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Critics’ Conversation: The 2001 New York Film Festival

JEREMIAH KIPP: After the summer of our discontent, it was quite refreshing to have so many good (even great) movies emerge from the 39th Annual New York Film Festival. There were a lot of strong foreign films, but arguably the best movies to emerge were two of the eagerly anticipated American titles: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

RACHEL GORDON: Good call. Since New York is one of the more important cities for films to open in, the festival manages to segue interesting new stories (usually of the foreign variety) into the marketplace. And while I wouldn’t say I loved all the films, I respected their choices for the most part and was overjoyed at the fresh air of creativity. I’m glad they programmed foreign films that would normally not see the inside of a theater in the U.S.

JK: Yeah, the NYFF plays favorites by showing movies from filmmakers they like (who often happen to be quite excellent), but it also makes a fine launching pad for smaller movies that need a little push.

RG: I also agree about Mulholland Drive and The Royal Tenenbaums. Definitely my favorites. I can’t put one on top of the other because they are such different films. As for showing NYFF regulars, I really wish they had omitted In Praise of Love, though it is the 23rd film of Jean Luc-Godard’s to show at the festival so I guess it wasn’t going to be turned away.

JK: The selections committee has made a fair share of embarrassing mistakes over the years. They’ve often neglected David Lynch in the past, arguably one of the most important filmmakers in America. Blue Velvet didn’t even make the NYFF cut! They made him the centerpiece this year, which I suppose is a conciliatory gesture after snubbing him for ages. Mulholland Drive was particularly original in the way Lynch incorporated footage from his TV pilot as a nightmare fantasia to a disenchanted young actress (played by Naomi Watts). Of course, the movie suggests multiple interpretations.

RG: I loved Mulholland Drive for a lot of reasons, but you aptly expressed many of them in your dissenting review against our illustrious Editor Christopher Null. It begs respect for how it forms a cohesive story (clearer than some of Lynch’s other films for sure) but can be taken in [at least] two different ways. He could either have been juxtaposing parallel universes, as Lynch is wont to do, or it could be as you prefer: that the beginning is a dream and the latter story the reality of Diane (also played by Watts). Both ways it works, and both ways it’s compulsively watchable.

JK: The idea of creating your own realities in the face of an imperfect or unpleasant world seems to be a recurring theme for some of my favorite movies in 2001 (including A.I., Ghost World, and Takashi Miike’s Audition). That’s certainly one of the most compelling arguments in Royal Tenenbaums, that Gene Hackman’s disgruntled children transform their lives into something fanciful as a coping mechanism.

RG: I understand where you get a coping mechanism theory articulated in films this year, but I don’t think that was the point of Royal Tenenbaums. The kids don’t transform their lives so much as they are still trying to define them, and the normal means so far haven’t worked. They also seem to have been encouraged in their specific talents, business, or playwriting, but those aren’t escape tools per se. Royal Tenenbaum (the character played by Gene Hackman) is a different story. He’s one of the most charismatic anti-heroes ever portrayed on film. He seems to have these internal dreams of making everything right again, only to have these manifest inappropriately due to his basic self-centered nature. But he deals with his ineptitude by continuing to try with personalized details so I’m not sure that would be considered fanciful either. I would argue that the most fantastic elements of The Royal Tenenbaums are some of the humorous everyday life details, such as the never-ending supply of gypsy cabs.

JK: Simply put, Wes Anderson is becoming more and more confident in his unique cinematic voice. His deadpan wit undercuts the sentimentality and melodrama of the ‘dysfunctional family’ movie, and though his characters go through very sincere emotional struggles he keeps Royal Tenenbaums firmly within the arena of a colorful storybook. Ever the traditionalist, he ends his movie with an elaborate wedding pageant gone awry — a fistfight, a death, a sweet reconciliation, a secret love, and a long overdue embrace. He even has two youngsters fire rifles in the air as an appropriate gesture (or tribute) after all that glorious fanfare. Like his characters, Anderson isn’t bored or boring. He takes an interest in these things, and encourages us to do the same.

