Film, Lots of It
One Fearless Prediction, One Festival
Before getting into the recent New York Film Festival at 51, I have an urgent bulletin: the Film Society of Lincoln Center is doing all of us an enormous favor by presenting a week of Harold Pinter’s Comedies of Menace and Quiet Desperation. Made over a three-decade period of creative fever, Pinter’s films are in a category by themselves. Not only menacing and quietly desperate, but (although often funny) also heartbreaking. They have remained in memory all these years, waiting to be revisited, or shared with friends who weren’t lucky enough to see them when they were new.
These ten classics, reflecting an infinite landscape of imagination, are still fresh, powerful, and guaranteed to knock your socks off. If you’re smart, you’ll get tickets to all of them (with discounts for three or more). For most, there are multiple screenings, from November 22 – 28. Just go to http://www.filmlinc.com/ ; you will be stunned by the Who’s Who of directors and casts and realize you’re getting a bargain. And yes, you may thank me afterward.
And, while you’re there, check out FSLC’s Next Big Thing: Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, November 30 – December 3. It showcases Bucharest’s best and brightest, notably Corneliu Porumboiu, who will present When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism for the closing night. But he’s also the subject of a retrospective featuring (my favorite!) Police, Adjective—seen twice, with pleasure https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/891/) – now it’s your turn. Be sure to take it.
Because this year’s NYFF marked a transition from Richard Peña’s 25-year reign as artistic director (more foreign films), to Kent Jones and a new direction (more domestic), there was a distinctly different vibe for its opening night, centerpiece, and closing night selections. (Captain Phillips; Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Her). All three were impressive, but Spike Jonze’s Her retained a whiff of the European sensibility for which the NYFF was once famous. And, with three cinemathèques to fill with more screenings, sidebars, and conferences in addition to the main slate at Walter Reade, it was a non-stop binge for cinephiles. No matter; there were plenty of serious contenders from abroad, including 12 Years a Slave (a UK/USA production), now in wide release, surely barreling toward a multi-Oscar sweep.
Slave is not the first film to deal with the subject, but is surely the most devastating. Credit Steve McQueen’s direction, meticulous and passionate, and a brilliant cast speaking, for once, credible 19th-century American English. Nothing is held back, and the emotional impact of every scene, hard to bear, doesn’t let up for a second. Because the cast makes the characters indelible, they don’t disappear at the end of the film. For a fascinating account of what happened then, see http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/10/23/what-really-became-of-solomon-northup-after-his-12-years-a-slave/
Of course, these recommendations are entirely personal, and perhaps idiosyncratic. But the major releases have had, and will get, tremendous publicity; others, less mainstream, may not. So that’s where this post is heading: First, Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun (Dir: Nancy Buirski); it will turn up later this season on PBS’American Masters. Le Clercq cast, and still casts (in this film), a spell. Even in many archival excerpts in grainy black-and-white kinescope, her singular, angular grace and unconventional beauty are an odd parallel to Audrey Hepburn en pointe, forevershadowed by the cruelest of fates. Just before leaving on a tour with the New York City Ballet in 1956, Le Clercq refused to get a polio shot and got, instead, the disease itself, becoming paralyzed for the rest of her life. It was tragedy on a Greek scale for—even though her then-husband (GeorgeBalanchine himself), family, friends and colleagues surrounded and supported her—she was unable to dance, or even walk, afterwards. Grainy kinescopes or even still photographs notwithstanding, we will not see her like again. See this in a theater or on your home screen to capture briefly, her real, enduring magic.
What Now? Remind Me…(Dir: Joaquim Pinto)
In describing his own film as “…the notebook of a year of clinical studies with toxic, mind-altering drugs as yet unapproved,” Pinto does not do himself any favors. But then, this rara avis with extraordinary sensibilities and a profoundly generous heart has chosen to share both with everyone who sees the film. Pinto and his life partner (Nuno Leonel) are Portuguese, in Spain not only for the clinical studies but to return to and farm the land, explore the local caves (full of prehistoric artifacts), visit antiquarian archives, listen to every kind of music, cook, connect, and keep a record of their time together. Every minute of it is precious, and intensely lived.
Pinto has had a long career as a sound recordist for great directors, and has made (with Leonel) many films of his own. Sound is important to him; its use, along with his choice of music and visual effects enhance the film; the sensual rhythm of the editing and cinematography will have you rushing to pack and catch the next plane to Iberia. Despite his physical discomfort (and his occasional inability to deal with it bravely), Pinto is someone you’d love to know: reflective, raucous, lyrical, wickedly funny. You will meet him and Leonel, their four rescue dogs and their friends, and come away wanting more. His has been a life well-lived to the hilt, savored, and offered as a gift . You will have to look for ways to find What Now? Keep trying!
Burning Bush (Dir: Agnieszka Holland)
If you don’t have HBO, get a subscription before Burning Bush is broadcast. The only catch: for now, it has to be HBO Europe…
But, also for now, you can at least see a five-minute trailer that might inspire you to bombard HBO with emails suggesting a westward Atlantic passage for this gorgeous mini-series (originally the Czech nominee for Best Foreign Film, later disqualiied because it appeared on TV before its theatrical release). It’s top-of-the-line filmmaking from a director known for atmosphere, probing character studies, and seamless blending of sound and image, who was studying in Prague in 1968 when the events took place. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlvshoNsY7g.
