Russian Ark

The 40th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was a strange affair – a far more relevant event than in past years, but relevant in spite of itself. The announcement that Abbas Kiarostami had been denied a visa set off a chain of events that gave the proceedings a feeling of engagement with important events in the wider world. But paradoxically, this engagement with events at large came at the expense of the Festival itself – thanks to Kiarostami’s absence, the significance of the NYFF this year lay in what was missing.

For the most part, this was anything but the fault of the Festival programmers, who obviously had no control over Kiarostami’s exclusion from the U.S. (This is not the first time the Festival has had trouble with Iranian filmmakers entering the country – in 2000, the Festival organizers had to contact customs officials in order to guarantee Jafar Panahi, who been disgusted by his treatment at an earlier attempt to enter the country, that he would be unmolested). Aki Kaurismäki cancelled his appearance after hearing about Kiarostami (who was not, strictly speaking, denied a visa, but was informed that, as a citizen of an Arab country, he would be subject, under new, post-Sept 11 restrictions, to a four-month background check, which would not be completed in time for the Festival). The Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, cancelled as well, but only Kaurismäki sent a statement, which is worth reprinting:

Not with anger (which has never brought anything good), but with deep sorrow, I received the news that Abbas Kiarostami, a friend of mine and one of the world’s most peace-loving persons, is prevented from participating in the New York Film Festival because, being a citizen of Iran, he was refused a visa.

I had also been invited to the festival, which is one of the best in the world. Under the circumstances I too am forced to cancel my participation – for if the present government of the United States of America does not want an Iranian, they will hardly have any use for a Finn either. We do not even have the oil.

However, what concerns me more is that if Abbas Kiarostami is being treated like this, what will happen to nameless prisoners? I consider the Geneva Convention as the last hope of mankind, and as a private citizen of Finland, I accuse the government of the United States of violating it.

Meanwhile, I would like to invite the present U.S. Secretary of Defense to a visit to Finland. We could take a walk in the woods and pick mushrooms. That might calm him down.

If international cultural exchange is prevented, what is left? The exchange of arms?

Somewhere, someone said that every man is created equal.

These absences, along with Kaurismäki’s statement, and another, very different in tone, from Bertrand Tavernier, thrust the Festival into a role it didn’t seem quite equipped to handle. Again, this was largely out of its control – what was needed was an opportunity to address the broader context which had so suddenly invaded the event but this was largely precluded by the various absences. I don’t doubt Kaurismäki’s good intentions in deciding to stay home, and it may well be that his action created more of a ruckus than anything he might have said in a film festival introduction. But while there was a lot of discussion among festival-goers and in film journals, and even a New York Times editorial (though it mentioned only Kiarostami’s situation, not Kaurismäki’s response), it’s questionable whether any of the furor so much as drifted into the consciousness of lawmakers or government officials. Much greater than its beneficial effect on anyone in power was its impoverishing effect on the Festival itself. Tavernier suggested as much in his own statement explaining his absence (the result of an abscessed tooth): “I was tempted to do like [Kaurismäki]. Because I agree with him. But on second thought, I thought it would be better to express my opinion directly, here, in front of you.” It was hard not to appreciate this attitude. Kaurismäki’s statement was a strong and important one, and he made his point in more ways than one – his plea for cultural exchange echoed loudly and painfully in the vacuum left by his absence. It’s possible that had he come, the value of this kind of dialogue wouldn’t have been so keenly felt. But if preventing cultural exchange is the crime, does it make sense to protest by turning down a chance to contribute to a dialogue? Isn’t that, in a sense, letting them win?

The wounds inflicted on the Festival – the sense of abandonment, the quality of resounding silence – were largely unavoidable. But a different kind of festival would’ve been more resourceful in providing some sort of compensation. The festivals in Rotterdam, and Toronto, and elsewhere, include conferences, sidebars, and other events. This sense of activity and exchange is missing in New York – the only thing that makes the NYFF more than a mere collection of films is the guest appearances by the filmmakers and the chance to ask questions after the screenings.

The greatest weakness of the Festival is the lack of adventurousness in its programming. This is something I’ve gone on about at length in past years, so I’ll just mention that, as usual, there were only 24 new films, 18 of which had secured distribution by Festival’s end, and at least 19 of which were made by well-established filmmakers who are very familiar to festival-goers. If this is a dialogue, and a much-needed one, both in terms of the state of film and the state of the world, there were too few voices, too many of which have had their say.

