Aaron Cutler, Kenji Fujishima, and Elise Nakhnikian, who covered this year’s New York Film Festival for The House Next Door, shared some thoughts via email about the event as a whole and its highlights after the last press screening (Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter).
The House Next Door: What trends did you notice among this year’s festival films?
Aaron Cutler: First, the old guys came to play this year. Clint did a surprisingly lazy job on Hereafter, but otherwise the filmmakers over 70—Abbas Kiarostami, Jean-Luc Godard, Frederick Wiseman, Jean-Marie Straub, Raúl Ruiz, and the 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira—produced not just several of the festival’s best movies, but also the most inventive and formally daring. I kept thinking about how Buñuel locked in after he turned 60, producing the slyest and wisest movies of his career. A truly great artist, as all these people are, can stay great over time—by practicing, by reading and watching more, and by understanding better how the world works. Kiarostami and Godard’s films say more about how people interact with technology now than any current Hollywood film does.
Speaking of the globe, the festival offered a nice glimpse of what’s happening in world cinema. Romania blazed past every other country’s collective output, with the masterpiece The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, the fantastic Aurora, and the really good Tuesday, After Christmas showing why the Romanian New Wave is still the best national movement. The French films—Of Gods and Men, Carlos (problematic calling it French, I know), Black Venus, and even Film Socialisme—felt too abstractly intellectual, and the Russian duo of My Joy and Silent Souls conveyed strong emotion without strong structure. Though the American studio films—The Social Network, The Tempest, and Hereafter—reminded me why I rarely go to multiplexes, this year’s independent and documentary choices (Meek’s Cutoff, Boxing Gym, several of the American pre-main slate shorts and selections in the Views from the Avant-Garde programs) were quite strong.
The biggest theme that I noticed this year was the conversation between film and digital video. Many of the best movies were either films commenting on video (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) or videos passing for film (Mysteries of Lisbon). I think that this has to do with the moment we’re in, where more and more artists are shooting on DV and treating real film stock as a fetish object, something antique. It’s getting so that DV is the new film, to the point of even looking like it. I asked several people whether they thought Hereafter was shot on film or video (shot on 35mm and then converted to video, IMDb says, though the final result looks much more video than film), and they consistently responded that they could no longer tell. Even when movies are shot on film, though, they’re being converted onto digital prints, and within a decade I think that most American movie theaters will be projecting digitally. Simply put, we’re living in a digital world, in many more ways than just moviegoing. I don’t mind this, though I’d still like to have both DV and film prints to view. Otherwise it would be like only eating chicken, but sometimes pretending it’s beef.
Speaking of technology, many of the critics I met at this year’s press screenings were fellow Web writers permitted to attend screenings regardless of whether they would actually cover the movie being shown. The ability cinephiles have now to advocate films regardless of whether they’re working for a publication or for a personal blog is a wonderful thing, and very vital, but we have to be careful not to take advantage of the system; every seat that we don’t pay for is one less ticket that the festival sells. At the Mysteries of Lisbon press screening (remember, this is a four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese-language film with an inscrutable plot), a colleague and I remarked to each other that many of the people who might have paid to see Mysteries of Lisbon at its public screening were seeing it for free. There’s a very small audience for art house and repertory films, even in New York, and we’re a big chunk of it. The festival is programming Hollywood crap as part of its lineup, among other reasons, as a way to earn money that it needs to continue. One of the best ways to ensure that Lincoln Center can continue to showcase Ruiz as well as Eastwood is to frequent its Film Society shows during the rest of the year.
Kenji Fujishima: As I wrote in my review of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus, the most memorable thread that kept popping up in some of the films in this year’s festival is the acceptance of the enigmatic in humanity. For every film like Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva’s Old Cats and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (films that, to varying degrees, ask you to have an emotional investment with the characters in the stories), there were many others (docudramas like Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and the aforementioned Black Venus, or pure fiction like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora and Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem) that kept the viewer at a psychological distance in order to get at potentially greater truths. Frequently in the past four weeks of attending New York Film Festival press and public screenings, I’ve often wrestled with the question of whether that kind of detachment is inherently a more rewarding artistic strategy than “getting us to care.” Wherever you stand on such an issue, it’s still rewarding to see a bunch of films with such wildly divergent approaches, collectively highlighting the wondrous and fascinating possibilities of the medium in illuminating the human experience.
