1998 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

My credentials for judging this year's festival are pretty limited. I've seen 12 out of 25 features, 1 of the 3 presentations of older films (John Boorman's POINT BLANK) and 1 of the 4 sidebar programs of avant-garde films. I'll have a chance to see most of the films I missed later this year or in 1999, but I really regret missing Alain Resnais' SAME OLD SONG, Gaspar Noe's I STAND ALONE and Alexei Guerman's KHROUSTALIOV, MY CAR!, none of which has American distribution. Additionally, I came down with an awful bug during the festival, which forced me to miss several films and undoubtedly colored my perception of some of the ones I did see. Therefore, any of my general judgments about the fest should be taken with a grain of salt. I want to avoid being one of those critics who make sweeping statements like "the French film industry lies in ruins" on the basis of a handful of films. Nevertheless, I can't help making these kinds of judgments. Despite the impressive list of auteurs, which made this resemble a festival from the late 60s or early 70s, the festival was a mild disappointment. Sure, there were major films: Hou Hsaio-Hsien's FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, Todd Solondz' HAPPINESS, Martin Arnold's short ALONE: LOVE WASTES ANDY HARDY. There were also first-rate runners-up: Ingmar Bergman's IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN, John Boorman's THE GENERAL, Hal Hartley's BOOK OF LIFE and Wes Anderson's RUSHMORE. But there were no masterpieces, and auteurs like Olivier Assayas and Emir Kusturica offered up very minor films - although I suspect that I might have liked their latest films more if I was unfamiliar with Assayas' COLD WATER and IRMA VEP or Kusturica's TIME OF THE GYPSIES and UNDERGROUND. Enough complaining; further judgments can be found below.



THE GENERAL (John Boorman, Ireland) ***

This b&w genre film, a biopic about Dublin thief Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson), marks a relative return to form for Boorman after the mediocre, impersonal BEYOND RANGOON.While most of the film follows a path worn out by the footprints of many a gangster film before it, Gleeson's performance (as well as that of Jon Voight - quite convincing as an Irishman - as Ned Kenny, his police nemesis) and the lush cinematography managed to elevate it above typical genre fare. As one might guess, the version of Martin Cahill presented in THE GENERAL is a pretty romanticized one, despite Boorman and Gleeson's stated intentions. (In the press kit, Gleeson says, "The key phrase in discussions with John before we started this was that we would humanize Cahill without romanticizing him.") Nevertheless, the film basically glosses over his violent side, with the major exception of one perverse (and very Catholic) torture scene, emphasizing his attempts to a good (if unconventional - he lived and slept with both with his wife and her sister) family man. Still, these pitfalls may have more to do with the genre's constraints than the faults of the film itself. For the most part, THE GENERAL is a worthy addition to the Boorman canon.

Distributed by Sony Classics (December release)


YOU'RE LAUGHING (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy) ***

With YOU'RE LAUGHING, the Taviani brothers have made their second omnibus film based on Luigi Pirandello stories. (The first was the 1984 KAOS.) This one is divided into two parts, "Felice" and "Two Kidnappers." "Felice," the first and most successful, focuses on a frustrated man in Fascist Italy: Felice, an accountant (and former opera singer), whose repressed guilt over his willingness to betray a friend comes out in mid-sleep bursts of laughter. "Two Kidnappers" juxtaposes the stories of...well, two kidnappings in the same location, one set in the present day and one 100 years ago. The Tavianis' best work has combined the influences of neo-realism and magic realism, but YOU'RE LAUGHING leans towards the latter. The results are a mixed bag. "Felice" skillfully conjures up a mysterious, dreamlike atmosphere, perfectly fitting for a film about a man who seems to be living on the boundary of sanity and madness, sleep and wakefulness. On the other hand, "Two Kidnappers" meanders and feels too long, even though it's the shortest of the two parts. When it works, YOU'RE LAUGHING is magical, and although much of it doesn't work, it still held my attention.

No distributor.


BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia) ***

Whatever one thinks of BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT, it's hard to deny that it has energy to spare. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a lack of fresh ideas. Perhaps stung by some of the European responses to UNDERGROUND, Kusturica has made a much safer film this time out: an apolitical fairy tale that, with a few details changed, could take place at any time. The results are unlikely to offend anyone, but they feel like a retreat: the Gypsy milieu of TIME OF THE GYPSIES crossed with some of the incidents and characters of UNDERGROUND, without any of either film's emotional resonance. The endless Dionysian wedding scenes here are a weak repeat of UNDERGROUND'S, and one of the characters, a coke-addicted gangster named Dadan, is more or less the same character as Blacky in UNDERGROUND. This isn't a bad film - even minor Kusturica is better than many filmmakers' high points - but it's a very lazy one.

