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Critics’ Conversation: The 2002 New York Film Festival

RACHEL GORDON: I look forward to the New York Film Festival, especially because the past couple of years have brought some strong work enough recognition to get theatrical releases, or gave more attention to deserving filmmakers who would otherwise be pushed out of a theater quickly. I don’t know about you, and maybe I’m getting jaded or cynical from seeing too many movies, but this year I was disappointed in the festival line up. Last year I respected the artistic choices of movies like All About Lily Chou-Chou or What Time Is It There?, but this time I can’t applaud the majority of what was shown. And especially after seeing such droll showpieces as About Schmidt, it rankles me more that Toronto got Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (among others) and we didn’t.

JEREMIAH KIPP: For some unknown reason Far From Heaven wasn’t submitted to the NYFF by its distributor, Focus Features. It’s strange because that film would have made a far more challenging and bold opening night or centerpiece film than About Schmidt or the Adam Sandler-P.T. (‘There’s a sucker born every minute!’) Anderson flick Punch-Drunk Love. Another good choice would have been David Cronenberg’s Spider. Both of those films played in Toronto, which had a larger and more adventurous lineup.

RG: Makes you question what the mission is behind a festival like the NYFF. From that trailer they put together [that screened before each film], it seems they want to be known for picking filmmakers that ended up with a large, recognized body of work. Maybe it’s possible that I’m not showing enough foresight here?

JK: This was a fairly humdrum year for the NYFF. They relied too heavily on an old guard of filmmakers whose work feels a little pedestrian right now, or a little familiar. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten was a good experiment, paring his minimalism down to two specific images of a driver and passenger in a car (it was even more austere than A Taste of Cherry). But I was talking to another critic who said that it probably wouldn’t have been shown if he were just another working filmmaker from Iran, or anywhere. Because it’s the new Kiarostami, the NYFF felt obligated to include it. Those sorts of politics can drain all the vitality out of a festival.

RG: That’s how I felt seeing Godard’s In Praise of Love last year. Of course, if you have an artistically (not necessarily commercially) renowned filmmaker that you’ve booked, I can see why it might be hard to turn him down. That being said, I would like to think that festivals, especially in the art swamp of NY, would be on the lookout for under-acknowledged talent. Take the American films showcased, for instance –Auto Focus, About Schmidt, and Punch-Drunk Love. I’ll grant that there are edgy stories of male dysfunction that need to be told, and yet none of them provoked a new perspective of human nature the way they tried so hard to do.

JK: I wish they had tried harder. I’ve defended Alexander Payne’s Election as a fierce satire ever since it came out, but About Schmidt plays into his worst qualities as a director: mocking its characters for the sake of mocking them as buffoonish Midwesterners. It comes off nasty, dull, and condescending.

RG: But also predictable, for all its efforts to show an anti-heroic main character, you pretty much know everything before it happens, which doesn’t help Payne’s supposedly satirical setup.

JK: It’s difficult to pinpoint what Payne is satirizing in About Schmidt, if he’s satirizing anything at all. He’s trying to do a character study of the aging middlebrow schlub played by Jack Nicholson, who comes to believe that his life has no meaning. About Schmidt never gets to the core of what makes him tick, or the sources of frustration in his post-corporate retirement. It’s too busy making him and all the other characters into one big, mean joke.

RG: I didn’t necessarily see it as a joke. About Schmidt just wasn’t that interesting to follow. It’s one thing to not fully sympathize with your protagonist – that’s something I actually respect in filmmaking — but to make the journey so, as a word you used before, pedestrian, bores you into not caring about what the film is trying to say.

JK: One of the big things that strikes me with About Schmidt is how critics are heralding Jack’s performance as being so restrained and surprising — that he hasn’t given a performance like this in years. Now, I know critics have a short attention span, but Sean Penn’s The Pledge came out just last year and featured a subtle, nuanced Jack portrayal that makes his work in About Schmidt look broad and ridiculous. But The Pledge was a dark movie that nobody wanted to see, and About Schmidt might win Jack an Oscar nomination. It’s too bad, because his performance in Schmidt belongs right next to Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition in the ‘straightjacket an actor and take away everything that makes them interesting’ category.

