. (Although that masterpiece was curiously missing from last year's NYFF, it screens this week at U Film as part of an Iranian mini-festival.) But if it's true that film narrative is dead, the body hasn't been discovered by Kiarostami's countryman Jafar Panahi, who previously directed Kiarostami's screenplay for The White Balloon. Befitting its title, Panahi's The Circle wanders as much as its protagonists, interchangeably following several Tehran women whose desperate roaming and stints in jail gradually reveal how both their mobility and their confinement are informed by the same institutional sexism. The style in which the story gets passed like a baton between Olympic sprinters is reminiscent of Max Ophuls's La Ronde (or Slacker). But the point--that even a small handful of randomly selected tales may illuminate the common plight of women--is thoroughly unique among Iranian films. Not so is The Circle's having been banned for screening in its home country--although the fact that Panahi was this year spared the indignity of being fingerprinted at the airport upon his arrival in New York does seem to represent some measure of progress.

Before Night Falls

Following his flaky Basquiat, art scenester-turned-auteur Julian Schnabel delivers another awestruck take on a radical visionary and his lust for life. But this biopic of gay Cuban writer and political dissident Reinaldo Arenas curiously de-emphasizes its subject's artmaking (not to mention his sexuality) while flaunting its own creative mix of grainy and color-saturated film stocks, the better to make Sixties-era Cuba seem "vibrant" and "gritty" to Schnabel's fellow trendsetting historians. Cuba is Hot these days, and if Before Night Falls seems to come a little late in the day in this regard, its softening of Arenas's agenda and identity is certainly strategic to lure the masses: Call it the Philadelphia of "developing nation" epics (complete with painless deathbed denouement). That said, Arenas's demise is incredibly moving, in part because, two hours into the film, Schnabel finally takes the opportunity to introduce the man's writing. As Arenas, the handsome Javier Bardem is a pleasure to watch, but Johnny Depp, in a small role as an eye-batting transvestite who smuggles entire chapters of the author's work in his elastic rectum, somewhat naturally makes the deeper impression.

 

Eureka

A film that runs more than three and a half hours without intermission--Warhol's Chelsea Girls, for instance, or the long version of Kusturica's Underground, or this Japanese road movie-cum-Eastern Western--almost invariably provides a distinct cinematic experience. Faced with spending 225 minutes in the dark, the viewer simply cannot prevent his mind from drifting toward matters unrelated to what's onscreen: the utterly arbitrary nature of the standard two-hour film length, the comparative fraudulence of concise character studies, the exceedingly tender condition of his ass. What's interesting is that the less narratively driven of long, long movies (i.e., not The Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia) actually incorporate these responses into their aesthetic strategies, seeking not to rivet the spectator so much as render him receptive to hypnotism. In other words, it's the direct opposite of the standard Hollywood agenda. And yet if John Ford had been allowed (or inclined) to wander Monument Valley with the Duke for nearly four hours of real time (imagine The Searchers at half-speed, and largely without dialogue), he might have concocted something like Eureka, whose laconic searcher (Koji Yakusho) suffers a debilitating trauma before taking to the road to find...himself. Uncommercial as the experience may seem, Twin Cities viewers will get the chance to think existentially about their own hindquarters when Eureka screens at the Walker on November 17.

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