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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.

 

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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.)

 

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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.

 

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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.