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New York Film Festival 2008: The Class, Wendy and Lucy, The Windmill Movie, Shorts, & Housekeeping

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New York Film Festival 2008: The Class, Wendy and Lucy, The Windmill Movie, Shorts, & Housekeeping

Traditionally, the opening night film of NYFF should be a fairly prominent title that can drag in the middlebrows and not alienate an audience coming as much to be part of an “event” as to see a movie. It should also be well-crafted enough that no one could really object to it. (Kind of backfired last year with the idiosyncracies of The Darjeeling Limited, but the string of films before—Look At Me, The Queen, Good Night, And Good Luck—is an immaculate chain.) This year it’s Laurent Cantet’s The Class. Step back and think about that for a second.

Cantet’s upward career trajectory has been odd enough: one of his major themes is negotiating capitalism while trying to maintain ethical integrity (which, admittedly, would probably be an easier sell right now, but still not all that sexy). It’s strangely inevitable that Cantet would get around to a macrocosmic portrait of contemporary French society’s startlingly diverse ethnic composition and try to report back on the state of the nation; he’s nothing if not an earnestly liberal, political filmmaker. In that sense, The Class is his most ambitious film, even as it feels like one of his most modest. 2001’s Time Out had the magisterial chilliness and formalism that pleasingly dominates much of the contemporary festival circuit. The follow-up, unfortunately, was 2005’s atrocious Heading South, which attempted to explore Haiti’s post-colonial economic exploitation by having middle-aged women deliver monologues straight to the screen with lines like “I put two fingers down his swimming trunks and felt his cock.” This is not the way to make anyone think about anything, except maybe walking out.

Cantet’s best work may be his debut short, 1994’s Tous A La Manif. The sadly underseen film takes in the obnoxious prating of students on strike from the viewpoint of a cafe worker who doesn’t have the option of schooling; he works for his dad, serving Godard’s demon spawn while they natter on about class consciousness. Cantet manages to show both sides in the ongoing legacy of France’s protest culture and “the student” post-’68. The Class has a similar dialectic, in that what’s supposed to be happening—revolution in Tous A La Manif, the kind of comprehensive public school education that’ll help integrate disparate elements into French society and helps kids make it out of the French equivalent of the “hood” (not, in this case, the banlieue proper, rather Paris’s 19th district)—isn’t actually happening, but an interaction that’s enlightening for both sides is still taking place, even if no one’s aware of it.

François Bégaudeau plays a teacher with the same name; The Class is based on his book, a memoir of teaching. Everyone’s credits here are in order, with a classroom of rowdy kids playing themselves flawlessly; not a single moment strains belief. Cantet’s embraced on-set improvisation for the first time in his career, and the result is flawless pseudo-documentary (Cantet doesn’t even cut away from a few moments where people look directly into the camera). Cannily saving the plot until well over an hour in, The Class never leaves the school: it’s all rowdy and tense lessons (delightful and frequently hilarious to watch), staff meetings, disciplinary committee meetings and the like. Everything that can happen in French society can happen here: students with roots in Mali and the Caribbean coming to blows over soccer teams, worries about creeping Americanization, and questions, over and over again, about whether or not French society proper is still hostile and racist to its immigrants. Because it’s worked out through an especially conscientious and earnest teacher who never seems to stop scrutinizing himself while presenting a workable and humane worldview to the kids—and instantly checked by the often immovable reality of the kids—The Class isn’t remotely didactic. It works through its problems in a day-to-day manner.

There’s been a lot of talk about how The Class doesn’t measure up to season 4 of The Wire. I wouldn’t know (I’m still working through season 2), but surely that’s just not fair; the option of duration and methodical unweaving just isn’t available. What Cantet has is a cross-section of all the components of the public school’s academic year. It’s zippy, it’s funny, it’s compelling and it’s vaguely stunted, which it acknowledges by leaving about 70% of the plot threads unresolved. Everyone should have a fine time.

