‘Five Easy Pieces’ Highlights the 1970 New York Film Fest


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 10, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 37

Films in Focus
By Andrew Sarris

September is upon us and with it the (Eighth) New York Film Festival of which I have been a part since 1966. Any institution that lasts eight years in this cruel town must have something going for it besides the edifice complex Lincoln Center lends any cultural enterprise. I was committed to the festival long before I was part of it as I am committed now to all the film-gathering and regurgitating institutions vying for our time in New York. Indeed, with all the revivals available these days this moviemane is beginning to feel like an alcoholic locked inside a distillery.

And now along comes the New York Film Festival with a hundred more titles, features and shorts, futures and pasts, and, as the more captious might complain, who needs it! We do, I’d say, and now more than ever. The distribution of serious foreign films has been retrogressing for a long time, and now unless an arthouse can advertise at least two inches of penetration the art-film is usually in trouble. As American films have become even more “adult” and “mature” than the stuff off the boat, American audiences have become increasingly reluctant to lower their eyes from skin to subtitle, and consequently foreign films are in real trouble Stateside.

That’s where the festival comes in by offering an interlude of sanctioned seriousness about film. Everything that once seemed pretentious about Philharmonic Hall now seems indispensable to the illusion of a film community. The smart set of satirists, scorners, sneerers will be out in full force againt to ridicule the notion that flicks are taken as seriously as the Finer Ahrts by whole flocks of people, but the film buffs are now too preoccupied to pay much attention to the proudly uninitiated. Tant pis and all that and if your heart doesn’t skip a beat at the prospect of seeing “Yang Kwei Fei” and “Back Street” and “The Front Page” and “Tristana” and “Le Boucher” and, well, you name it, then your heart simply lacks one particular cultural dimension, and, there are others, of course, and I’m not knocking any of them, and I want to embrace all of them if I possibly can, but the fact remains that film is film, and not a cut-rate substitute for anything else.

The festival as a whole represents a wide range of tastes, and thus resembles more of a department store than a specialty shop. It may take me years to digest all the items intellectually, but a few tentative observations may be in order at this time. “FIVE EASY PIECES” is the closest thing to a Hollywood movie in the festival, and it looks very classy in the competition. The plot is sometimes too odd, the style too strained, but the movie holds you just the same. Jack Nicholson plays skillfully and honestly against the sure-fire pathos of the alienated loner, the fallen angel in life’s game of musical chairs. A very modern film. Elliptical, absurdist, harshly humorous, convulsively lyrical. A testament to the thrilling danger of just living and bumping into other people on the way to the cemetery…

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]