Distributed by October Films (spring 1999 release)


LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (Olivier Assayas, France) **1/2

At the press conference for LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER, Olivier Assayas talked about his desire to construct a film on emotions, rather than a story. It's a worthy idea, but I'm afraid to say that the result is a failure, at least for most of its length. The film centers around two friends, editor Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) and the older novelist Adrien (François Cluzet), following them for a little more than a year. Despite Adrien's health problems, little of import happens for the first hour. Or rather, little that happens seems to be particularly important. Although Denis Lenoir's cinematography is as impressive as ever (there's an amazing, dizzying shot of a fight between Amalric and Virginie Ledoyen), the first two thirds are made up of plodding fragments. Some of them are individually striking, but the film doesn't seem to add up. Then a sea change occurs in the last half hour, and it acquires a breathtaking sense of urgency. This section is quite poignant, but it doesn't entirely make up for that scattered first hour. The energy and vivacity of COLD WATER and IRMA VEP (not to mention the latter's sense of humor) are sorely missed.

No distributor (and I'd be surprised if it gets one, unless the Virginie Ledoyen fan club is bigger than I think.)


IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden) ***

It would be idiotic to deny that Ingmar Bergman can be a great filmmaker, but I must confess to mixed feelings about him. For every masterpiece like SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT and PERSONA, his filmography seems to contain another example of unintentional self-parody. I'm pleased to report that IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN falls in between the two camps. A made-for-TV feature shot and shown on video (the "retired" Bergman has made several movies under similar circumstances since AFTER THE REHEARSAL, but this is the first to get much international festival exposure), IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN centers around Carl Åkerblom (Borje Ahlstedt), an eccentric middle-aged inventor, already seen as a character in FANNY AND ALEXANDER, THE BEST INTENTIONS and SUNDAY'S CHILD. As the film begins in 1925, he's confined to a mental hospital after attempting to beat his fiancée to death. Obsessed with composer Franz Schubert and haunted by visions of the Grim Reaper as a flirtatious female clown, he turns to a new project, the "living talking cinema," and devises a performance (a silent film projected to the accompaniment of live actors) featuring himself as Schubert. IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN addresses a number of familiar Bergman themes (the life of the artist, different attitudes an pproaches to death) but it does so with a real maturity (at 80, how could Bergman not have grown more mature?) that bypassess the cold, morbid humorlessness of a CRIES AND WHISPERS. It may be a relatively minor work, but it's more affecting than many "major" Bergman works. Incidentally, the Walter Reade's new video projection system is quite impressive; this is a good contender for the best-looking projected video I've ever seen (and I don't think it would be improved by a transfer to film.) Maybe it'll pop up on PBS or Bravo or a video release soon.

No distributor (and it's obviously not releasable unless transferred to film.)


FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (Hou Hsaio-Hsien, Taiwan) ***1/2

All of Hou Hsaio-Hsien's major films have their difficulties, and FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI may be even less accessible than his 1996 masterpiece GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE. I'll be frank: the first half hour of this film didn't engage me at all, yet there's something very seductive about its langour. As it goes on, it acquires a remarkable amount of cumulative force. The setting (a very upscale brothel in late 19th century Shanghai) may suggest a 5th-Generation mainland Chinese film, but Hou scrupulously avoids any traces of melodrama, academicism or exoticism. The power of Hou's minimalist mise-en-scene (no close-ups, long shots, vertical camera movement or exteriors) is astonishing; his use of very long takes and restless tracking shots within a closed space creates a palpable sense of claustrophobic entrapment. Narrative isn't this film's primary focus, but one does gradually emerge, and it's all the more powerful because of Hou's restraint. As always with Hou's films, I wonder whether anyone who's not Taiwanese (or at least Chinese) can fully understand THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI; Hou has never made concessions to Western viewers or shown much evidence of the influence of American and European films. I'm appalled that none of his films have been released commercially (although two of them are available on video), but I certainly understand why they scare off distributors.

No distributor


RIVER OF GOLD (Paulo Rocha, Portugal) *

Now we go from Taiwan to Portugal and more importantly, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I like to complain about foreign filmmakers being unjustly ignored in the U.S., but if this film is any indication of the caliber of Rocha's work, he's been quite justifiably ignored. The NYFF program notes sayeth "The sense of magic and wonder achieved in early cinema is rarely matched by contemporary filmmakers; Paulo Rocha's movie is the happy exception to this rule." After seeing it, I know that the author of those lines must have been smoking some very hhigh-quality weed. This snooze-inducer is a would-be magic realist melodrama that, at best, verges on very low camp. Had Rocha had the presence of mind to hire Manoel de Oliveira regular Luis Miguel Cintra, at least my libido would have kept me awake (and the film would have boasted one good performance). Why did the festival select this after having turned down Portugese films like Oliveira's PARTY and ANXIETY and Joao Cesar Monteiro's GOD'S COMEDY in recent years?