The only true discovery this year was Jennifer Dworkin, a young American filmmaker whose Love and Diane (2002) was one of three very strong documentaries at the Festival. Dworkin spent many years with a Brooklyn family headed by Diane, a woman struggling to overcome a history of crack-addiction and keep her family intact in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles, not the least of which is the social services system itself. Dworkin became deeply involved in her subjects’ lives, and it shows: Diane and her children are extraordinarily comfortable with her presence, and so the film becomes not only a powerful indictment of a society that renders improvement almost impossible for the under-privileged, but also a profound portrait of the bonds and conflicts within a family.

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002) is a filmed interview with Traudl Junge (conducted shortly before her death), who served as Hitler’s secretary from 1942 until the end of the war. It’s a film whose simplicity is far from artless. Its structure is subtle but perfect, and the filmmakers – André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer – make several small but crucial decisions that show a profound understanding of the responsibility this kind of project entails, both to Junge herself and to history. The first half consists of brief excerpts from the interview, in which Junge describes her early life and explains how she came to work for Hitler. In these early scenes, the unity of the filmmakers’ encounter with Junge is broken up repeatedly, but they emphasize each break by fading completely to black at each point. The effect is distracting but purposefully so – Heller and Schmiderer choose fidelity to the truth of their encounter over the illusion of a continuity that didn’t exist. In the same vein, they intercut scenes of Junge viewing and responding to this first round of interviews, giving her a chance to expand on her answers.

The second half of the film achieves an even more direct contact between the audience and the subject. It is devoted to Junge’s narrative of the final, increasingly surreal weeks in the bunker, leading up to Hitler’s suicide – a burst of testimony, lasting more than half an hour, that the filmmakers present entirely without cuts. It’s an amazing passage, the drama and intensity of Junge’s testimony beautifully reflected in the filmmaker’s decision to present it fully intact and unmediated.

The third documentary, To Be and to Have (2002), by French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert, is a portrait of a one-room elementary school in a small French town. In contrast to Love and Diane, which features occasional interaction between its subjects and the camera, and Blind Spot, which is of course nothing but such interaction, To Be and to Have is closer to the Frederick Wiseman school of documentary filmmaking, in which there is no explicit reference to the presence of the filmmakers. Compared to Wiseman’s films, though, To Be and to Have has an almost uncanny quality of stability. This is a carefully crafted film – it never quite feels non-spontaneous, but at the same time, there’s no sense that what we see was caught on the fly. The camera seems always to be just where it should be; the interactions appear to begin and end within the confines of each scene. To Be and to Have feels like a film constructed not captured – not false, but with a feeling of patience and tranquility that you’d think would be out of reach for this kind of documentary.

Peter Mullan’s newest film, The Magdalene Sisters (2002), is an expose of the prison-like laundries into which generations of unwanted young Irish women were dumped. Well-acted and powerful, it nevertheless pales in comparison to something like The Boys of St. Vincent (John N. Smith), the Canadian television movie from 1993, a far more difficult, complex, and challenging film, one that was more interested in probing the depths of cruelty than in simply arousing our indignation. The difference between them is the difference between their respective “bad guys” – between Sister Bridget, the head of the Magdalene and as played by Geraldine McEwan, a one-dimensionally wicked villain-ness; and Peter Lavin, a character no less despicable, but far more human, far more authentic, and therefore more profoundly disturbing. Boys of St. Vincent, thanks to Henry Czerny’s astounding performance as Lavin, was one of the movies’ most honest, unadorned, and unflinching confrontations with evil – not Hollywood evil, but real, unfathomable, moral vacancy. The relatively conventional Magdalene Sisters is far more easily shaken off.

The big guns dominated this year’s Festival. Alexander Sokurov, Kiarostami, the Dardenne brothers, Manoel de Oliveira, Marco Bellocchio, Im Kwon-Taek, Kaurismäki, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Paul Schrader, Paul Thomas Anderson, Abderrahmane Sissako, Elia Suleiman, Bertrand Tavernier, Otar Iosseliani, Claire Denis, and Pedro Almodóvar were all represented by new films, all of them good, only a few of them great (though I missed the Bellocchio, as well as Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt [2002] and Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate [2002]). Any writer who does not at least hint at the impossibility of digesting so many films in so short a time is being dishonest – in the context of a film festival, all judgments should be taken as provisional. With that out of the way, only the Dardenne brothers’ The Son (2002) and Otar Iosseliani’s Monday Morning (2002) struck me as masterpieces, with Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Manoel de Oliveira’s The Uncertainty Principle (2002), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town (2002), and Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) as possible contenders.