RG: Penn did wonders with directing Jack in The Crossing Guard as well. Jack is capable of that subtlety, and so is Hanks. Both Payne and Mendes may be suffering from New Clout Syndrome, meaning they are so happy to be working with bigger names that they are too scared to really push emotional chords. About Schmidt is simply As Good As It Gets, which is a real letdown considering how good Payne’s previous projects were (Election and Citizen Ruth). I’m not a huge P.T. Anderson fan, but I at least respected him for attempting different innovations in his last two films, but Punch-Drunk Love just bored me.

JK: Punch-Drunk Love is in some ways worse than About Schmidt, confirming for me once and for all that P.T. Anderson is a kid playing with toys. With this film, instead of doing Altman and Scorsese he’s making a feeble attempt at doing Jacques Tati or Jerry Lewis. Unfortunately, he picked the most sluggish, oafish, uninspiring actor working today: Adam Sandler. Whenever they linger on a close-up of him, I’m thunderstruck by how empty he is. The guy literally has nothing going on.

RG: While I don’t think much of Sandler, I actually almost appreciate that he had to turn off the hamminess for a while.

JK: Sandler supposedly taps into his dark side here, but he’s no different than he’s been in any other film. When he’s beating up some of the other characters, there’s none of the hair-raising ambivalence of Jim Carrey’s brutality in The Cable Guy. Carrey went to scary places; Sandler’s just having a gas.

RG: My complaints are more attributed to Punch‘s flimsy, pointless script. And characters that are not only unsympathetic but annoying to watch. Not a good combination.

JK: Question: What does Emily Watson see in this destructive, stupid, insubstantial man? Next question: Did Anderson call up some of his friends, have fun making a movie, and neglect to realize that no matter how much fun he’s having, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie will be very much fun?

RG: Watch, it will be like last year’s Waking Life, which we hated but most loved because I guess it’s supposed to be oh-so-original. The worst offense to me is probably Auto Focus. Paul Schrader is talented and ballsy enough to take on less popular subject matter and create something that is mentally startling. He can even straddle genre fairly well, in movies like The Comfort of Strangers and Touch. So to see a film merely rely on repetitive scenes of cheap sex seems so beneath him (no pun intended).

JK: I don’t know. Auto Focus doesn’t really work, but Schrader does play with the idea of the emergence of video. He’s got some conceptually interesting devices, like having the look of his movie gradually degrade from the carefully photographed, bright, colorful 1950s scenes to the hyper-saturated, seedy, blown-out 1970s. The central problem for me wasn’t the gratuitous sex — it’s about a sex addict and there’s no way around that. It’s that Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is so detached from life, such a phony movie star, that the movie never cracks the surface to get at the human being underneath. Kinnear gives a good, stylized performance, though it’s not one that can carry the thematic points Schrader is trying to get across. Like Bob Crane, the movie is about surfaces and never gets under the skin of his behavior.

RG: I found the change in cinematography too self-conscious and heavy-handed to enjoy. I’m not saying the saturation of sex is the only problem, because it’s far from it. It just frustrates me to see someone who has the intelligence to shape material better not do so.

JK: One of the big issues that came up this year was Abbas Kiarostami being denied a Visa. So he couldn’t introduce Ten or give a press conference.

RG: I read about this, but am not quite sure what the logistics were. If it were government regulations, you can’t exactly expect for bureaucracy to care about a film festival, but if rules were followed, that’s pretty ridiculous.

JK: It wasn’t clear whether he missed the deadline or was blocked because of shockingly unfair post-9/11 regulations for an Iranian filmmaker. The festival programmers, media, and other directors harped on this affront to art and logic. The Man Without a Past‘s enfant terrible director Aki Kaurismaki said that if the USA wouldn’t allow an Iranian filmmaker, they certainly didn’t need a Finnish one either. So he didn’t show up for the fest. Bertrand Tavernier (Safe Conduct) couldn’t make it because of an impacted tooth, but wrote an angry and self-righteous missive nevertheless [handed out at festival screenings]. It’s difficult to weave between righteous indignation and a knee-jerk politically correct reaction here.

