Personal Epics

The 46th Annual New York Film Festival

by Michael Buening

6 November 2008

Shafted by the current events taking place outside its theaters, the New York Film Festival was agreeably low-key this year, demonstrating that art, at its best, can serve as valuable provocation when we try to make sense of a bewildering world.
The Class 

(26 September - 12 October 2008)

Shafted by the current events taking place outside its theaters, the New York Film Festival was agreeably low-key this year. In the past, the Festival has included films that directly tackled “issues of the day,” but this batch was more abstract, evasive, and modest. Ironically, many of these personal visions were shown at Manhattan’s famed Ziegfeld Theater, where the screen is as Cinemascope-ically wide as imaginable. The variety demonstrated that art, at its best, can serve as valuable provocation when we try to make sense of a bewildering world.

A prime example was the opening night selection, The Class. Director Laurent Cantet uses documentary style with nonprofessional actors and improvisation for a free-form adaptation of a book by teacher François Bégaudeau. He plays himself in the film, which follows a year’s teaching of a French language class in an economically and racially diverse Parisian high school. While Francois has a serious sense of obligation to his students, he also lets them openly debate his material and methods, which suits their restless adolescent energy. These discussions lead to ruminations on education, relations between teachers and students, the difficulties of discipline, and what it means to be French in an age of global fluidity. The action takes place within the strict confines of the school’s walls, reflecting the literal translation of the French title, Entre les murs, or “Between the walls.” There is something occasionally antiseptic in this approach, but the lively cast reminds us that all policy discussions must contend with the human unpredictability.

Personal Epics: The 46th Annual New York Film Festival

The Class - Trailer

The first third of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tôkyô Sonata plays like an absurdly comic adaptation of one of Cantet’s previous films, Time Out. It opens with salary man Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) losing his job, but still pretending to go to work every day for the sake of his family. He discovers an underworld of similarly situated men, who sit in a park with their briefcases open, setting their cell phone ringers to go off to make themselves look busy. But the accumulating stress eventually cracks Ryuhei’s stoic surface, which leads to a dramatic downward spiral.

Kurosawa uses a framing device developed in his earlier movies (Cure and Pulse)—setting off rectangular spaces in deep space—to emphasize the fracturing of Ryuhei’s family. But the new film shows a dramatic breakthrough, combining Victorian melodrama with the straightforward surrealism of Luis Buñuel. Ryuhei’s oldest son joins the U.S. Army to fight in Iraq (the desperate U.S. is accepting foreign recruits), and his wife is mugged and then joins her attacker on a trip to the seashore. For all the film’s sophistication, when pulled between one stylistic extreme and the other, it settles for the maudlin, particularly in the closing scene.

In Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt likewise aspires to an aesthetically abstract sentimentality. Wendy (Michelle Williams), an aimless and impractical young woman who is drifting towards an imagined job in Alaska, loses her dog Lucy while passing through Oregon. In her vulnerable state, one tragedy quickly leads to another. Similar to the Will Oldham character in Reichardt’s more effectively minimalist Old Joy, her freedom could be interpreted as innocence, stupidity or immaturity. But Wendy’s story is much more precarious, because she is a woman surrounded by possibly predatory men and because, in her moment-to-moment cognizance, she seems fated to a homeless piecemeal existence. There are shades of Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser in this naturalistic depiction of a social tragedy, though it also falls prey to its Benji factor, the sentiment evoked by watching a young woman panic over her lost dog. Still, the photography captures the beautiful menace of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, mirroring Wendy’s mindset. Williams’ performance, sympathetic yet remote, prevents the movie from descending into a hopeless sob story.

Wendy and Lucy - Trailer

The two American movies featured in the Festival will no doubt get Oscar attention. In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the sports movie arc mimics the central character’s child-like mindset. Mickey Rourke is Randy, a washed up professional wrestler called “The Ram”, who scrapes by performing at matches in New Jersey dives and signing autographs at VFW halls. After a massive heart attack, he decides to accept one final gig against “The Ayatollah”, a rematch of a Madison Square Garden event from his heyday. Randy’s relationships with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, who keeps playing washed up beauties while looking gorgeous) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) are occasionally effective but mostly clichéd. Yet the wrestling world here is so fascinating and Rourke’s performance is so enormously sympathetic, that it’s hard not to be moved. The ‘80s hard rock soundtrack helps to plumb the era’s beery soul: “Sweet Child o’ Mine” serves Randy the way “Be My Baby” defined Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.