The Son

The Son is the third film by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and stylistically it’s almost inseparable from its predecessors. The Dardennes share with Laurent Cantet, author of Time Out (2001) (perhaps the strongest film at last year’s NYFF), a devotion to under-privileged characters and more generally to the role work plays in people’s lives. But Cantet puts the audience in a more conventionally observational role. The Dardennes throw us into the action, using an exclusively hand-held camera – their films are visceral, whole body experiences. The hand-held camera is so often used as an easy short-cut to authenticity, but there’s much greater purpose to the method in the Dardennes’ hands. Their cameraman (Alain Marcoen) synchronizes the camera’s actions to those of the protagonist, so that we experience his every movement. In The Son, we observe Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a carpenter who takes a young boy just released from prison under his wing, but we also feel an almost physical connection to him. The style may be jarring (if not nauseating) at first, but it has a cumulative effect – it creates an extraordinary intimacy, a profound sense of presence, and as a result each moment has a palpable weight and substance.

The Son is a surprisingly melodramatic film – simple and plain as its style may be, the story is anything but ordinary. It never feels melodramatic, though, because the Dardennes put all the emphasis on each specific moment. Their talent is for smuggling in, under cover of a seemingly artless immediacy and authenticity, moments of profoundly expressive power. You never catch them planting these moments, but when they appear, they take your breath away. In one unforgettable scene, shot within a car with the camera in the back seat, a crucial exchange takes place between Olivier and Francis (Morgan Marinne), the young boy – suddenly, at this moment of emotional climax, Olivier announces, “I went too far” and, turning to back the car up, locks eyes with the camera. It’s an amazing scene because the Dardennes have it both ways – Olivier’s confrontation with the camera intensifies the emotion more effectively than swelling music or an extravagant camera move ever could, but it feels simple and natural as well. The whole movie works beautifully in the way it converges these two levels.

If the Dardennes achieve a perfect marriage between melodrama and vérité, Otar Iosseliani, the Georgian born filmmaker who has been working in France since the early ’80s, effects a union between naturalism and silent comedy. His relationship to his characters, however, and to the world generally, couldn’t be farther from that of the Dardennes – if the Dardennes almost literally tether you to their characters, forcing you to share their experiences at only the slightest of removes, Iosseliani puts you in a god-like position, peering down at the characters and their world from on-high, observing the absurdity of their existence. Iosseliani’s films are comedies, but his is the comedy of sadness. He’s been most often compared to Tati, and not without reason – they are each highly attuned to the absurdity of the modern world, which both horrifies and delights them, and in both cases, the comedy lies not in what happens but in the detached perspective from which it’s seen.

Otar Iosseliani (left) in Monday Morning

Monday Morning has an uncharacteristically strong central character for Iosseliani – it is primarily the story of Vincent, a sad-sack factory worker, fed up with his daily grind, who impulsively abandons family, friends, and work, decamping to Venice in search of all that’s missing from his deadening life. But Vincent’s story is really just one stone embedded in Iosseliani’s usual mosaic of characters and stories, one way of guiding us through a world populated by a gallery of characters, the most memorable of which earns a whole scene that’s as perfectly conceived and as beautifully self-sufficient as any in recent films. Vincent pays a visit in Venice to a friend of his father’s (played by Iosseliani himself), an old man who goes to absurd lengths to create the illusion that he’s a piano virtuoso, cueing a tape cassette perfectly so that, upon Vincent’s entrance, he can simply play the finishing note on a beautifully performed piano sonata, followed several seconds later by pre-recorded applause apparently coming from the canal below. The character exists solely for this one, perfect scene, something out of a brilliant comic novel, and as soon as the joke is played out, Vincent departs, with no obligation on Iosseliani’s part to further justify the scene.

Overshadowed perhaps by the Kiarostami scandal was the proliferation of major movies by major artists shot on DV. Sokurov, Jia Zhang Ke (whose Platform was one of the masterpieces of the 2000 Festival), and Kiarostami himself all chose the medium for their newest works. Sokurov chose video for Russian Ark at least in part by technical necessity (the movie is shot in one 96-minute take), and the High-Definition video he used looks amazingly good. But Jia and Kiarostami both chose a much poorer quality of video, and for largely aesthetic reasons.

