Super-Realism: Observations on the New York Film Festival
The disaster of the present moment is as much social or subjective as it is political, economic, and ecological. The competing imaginaries for how to access, build, and operate the infrastructure all around us—the question of material resources and what to do with them, together—is as much about who and why as it is what and where: every strategy is a question of narrative. To take up these new imperatives means both to develop new skills and techniques, together, but also to amplify and circulate the myths of our time that will cultivate—give both strength and sense to—the lives we want to begin to live. It is from here that we can engage with the spaces in which storytelling and drama, myth and narrative, exist today; operating simultaneously as both document and sculptor of contemporary structures, relations, and consciousness.
The film industry continues to lag behind both cable television and electronic games in terms of annual revenue. From Call of Duty to The Walking Dead, over the years both TV and games have paid significantly increased attention to narrative and storytelling, socially justifying their omnipresence in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds, and giving them the legitimacy that now appears to have overtaken cinema’s hegemony as the visual representation of the spirit of the time.
Last month the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted its 52nd annual New York Film Festival, undeniably the city’s most important cinematic event, and therefore an ideal setting to see the state of narrative filmmaking today. Leaving aside the assortment of special events, revivals, documentaries, and Projections and Convergence sidebars, because, let’s face it, the festival itself renders these presentations as other, minor, and marginal. Next to the Main Slate, these additional screenings appear as mere specialty items out of obligation or as filler.
The dominant theme and plot device for many of the festival’s narrative films remains the relationship drama, which this year included two wife-killing movies, Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and an additional three man-caught-between-two-lovers stories: Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters, Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, and Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip.
In The Blue Room you get a hopelessly petit-bourgeois fantasy, playing at times like a French “Law & Order” episode, with the all-too-familiar trope of a short, funny-looking man (in this case, director Amalric) feeling conflicted because he wants to fuck multiple women far too beautiful and intelligent for him. With Beloved Sisters—a melodrama on the bizarre love triangle of Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805), his wife Charlotte, and sister-in-law Caroline—you realize the only thing worse than American condescending romantic garbage is German condescending romantic garbage. Hong’s Hill of Freedom is another of the South Korean filmmaker’s idiosyncratic yet tender dramas, strangely insightful and warm, whose charm rests on its dubious success at being so minor, ephemeral, and forgettable. The sole breakthrough here is Listen Up Philip, a brutally sharp, hilarious film on the solipsism of metropolitan male creatives, revealing Perry’s narrative voice already so strong, confident, and graceful.
I saw Gone Girl with my mom in a mall in Glendale, Queens, which afterwards felt like a more appropriate venue for the film than Lincoln Center (it’s the festival’s most commercially successful movie). What begins as a foreboding, dramatic portrayal of the imminently violent potentials within straight suburban white marriage in the time of economic crisis, takes an unexpected but exciting turn as a playful, trashy, popcorn flick of riveting twists and suspense. The film utilizes the best of Hitchcockian pulp and classic noir, while updating a bit Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), on the ruthless ambition of a modern beautiful woman, forced to deal by any means necessary with the contradictions, expectations, and mediatized gaze of the present.
Regardless of how good or bad, enjoyable or tedious, these films might be, it’s a rather embarrassing prospect to consider what’s revealed by such a curated collection, all resting on the problems of man-with-his-lovers. Compare the storylines of eight of this year’s ten most seen films in the US: James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Anthony & Joe Russo's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They each deal explicitly with some combination of governmental corruption, global catastrophe, and human extinction; which is to say that these films directly take on the questions of the time. The same could be said for Neil Burger's Divergent, Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, James DeMonaco's The Purge: Anarchy, Wally Pfister's Transcendence, Darren Aronofsky's Noah, Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, all of which are varying degrees more intelligent, incisive, and better-made than their more lucrative counterparts released this year.
This chasm in scope between Lincoln Center and Hollywood might be justified in multiple ways: the difference is sincerity, sensitivity, honesty, poetics, et al. But for too long we’ve valued the liberal individual’s precious interiority as the height of drama. Today’s narratives at their most potent, generative, would be explorations of the new shared ethics necessary to deal with the ruins all around us. And it is here we might ask ourselves why it is Hollywood—crude, moronic, vulgar Hollywood—that is so clearly the better documentarian of the time and its sensation, experience, and affect. The political question is why the liberal storyteller remains so afraid to deal with power, confidence, and agency at a scale adequate to our time, and instead views drama as that which takes places between us, beneath the current management of the world.
The festival’s most striking films—Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, and Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders—being neither relationship dramas nor superhero movies, are destined to suffer the nobility of being great, yet hopelessly obscure.
Horse Money evokes the fading memory of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and its violent break with colonialism, and reminds its audience that the quietly captured stasis of photography remains the medium of mortality. A meditation on aging and melancholy (unavoidable in Lisbon); like a better version of Straub-Huillet’s Pavese-in-the-forest movies; meets Cocteau’s Orpheus in Portugal; with the best elevator scene I’ve ever seen. The Wonders is a powerful, deeply touching story of a family of Italian beekeepers living in rural Tuscany, and one of the few films in the festival where you can strongly feel the presence and perspective of women in its composition, conception, execution, and intention. Its beautiful force comes from its tender ability to capture and communicate youthful vulnerability, shyness, curiosity, and awkwardness. Two Days, One Night is a stark, effective tour of the loneliness and isolation experienced within daily-life throughout the world. Successfully conveying the ways in which our financial precarity extends into our social, personal, and emotional lives—making us weak, nervous, insecure, depressed, competitive, anxious, and ultimately incapable of cultivating the kinds of bonds needed to overcome the situation we all find ourselves in.
Godard’s Goodbye to Language—brilliantly shot in 3-D by Film Socialisme (2010) cinematographer Fabrice Aragno—could have just as easily fit within the festival’s Convergence or Projections sidebars, but there was of course no question JLG’s newest feature had to be in the Main Slate, standing out as its most subversive and exciting film. For longer than the festival has existed, Godard has defined cinema’s narrative boundaries and poetic ambitions, and his latest serves as a reminder at just how conservative and unimaginative we all remain—filmmakers, programmers, and audiences alike. It features horrible sound, couples arguing while shitting, and constant quotes and references inserted throughout what passes for its plot; its star, his dog Roxy, is shown the same affection on film once reserved for Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky.
Despite most of their name-brand auteur pedigree, and for all their commendable gravity and intensity, both will ultimately be little-screened, distributed, or seen. The film which came the closest to synthesizing these fronts is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It explicitly connects both the superhero expectations of the epoch—told via Michael Keaton's transposed character's experiences of being the aging man behind Batman—and liberalism’s false binaries of the personal/professional, private/public, etc. The combination of the grandiose ambition of the id of Birdman and the pathetic desperation of American masculinity—perfectly demonstrated in the character’s flailing adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)—seem to understand something of the existential dilemma of the time, and our aging within it. Yet there are at least 100 other movies more seen this year than Birdman; including Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan’s ultra-conservative America: Imagine the World Without Her, one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever. It is this divide in scope—whether viewed through the stubborn classicism of Lincoln Center’s relationship to the arts, or in cinephilia’s inherent fetishization of itself—that requires our return to questioning what’s at stake in the contemporary horizon of myth, or cinema’s projected relationship to life in the present.