Changeling is the trashiest sort of Oscar bait and, like the horribly overrated Million Dollar Baby before it, panders to its audience’s sappiest instincts. It is based on a bizarre Depression-era story about a child who disappears in Los Angeles. The LAPD returns a different child to the mother (Angelina Jolie), then treats her protestations with utter contempt. Director Clint Eastwood has a way of incorporating subtle and surprising structures (here working in a second story about the investigation into the boy’s murderer), but it’s all swallowed up in a weakness for cartoonish villains, visual blandness, and stodgy pacing. The central mystery is squandered amid multiple plots and a conventional melodrama. I estimate that at least a half hour of the movie consists of close-ups of Jolie’s tear-streaked face as she screams some variation of, “Give me back my son!” Though she’s supposed to be a scrappy underdog, all she does is weep. “For Your Consideration” might as well be imprinted on every frame.

The Festival did not lack for political provocation. Those expecting a standard biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevera (Benicio del Toro) from Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half-hour Che might be disappointed. While the film is largely sympathetic to Che, it’s more a study of guerrilla warfare and revolution than a conventional biopic, and it’s better off for it. It’s split up into two roughly two-hour parts, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla”, the first about the successful Cuban revolution (shot like a David Lean epic) and the second about Che’s disastrous attempt to reproduce it in Bolivia, which resulted in his death (shot in ‘70s paranoid hand-held style). It’s certainly ambitious and the first part especially evinces enormous technical skill and panache. However, Che’s fumbling in the second half is dramatically inert, as we aren’t given enough background information or insight into why this revolution failed.

Che - Trailer

Hunger, the directorial debut of British artist Steve McQueen, is a fascinating exploration of political prisoners in Northern Ireland in the early ‘80s. It is divided into conceptual thirds: the first details prison life during their “blanket strike” from the viewpoints of both prison guards and prisoners; the second is a theatrical scene, a conversation between a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) and leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) about the moral justifications of invoking a suicidal hunger strike; the third follows in gruesome detail Sand’s gradual death from hunger, becoming more dream-like as he deteriorates. The structure might seem a tad too formal, but the result was my most powerful and gut-wrenching viewing experience of the Festival.

Hunger - Trailer

Other films were more flat-out enjoyable. Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky finds him returning to the looser, actor-driven style of mid-career movies like Life is Sweet and High Hopes. Sally Hawkins as Pauline Cross delivers a disarming performance as an almost subversively optimistic young woman and the movie is an ode to her and the strength it takes to be positive without being delusional.

Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours was the most pleasant surprise, a measured but unpredictable family drama about a group of siblings who must decide what to do with their deceased mother’s country estate and the artwork within it. Assayas’ treatment of the siblings has an acid streak, but the film never turns satirical, instead shifting comfortably into a consideration of the role art plays in personal lives and in public. The comedy Let It Rain, directed by Agnès Jaoui, also looks at privileged people, this time worried about their treatment of Northern African servants. The characters are self-consciously highbrow. Michael Haneke’s career is based on torturing such characters, but Jaoui renders hers with loving detail. She plays a self-centered novelist running for political office, followed by an inept filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Bacri) trying to make a documentary about her. This film is typical of Jouai’s multi-character dramedies on love and ego, which I find unpretentious and quite lovable.

Summer Hours - Trailer

One of the few other women directors featured at the Festival was Lucrecia Martel, whose The Headless Woman was introduced by co-producer Pedro Almodovar. Cool, critical, yet sympathetic, it opens with Verónica (María Onetto) in her car, running over something that might be a dog or a boy. Her husband and their friends try to ignore it, but take precautions to prevent a possible scandal. Martel’s crisp framing reproduces their detachment, yet maintain an undercurrent of tension, the sense that another catastrophe is imminent, as when Verónica is driving, or children ride their motorbikes. Martel suggests that if, in the privileged are not punished for moral transgressions, they are beset instead by a kind of drawn-out destruction of the soul.

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