RG: It’s too bad. But one thing that has to be said for the NYFF is that they try to focus on getting foreign films into New York (sometimes without a distributor attached), and has the clout to do so after 40 years. There were, what, three American films this year? The only American films that I remember from last year (and are far better than this year’s entrants) were The Royal Tenenbaums and Mulholland Drive. We are known as a film Mecca here for a reason.

JK: I missed a lot of interesting-sounding foreign films from South Korea (Chihwaseon; Turning Gate), Mauritania (Waiting for Happiness), China (Unknown Pleasures), and Hong Kong (Come Drink With Me). Perhaps that was my mistake this year. I should have seen those instead of the three weak American films and two boring history tracts from the UK/Ireland (The Magdalene Sisters and Bloody Sunday).

RG: History can be good. I was glad I saw Blind Spot, even if I felt it would make a better book. For yet another WWII-based film, at least the subject matter sparks intellectual curiosity. I also really enjoyed To Be and to Have.

JK: What did you make of the closing night film, Talk to Her?

RG: I loved Talk to Her. I was glad to see Pedro Almodóvar return to simplicity. I enjoyed the garish energy of All About My Mother, but was really touched by the character interaction and subtle emotional chords between Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti). It’s so rare that a filmmaker will explore men being platonically affectionate with each other, and the slow ways they affect each other are poignant to watch. I could go on and on about this film, and bore the hell out of you.

JK: I’m not one to rush out and see Almodóvar films, though he’s certainly been producing interesting work over the years. Some say this is his finest, most mature film to date.

RG: I try not to make sweeping statements like that, but out of his past handful I would say this is my favorite. All About My Mother is wonderful, but for entirely different reasons so it’s tough to compare. Live Flesh was more interest-piquing than successful. I think with Almodóvar, it’s more about what your favorite themes are than whether or not his filmmaking is good.

JK: The standout film of this year’s fest for me was Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. The technical innovation of an 87-minute Steadicam shot (one take, photographed by Run Lola Run‘s hardy Steadicam operator Tilman Büttner) roving through 33 rooms, capturing hundreds of extras walking through corridors and dancing in the ballrooms, and providing a time capsule sense of Russian history, all feed into the movie’s philosophical achievement: Sokurov considers history as it sweeps along, and in doing so drives home the straightforward point that history is ever present. The contemporary and the old share space within the museum, building towards a sublime climactic dance sequence that revels in things past. When the one character we’ve grown to identify with (nicknamed ‘Europe’) doesn’t want to follow them into the future, there’s a bittersweet elegy for wanting to halt progress and ha
ng on to times gone by. But as the great punk rocker Johnny Thunders once sang, ‘You can’t put your arms around a memory.’

RG: The NYFF did pick some visually stunning work, even if the subject matter wasn’t all that impressive. Though it bored me to tears, The Uncertainty Principle was lustrous, as was the slow moving Springtime in a Small Town. If the characters or plot didn’t keep my eyes glued, the color and camerawork certainly seemed to.

JK: With each new Claire Denis film, I’m reminded how important her cinematographer Agnes Godard is. There’s something poetic and fluid in their approach together, where faces, cityscapes, and bodies are shown with absolute tenderness. Their latest movie, Friday Night, was based around a very slight premise: a girl’s evening out, and some of the adventures she has. But there’s something almost documentary in the way they pick up little details of Parisian life: the faces of commuters stuck in a traffic jam, a sullen girl playing a pinball machine, an argument that escalates beyond frustration into absurd humor. It was lovely to experience, though it also felt insubstantial. Like smoke, or like waking up from a dream. That was the last NYFF film I saw, and it was a good way to end things. A little elated, a little melancholy.

RG: Last year I remember people walking out of screenings, excited about discussing what they just saw, for better or for worse. This time there wasn’t much to be said. We all just kind of waved at each other and said ‘see you later.’

JK: Even the best of the films weren’t conversation topics. Elia Suleiman’s blistering, darkly comic satire about the Palestinian conflict, Divine Intervention, might have aroused some controversy — but most people preferred to tap into whether they found it funny or humorless. Russian Ark and Friday Night were sublime, but talking about them right afterwards felt like trying to explain a tone poem. How can you do that? But with that select handful of movies, and maybe Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past, at least there were a few movies I saw that were worth going out of your way for. You just had to search a little harder to find them.

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