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.

 

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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