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Critics’ Conversation: The 2003 New York Film Festival

JEREMIAH KIPP: As a movie year, 2003 hasn’t inspired much enthusiasm. Neither did the 41st Annual New York Film Festival (October 3-19, 2003). Even the more solid entries felt like political choices, or politically correct ones. And while I didn’t have the opportunity this year to see everything, I definitely didn’t feel the same excitement of years past. The old guard was churning out stuff that felt rote; the new blood didn’t seem very inspiring.

RACHEL GORDON: I’m not sure I agree with you. I remember (looking over last year’s wrap up) that I wasn’t too impressed with that line up either, whereas this year there were plenty of films at the NYFF I wanted to see. One of my reservations, however, was that many were repeat standards for the NYFF, and that not many chances had been taken on new talent. But I wouldn’t necessarily attribute their choices to political correctness so much as securing a safe audience due to the films that were played.

KIPP: The three headliners were Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. I suppose you’re right that filling seats was a major concern, since they push for the mainstream crowd with Eastwood’s Oscar bid; they have the foreign art house market covered with Dogville, and Iñárritu is one of the hot young directors of the moment. They certainly covered all their bases. Mystic River was a frustrating choice for the festival’s opening night film, though. You would expect the Film Society of Lincoln Center not to fall for the self-importance and the hype of Mystic River.

GORDON: I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why Mystic River was chosen, actually, especially as the actual theatrical release wasn’t much later than when it was being screened at the NYFF. Usually festivals such as the highly touted NYFF are about showing what won’t be released for some time, or still does not have a distributor. While the NYFF had handfuls of both, it still chose to showcase a film that needed no further publicity or public acknowledgement. I was glad they’d shown Dogville, though it was rote (as you put it) in a way I found lazy. I’m used to walking out of a Lars von Trier film pissed off, and respecting that I’ve had such a reaction, and this time my nerves felt dulled. I thought 21 Grams was one of the better films shown at the NYFF, along with Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves.

KIPP: Yeah, they had two bold new documentaries from McElwee and Errol Morris (The Fog of War). Morris took on the formidable Robert McNamara as his subject, and though it occasionally feels like a history lesson through World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam, it also captures the slippery nature of politics and war. McNamara’s an interesting and articulate subject, but it’s most revealing when he chooses to clam up and not provide information to Morris. This presents an interesting problem with the film, since Morris is usually able to surprise his subjects. In an odd way, he’s met his match in McNamara. That makes a fascinating paradox for an Errol Morris film: a subject who won’t let his guard down. It limits the film, but also gives it a strong metaphor: There are some things we just can’t know. McElwee, on the other hand, is more of an open book and a welcoming presence, right?

GORDON: Well, McElwee is just a different perspective to come from. Morris usually takes a specific issue to explore, most often something that’s pertinent to current social/political concerns. McElwee takes a facet of personal history or question, in this case researching the cultural rise of tobacco plantations as his grandfather’s plummeted as his rival soared. He poses the question of looking into what the community was like back then to gain new personal perspective as well as definition in fact. You’re talking about a basically one-man crew who constantly shoots footage in his daily life, sometimes culminating much earlier footage in a later work. With Bright Leaves, he revisits his ancestry both to understand the climate of where he comes from as well as to provide a documentation for his own children. He also imbues an amusing sense of humor to his history lessons that allows for you to sympathize with the themes he’s struggling with. Morris tends to respect the seriousness of his encounters, as he should. There is a stronger concentration on a certain situation, rather than a personal interaction with the material.

KIPP: Well, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant did neither. It’s a non-documentary that chooses Columbine as its subject, and doesn’t provide much in the way of analysis or interaction. It’s decidedly non-naturalistic, played out in these long silent hallways you wouldn’t expect from an actual high school. The kids (victims, bullies, jocks, nerds, and the killers) aren’t really ‘characters’, though Van Sant creates identification by following them around for minutes on end with the Steadicam. The film drives towards its inevitable conclusion with a sickening sense of finality, and when something breaks we’ve spent so much time looking at the faces and hearing the words of these everyday kids that Elephant achieves true horror.

GORDON: I don’t quite see Elephant as having the same strength that you do. Because I was expecting many of the teenage stereotypes to play out the way they did, the horror you describe didn’t hit me with the same amount of force. But what I do appreciate about Elephant is a more natural, less forced sense, an anti-Michael Moore so to speak. Because it’s almost shot randomly in terms of whom is focused on and when, there isn’t the same mental force-feeding that Moore provides with his take on Columbine issues. I think that provides a far more interesting provocation, to have an audience thinking about how difficult adolescence is, which we all must suffer through, and also the damage that can be done by sticking to assumed categorizing of individuals.