Unknown Pleasures struck me as a bit of a disappointment on first viewing – far from a failure, but much thinner and more conventional than Platform. It shares with the earlier film characters who are not particularly charismatic or involving, but Platform‘s strengths lay elsewhere, in its emphasis on the passage of time and the forces of social change rather than on character development or psychology, and in its radically open structure and patient observation. Unknown Pleasures is a smaller scaled film, with a greater concentration on its protagonists, whose anomie feels forced and overly familiar (from films like Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day [1991] and Hou’s recent Millennium Mambo [2001]).

Still, it’s a confident film, with very strong passages. And it’s beautifully shot. Neither Unknown Pleasures nor Ten look as pretty as they would’ve on film, but they’re not supposed to look pretty, and in fact, they’re stronger films for looking somewhat grubby. DV, in the right hands, can function much like 16mm has for so many years – it can represent an aesthetic of roughness, a reaction against the perfection and polish of 35. Digital video can serve to direct our attention away from the quality of the image – its surface – towards the content, giving the movie a feeling of authenticity or purpose.

Of course, it also erases the distance between the cameraperson and the world. Digital video has created an even greater degree of intimacy than existed with 16mm, and it’s this that has appealed to many filmmakers – perhaps especially to Kiarostami, who declared his exclusive devotion to the new medium after ABC Africa (2001). It was a shock to hear this, after such beautiful films as Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). But it shouldn’t have been – Kiarostami has always been a quasi-documentary filmmaker, thriving on improvisation, spontaneity, and unstaged reality. Digital video is a perfect tool for him, and here is his first fully-fledged experiment with it. Ten is Kiarostami’s most simplified movie yet; it takes place entirely within a single car, with only two camera set-ups, both from the dashboard – one of the driver and one of the passenger (with one crucial exception).

Kiarostami’s statement in the press booklet for Ten declares, “The disappearance of direction. That’s what is at stake: the rejection of all elements vital to ordinary cinema. I state, with a great deal of caution, that direction, in the usual sense of the word, can vanish in this kind of process.” Ten is in this sense a truly experimental film, an attempt to redefine the art of movie making, to alter the balance between its different elements. I admire his desire to strip away everything inessential, to de-emphasize his own visual contribution, especially for a filmmaker who was beginning to develop a potentially restrictive trademark style. But I have to admit that during the movie, I missed his visual mastery, and felt oppressed by its hyper-rigid form. Large portions of Close-Up (1990), …And Life Goes On (1992), The Wind Will Carry Us, and especially Taste of Cherry, take place within the confines of a car, and of course Kiarostami has always emphasized off-screen over on-screen space. But the beauty of these films lay largely in the counterpoint between these claustrophobic spaces and the landscapes in which they were set, for which Kiarostami has such a wonderful eye. In Taste of Cherry these more expansive shots were greatly outweighed by the car-bound scenes, but a little goes a long way. In Ten, there’s virtually nothing breaking-up the rigidity – it’s not just visual beauty that has vanished, but a certain contrapuntal quality.

The more I think about the movie, though, the more important it seems, for its radically reduced visual vocabulary and its rigorous devotion to its formal guidelines. Kiarostami’s presence is of course not effaced entirely – it simply surfaces elsewhere, most dramatically in the one instant that diverges from the rules he’s set himself. If I had a hard time, moment to moment, with the film’s asceticism, the presence of this one shot proves that, on a conceptual level, Kiarostami’s method is no different than in many of his other films – he’s simply taken it to its logical extreme.

Ten

Ten is Kiarostami’s “women’s film,” like The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000) or The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1997), a consideration of the situation of women in Iranian society. It’s broken down into ten conversations between a divorced mother – the driver of the car – and a series of passengers: her young son, who appears four times; her sister; an old lady to whom she gives a lift; a prostitute; and two friends, one of whom appears twice. These different encounters are fascinating and revealing, and Kiarostami’s approach allows us to contemplate them with an absolute minimum of distraction. Only during the fourth conversation, and only very briefly, does he release us from the film’s formal grip. This encounter involves the prostitute, a confident, strong-willed woman, who very frankly discusses her vocation with the driver. At the conclusion of her scene, during which the camera has remained on the driver’s seat, leaving the prostitute entirely off-screen, Kiarostami cuts to a shot from within the car, looking out the window, where we see her on a traffic island propositioning several men before one of them picks her up. As an image of the plight of women in Iran, it’s a metaphor that could easily have come off as obvious and overstated. But in the context of a movie in which the outside world is otherwise banished completely from view, existing only through suggestion and imagination, it carries an enormous power – it’s our single glimpse of the reality these characters inhabit, of the world outside the interior of this car, which feels like both a prison and a shelter. If Kiarostami has carried his method to its logical extreme, so that everything important exists off-screen, this one exception increases, rather than decreases, the movie’s intensity.