RG: I deeply concur. Anderson is a new kind of filmmaking hero for me — someone who can obviously work in a studio like system (The Royal Tenenbaums is being released through Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, after all) but can do so with a uniquely creative slant. His ability to write engaging, varied characters never ceases to amaze me and his taste for creating an environment is impeccable.

JK: Of the ten features from France at this year’s NYFF (many of which were actually international co-productions), I personally saw six of them and they couldn’t have been more diverse. What became especially interesting was checking in on the founding auteurs of the French New Wave: Eric Rohmer experimented with digital technology in The Lady and the Duke, Jacques Rivette settled comfortably into lightweight fluff with his overlong but charming Va Savoir, and as for Jean-Luc Godard, well, I’m curious to hear what he came up with, considering his movies over the past 10 to 15 years have been so didactic… and mostly lousy! But what did you make of In Praise of Love?

RG: In Praise of Love was one of the most exasperating film experiences I’ve sat through for some time, on the same level as Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Being that Godard is an understandably respected critic and filmmaker, I expected more going in. Going from one tangential, unmotivated, philosophically cryptic conversation to the next is just not my idea of a good time.

JK: When we saw Waking Life, it reminded me of that comment you made about my assessment of A.I. You argued that just because something is radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. While I’ll stand by A.I., that’s certainly an appropriate criticism against Linklater’s movie, which I’d be happy to re-title My Nightmare.

RG: I wanted to enjoy Waking Life. I found Linklater’s idea fascinating, to first shoot in real life and then paint over it. But instead of matching an interesting dialogue to a unique format, it was an annoying philosophy class straight out of
freshman year of college.

JK: One critic summed it up as saying it was My Dinner With Andre meets Yellow Submarine, but that’s nonsense. The characters in Andre discuss concrete, worldly experiences they’ve had before brooking philosophical about them — Linklater’s drifters, on the other hand, stay entrenched in the theoretical. It’s so bogged down in grand proclamations about the state of the world, it never strikes a single personal note. That makes the whole movie feel as long, slow, and boring as academia. The Yellow Submarine comparison is thunderously wrongheaded, too — that was a movie that celebrates the glory of rendering anything possible through animation, not to mention using music to keep things lively.

RG: A film doesn’t have to be ‘important’ or issue driven. It doesn’t need to have a specific plot or even character development in order to be an entertaining experience, or provide commentary on a subject. However, the problem with films like Waking Life is that the dialogue is purporting to be derisive about human issues, only to banter from one inexplicable interaction to the next, never able to fully realize its ideas to an audience. How are you supposed to care about what is happening on screen when almost every conversation starts with ‘How are you man? Are you a dreamer? Because often the dream state…’

JK: Waking Life, as you said, was shot with actors on digital video (and not very well, sticking to generally flat compositions) then went through a process of being penciled over through a variety of swirly-line techniques. It fails on the same level as Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings in that it forgets that animation is its own medium, its own art form. Images shot on film or video will not necessarily make good drawings or sketches. If the Waking Life footage was released straight on digital video (i.e., not animated), I’ll bet you anything critics would come out of the woodwork and remark on how hideous it looks.

RG: I would think, and hope, that some are reacting negatively now. If I hadn’t known the intentions of the filmmaker I would almost assume that the animation is covering up for faulty camera work. But it does make me curious what SubUrbia have been like if Linklater used this changed medium then. SubUrbia I actually liked, and it wasn’t just because there was a more cohesive plot with recognizable characters. As you say, it’s one thing to discuss theory, but if you have nothing concrete to base those theories on, you lose any ability to articulate perspective.

JK: Waking Life is sure to hoodwink critics en masse, reminding me of that great quote from contrararian NY Press critic Armond White about Memento (which I liked, by the way): ‘An indie hit that appeals to people who like to think they think.’ Right on. Speaking of contrarian, the NYFF had its fair share of odious shock value flicks fit for casual dismissal and nothing more. Two coming-of-age French movies were in that same boat: Deep Breath and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. The excruciatingly obvious metaphors employed via dirty sex and hyperviolence are fit for snobs to pat themselves on the back for ‘getting the message,’ but they fail to notice that these filmmakers are only using the gross-out to disguise their lack of distinctive craftsmanship. Breillat is so flummoxed by the camera that she slaps it down on the tripod for entire minutes, as though she couldn’t care less. That’s not voyeurism or observational documentation, it’s failure of the imagination. Compare these guys to Robert Bresson’s lingering reverence for holding a single shot for minutes and you’ll see there is no comparison. Bresson has an artist’s eye for detail, a patient sense of anticipation. I don’t see any of that in Fat Girl or Deep Breath. They’re just lazy!