Elise Nakhnikian: I kept noticing bleak, even apocalyptic warnings about the degeneration of civil society. My Joy was too episodic and one-note to work, but it did its best to convince us that the future is a cruel and pitiless place. Post Mortem looked back to the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende to say something about what people are capable of at their worst, and because it showed a much wider range of human emotion and behavior, I found it much more devastating and believable. Of Gods and Men and We Are What We Are were very different movies, but in both people turn savage in corrupt societies where the rule of law doesn’t count for much. And Revolución is uneven, like most omnibus movies, but it contains some vivid images of the chaos and cruelty and alienation felt by the diaspora that are the legacy of decades of poverty and colonial/feudal oppression in Mexico—and, more recently, the rise of the drug lords. And I think Film Socialisme was trying to say something about how globalization strengthens xenophia and class oppression, though I can’t say I’m sure since I felt like it kept referring to ideas in passing rather than exploring anything in depth. Then again, Meek’s Cutoff and Black Venus were reminders that “inhumanity” has always been a pretty basic part of human nature.
The Social Network is also about social deterioration, if indirectly, since it tells us something about how technology is degenerating our social networks. The movie doesn’t really get into that: It’s only interested in Facebook as an idea Mark Zuckerberg develops and a lot of other people fight about, not as a social phenomenon. But it opens the door to that idea by showing how we’re making kings of people who are so socially inept they actually believe an online “community” like Facebook is a way of “taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online,” as the Zuckerberg character created by the filmmakers puts it. I happened to be reading Jarod Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget when I saw this movie. Lanier’s book is a warning about how we are on the road to creating computer systems that limit human communication and thought and creativity rather than aiding it, and The Social Network is a good example of how that can play out.
AC: I’d like to try to synthesize our three arguments: Technology is bringing us closer, quicker, faster to other people, without helping us realize closer/quicker/faster how little we understand them.
THND: What were the festival’s highlights?
AC: My list, in preferential order: Double Suicide, Certified Copy, A Matter of Life and Death, Pastourelle, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Assassination, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Film for Invisible Ink, Case no. 323: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, The Strange Case of Angelica, All Flowers in Time, El Compadre Mendoza, What’s Out Tonight is Lost, Aurora, Mysteries of Lisbon, Pale Flower, La Deuxièmme Femme, Marvo Movie, Poetry, Oki’s Movie, and Film Socialisme, with a special mention to Nuremberg (the assembled footage from the Nuremberg trials feels too valuable as a historical document to adequately judge as a movie).
Many of these played in the avant-garde, special-event, and repertory programs, so the first and obvious thing to say is that viewers who just attended the main slate cheated themselves. All these movies have something compelling to say about the art of vision—or better yet, how the media images we see on a regular basis impact the way we shape images in our head. Poetry, a formally conventional character drama, would seem to possess less self-commentary than many of the other works, until you consider that the main character decides to convey her experiences through art, and that the poem she writes accompanies a screen visualization as though willing it into being. Movies help us see what our imaginations look like, and the good ones, as the festival showed, inspire us to imagine worlds beyond them.
KF: My five favorite films of this year’s festival encompass the variety found in the festival. In Carlos, Assayas blew the roof off the glamorous revolutionary image of its titular terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, cultivated during the 1970s and ’80s by standing outside of him psychologically while obsessively recreating the particulars of the history surrounding him. Both Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives create their own distinctive, magical environments in order to comment on the world in which we all live. And James Benning’s latest avant-garde documentary, Ruhr—screened during the festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde series—juxtaposed seven stationary shots of real locations in Germany’s Ruhr Valley in order to remind us not only of the splendors of the natural world, but of the ways nature and technology operate both separately and in concert with each other.
But Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—which stands head and shoulders above the films I saw this year at the New York Film Festival—managed to mix emotionally affecting human drama, academically minded intellectual discourse, and a pinch of surrealism into one astonishing package. How closely can art echo reality, and how much can art elucidate the human truths in our lives? That Kiarostami dared to ask such heady academic questions while never losing the emotional thread of the film’s central relationship is probably the closest this year’s festival came to a cinematic miracle.
Others I really liked, in rough order of preference: Andrei Ujicâ’s fascinatingly slippery The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu; Mike Leigh’s tough yet tender Another Year; Raúl Ruiz’s visually thrilling Mysteries of Lisbon; Lee Chang-dong’s quietly despairing yet oddly hopeful Poetry; Frederick Wiseman’s typically humane and observant Boxing Gym; and Craig McCall’s engrossing Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.
I found The Social Network enjoyable enough, and think it was a fine choice for an opening-night film, but its final image—much too on-the-nose for my taste—does point to some of the problems I have with it, at least on the script level. Still, I think Fincher was the right choice for this material, bringing a healthy detachment to the proceedings that seemed more appropriate to this subject matter than it did in his last film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alas, the centerpiece selection, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, sorely lacked much in the way of cinematic inspiration for all its fine performances; and the closing-night selection, Clint Eastwood’s well-meaning but misbegotten Hereafter, was possibly the festival’s worst film.
Despite Taymor’s and Eastwood’s misfires, though, I honestly don’t think I saw an outright dud in the bunch (and yes, that includes We Are What We Are, which I seem to like far more than my two colleagues did). Even films like Aurora and Meek’s Cutoff that ultimately left me cold still had genuine directorial visions behind them that would be churlish to wholly dismiss.
Oh, and my biggest blind spot? Tuesday, After Christmas.
EN: I’m still obsessing about the ones I didn’t get to and really wanted to see: The Strange Case of Angelica, Old Cats (The Maid was one of my favorite films of 2009), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Aurora, Mysteries of Lisbon, and Carlos (though I’ll watch that one this week on the Sundance Channel, which is running it in three parts). There were also some interesting sounding films in the retrospective lineup that I’ll be adding to my Netflix list, including the Shinoda ones.
Of the 20 or so I got to, my favorites were Certified Copy, Poetry, Post Mortem, and Meek’s Cutoff. I also liked Boxing Gym, The Social Network, Another Year, and Tuesday, After Christmas very much, though they didn’t engage me as deeply as the others did.
THND: Did any of the filmmaker Q&As after the screenings add anything significant to the experience of the festival for you?
KF: The only Q&A I attended—and I admit, I didn’t attend very many—that I felt was worth my time was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s discussion after the public screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, in which he, among other things, discussed the film in context of traditions of Thai cinema that he was trying to evoke—none of which, I would guess, most non-Thai folk would be much aware, but it adds a tantalizing layer of meaning to an already densely meaningful work.
EN: Sometimes the Q&As are worthless, but I like them when they tell me something interesting about how the filmmakers work or think or about a director’s intentions for the film. One of each of those types of responses stood out for me this year.
The first was when Frederick Wiseman said, after Boxing Gym, that he can no longer get the funding to shoot on film, though he’s been working in 16mm for nearly half a century and isn’t comfortable editing digital. Digital is getting so good it’s often impossible for me to tell what’s shot on film and what’s DV, so I’m not sure I’d notice the difference, though Wiseman said he believes the image quality in digital isn’t quite as good. But there has to be a loss to us all when a gifted filmmaker can’t work in his preferred medium. (Wiseman said the main thing that would bother him was editing on an Avid when he has “150 years of experience on a Steenbeck.”) And when even someone as gifted and established as Frederick Wiseman can’t get the money to work on film, you have to figure it’s impossible for someone who’s just starting out—unless they’re making a movie that’s expected to pull in a lot of cash.