Russian Ark is also shot on DV, almost entirely within the interior of a single building, which it emerges from only briefly, and with a similarly severe formal restriction. But otherwise it has almost nothing in common with Ten. Sokurov’s movie is a visually extravagant, teeming, and technically daunting creation. It’s a miracle twice-over: a 96-minute long movie, filmed in dozens of different rooms in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the former palace of the rulers of Russia, with scores of speaking parts and literally hundreds of extras, as well as a live performance by the Symphony Orchestra of St. Petersburg, all filmed in one unbroken, unedited shot; and, moreover, a movie that both justifies and transcends this admittedly breathtaking technical achievement. Sokurov is the last filmmaker on earth you’d expect to get by on technical showmanship, and indeed, as astounding a feat as he’s pulled off (apparently, after months and months of rehearsals, there were three abortive attempts, all of which fell apart in the first several minutes, before the successful fourth, and final, take), his devotion to filming in unbroken real-time makes perfect sense for a movie which, as it ranges physically through room after room, jumps temporally from one period of time to another. The fluidity of our own experience of Russian Ark reflects and intensifies its vision of the fluidity of time and history. In Russian Ark, Sokurov has gone to great lengths to create a movie in which different time periods literally co-exist.

Springtime in a Small Town is yet another film that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single building, and like Sokurov’s Hermitage, it’s a mysterious space in which the past and present converge. Tian’s film is a remake of a beloved post-war Chinese melodrama, a love triangle set in a war-marked small town, concerning a young doctor who comes to visit his old friend after many years, not realizing that the friend’s new wife is his ex-lover. It’s a conventional story, but Tian gives it an exquisitely subtle intensity by emphasizing the eerie absence of any secondary characters (other than the couple’s young daughter), and by concentrating the film almost entirely within the protagonist’s house and courtyard. The centerpiece of the film’s environment, both literally and figuratively, is one part of the house, a glass enclosed room – the doctor’s quarters during his stay – that comes to bear almost as much metaphorical weight as Rivette’s house-of-fiction in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). The whole film seems to take place in a kind of artificial limbo – the house is claustrophobic, but it’s a comforting isolation in the context of a wider world devastated by war. But the glass room takes on an even broader, more self-conscious significance, an image for the screen itself – a transparent structure, exposing and framing the characters’ lives, but also trapping them within its confines.

Manoel de Oliveira was almost inevitably accounted for, with The Uncertainty Principle. This was a more characteristic work than last year’s at least superficially accessible I’m Going Home (2001), which is to say that, like a late Godard film, it’s almost impossible to fully process on one viewing. In contrast to the seeming naturalism of I’m Going Home are the distance, self-consciousness, and intellectual density of The Uncertainty Principle, all Oliveira trademarks. The story concerns two childhood friends and two striking but mysterious women, and the interrelationships between them, but Oliveira’s approach is anything but straightforward. As usual he plays fascinating games with structure, toying with our expectations – the first 20 minutes of I’m Going Home consisted of the protagonist, an actor, performing a scene from Pirandello’s The King is Dead, while The Uncertainty Principle opens with a similarly rule-breaking passage in which two men, whose identities are unexplained, discuss the background of the story we’re about to witness. But their discussion is so dense and complicated, that the effect is to disorient the audience. The drama itself is performed in a flat, declamatory style, that keeps us always at arms length, as does the complexity of the story and the blending of highly intellectual discourse and low melodrama. It’s a difficult experience, but Oliveira is above all a supremely confident filmmaker, and with an entertainer’s, as well as a thinker’s, instincts, proven by the most spectacular scene in the film, in which several devil-masked men enter a crowded dance-club, distribute lighter-fluid, and set the place on fire.