KIPP: But it’s problematic. Van Sant offers no motive, which is fair, and seems to wonder aloud, ‘What’s the point?’ But the few teasing hints he chooses to include of the social forces at work feel too vague. His movie causes dread, but doesn’t provide insight. It’s minimalist to the point of frustration rather than abstraction, and shows that Van Sant can’t crack the surface of his material. Within that flaw is something fascinating. It says that there’s something at work too dreadful for us to pin a name to. If we don’t have words, Van Sant at least provides images. It’s like a visual elegy, and that’s more poignant and maybe even powerful than all the documentaries I’ve seen about Columbine.

GORDON: Some of the weakness and reaction you have from Elephant parallel how I feel about Dogville. You have a director you know is going to put his leading lady through absolute hell, as he always does, and it might (somewhat unclear) be metaphoric for the cyclical pattern of human nature to be entirely self-absorbed so as to rationalize the inhumane treatment they deal out. Only with Dogville, it’s not about the visuals in the least. Though shot well, and surprisingly not boring though taking place solely on a single soundstage, von Trier doesn’t surpass the base motives he chooses to display to comment on them in any way. After watching the continually worsening hoops poor Grace (Nicole Kidman) willingly jumps through, you’re left wondering what new provocative scheme von Trier is going for because it’s simply not coming through.

KIPP: Those seemed to be the movies worth arguing about: Elephant and Dogville< /i>. But ultimately, neither of them seem like they communicate very much to the audience. Even The Fog of War ultimately leaves you drawing at straws. That’s not so much about leaving the audience in a moral gray zone as it is leaving them in the dark, which can carry the illusion of being richly profound. Still and all, Elephant and The Fog of War gave me strong direct sensations. Fog of War also provides some necessary historical documentation that has been brushed under the carpet, and has eerie parallels with the state of the world right now. I got more out of those films than I did out of the other bores I saw this year: Young Adam, The Flower of Evil, and Good Morning, Night were myopic in their viewpoints. Some of the other choices (like Pornography and The Barbarian Invasions) seemed really lightweight, and therefore not worth bothering with. Did you catch any other films you thought were noteworthy?

GORDON: My favorite was definitely Bright Leaves, as I’ve already mentioned, but runner up goes to 21 Grams. It’s a story that’s difficult to articulate without giving major details away, which is its first stroke of intelligence. There are several tenuous but well detailed connections between individuals who would normally not interact. They converge because of a heart transplant. While the widow of the donor is grieving her loss, the recipient uses the extra time as an opportunity to refocus what little life he has left towards exploring what he appreciates. He becomes more grateful for every minute he has left, and though he may not use the time morally, he has a respectable balance with how he affects those around him. The acting of Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, and
Benicio Del Toro is impeccable and based on a script that defies standard linear storytelling and allows you to sympathize with the struggles of each character.

KIPP: Interesting that Sean Penn showed up in two movies this year. He’s one of the great American actors of his generation, though I found his work in Mystic River really overdone. He’s always interesting to watch, but as this grieving father he stresses every beat, every crinkle of the face, every twitch. Most of his supporting cast really seems lost at sea, too. The women give broadside performances, Tim Robbins sleepwalks through his character (a guy who had been molested as a child and has been a zombie ever since), and the guys who come off the best are Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne – probably because their detective roles are the most straightforward, and least embarrassing. I can see Sean Penn’s Oscar clip now, when he’s sitting on the porch fighting back a torrent of tears. It’s almost a caricature of grief. But what did you think of his performance in Mystic River versus his work in 21 Grams?

GORDON: Mystic River is what a mainstream audience expects from Penn. It’s a safe role to place him in. Who broods and seethes any better than he? He unfortunately ends up a one-note character whose final words on screen can be predicted from the start. He fills the role well, as he can always be depended to do, it’s just that he doesn’t get the chance to do much besides stare and intimidate. 21 Grams gave him a chance to explore a much broader and intricate range of motivations, a far better vehicle for his talent. Penn gets to delicately weave a variety of complex emotions from scene to scene, in situations that don’t call for exact or stereotypical resolutions, and is thoroughly engaging throughout.

KIPP: It was difficult to get inspired or enthusiastic about the lineup at this year’s NYFF, but that might not necessarily be reflective of their selections committee. This year seems to have been a cinematic wasteland in general. I didn’t see a single new release that I felt was great. The selections committee may have been grabbing at straws. But maybe I simply missed the good films. I didn’t get a chance to see the Moroccan film A Thousand Months, described as a multi-layered story about interwoven lives, and the much-heralded Iranian film Crimson Gold, or your favorite Bright Leaves. Next year, I think I’ll avoid all English language films. I might be better off.

GORDON: It wasn’t difficult for me to find interesting films to see at the NYFF, but I would like to see them take some more artistic chances, to showcase talents that don’t already have the rich public attention that many of the filmmakers they constantly support have. Perhaps, with news coverage becoming more global-centric, there will be more of a focus on the international community in the years to come as well. Iñárritu’s presence is a good example. Maybe the positive press his latest work has received can help persuade festival decision makers to seek out similar filmmakers and films seeking an audience to appreciate them.

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