No distributor (anyone with sanity will refrain from flushing their money down the toilet.)


HAPPINESS (Todd Solondz, USA) ***1/2

Whatever one thinks about HAPPINESS (the opinion of Universal and Seagram's corporate overlords is well-known, and one man I overheard in the Alice Tully Hall bathroom called it an "evil film"), I doubt it will leave anyone indifferent. When it comes to provocation, its only peer (among 1998 releases) is Michael Haneke's FUNNY GAMES. While it's far easier to watch than that film, I can't help feeling a certain similar ambivalence about it.

I'll begin with what's likeable about HAPPINESS. First off, Solondz has improved tremendously as a filmmaker since WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. The film's framing and cutting are exquisitely precise, and its use of color is worthy of Vincente Minnelli. While Solondz isn't the equal of Altman in his handling of an ensemble cast (several characters, especially Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) and her parents Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara) remain underdeveloped), his direction of actors, especially Jane Adams, Dylan Baker - who gives an incredibly courageous performance - and child actor Rufus Read, is quite impressive. The film also manages to be simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.

Now for the downside. As in WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, Solondz never exactly seems to be in control of the material's tone. Detractors like Terence Rafferty have accused him of sadism, and while there's far more sadism in his films than Solondz or his most ardent admirers are willing to admit, there's also far more compassion than his detractors would admit. (In some ways, the mixture is reminiscent of Fassbinder.) I've just praised HAPPINESS for its juxtaposition of humor and horror, but this balance isn't always successful, and it leads to some troublesome audience reactions. I was appalled when someone laughed at the appearance of a heavily bruised woman at a door, and I was simply flabbergasted that anyone could laugh at a later father/son chat that literally left me nauseous. Unfortunately, by creating these kind of juxtapositions, Solondz is partially complicit in these heartless responses. Although Solondz avoids depicting violence onscreen, WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE and HAPPINESS belong with the Lynch/Coen/Tarantino school of ironic, quirky, often bloody black comedies, and as much as I admire BLUE VELVET, RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, I'm often disturbed by audience reaction to these films.

Additionally, while I'm thrilled by Solondz' attack on the "family values" mythology and the alienation and banality of much American middle-class life (another point of contact with Haneke), much of his attack seems as simplistic as the views of Dan Qualye or Pat Buchanan. My friend Mike D'Angelo found HAPPINESS a never-ending wallow in misery and victimization, and while I don't entirely agree (in particular, I found the final scene -a cheerful bit of bad taste that could've come from THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY - rather life-affirming and perversely hopeful), he has a point. If Hollywood and American TV were (and to a large extent, still are) oppressive in their insistence on happy endings that offer simple solutions to complex problems, I don't think HAPPINESS' pitch-black view of American life is necessarily any more truthful than THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW or LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. As social critique, it pales next to the far more thoughtful and subtler SAFE and IN THE COMPANY OF MEN.

So why am I praising HAPPINESS? For one reason, it's the funniest film I've seen this year. (In sheer entertainment value, it blows away the superficially similar "transgressive" likes of BOOGIE NIGHTS or TRAINSPOTTING.) For another, it's also the most ambitious American film of 1998. I should add that I find the kind of refusal to be a likeable consumer product that this film and FUNNY GAMES offer quite valuable, considering the plethora of enjoyable-but-instantly-forgettable entertainments that Hollywood and Indiewood alike churn out. In a climate where the virtues of anger and courage are underrated, I'm inclined to commend a film for inspiring love-it-or-loathe-it reactions and discussion that goes further than "It was cool" or "It sucked." (How could anyone who grew up on the Velvet Underground, punk rock, Ballard, Pynchon and Burroughs not value this quality?) HAPPINESS is far too crude to be the masterpiece that some have claimed it to be, but there's an undeniable core of warmth and empathy peaking through its equally undeniable sadism. (For what it's worth, Solondz is much more of a humanist than Lynch, Haneke, Tarantino or the Coen brothers.) This's the best film of the festival so far, with the exception of FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, and it's a likely candidate for my 1998 Top 10 list. I think it's essential viewing, even though many are likely to hate it.

Distributed by Good Machine (October 11th release)


RUSHMORE (Wes Anderson, USA) ***

I wasn't enamored of Anderson's debut, the 1996 BOTTLE ROCKET, but it certainly showed promise. With RUSHMORE, the promise is fulfilled. I don't have a great deal to say about this delightfully quirky comedy about the rivalry between a private high-school underachiever (Jason Schwartzman) and a millionaire (Bill Murray for the heart of a teacher (Olivia Williams) - its virtues are pretty obvious - so I'll just say that the stagings of SERPICO and the Vietnam War alone are worth the price of admission.