My other Q&A highlight was a favorite partly because of what it revealed about Mike Leigh’s character and partly because it was just so damn funny. I don’t remember what he was asked, but it was one of those questions that feels as if it’s aimed at demonstrating how much the questioner knows about film in general and/or appreciates this one in particular. Leigh, whose bullshit meter seems painfully sensitive, cut off the questioner at the knees. Lesley Manville, one of his lead actors, stepped in to bind the wound, assuring the questioner that, while the director and actors didn’t have in mind what he’d suggested while shooting, that didn’t mean that what he saw in the finished film wasn’t valid. Another director might have let it end there, but not Leigh. “I apologize,” he said, “but I find it’s a bit of a cul-de-sac question and I shall give it no more thought.”
AC: Aurora’s director-star Cristi Puiu gave the single best Q&A that I have ever seen, offering five-to-seven-minute little essays passing for answers to questions that touched on moral philosophy, Western literature, and his fear of his own brain. I urge anyone who thinks that there isn’t an intricately worked-out system behind Aurora’s studied drabness to listen to Puiu for five minutes. Seeing Abbas Kiarostami in person would have been incredible, had he not encountered visa problems that kept him from entering America. This is ironic, considering that Certified Copy is all about how individual cultures are ostensibly merging into a global one while actually still keeping to themselves. One looks at all the riches from this year’s festival and wants desperately to prove Certified Copy wrong.
THND: What do you think of the New York Film Festival compared to other film festivals—or compared to itself in the past?
AC: The New York Film Festival’s pleasure lies in its accessibility. There are only two spaces, with Alice Tully Hall hosting the main-slate attractions and the Walter Reade theater hosting repertory, special events, and Views from the Avant-Garde. The scheduling is very manageable, as opposed to a festival like Toronto where you’re choosing between over 200 programs and events. As for the main slate this year, though I did loathe a few titles and long for a few absent others, I do believe that the selection committee made a good-faith effort to present the best movies that they could find in the world, and that Film Society programmer and committee member Richard Peña in particular knows more about what’s happening in world cinema than perhaps anyone else alive. The New York Film Festival probably offers the best selection, both this year and consistently, of any major film festival in the States.
Though at times this year it felt dangerously corporate, I do believe that the New York Film Festival is still committed (unlike more business-oriented fests such as Sundance) to showcasing film as an art form. To that end, I’d like to salute the festival for giving prominent room and space both to the current avant-garde and to general repertory, though in my fantasies I envision those shows getting the same level of publicity as the main-slate attractions. A great movie’s great no matter its genre or production year; as someone once told me, “Any time that an audience sees a movie for the first time, it’s a new release.” Several of Masahiro Shinoda’s films, 1960s-made tales of oppression filmed with dazzling liberty, were among my favorite new releases.
EN: There seems to be a lot of buzz about how much better it is this year than usual. I would agree with that (I’ve seen more movies than usual this year that I either loved or liked very much), but I’ve always found that the New York Film Festival has a high hit rate, since they show fewer and generally better movies than any other film festival I’ve been to. I also appreciate the fact that the programmers have always had a truly global perspective, so they get new work by some of the best directors in the world. It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got the latest from people like Abbas Kiarostami and Frederick Wiseman and Cristi Puiu and Lee Chang-dong.
But I didn’t like seeing the New York Film Festival start and end this year with big, star-studded mainstream movies that are opening soon. Maybe that’s a necessary part of staying alive financially, the way malls put in big anchor stores to pull the crowd; most other film festivals have done it for a while. Maybe it’s even a smart way of staying relevant to a large audience rather than just playing to the cinephile elite, which is what Manohla Dargis argued in her festival overview in The New York Times. To me, it just felt wrong to sit in the Walter Reade Theater watching the ham-fisted Hereafter, which will open with torrents of publicity on hundreds of screens in less than a week, when so many really good and interesting movies are struggling to find an audience.
KF: This was my first year having a New York Film Festival experience; last year, I did one day of press screenings (a day in which Corneliu Porumboiu’s great Police, Adjective and Alain Resnais’s minor but enjoyable Wild Grass screened), and on the basis of that one day, I hankered for more. I could not have asked for a better first year covering the festival for The House Next Door; for the most part, I don’t think I’ve encountered such a sustained run of stimulating, challenging, and sometimes sublime cinematic work in a long while.