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It’s, Like, Canonical

The 2007 New York Film Festival

This was the best Film Festival in years. The schedulers showcased filmmakers that embody the Festival canon, a notion of undeniable art meeting viable commerce that the Festival helped create and codify. New films by familiar faces seemed oddly, pleasantly familiar. Not exactly knowing self-parodies or post-Modern commentaries, these films hit like (worthy) assemblages of each auteur’s greatest tropes. The Lumet film so recognizably Lumetian, the Schnabel so damn Schnabelistic, etc.

Christian Bale as Jack in <i>I'm Not There</i>. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wenk/TWC 2007.
Christian Bale as Jack in I'm Not There. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wenk/TWC 2007.

This gave the lineup a digestible gravitas, a potentcy, a sense that art house and arty commercial movies matter again (as art and commerce), that the last forty years count for something and that the Festival’s canon helped make it so. Bringing back touchstone directors might open the Festival to accusations of relying on brand names to fill the house, but the courage of this year’s programming was most evident when nobody showed up. Shockingly, Iron Horse, John Ford’s seldom seen silent horse opera with a capital O (with live orchestra accompaniment), had to be cancelled for lack of sales! Who knew scheduling John Ford was a commercial risk? That Iron Horse failed demonstrates the necessity, the community service, even, of the Festival’s return to canon.

It’s been a good while since the Festival got accused of being too smart, too historical, too in touch with the times, too educational, too aware of the debt it owes the very universe it created. Let’s hope they hear the same accusations next year.

The Butterfly and the Diving Bell (Julian Schnabel)

Unlike so many directors, Schnabel loves his characters. For a putative narcissist, he has an overflowing compassion for all their quirks and desires. Schnabel—as well he ought—has a singular eye for using color to convey emotion, cuts like a master and convinces us to feel as he does: that cinema is a dream. Based on a French and American best-seller, Diving Bell picks up after the narrator suffers a crippling stroke. He awakens paralyzed in a hospital—the absolute worst has happened and things won’t get better. As depicted through Schnabel’s terrifying, claustrophobic, one-eyed POV, our hero narrates an entire book of his experience by blinking his eye, one letter at a time. In the least corny way, it’s inspiring. Schnabel doesn’t sugar-coat; our hero is no angel and his narcissism enables him to get his story told while he still can. Perhaps the women are all a little too gorgeous/adoring and the children all too well-behaved. But Emmanuelle Seigner conveys such Jungian feminine patience and warmth…Schnabel only slips when he enters Wes Anderson-land and inflicts upon us how varied is his musical taste. Just once I’d like to see him end a film without a Tom Waits song. But these are minor, minor complaints. The film is heartbreaking, beautiful and perhaps most surprising, wise.

A scene from <i>The Butterfly and the Diving Bell</i>. Photo by Etienne George.
A scene from The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Photo by Etienne George.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)

When Scorsese introduced Once Upon A Time in the West at the Tribeca Film Festival, he finished up by saying: “People ask me if this is a Western. I don’t know if it’s a Western. It’s a Leone picture.” Devil, despite its awkward, stupid and never once appropriate title, may not be a noir, but it sure a hell is a Lumet picture. Along from Prince of the City, which was based on real-world scumminess, Devil is Lumet’s bleakest, most hopeless and violent film. The plot’s a bit schematic, as befits a screenplay by a playwright (Kelly Masterson). The only other annoyance is Ethan Hawke. Incapable of credibly projecting any emotion except smug self-regard, he resorts to histrionics and meltdowns that, happily, prove more irritating to think about later than to watch. You, too, might abandon any middle ground if you were getting blown out of every scene by the subtlety, delicacy and detail of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s minimalist despair. He’s fucking great—the best performance of the year easily, and one of a character that looks almost entirely inward.

In surf movies, when the plot bogs down, someone yells: “Surf’s up!” and everyone runs out to catch a wave. Here, whenever a slow spot manifests, Marisa Tomei takes off her clothes. It’s shocking, dislocating, really, since half your mind is tracking the character and half the Hollywood politics of her going naked. The rest of your, uh, consciousness might get taken up with how astonishingly beautiful she is. It’s Tomei’s best work as well, and the first time I can remember her understating. The bad son/disappointed father subplot (a swollen-faced Albert Finney as the wrath of God) adds to the Lumetian vibe; it’s a late ‘50s, overly Freudian explanation that justifies itself by becoming Greek tragedy. There’s little of Lumet’s bemused compassion here—this is a merciless vision of self-made hell. Whenever the tiniest potential of redemption or salvation appears, hope is crushed once more. That level of earned bleakness, these days, the refusal to provide any hint of melodrama or a happy ending or lessons learned, is artistic/commercial courage of the highest order.