Distributed by Touchstone Pictures (tentative February 1999 release)


THE DREAM LIFE OF ANGELS (Erick Zonca, France) **1/2

One wonders why the NYFF selection committee chose this bland and generic film, for which a better title might be NEW FRENCH FILM, to close the festival. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with THE DREAM LIFE OF ANGELS. The problem is that there's not much right about it. Any devotee of the Walter Reade's spring series of new French films has already seen better examples of its style (actor-oriented naturalism - gotta love that handheld camera!) and subject matter (the friendship of 2 working-class-verging-on-poor 20-year-old women, played by Elodie Bouchez and Natasha Regnier). In particular, the influence of Maurice Pialat (at the press conference, Zonca owned up to watching all of Pialat's films again before making this film) and Claire Denis (especially in the use of U.S. GO HOME/NENETTE & BONI actor Gregoire Colin, far too young for the part of an arrogant, rich nightclub owner) is pretty obvious. THE DREAM LIFE OF ANGELS has provoked a great deal of attention in France - a best actress award at Cannes for Bouchez and Regnier, a rave review and interview with Zonca in the latest POSITIF - and Sony Classics obviously hopes to repeat this attention in the U.S. I wish I understand the reason for it.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics (March 1999 release)


AVANT-GARDE PROGRAM #1:

JULIO EN CHAPALA (Bruce Baillie, 1967-1998, USA) {short}

GLASS: MEMORIES OF WATER #25 (Leighton Pierce, USA) {short}

VARIATIONS (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA) {short}

ARRIVAL (1997A) (Steve Polta, USA) {short}

KORRIDOR (Dietmar Brehm, Germany) {short}

ALONE: LIFE WASTES ANDY HARDY (Martin Arnold, Austria) {short}

I have to admit that I'm easily intimidated by avant-garde film . My appreciation tends to be pretty visceral, rather than intellectual or analytic, and my occasional attempts at writing about it (my first major writing project was a failed article on Lewis Klahr) have left me wondering if one has to be a specialist to write competently about it. There's one more handicap to my understanding of this program: I only got 5 hours sleep the night before. Consequently, I'm not entirely sure I was awake during the entire program. Nevertheless, two films stood out: the rich, painterly ARRIVAL (1997A) and ALONE: LIFE WASTES ANDY HARDY. ALONE, the third in a series of found-footage film by Martin Arnold (another one uses footage from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRED), and it deconstructs Andy Hardy movies (via re-editing and slowing down or freezing the image) to hilarious effect. It's less than 20 minutes long, but it's my third favorite film of the festival.


BOOK OF LIFE (Hal Hartley, USA) ***

LIFE ON EARTH (Abderrhamane Sissako, Mali) **1/2

These films were grouped together as a double bill because both were commissioned by French TV station Arte for a series of 10 films, each set in a different country and all set on December 31, 1999, called "2000 vu par..." (The entire series, which also includes films by Tsai Ming-Liang, Walter Salles and Canadian actor/screenwriter Don McKellar, recently played in Chicago.) The two couldn't be more different: BOOK OF LIFE, entirely set in New York reproducies the tension and speed of life in Manhattan. LIFE ON EARTH takes place in the Malian (?) village of Soloko and takes it cues from the relaxed pace of life there. BOOK OF LIFE imagines the eve of the millenium as an apocalyptic battle of wits between Jesus (Martin Donovan) and Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan); no one in LIFE ON EARTH seems to give a shit about the arrival of the year 2000. The wit and verve of BOOK OF LIFE confirm the upswing in Hartley's work that began with HENRY FOOL. It's actually a video transferred to 35mm, and while these transfers usually look cheap and ugly, Hartley makes suprisingly effective use of the smearing and blurring of light that video can produce. (Some of these effects are similar to Christopher Doyle's work with Wong Kar-Wai.)

On the surface, LIFE ON EARTH seems like my cup of tea. Indeed, several friends predicted that I'd be quite taken with it. It does have the kind of modesty and focus on everyday life that usually seems so refreshing in the context of the Hollywood/neo-Tradition of Quality parade of White Elephant Art, as well as beautiful framing and photography. But it never quite gels into anything particularly cohesive or compelling. Apart from RIVER OF GOLD, this was the film that provoked the most walk-outs of the festival, and I can understand why. That said, I think I might have given this 3 stars had I been in a more patient mood.

No distributor for either. LIFE ON EARTH is very unlikely to get one unless someone picks up the entire series, but the festival newsletter hints that BOOK OF LIFE may pop up at Film Forum. I'd be amazed if it didn't appear again in some form.