39th New York Film Festival

39th New York Film Festival
September 28-October 14, 2001
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center

Without the paparazzi or prizes of the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, or Sundance film festivals — or the spectrum of cinema on view at the one in Toronto — the New York Film Festival is both a showcase for exciting new work and a prestigious marketing launch pad for the fall season’s art house releases. This year, however, the Festival had a special significance, as it marked the return to some sense of normalcy in New York, two weeks after the World Trade Center disaster. It also provided a welcome escape from the onslaught of U.S. flags and news stories about a seemingly never-ending mayoral primary election (which went into a Democratic run-off) and, even more foreboding, the first military strikes on Afghanistan.

But even inside this refuge from politics and the dregs of Hollywood’s early fall releases, reality was unavoidable. One of the most stunning images of the Festival — which would have been an innocuous transition shot a month earlier — flashed onscreen in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling: a from-New Jersey shot of lower Manhattan, with the Twin Towers intact and dwarfing everything else in the frame. A silent but perceptible shock hit the audience upon seeing the skyscrapers there, after witnessing the oft-repeated footage of collapsing rubble or just the vacant, smoking downtown skyline. After the screening, a member of the press asked Solondz if he was considering removing the shot from his film before its release (in early 2002). “I don’t see any reason to rewrite history,” he replied.

Also set in New York, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums shows the city as it has never really existed. Shot on an unfamiliar block tucked away in Washington Heights, the film is Anderson’s non-New Yorker valentine to the city and cosmopolitan characters who inhabit it. As delightfully quirky as — and at times darker than — his previous work (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore), the new film is a major step up in scale, but still incorporates some of his signature tricks, namely, building the film around British invasion-era songs and creating irrationally logical characters. Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow are superbly cast as a family of washed-up geniuses, bolstered by sharp supporting cast members Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, and Bill Murray.

Representing the West Coast, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a cautionary tale about artistic compromise. Nearly “normal” for its first two thirds, the film finally embarks on a stunning and deliriously pleasurable Lynchian mindfuck. Additionally, its doppelganger girls are not simply lipstick lesbians but implant femmes with unnaturally perky curves and glamour lighting in each scene. The director was nearly as entertaining as the film during a post-screening press conference, as he coyly refused to explain any of the film’s ideas or demystify any of its symbols.

A similarly allusive ode to place and displacement, What Time Is It There? (Taiwan) further validated Tsai Ming-Liang, the subject of a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this year, as one of the most important emergent figures of contemporary world cinema. As with his previous work, the characters move in a nearly non-verbal modern world of urban isolation and missed interpersonal connections. In the film a woman mourns the death of her husband by staying cooped up in her apartment while her son becomes fixated with altering the time on every clock in Taipei because the girl who enchants him has ventured on a lonely journey to Paris. The sequences in the City of Lights have a lovely, melancholy tone that comes in part from their outsider’s perspective and in part from Tsai’s references to the French New Wave; Jean Pierre-Leaud appears in a cameo, and the film quotes liberally from Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

Perhaps the most faithfully audacious member of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard captures an enchanting vision of Paris in his latest work, In Praise of Love (Switzerland/France), featuring beautiful high-contrast black and white photography of the city and hotly colored digital video footage of the countryside. The ramblings about love, politics, and memory remain as impenetrable as one might expect from Godard, but his continued experimentation with medium and narrative form is certainly remarkable, compared to the relatively dismal state of his fellow Frenchmen’s work.

French films made up a third of the programming at the festival this year, including Eric Rohmer’s pro-aristocracy The Lady and the Duke and Jacques Rivette’s trifle, Va Savoir. A backstage melodrama about neurotic artists and their romantic entanglements, Va Savoir focuses on mostly unlikable, self-involved actors, without providing any fresh ideas about love, or even sexual tension. Offering a much more playful take on the artist’s romance, Youssef Chahine’s French-Egyptian co-production, Silence, We’re Rolling, makes a silly, spirited show of its soap operatic fixations.

The finest of the French film bunch was Catherine Breillat’s sensational Fat Girl, a bold and morbid take on adolescent female sexuality. Shockingly, Breillat identified herself a “puritan” in her own sexual life during a post-screening press conference. Sex was also a hot topic in Solondz’s Storytelling, in which a young white student (Selma Blair) subjects herself to a humiliating seduction by her black professor (Robert Wisdom), apparently out of a sense of political correctness.

Not quite so gruesome as the other erotic tales but quite a bit more fun, Y Tu Mama Tambien (Mexico) marks director Alfonso Cuaron’s return to his homeland with a rowdy road movie sex comedy after making Hollywood productions A Little Princess and Great Expectations. Two horny guys embark on a journey to a fictitious beach in the hopes of seducing the Spanish woman who is along for the ride. She suggests that they may be in love with each other, but after pleasantly entertaining the idea, they do not dare to speak that love’s name. Another teenage girl does speak “lesbianese” in La Cienaga (Argentina), the most notable debut film at the festival. An assured first feature by Lucrecia Martel, the film has a fresh look and style largely absent among the works by established filmmakers.

Unlike many other international film festivals, or even the annual Lincoln Center/Museum of Modern Art co-sponsored New Directors New Films series, the New York Film Festival highlights predominantly “name” directors of international acclaim. And in 2001, the old guard certainly was accounted for: 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home (Portugal/France) and 81-year-old Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke; Shoshi Imamura’s 20th film, Warm Water under a Red Bridge (Japan) and Youssef Chahine’s 40th film, Silence We’re Rolling.

These films were infinitely more original than any of the shorts that played before each program. Definitely the weak link in the festival line-up, the shorts — notably Candy Kugel’s Inbetweening America (US), Adam Stevens’ Beautiful (New Zealand), and Geoff Dunbar’s Tuesday (UK) — were glossy, mediocre-at-best time-fillers. The only shorts with any vitality were performance-based, including Dayna and Gaelen Hanson’s dance piece Measure (US) and Ola Simsonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson’s percussive Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (Sweden). With so many aspiring filmmakers and festivals throughout the world focusing on short-form films and videos, the selections for the New York Festival were depressingly uninspired.

The shorts aside, the New York Film Fest’s uniform classiness — from high-profile premieres and directors’ appearances to the Lincoln Center location on the Upper West Side — offered a semblance of normalcy, as the festival went off without incident or scandal. This is certainly more than can be said of the process of getting to the Festival, as mass transit remains affected by the WTC attacks. The 1-2 subway line that services Lincoln Center (a jumbled reconfiguration of the 1-2-3-9 lines, following the WTC attacks) was the source of daily frustration for many filmgoers, as trains inevitably stalled, ran overcrowded, or went Express, without warning, skipping the Lincoln Center station altogether. The diverse collection of international work on view remained apart from such everyday hassles. And amid the now ubiquitous displays of U.S. patriotism and religion (“One nation under God,” etc.), the Festival provided a welcome alternative flow of images and voices.