A scene from <i>Redacted</i>. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
A scene from Redacted. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)

Ferraras films are sine waves. The re-occurring apogee is some smoothly depicted transgression, the re-occurring perogee macho posturing and endless scene-setting before an aimless camera. Sometimes, the posturing and the transgression meld and psychosis becomes poetry (The Bad Lieutenant). Most times, they don’t. King of New York remains Ferrara’s most succesful film because it’s his least indulgent; all the Ferrara tropes—meandering improvisation, forced street language, naked girls, obsessive sex/violence/appetites, self-destruction—are subsumed into plot. Go-Go Tales, for as long as I lasted anyway, presents Ferrara with a surprising A-list of B-list stars, too much money and not enough ideas. Lots of hollering and actorly posturing, several (high school age) models half-pretending to be topless dancers (while never getting topless), lots of floating semi-Altmanesque shots. Sylvia Miles gives a feral committed performance, demonstrating—as does Sidney Lumet—that no real New Yorker becomes nicer over time.

Redacted (Brian DePalma)

DePalma runs a triple-helix of plausible deniability to disguise how hateful, empty, pandering and morally noxious his attempt at a U.S. army in Iraq portrait really is. As in Casualties of War, nobody shoots sexual violence with more prurient, pornographic interest, and no one is quicker to deny his motives under the rubric of: ‘Don’t blame me—it’s war! Can I help it if war is brutal, disgusting, dehumanizing and fought by the lower classes?’ DePalma’s clumsy attempts at dumbass American lumpen dialogue—presented in a series of preposterously over-wrought/over-shot supposedly ‘real’ moments—reveal a deep contempt for the characters he insists he views in all their humanity. The film begins with formal conceits on a high-school level: one of the soldiers announces that, hey, guess what? He’s going to shoot a video of the war! With this here camera right in his very hands! Later, drama plays out in front of security cams, the only ones I’ve encountered with perfect sound recording capability. It’s all so junior high…but the structure protects DePalma. He claims Iraq is a moral free-for-all and he’s the objective eye. It’s hard to convey the putrid corruption of Redacted: I felt unclean and enraged sitting there—as if I was colluding somehow just by watching. Bottom line: DePalma exploits the pointless death and amoral waste of Iraq; exploits it for cheap violence, for rape, for class hatred, for the most arrogant groping after the moral high ground…all the while working overtime to convince us how sensitive he is. It’s the artistic equivalent of appearing on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit in front of a banner that reads ‘Mission Accomplished!’ And should be greeted with equal skepticism.

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)

Van Sant employs his infatuation with teenage boys and their mores, dialect, style and inchoate aspirations to create a hypnotic portrait of the impenetrable otherness and moral rigor of high school. Van Sant’s gift for realist dialogue makes the self-conscious New Yorker style of say, Margot At the Wedding, seem as theatrical as opera. Especially memorable is the tortured syntax of real-life Portland detective Daniel Liu playing a cop without a clue. Best-cinematographer-in-the-world Christopher Doyle (In the Mood For Love, Hero and Van Sant’s remake of Psycho) floats his camera through the seedy parts of Portland, finding luminosity and grace under cloudy skies and railroad underpasses. With his last three films, Van Sant has sought a new story-telling paradigm, one based on character, dialogue and well-honed (if casually realistic) mise-en-scene. His rejection of plot/character climax and his embrace of what seemed like navel-gazing turns out to have been meditation. Park is a genuine artistic breakthrough and Van Sant’s best film since Drugstore Cowboy. He has become America’s most innovative director. Now we’ll see if his vision finds an audience.

I’m Not Here (Todd Haynes)

Hey—I’m all for Cate Blanchett acting out every one of Dylan’s moments from Dont Look Back and No Direction Home. I could watch her prance around in them leather pants and polka-dot shirt all day, what with her perfect inflection and better slouch. And if Richard Gere wants to appear in an apparent remake of the last-of-days village scenes from El Topo, more power to him. But, like, to what end? Following the train wreck of Velvet Goldmine, director Haynes stands revealed as a pretentious wanker—with decent taste in music—who did his best work under the structures of plot, like Safe. Hayne’s attempted parsing of the impenetrable Dylan by pastiche, free-association and 8th grade myth-making brings to mind only Mr. Natural’s invaluable words to Flakey Foont: “If you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it!”

