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Heaviosity vs. Fun

"Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda..."

2009 New York Film Festival, September 25–October 11

The 2009 Festival took a lot of flak for succumbing to “festivalism.” This affliction supposedly drove the Festival to choose films of a certain rigor, films lacking in fun, films that would edify us all with their high-end film-iness. A.O. Scott in the Times practically begged the programmers to lighten up by offering more Hollywood crap. (He must not have been in Walter Reade the year the Festival opened with Strange Days.)

No matter how much Scott worried that the mainstream was underserved, a festival with an Almodovar picture and three first-rate police procedurals cannot be accused of lacking fun. True, there was a certain take-your-medicine-it’s-good-for-you grimness in the programming, traceable to the selectors feeling all film-school Euro-canonical. Believe me, if Jean-Pierre Melville were alive, he’d have had a picture in here. Bergman ditto. Some exalted grinding retreads spoiled the mix, Claire Denis foremost. But there were transcendent, uh, visions, some pure cinema (a three-hour Chinese documentary) and some pure blood ’n’ guts (The Red Riding Trilogy). I logged at least two days of over eight hours of viewing, and the ass ache was worth every minute.

ANTICHRIST, dir. Lars von Trier

As Robert Christgau said of Tom Waits, Lars Trier is so full of shit they should name a Porto-San after him. Of the many cheesy épater le bourgeois affectations in this porno kitsch (dead babies, stiff dicks, lady masturbation, fetishistic mutilation, unkind creatures of the forest), none are as galling as Trier’s effrontery in dedicating his hogwash to Andrei Tarkovsky. Suffice to say that Antichrist epitomizes anti-Tarkovsky in every frame. Who does this guy think he’s fooling? The NYFF selection committee, for starters.

GHOST TOWN, dir. Zhao Dayong

With Errol Morris relatively fallow, domestic documentaries have devolved into moral melodrama or such avid preaching to the choir that no actual content is required (cf. Fuel). As for addressing the documentary form itself, has anyone done that since Sherman’s March? Yet Zhao Dayong’s intimate, gorgeous, restrained, unexplained three-hour presentation of the abandoned peasants–members of the reviled Christian Lisu and Nu ethnic minorities—who took over the abandoned concrete Zhiziluo Village in the absolute boondocks of the mountains of western China offers a new, rich take on traditional form.

Made possible by digital video, Ghost Town is the most cinematic and painterly digi-video yet made. And Dayong did it all himself, living in barren fire-heated rooms for two seasons and filming every aspect of his subject’s comfortless, pre-industrial lives. Had he dared submit his work to the Chinese authorities it would have been, in his words, “asking to be raped.” What might enrage the censors is Zhao Dayong’s poetic capturing of a brutally Hobbesian, purely rural, predominantly 19th century existence—an existence likely shared by more Chinese than those in the glittering cities Westerners think of as today’s China. Beautifully shot, unsentimental, and perceptive, Ghost Town is the jewel of the Festival.

Poltory komnaty ili sentimentalnoe puteshestvie na rodinu (ROOM AND A HALF), dir. Andrey Khrzhanovskiy

If the title seems endless, that’s nothing compared to sitting through the film, an ecstatically, maddeningly back-patting meditation on the life and work of the Russian exiled poet Joseph Brodsky. Remember those endless essays about himself The New Yorker used to run, in which we learned of every bottle of milk Brodsky ever pulled sweating from a groaning Communist refrigerator? Room attempts to be more light-hearted, but it’s every bit as completist. No Russian cliché is left unpresented: Brodsky’s tearful, dominant, full-featured mama, his ineffectual hand-wringing daddy, the exquisitely pointy-faced Russian lit-babes that resentfully threw themselves at him in succession, the stone-faced pre-Perestroika apparatchiks terrified of his unquenchable genius. After I don’t know how many hours, I silently screamed at the screen: “I get it, already! I get it!” Then I got up and left.

THE ART OF THE STEAL, dir. Don Argott

Speaking of the documentary as moral melodrama, here’s the clumsily told but still compelling saga of the powers-that-be in the Philadelphia art world inexorably wresting control of the priceless Barnes Foundation collection from its under-moneyed, less sophisticated executors. Quite late in the film we learn that the director uses the staunchest advocates of one side of the struggle to tell what we mistook for the whole story. When these advocates leave their recliners to grapple with the real world, they stand revealed as the pathetic losers they are, thus eradicating whatever moral authority Argott hoped they might represent. There’s no denying the greed and malfeasance on display, but Argott’s inept manipulation, his insistence on heroes and villains, makes him seem not worldly enough to grasp the subtleties of the story. Especially irritating is his flipping between excitedly telling us how many billions the Barnes collection is worth and his puppets declaiming over and over that art should never be about money.

LEBANON, dir. Samuel Moaz

"Dude, war is intense!"