~

I think Kelly Reichardt is a great filmmaker formally; I’m not sure about her politics, but Wendy And Lucy is so strong I don’t really care. I was skeptical about Old Joy, simply because I could really care less about sylvan oases of introspection; Wendy And Lucy, also filmed in Portland but set in the least populated, most suburban dead-end parts, takes place someplace I recognize. Suburbia, they say, looks the same everywhere—which is true in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean life isn’t taking place in the Walgreen’s parking lot.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is stuck in Oregon, trying to make it to Alaska to earn some money to get back on her feet; the cause of her destitution is unknown and irrelevant. Lucy is her dog and only companion; when she calls her brother, he’s too distracted to hear anything she’s saying, and his shrew of a girlfriend won’t get off the line. Wendy, it must be said, is superficially every bit as stupid as Chris McCandless, the feckless protagonist of Into The Wild, but where McCandless threw everything away to pursue his stupidly romanticized vision of poor planning as “life,” he also had a streak of luck getting minimum-wage jobs to pay his way down the line. That was 1992; traveling this side of the millennium, Wendy has no phone or address. She’s off the map and in deep shit. It’s no longer morning in America, huh?

Here’s the deterministic part. When Wendy tries to steal from a grocery store to save some money, she doesn’t just get arrested: she gets arrested by a blond all-American teen with a cross necklace who lectures her on the proprieties of capitalism. America’s stacked the deck in a bad, bad way in Wendy And Lucy; as pointed out extensively elsewhere, but most eloquently by Scott Tobias, “Shades of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., which also revealed societal ills through a poignant dog-owner relationship.” Reichardt’s an unhappy liberal; when Wendy’s in a coffee shop, there’s a cutaway to a guy reading Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, which I suspect isn’t supposed to be funny (the characteristically stoic press corps couldn’t resist some sporadic guffaws at that one). But Reichardt’s artistry outweighs (or at least sufficiently counterbalances) her ambition to Say Something About Amerika. Reichardt’s style clears the mind: dialogue is minimal—not artificially, just leaving Williams on her own—framings elegant and magisterial. I didn’t realize how much I liked it until 20 minutes after it was over. The world Reichardt explores—the flat parking lots so close to the woods—is one I recognize. Reichardt’s political ideas are easy to translate into words, and not necessarily good ones; what makes her film haunting is mostly ineffable.

(Wendy And Lucy is preceded by a new 20-minute short by Jia Zhang-ke, Cry Me a River. It’s basically more footage of towns flooded by the Three Gorges Dam, topped off with a little upper-class bourgeois drama. It’s a decent enough dose to satiate Jia fanatics, but those who’ve never encountered his work shouldn’t start here, or draw any conclusions about the overall quality thereof.)

~

Richard P. Rogers was a member of an experimental group of filmmakers loosely clustered around CalArts; ’til today, I had no idea who he was because the avant-garde is a weak point for me. Alex Olch (a former student of Rogers, and—surprisingly enough—a respected necktie designer) rectifies the balance with The Windmill Movie, a profile constructed from the footage for an unrealized autobiographical masterwork. But what really makes the case is the Rogers short (his first) Lincoln Center is showing beforehand: 1970’s Quarry. Filmed in Quincy, Massachusetts in the summer of 1967, Quarry says more in 14 minutes about the American climate in the late ‘60s then all the Summer Of Love montages set to “White Rabbit” combined. Rogers begins with a black-and-white abstract formalism anticipating the work of Peter Hutton—or at least the dazzling silvery textures of last year’s At Sea, of which I wrote that a “desaturated shot of black-and-white waves forming patterns so dense and shimmery … seems like if you stared long enough, a secret 3D image might pop out.” Where Hutton holds the shots, Rogers gives you time to just start appreciating the ripples of slightly disturbed water before it’s on to the next shot: sensory overload. Then the familiar strains of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” kick in, and suddenly kids are jumping in. In 14 minutes, we get all the gorgeous shots you could hope for: kids jumping from great heights into the water, crawling down the crags past stones tagged with all the summer’s names and memories, a slow-mo shot from above of two guys walking on a log in the water. But the sound is an equally exciting jumble of radio hits and mumbling voices: sometimes inaudible, sometimes clearly addressing free love, Vietnam and all the other culturally defining events since simplified into simple nostalgic talking points. It’s present-tense history, and it’s gorgeous.