Underworld (Joseph Von Sternberg)

Why do we so fear that silent films are boring? Because the accompaniment is so often overblown, sentimental, predictable? Sternberg created the DNA of all gangster films and most noir. Like F. W. Murnau, he cast with an eye for archetypes, so all future molls must be judged against Evelyn Brent and all consigliere compared to Clive Brook. It was tragic to see the house only &frac34; full for this inspiration for Coppola, Scorcese, DePalma and everyone else. What made the film, what made it come so alive, was the astounding, nuanced, sophisticated original score by the three-man Alloy Orchestra. They studied the film and composed frame by frame for three months for only two live screenings. Let their sacrifice and care serve as the best metaphor for the worth of this year’s Film Festival.

Margot At the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)

Baumbach doesn’t exactly stunt-cast, but he instantly signposts by his choice of actors. And once signposted, no deeper dimension of character emerges. Nicole Kidman incarnates the smart mean babe who denies playing the babe card; Jennifer Jason Leigh denotes neurotically undermined potential and Jack Black overplays impulsive resentful self-hatred. Black ruins the film, but it’s not his fault. If Baumbach wanted a male lead who wasn’t a cartoon, if he wanted understatement, he would have cast Edward Norton. The question is why? Baumbach’s women characters are so detailed and multi-leveled and his men such one-dimensional scumbags. The story hinges on White’s and Leigh’s relationship having enough cred to withstand Kidman’s contempt for it, and it never does. Given the torments Baumbach puts his characters through, his obvious sensitivity and gift for dialogue makes him seem like a too-smart adolescent torturing his toys.

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Within their own rigorous world, the Coens still undercut themselves, usually by contempt for their characters. Barton Fink, O Brother and even The Big Lebowski all featured scenes that seemed unfair—the Coens just roasting some innocent for their own glee. Not since Miller’s Crossing have they back off from their infatuation with smart-assedness and just told a murderous, haunting story with their oversize brains, gift for cinematic structure and cold-blooded Kubrickian bemusement at anybody who dares to make a plan.

The relentless, Old Testament rhythm of Cormac McCarthy’s prose—even when he channels Elmore Leonard—provides the metronome for the Coens. Their adaptation of No Country is respectful, attuned and as wholly immersing as the book. So much so that some may balk at the brothers’ willingness to minimize what at first seemed the maximum plot-moment. But they play it same as Cormac did, straight up. Their reverence for the material emerges as a welcome dignity conveyed on all concerned. As with The Big Lebowski, the most profound moment is the finale, when—without making a big deal about it—the Coens merge mythology and character, for an ending befitting a masterpiece. Tommy Lee Jones is, of course, God.

Running Down a Dream (Peter Bogdanovitch)

Two hundred and fifty three minutes of Tom Petty?! This ass-numbing, career-overview hagiography—running longer than Chelsea Girls, Woodstock, La Maman et La Putain or the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate—is constructed by Bogdanovitch in a shockingly standard VH1 visual language that owes nothing to the big screen. Structured for the DVD market (a Best Buy exclusive!) in chapters and self-contained vignettes, the film presents Petty sitting and talking intercut with thirty years of his playing and recording. Petty’s a great interlocutor, with his hangdog hair and jowls, and his deadpan demeanor renders him more profound than he looks (most of the time). He’s weirdly credible about his own life throughout and even more weirdly hard to dislike. Petty’s first ten years—up to Full Moon Fever—are better documented and more listenable than the last twenty, which the film seems to admit add much up to not all that much.

Petty’s eerie life-long confidence is repeatedly sustained by the universe; the two cornerstones of his band, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, both just wandered into his teenage band-life in Gainesville and stuck for the next three decades. The inevitable jettisoning of other Heartbreakers gets short telling, with an admirable fairmindedness. Bassist Howie Epstein’s death by unspecified drug use receives little of the usual sentimentality such events engender, which is a great relief. Even greater relief is provided by Stevie Nicks’ appearances being as brief as good manners permit; if you make it to the end straight through (and why would you?), you get ten unbearable minutes of famous folks saying how great Tom is. Why, one wonders, when we’ve been pretty much left to draw our own conclusions for the previous 243?…never quite dull, never quite compelling, the film suffers only one noticeable flaw: there is nowhere near enough Traveling Wilburys.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2007

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