Film

Times Critics to the NY Film Fest: Stop Picking Such Good Movies. It’s Depressing!

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As film journalists gird for next week’s Tribeca Film Festival, it’s useful to recall the invective recently inspired by the city’s other major film fest. The 2009 New York Film Festival, presented last fall by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was the first under the administrative leadership of executive director Mara Manus. That it was also my final year as a member of the selection committee headed by longtime programmer Richard Peña frees me to make a few heretofore pent-up observations — beginning with the coverage that the NYFF received in the New York Times. Not since the pre-Vincent Canby dark ages of the 1960s has the Times seemed so hostile to the festival.

In the most moderate of the paper’s three critiques, Manohla Dargis reported that while the NYFF got off to “a glorious start” with Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass, this triumph was followed by a precipitous drop: “Few of the movies showing in the first week are as openly, generously pleasurable and inviting.” Her colleagues found that an understatement. Stephen Holden excoriated a “festival in which relentless depictions of hell on earth (psychological, physical and spiritual) are more prolific than in any year I can remember.” He was echoed five days later by A.O. Scott, who declared the 2009 NYFF “the grimmest in memory,” seemingly “organized in pointed opposition to the pleasure principle… dominated by sadism, guilt, violence and despair, a panorama of pessimism notable for its exhausting rigor and relentless consistency.”

Ouch!

What is the purpose of a film festival anyway? (Holden characterized the 47th NYFF as “a high-minded form of self-punishment.”) Should a festival program or re-program, confirm taste or confound it, comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable? Is it a vehicle for universal entertainment, an elitist mandate to administer aesthetic medicine, or all of the above? The NYFF’s punishing panorama of pessimism moved Scott to attack not only the festival at hand but to address an aesthetic doctrine he termed “festivalism.” The 47th NYFF offered “an unusually powerful and disciplined” example: “T. S. Eliot said of modern poetry that ‘it must be difficult,’ an imperative defiantly reflected in [a NYFF] program… that pushes the boundary between the challenging and the punitive.”

Scott pointed out that the NYFF slate was largely chosen by critics mainly from movies shown in other festivals. So it had been in the decade that Scott covered the NYFF, and ever since the NYFF’s inception in 1963. What made this year different from all others? Was the model obsolete? Should there have been more films — or maybe less? Should distributors program the festival? In any case, the results were cruel. The festival slate, Scott advised, was founded on “a taste for depicting or witnessing human misery”; the method for its selection “a commitment to a dogma of artistic obduracy.”

Sitting through the movies, day after day, the Times critics clearly felt put upon (and, having covered my share of festivals, I can empathize). But although characterized as the most depressing, painful, and punishing NYFF in memory, the 47th edition was by one standard — and to my mind, the most important — an extraordinary success. In previous festivals, half the films arrived with distribution deals already in hand. In 2009, 22 out of 28 enjoyed no such commercial aegis. Some took this as a fault. (Bloggers criticized the absence of movies like Lone Scherfig’s An Education or the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man–although these films were already on the release schedule.) I regard it as a virtue.

Over two-thirds of those 22 films were subsequently picked up for distribution (another received a New York City run) and so were given an opportunity to be seen by a larger public as well as reviewed — not least by the New York Times! Thirteen have opened thus far. The first, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist was dismissed by Scott — as was The White Ribbon a month later — although not for the reasons one might have imagined after his petulant NYFF coverage: “The scandal of Antichrist is not that it is grisly or upsetting but that it is so ponderous, so conceptually thin and so dull.” If Antichrist was a yawn, the next 11 movies fared differently. Precious, Scott thought, successfully avoided “the traps of well-meaning, preachy lower-depths realism. It howls and stammers, but it also sings.” Broken Embraces prompted him to wonder if there could be “such a thing as exuberant melancholy” and answered by describing Pedro Almodóvar’s movie as “grave and effervescent, tender and cruel.” The Romanian film Police, Adjective, he wrote, “tells a small story well… The more closely you look, the more you see.”

The festival’s non-fiction films began arriving in theaters during the January doldrums. Dargis called Sweetgrass, “the first essential movie of this young year” and deemed The Art of the Steal “a hard-hitting documentary about a high-cultural brawl… energetically directed and argued.” Holden described A Room and a Half as “rich, heady” and comparable to Fellini. Scott thought that Ghost Town “might be a modern Chinese counterpart to Thomas Hardy, whose intensively observed dramas of rural life have a similar tone of beguiling, melancholy strangeness.” Had these films really screened just weeks earlier in the New York Film Festival?

As spring approached, the auteurs blossomed. Mother opened and Dargis praised South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his originality: “His visual style and the way he mixes eccentric types with the more banal, like a chemist preparing a combustible formula, are often sublime.” She found Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere an “an aesthetically exhilarating howl of a film” and Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard “a sly rethink of the freakily morbid fairy tale” as well as “a sharp, knowing gloss on how our stories define who we were and who we become.” Better still, Maren Ade’s second feature: Everyone Else, Dargis wrote, “might not be perfect, but so much is right and true in this lovely, delicate work that it comes breathtakingly close.” (And, as with Mother and Vincere, sounds invitingly close to pleasurable.)

Nine of the 13 NYFF movies reviewed in release rated a “New York Times Critics Choice.” (Eight received additional stand-alone coverage — evidence of their presumed journalistic interest.) Two more exhibits from the Punitive Panorama of Pessimism are scheduled to open before Labor Day — and as Dargis has twice declared Wild Grass an object of delight, there will almost certainly be a tenth Critics Choice. The Israeli war film Lebanon could be a more interesting case. A bleak, if not brutal, piece of work, it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival — a prime example of “festivalism” and yet so obviously serious in premise and virtuoso in execution I’d be much surprised if it too were not a Critics Choice. (Of course Lebanon did provoke an uproar when a scene was previewed for the Film Society board…)

Additional movies will be released over the course of the year, but it’s clear at this point that, although New York Times critics may have hated the film festival, they loved many, if not most, of the films. This paradox is a matter of context. “The current New York Film Festival produces more fatigue than shock,” Scott wrote back in October. Agreed, looking at movies can be tough. But was the critic elevating the occupational hazard of festivalitis into a full-blown diagnosis of a newly identified ideology?

It is one thing to see a movie as part of a daylong series of festival screenings, particularly when that festival is experienced as “challenging,” and another to discover the same film in the quotidian continuum of cine-mediocrity. A three-hour chore in the midst of the NYFF, Ghost Town might well seem like Thomas Hardy when it reappears on the reviewer’s plate, sandwiched between The Bounty Hunter and Hot Tub Time Machine — and isn’t it a critic’s obligation to recognize that context?

On to Tribeca …