Nominally a true story about a young Czech’s self-immolation in protest of the Soviet occupation of his country, it begins as authorities investigate his death, determined to prevent other protesters from following in his footsteps. Gradually, as the investigation broadens, the film becomes a mirror of the forces working at cross-purposes behind the scenes, following activists, heroic jurists, the secret police, and government officials as they ensnare and oppose one another over a period of twenty years. It’s a twisty, enthralling tale, with the darkness of the 60s and 70s giving way, color by color, to the the light of the post-Glasnost conclusion.
There is nothing, by now, that Holland doesn’t know about how to balance action, issues, and emotion. The script (by Štĕpán Hulík) is a marvel of complexity made crystal clear, perfectly enhanced by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’ subtle music. This is a haunting, yet fast-paced thriller that digs deeply into the bleak realpolitik of postwar Eastern Europe without dropping a stitch. The press screening of the entire series (in one gulp) lasted almost four hours. No one talked, no one texted; we were pinned to our seats the entire time. How can you see it? Do something!
The Square (Dir: Jehane Noujaim) Currently at the Film Forum.
Noujaim has received many awards for her films, often for their penetrating views of difficult subjects. But the one award she hasn’t received (because it doesn’t exist yet) is for absolute fearlessness. The Square is a film in progress, i.e. it was begun in 2011 and shot continuously, updated as events prevented any conclusion to the story of Egypt’s revolutions, deposed rulers, and political future.It’s all there: the factions, the economic woes, the uncertainty as to who, and what group, will prevail. She and her crew think nothing of wading into huge demonstrations that crackle with danger, often turning violent in an instant. Her six protagonists include members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and many Muslims determined to support democracy and prevent an extremist Islamic state. Their opinions evolve over time, but quickly. Noujaim’s fluent Arabic and encyclopedic knowledge of these complicated and volatile issues make The Square an essential primer to the as-yet unfinished narrative, and to the future of the Middle East. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2486682/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2.
Inexplicably absent from NYFF’s three featured slots, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was definitely a Festival favorite. Yes, tongue-in-cheek (one of many selections in that category, which wears well over time), and right on the money, but always affectionate. Oscar Isaac’s mournful folksinger is a brilliant turn, matched by John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands (of Kinky Boots fame), Carey Mulligan and (I think) several marmalade cats playing one on whom the plot depends. (Could (s)he be 2014’s Uggie?) And, of course, assorted characters you could encounter in those days at any coffee house or dinner party.
Like most of the Coen brothers’ films, there is a gentle, persistent rhythm,
an inspired conspiracy of image, sound, and music that starts with the first scene and lasts til the last, and you are part of its deliciousness. And for those who’ll get them: a few memorable Early Music jokes that really hit home. Opening in December nationwide. If you want to see a movie that you’ll walk out of smiling (and who doesn’t love to smile?), make room for Inside Llewen Davis. It will do the job. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc
Then there was the Festival’s polished shot at the current vampire epidemic, Only Lovers Left Alive. Like Inside Llewen Davis and Spike Jonzs’ Her, Only Lovers keeps its tongue (and its fangs) firmly in its cheeks. It’s a paradigm of controlled perfection from Jim Jarmusch, with Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, and Mia Wasikowska not so much playing their elegant roles as timelessly inhabiting them, offering us a dark and original view of history among the undead. What makes it go every minute is the celestial pitch-perfect tone sung by everyone involved, all crowding on to the same page at the same time, never straying from it. Like a kind of deadpan chamber music made visible. Huge plus: it’s also literate. Be grateful!
Finally, there’s…..Her (Dir: Spike Jonze)Very much today, but even more tomorrow, it’s Artifical Intelligence evolving faster than a flu virus. Voiced by Scarlett Johannson, its easy to think of Her (Samantha) as a lot more than an operating system that can improve and co-opt your so-called life before you can say R2D2. In the same class as Inside Llewen Davis and Only Lovers, Her is a deadpan (though a bit mournful) pushback to the mediated lifestyle, defined by electronic hard-and-software, that has become today’s normal, tomorrow’s necessity. Jonze has his hands firmly, but delicately, on the reins all the time. You’ll have to wait until January to see (and hear) Her, but in the meantime you can have all the quirky fantasies you want to decide what you’d do in Joaquin Phoenix’s place. http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1211672857/
So having stepped up to the plate to identify some of the NYFF contenders (I did pretty well last year), and trying to describe the kind of shift in focus that they represent, let’s say that the emphasis on European and/or foreign films that was once NYFF’s hallmark—at least for its three top slots—has been changed to feature American product.
Though all three examples were well-chosen, there is something else on the horizon: three films that are also all-American, masterpieces of deadpan art and craft (from the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Jonze). Each relies on tone, texture, and the delicate tongue-in-cheek understatement that satisfies and delights, while bearing the unique stamp of its particular filmmaker. A new category, perhaps? Watch this space to see what happens…