Sizing Up the 45th New York Film Festival


Is the 45th New York Film Festival more than the sum of its parts? With parts this good, does it matter? Still, the question is hard to shake. Every festival program represents a set of decisions, and the decision at New York to present the best of the best does not go unchallenged. When the complaint arises that the program derives almost exclusively from the selection of other festivals, New York replies: Yes, but isn’t that where the best are found? And reflect, if you will, on the implications of what we did not select!

This attitude is a little bit haughty, a little bit lazy, and basically irrelevant to all but a minority of a fraction of an elite—less people, I’d guess, than manage to nab one of the festival’s hot tickets after members of the Film Society claim first dibs. But it is a point of view, and if the NYFF likes to think of itself as an act of criticism, it’s fair to consider what kind of critic it’s trying to be.

It likes to have a good cry, but only in the most tasteful of company. Enter The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a/k/a My Left Eyelid, a glamorous disability weepie from Julian Schnabel that is less tragic, in any case, than his painting. Yet the festival is also moved by the subtler sentiments of everyday life. Not much happens in Flight of the Red Balloon, the story of a Parisian puppeteer (Juliette Binoche), her sensitive boy Simon (Simon Iteanu), and his new au pair, a reflective Chinese filmmaker named Song (Song Fang). Not much, that is, but the living of life: a walk home from school, the tuning of a piano, a squabble with the neighbors, the making of tea, a trip to the museum. From such particulars, essences, and moments of grace, from things unspoken, intuited, respected, and loved, does Hou Hsiao-hsien make masterpieces, cradling the ineffable in his gossamer mind.

Like every critic, for better and worse, the NYFF has its pet filmmakers (Hou), loyalties (Wes Anderson), sentimental favorites (Eric Rohmer), and lapses of judgment. The festival has sustained an admirable devotion to Jia Zhangke until, last year, it didn’t, letting Still Life and Dong slip through its fingers. But all is forgiven, Jia welcomed back with a movie called Useless that isn’t.

This deceptively unstructured look at the creation and function of clothing in China finds documentary in the service of an avid, exploratory curiosity. Jia’s theme, as ever, is the evolving ethos of individualism in China. In a chic, minimalist studio that wouldn’t be out of place in Tribeca save for the trees outside, avant-garde designer Ma Ke resists mass-market conformity and emphasizes the “stories” of process and material through the laborious creation of unique, handmade garments. Blurring the line between fashion and sculpture (with a price point to match, no doubt), this cerebral Chinese couturier is unique among Jia’s subjects for her elite position. Her anti-consumer stance is compelling because it’s possible, and as Jia shifts his attention to “the other China,” examining the dreams and dress of the provincial poor, the significance of such privilege snaps into focus.

Discerning the shape of so mercurial a thing as Useless speaks to the critical clarity of the NYFF this year, as does its ability to see the soul beneath the skin—lots and lots of skin—in Abel Ferrara’s whimsical titty-bar fantasia Go Go Tales. You’d have to be blind not to see the excellence of Persepolis, an affecting, amusing, visually arresting adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution and coming of age amid the punk-rock intellectuals of Vienna.

NYFF ratifies the bedazzled critical consensus that Carlos Reygadas has taken a quantum leap with Silent Light, a contemplative story of Mennonite marital trouble in Mexico. Ostentatiously gorgeous from first shot to last, it’s definitely something to look at, yet I can’t shake the suspicion that this newfound quietism is just another grandiose stunt—more tasteful, to be sure, than the operatic abjection of Reygadas’s earlier provocations (Japón, Battle in Heaven), but of dubiously greater sincerity.

The ability to raise such questions at all bespeaks a critic of adventurous taste, so it may be churlish to note that the NYFF can be shortsighted when it comes to spotting the most original new talents. It was slow to recognize the importance of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, now a festival regular; Andrew Bujalski, Richard Kelly, Jacques Nolot, João Pedro Rodriguez, and Darezhan Omirbaev top the short list of filmmakers awaiting their invitation. Last year, the festival averted its eyes from the harsh gaze of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, which would have made for a bracing encounter next to the batted eyelashes of Marie Antoinette and the leering inanity of Little Children.

That omission has been rectified, sort of, by the inclusion of Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters, one of three digital shorts comprising Memories, an omnibus feature playing “Views from the Avant-Garde.” Costa’s mini-masterpiece is preceded by Respite, Harun Farocki’s analysis of curiously benign images captured at a Nazi “transit camp” in the Netherlands, and followed by Eugene Green’s unfortunate riff on e-mail, Correspondences.

The Rabbit Hunters is an extension of the methods (hieratic portraiture, avant-garde ethnography) and milieus (the slums of Portugal, the mindscape of ghosts) explored by Colossal Youth. Where Costa’s epic feature relied on duration to generate an existential wallop, the 23-minute short is charged by an electrifying incision of composition and cutting. Potentially unintelligible without knowledge of Colossal Youth, to which it serves as a sort of pastoral companion piece, The Rabbit Hunters is mighty strange nonetheless. Sometimes, the most interesting films baffle more than explain. Ditto the most interesting critics.