RG: I didn’t see either of those films, but I do find the use of shock an annoying trend in current art house fare, and something that will get a filmmaker into a festival, whether or not their story involves new ideas. It’s a way to make a name for yourself and yes, it’s lazy.

On another note, you brought up French filmmakers before and I would like to discuss another section of the foreign slate. After French films, it seemed that Asian cinema was the next largest group. Between What Time is it There? and All About Lily Chou-Chou, I certainly gained respect for a section of the world that is rarely able to capture an American audience, unless it’s a film associated with kung-fu movies.

JK: Anyone who thinks that kung-fu movies are the only product of Asian cinema could use a wake-up call. That’s just cultural ignorance.

RG: What Time is it There? was a new experience for me in terms of watching and critiquing a film because I found myself respecting it though not necessarily enjoying it. All About Lily Chou-Chou is a compelling new spin for the teen genre. Unpredictable, sympathetic towards youth without condescension. Shunji Iwai also utilitizes a simple, stylized sophistication that allows for all the elements of the environment to weave themselves into the actions of the bored, anxious characters. I was happy to find out that Cowboy Booking (which has a reputation for handling intelligent foreign films) picked this film up for distribution the day before it screened at the NYFF. I’m anxious to see Iwai’s previous films now and I think filmmakers like him could pave the way to open other genre borders.

JK: Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, by that Japanese master Shohei Imamura, took a comfortable, dignified look at human sexuality. The premise alone is worth a big laugh: a disenfranchised businessman searching for treasure in a small community stumbles upon a woman that possesses the magical power to — well, when she has sex, water cascades from her body in a gigantic tidal wave! This is naturally healthy for her plants and garden, and attracts a wide diversity of fish in the local river! [laughs] Anyway, it starts out as a brilliant sight gag but then, as the man and woman settle into their relationship, they start to question their roles. Is he merely feeling attraction because her ‘talent’ turns him on so much? And is she interested in him because he resembles her old boyfriend? All sorts of interesting complications pile up! (The darker side of sexuality is visited in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, which is more of an actor’s showcase that uses the sex scenes to advance the story and reveal character. It’s not as complex as Warm Water, but worth a look.)

RG: I found an interesting overall mixture of genres at the NYFF this year. I think festivals are assumed to be solely for ‘film intellectuals,’ meaning you mostly likely won’t see these films playing at the multiplexes. It sounds like, from the variety of films we saw, put together, that there was a taste of drama, comedy, shock, slice of life, etc.

JK: The only category I felt wa
s lacking was the NYFF’s documentary section, which only had three titles altogether! As usual, docs were neglected.

RG: Yes, documentaries are usually neglected, except when there are film festivals specifically organized for them. Perhaps the lack at the NYFF has something to do with DocFest not being that long ago? I didn’t see any of the docs at the NYFF but you saw Sobibor, correct?

JK: Sobibor was superb, but Claude Lanzmann is a NYFF favorite. He’s had movies in the festival before. I don’t think DocFest and the NYFF have anything to do with each other… it’s just that most film festivals aren’t supportive of documentaries, which is a pity.

RG: But then again, due to the fact that the NYFF did (for the most part) show impeccable taste in selection this year, and that they boasted of good box office receipts just before showing In Praise of Love, it seems it was able to somewhat bridge the gap between a mainstream audience and the filmmaking community.

Festival recap (click for full reviews):

All About Lily Chou-Chou
Deep Breath
Fat Girl
In Praise of Love
Intimacy
The Lady and the Duke
Mulholland Drive
The Night of the Hunter
The Royal Tenenbaums
Sobibor
The Son’s Room
Time Out
Waking Life
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge
What Time is it There?

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