These were the films that I’ll be seeing again as soon as possible, that demand attention and contemplation. But the general level of quality in the Festival was very high. There were no real stinkers – the only films I found truly under whelming were The Magdalene Sisters, Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002), and Im Kwon Taek’s Chihwaseon (2002), a decent but undistinguished bio-pic of a famous Korean scroll-painter. Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past smacks of a certain familiarity – it may be treading water a bit, but I’d gladly watch Aki perform far less exciting acts than treading water. Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness is similarly low-key, a refreshingly modest and beautifully observed film, much more interested in painting a portrait of a particular corner of the world than in wringing some kind of drama from its subject. With its natural, unhurried pace and its panoramic gaze, it’s like a Monday Morning without the faint, but unmistakable sound of Iosseliani’s laughter.

Divine Intervention starts out very close to Iosseliani, favoring no single protagonist and finding in its characters’ lives and interrelationships a certain dark, absurd, minimalist humor of which they are completely unaware. But it eventually veers off into something altogether different, culminating in a prolonged, over-the-top fantasy in which several militant Israelis, taking target practice at targets in the form of Muslim women, are vanquished by a female Muslim avenging ninja-angel, the embodiment of one of the targets. The two sections of the film seem to me to co-exist uneasily, their tones diverging so wildly, but it’s an unquestionably daring film, and one that finds humor in a tragic situation without pulling its punches.

Tavernier’s Safe Conduct takes a fascinating subject – the situation of French filmmakers under the Occupation – and makes of it an engaging and exciting story, although the filmmaking and the period recreation never rise above a slightly pedestrian level.

Auto Focus

I missed About Schmidt, but the other two American fiction films in the Festival were amazingly kooky and unexpected, if extremely flawed. Auto Focus (Paul Schrader, 2002) is the story of Bob Crane, the star of the controversial, concentration camp sitcom Hogan’s Heroes of the ’50s, who became better known for the amateur videotapes of his own sexual exploits discovered during the investigation into his violent death. Starring Greg Kinnear as Crane and Willem Dafoe as his buddy (and probable murderer) John Carpenter, both of whom give note-perfect performances, the movie is no masterpiece, especially given its last half-hour nose-dive into awfulness. But for most of its length, it’s a true curiosity, a strange opportunity to see two A-list, formidable talents playing two sex-obsessed losers. Schrader is notorious for his puritanical sensibility and its flip-side preoccupation with sex and violence, and they’re both very much in evidence here. But, thankfully, it’s the flip side that’s given free reign. Auto Focus is very funny and much dirtier than you’d expect (if only something like The People vs. Larry Flynt [Milos Forman, 1996] were this explicit). The movie may be driven by Schrader’s vicarious pleasure in detailing his characters’ guilt-free indulgence of their desires, but if we generally ask more of a movie, it’s not as if we had much right to ask more of a Bob Crane bio-pic.

If it was a surprise to see a movie about Bob Crane in the New York Film Festival, it was even more shocking to see it accompanied by an Adam Sandler movie. As peculiar as Auto Focus is, it’s run-of-the-mill compared to Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Paul Thomas Anderson’s lumpy, scattershot, but truly adventurous mess of a movie. Off-kilter barely describes this bizarre subversion of the romantic comedy genre, in which Sandler’s severely unbalanced and socially inept Barry Egan, kind and gentle but subject to fits of unbounded rage, falls in love with an inexplicably tolerant Emily Watson. The first half-hour is as experimental as Hollywood filmmaking gets, beginning with the car that, for no apparent reason, overturns, hurtling past the dazed Barry in a deafening roar of broken glass and twisted metal, and disappearing as mysteriously as it appeared – followed, before we’ve had a chance to even process what has happened, by a truck screeching to a halt and unloading a harmonium. No hint of an explanation for either of these events follows, and for some time this deeply disorienting, jagged rhythm continues, the movie resembling a broken mirror, reduced to so many shards of glass.

This kind of daring, especially in a Hollywood film, is more than enough cause for celebration. On a first viewing, though, my impression was that Punch-Drunk Love doesn’t quite work, even on its own, inscrutable, terms. It has a free-associative quality that’s thrilling until it begins to become clear that Anderson never did figure out what to do with all his ideas. Some are good, some are brilliant, some are awful – but they all just sit there, waiting to be developed. Still, Punch-Drunk Love is in a way all the more exciting for being so ragged, half-formed, and unpolished.