After watching The Windmill Movie, try not to retroactively downgrade Quarry. Rogers’ own life was the kind of mess you get when a blue-blood from upstate has the talent to work in experimental film and reject a proper WASP career, then starts questioning his own privilege, obsessing neurotically over sex, and increasingly fearing that his family’s history of insanity will catch up with him. It would’ve made a fine John Irving novel; instead, Olch has constructed a life portrait from over 200 hours of footage from all over the place: home movies by Rogers’ father, 16mm from the ‘70s, exponential amounts of video footage from the ‘80s to the present, much of which can charitably be termed as video diary outtakes. Rogers feared to make the film because he didn’t want to be solipsistic; Windmill doesn’t really solve the problem. Quarry is mentioned for all of three seconds, as a set-up to a mention of the premiere party. Much of Windmill are Rogers’ musings on juggling his girlfriends and incessant guilt about privilege; initially it’s charming that he’s so self-conscious. After 20 minutes of this, it’s less so. Watching the film, you’d never guess how influential Rogers was in certain documentary circles and think he hardly did any work at Harvard. Olch doesn’t help matters anyway by mirroring Rogers’ uncertainty about how (or even if) to represent himself on-screen with a battery of self-conscious devices: loads of header footage separating segments, lots of people wondering if the camera’s on, endless false starts. The point becomes obvious quickly. And for a man who constantly questioned his own privilege, Olch plays remarkably coy when introducing some “friends”—Wally and Bob—coming back to the house after his death to look around. Those would be Wallace Shawn and Bob Balaban; no false modesty please.

What’s left, then, is the gorgeous footage Rogers himself shot. And most of it is indeed knock-out level. Even on video, many of his shots gleam with a strange luminosity, the surroundings emanating light from nowhere in particular. There’s also the small matter that Rogers’ life—even aside from his self-imposed romantic dilemmas—is quite sad. Shooting for the “elegiac” is almost always begging the question; nevertheless, anyone whose fear of death is as morbid as my own will be hard-pressed not to have a reaction as Rogers moves painfully towards the inevitable. It’s a mixed bag, but anything introducing me to Rogers is probably a good thing.

~

Brief bit of housekeeping (har) here, which is probably only relevant to a few, but which personally nags at me. A few weeks ago I was contacted by Simon Abrams (a contributor to the New York Press, among other outlets, and a former colleague from the student newspaper days) with questions relating to “any thoughts you may have on the following venues and film festival: -BAM; -Film Forum; -Walter Reade; -NYFF; -MoMA.” A follow-up question about “What do you like and dislike about [NYFF]’s programming that would you make you want to avoid them as a member of the public?” later, and Simon was on his way. What I didn’t know was that Simon was preparing a vigorous quasi-attack on NYFF. So I’m quoted accurately as not being a fan of semi-expensive tickets and the “event” feel the festival gives in its public screenings, but hey: those are staples of many festivals. Simon might as well have asked what I thought of the festival situation right now in general. Which is: it’s always been easier to attend if you’re accredited, industry, or loaded. Also, organizing festivals is an expensive business, and some trade-offs are always going to occur. Some things are constant. Had I known the thrust of Simon’s piece (which is provocative, surely, but which I largely disagree with), I wouldn’t have responded the way I did; the festival is a good thing. Even when you’re a member of the general public, the huge screen is an anomaly for catching films that will be later relegated, out of financial necessity, to much smaller venues (and without them, I’d certainly never have seen The 10th District Court: Moments Of Trial, which would have been tragic). Like Bruce Wayne on Harvey Dent, I believe in NYFF (not to mention the always cooperative, helpful and friendly people at Lincoln Center), and I want to make that clear.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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