An exercise in bravura technique that for once gives more than it takes away. Moaz shot his memory of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon entirely from inside the tank in which he served the Israeli army. We see the roads, the fighting, the civilians, the dead dogs, the shattered lives through the driver’s cross-haired viewfinder and hear through a cacophony of motorized sound. The effect is claustrophobic and terrifying. Moaz pulls it off, faltering only with a too-long soliloquy about the bafflement of average kids hurled into war. As with Waltz With Bashir, the moral disconnect between the confusion inside the tank and the consequences it wreaks outside cannot cleanse the warriors of culpability, no matter how much Moaz yearns that it might.

36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup (AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN), dir. Jacques Rivette

The dull clowns of <i>Around A Small Mountain.</i>
The dull clowns of Around A Small Mountain.

I’ve never liked circus movies. They always seem too schematic; clowns are dull, etc., etc. But even if I loved them, the tiny absurdist conceits in this almost romance are too opaque to entertain. Rivette seems mighty obsessed by them, but to what end? Clearly, this film was chosen because the old master made it. He’s part of the Euro-canon, so he has to be included.

HADEWIJCH, dir. Bruno Dumont

Obscure human interaction in <i>Hadewijch</i>.
Obscure human interaction in Hadewijch.

Opacity for opacity’s sake plagues Dumont’s latest, a great disappointment after the physical and emotional savagery of Twentynine Palms. In Palms, the characters were opaque to one another, but their halting, closed-off intimacy exposed them to us. They’ve remained vital and real to me in the six years (!) since Palms’ release. I think about their dilemma, and Dumont’s solution to it, often. In his new effort, Dumont attempts to channel Bresson by following a lost Parisian soul who, rejected by the nunnery where she hoped to serve, falls in with Arabs who turn out to be terrorists (oh, really?) and then apparently blows herself up near the Arc de Triomphe. Only wait, she doesn’t…and the film meanders through three different endings, each more forced-seeming and more groping-after-meaning than the last. No matter how obscure, all of Bresson’s plots, the narratives, make sense; all track as story. Dumont mistakes impenetrability for Bresson’s greatest gift: mystery.

Das wieße band (WHITE RIBBON), dir. Michael Haneke

Yes, I <i>will</i> grow up to be a Nazi!
Yes, I will grow up to be a Nazi!

Hey, guess what? German High Protestantism in the early 20th century, with its vicious repression and ornate far-reaching concepts of sin, manifested in insular rural villages in perverse destructive ways, and thus created a German mindset ripe for National Socialism. Capish? Good—now you can skip the film, with all its overly plotted episodes and egregious sign-posting. It looks great, in sharp black and white modeled after Fassbinder’s Effi Briest in framing, pace, era and costumes. But here, for the first time, Haneke preaches, and it’s wearying. Caché demonstrated the nuance he’s capable of capturing, for all his love of violence. White Ribbon plays like a tedious sermon, a long pointless Protestant downer. And again, it seems, chosen for the director’s brand, not for the quality of the work.

THE RED RIDING TRILOGY: 1974, dir. Julian Jarrold; 1980, dir. James Marsh; 1983, dir. Anand Tucker

The wreck of a Gypsy camp in <i>Red Riding.</i>
The wreck of a Gypsy camp in Red Riding.

This year’s Festival saw good and great directors alike founder when they attempted to achieve heavyosity by head-on depiction of “great” ideas. It’s a commentary, and not necessarily a sad one, that recently the most profound films have been genre pictures. By remaining rigorously true to genre, they evoke the very themes upon which more tedious, high-art pictures come to grief. The Red Riding Trilogy, based on the pitiless novels by David Peace, concern the Yorkshire Ripper, a murderer of young girls who terrorized England’s North in the mid-1970s. Ripples spread wide from his atrocities, producing corruption in every institution, which in turn corrupts almost every heart. The three films were made by England’s Channel 4, and each stands on its own while illuminating the next. 1974 is the most matter-of-factly hopeless; it features a monster of a man shrugging his shoulders and saying calmly, “We all have private pleasures.” 1980 suggests that what goes around comes around, even in the North, where, according to the crooked cops: “We do what we like.” 1983 attempts redemption and proves the weakest of the three. 1973 and 1980 are astonishing in their spare, propulsive narratives, reminiscent of The Pusher trilogy: simple shots, fast cutting, abbreviated dialogue, no lingering for the protagonist or for us; there’s too much moral squalor to track. They also feature the performance of the year by Sean Harris (Ian Curtis of Joy Division in 24 Hour Party People). Even a roomful of deeply scary men fear Harris, and for damn good reason. A host of stellar UK character actors, with Paddy Considine leading the pack, and the no-frills profundity of the story-telling, evoke the parallel best of American television, The Wire. Is there any higher praise?


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 2009

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