Claire Denis’ Friday Night was a major change of pace for a filmmaker whose moods tend toward the darker end of the spectrum. A dreamy, occasionally magical evocation of a one-night stand, Friday Night is a mysterious but largely ecstatic film, a poem of possibility, liberation, and sexual attraction. In a way, this is nothing new – Denis has always celebrated the possibilities of filmmaking, emphasizing mood, visual beauty, and rhythm over dialogue and characterization, and liberating her movies from the conventional idea of telling a story. She is always approaching the world of non-narrative cinema, creating cinematic experiences free from characters and plots. But her approach has never spilled over into the subject as much as it does here.

Parts of Friday Night are as breathtaking as anything Denis has done (especially the visual poem of Paris at nighttime that opens the film) and there’s a great conceptual beauty to her insistence on limiting the film to this single night and her refusal to provide any background information for either character. But it’s not as compelling or haunting a film as her others – it may be a bit too emotionally one-note. Friday Night is a pleasure to experience but it feels weightless and thin, at least for a Claire Denis film.

Talk to Her is perhaps the best of Almodóvar’s recent works. The provocation here is the sympathetic portrayal of a socially reticent male-nurse who loves his beautiful, comatose patient in a more-than-Platonic fashion. The accomplishment of the film is that Almodóvar’s affection for the character is not simply provocative, but genuine, moving, and persuasive. Almodóvar doesn’t ignore his transgressions, but he treats them matter-of-factly. The point of the film is not to glorify or excuse him but to leave the fully warranted denunciation to others, insisting instead on affording him some understanding. What’s flamboyant and over-the-top in Talk to Her is all the more so for being so well-camouflaged, but behind all its twists and turns and surprises, there’s a genuine emotional substance.

I only saw about half of the avant-garde programs (curated by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith), but what I saw was mostly very strong. There were eight full programs, five of them devoted to single artists (Heinz Emigholz, Pat O’Neill, Ken Jacobs, Michele Smith, and Ernie Gehr). The highlights included Thomas Draschen and Ulrich Wiesner’s Yes? Oui? Ja? (2002), a short, perfect found-footage film and incidentally one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen, with correspondences between the images and the music that managed to be both jokey and beautiful; Bradley Eros’ three-screen super-8 film Osmosis (2002); an unknown Harry Smith (#15) (1965/66) consisting of Seminole Patchwork quilts; and yet another Nathaniel Dorsky film, The Visitation (2002) – a masterpiece, and a moodier work than usual, edging further into abstraction, with images that seem to have sprung from Brakhage’s The Text of Light (1974). More mixed were Pat O’Neill’s The Decay of Fiction (2002) and Ernie Gehr’s three new video works. O’Neill populates the decaying Ambassador Hotel in LA with superimposed black & white ghosts who seem to have stepped out of the hotel’s heyday half a century ago. The film walks an increasingly fine line between mysteriousness and hokeyness, but at times O’Neill truly succeeds in conjuring into co-existence the hotel’s decrepit present day existence and its vanished past.

Crystal Palace

The Gehr films – Glider (2001), Crystal Palace (2002), and City (2002) – all sorely tested the audience’s patience, but weren’t easily dismissed. The first reminded me of Michael Snow’s recent *Corpus Callosum (2002), which struck me as existing only in order to show off the image-distorting possibilities of video – both too much going on and too little. City, on the contrary, makes very little sense as a video – a series of compositions involving human and mechanical traffic reflected, obscured, and fragmented by shop windows, it is beautiful but monotonous, and very similar to previous Gehr films (especially Still). Crystal Palace was no less trying, but it seemed to me the most interesting of the three, a series of shots of snow-covered trees seen from a passing vehicle which Gehr manipulates, freezing-framing them but only partially, so that they twitch and jerk, as if struggling to escape back into fluid motion. Gehr seems, as he has in the past, to be attempting to enter into the fabric of the medium, to freeze time in order to explore it. It’s a difficult work, but the straightforward, unmanipulated shots with which it begins and ends give it an interesting and satisfying form, at least in retrospect.

All in all, an impressive selection of films, but as I’ve suggested in the past, a good film festival should be more than that. This year, for a variety of reasons over and above its own limitations – the ignorance of the United States government, Kaurismäki and Sissako’s gestures of solidarity, a dental emergency – it felt particularly impoverished. The Festival itself seems unlikely to change anytime soon. And even more sadly, so does the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world. This year’s New York Film Festival felt like a glimpse of the isolation that seems almost sure to be visited upon the country as a whole in the near future.

About The Author

Jared Rapfogel is an Associate Editor of Cineaste magazine and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema and CinemaScope.