Friday, October 12, 2007

my life at the nyff

Sadly, culturemonkey's coverage of the 45th New York Film Festival is a bit of a joke. This year featured a number of anticipated films, many screened for the first time in North America, a few world premieres, and enough 'local' filmmakers for the press to announce the return of the New York Auteur. For a general overview of all the films, Slant Magazine's capsule reviews are almost finished. Reverse Shot and has several full-length features up, and House Next Door has a sidebar full of posts. Your favorite film blog, or print magazine if you still read those, no doubt has a roughly equal amount of relevant content (assuming it's any good). But we are not real film critics. We are intellectuals. That said, if you would prefer we do some real festival coverage in the future, we are open to funding proposals and travel deals.

While I had a chance to see two of the NYFF's big three -- The Darjeeling Limited, No Country For Old Men, and Persepolis, I passed them all up in favor of three lesser-known films for reasons that were entirely contingent (of course, this being the NYFF, 'lesser-known' just means they won't play at your local AMC). Spoilers follow.

1. Go-Go Tales dir. Abel Ferrara

As it happens, Steven Shaviro saw this in Montreal months ago and has already said most of what is worth saying about it (Dennis Lim in CinemaScope also loved it at Cannes, the link is to a short review and very good interview). So I'd rather focus on the celebrity antics that makes seeing movies at expensive festivals that one could just as easily download remain worthwhile. We saw it at the Walter Reade, the best theater for this sort of thing as it's large enough for a good-sized crowd but small enough for intimacy. The time was midnight. Abel Ferrara came out, totally hammered, and said a lot of things that were incomprehensible, a few of them into the microphone. Willem Defoe saved him from himself with a smooth, professional introduction ("I'd like to thank," etc.), smiled -- which was just as creepy from two hundred yards away as it is in close-up -- then disappeared. As the lights went down, Ferrara, after realizing that there was a possibility tickets had been oversold (the reserved cast & crew seats weren't roped off until late), yelled out, "You can come outside with me and we'll play cards!" Someone yelled at him to be quiet. The first shot in the film was a close overhead pan of Willem Defoe sleeping and I thought of how seeing movies right after seeing the actors makes the experience seem less impersonal, even when you think you're too jaded for that to happen. As the closing credits wrapped up, Ferrara came back up on the stage while it was still dark and said more imcomprehensible things, then left. The first wave of audience members made their exit. Sylvia Miles (who played the bitchy Noo Yawk landlady) was eventually coaxed onto the stage, where she sat, legs swinging off the edge, and asked the mostly incommunicative 2am crowd in her fantastically shrill, cigarette-stained voice, "Well? Does anyone have any questions? About the movie?" After a little while Grace Jones (who has several songs on the soundtrack) appeared , having "just flew in," and sat next to her. I almost didn't recognize her because she doesn't look like an alien anymore. They had great hats. A few other cast and crew wandered up to the stage to hang out, and as the night (and the audience) finally wound down to the dregs, Miles made sure everyone had a ride home: "People from my floor are here, so I know I'm getting home OK. But I don't know about all of you people." Thanks, Sylvia. In a very real way this quirk-heavy closing reception was an extension of the movie's portrayal of eccentrics, washouts, and outcasts struggling to survive in a dysfunctional showbiz community plagued by the external pressures of capitalism and their inability to deal with them. The endless struggle of iconoclasm and its rewards: brief moments of glory, and perhaps more importantly the moments of camaraderie and collective affirmation of the absurd in the midst of individual suffering and humiliation. Though certainly romanticized, the film never stiffs the audience on realism; the portrayal is romanticized but not glorified, if that makes any sense. Its somewhat old-fashioned, feel-good vibe almost overshadows the fact that the setting is a nudie club, but if this minor detail means anything it's that the overall economic, moral, and aesthetic situation, in this present of ours where Show Biz is All Biz, has steadily grown a lot 'worse.' At the same time, the absence of any real glamor or hope of financial security is really the precondition of its irony-free exuberance, and this is the difference between Go-Go Tales and Showgirls, perhaps even between New York go-go dancing and Vegas stripping. It's telling that to avoid triggering cynical rejection in the audience Ferrara has to undercut Defoe's rabble-rousing manifesto with the last shot, as if we the festival audience have grown simply incapable of 'buying' a straightforwardly happy ending. Is this where three decades of irony-laden ennui and anti-human pessimism drops us off? The return of hope, sentiment, nostalgia for Good Times?

2. Paranoid Park, dir. Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant has a thing for teenage boys. There, I said it. While some might take this as an opportunity to get all moralistic about perversion and exploitation, I submit that sometimes an honest sexual attraction to the subject is necessary to avoid exploitative treatment (this gets at the difference between sexual desire and objectification, but now is neither the time nor the place). And all three films in Van Sant's 'slow cycle' -- Elephant, Last Days, and now Paranoid Park -- manage to portray the world of high school-aged youth in a way that is hyper-idealized but not false, and most importantly not condescending, not using their specific milieu to achieve or say something else (though the material is there for other things to be said). Last Days might seem like a digression as it is ostensibly about Kurt Cobain, but Kurt Cobain had his biggest effect on high school-age youth, and this is the perspective the film takes, more about his mythology than his life. In a culture where 'adolescent' is an insult more or less equated with corporate Hollywood's worst impulses, for a middle-aged man to tell sympathetic stories about teen angst is probably more difficult than telling them about children. Helmed by Christopher Doyle, the cinematography in Paranoid Park develops an ethereal, even pastoral vision of a Portland occupied by a group of skateboarders shuttling back and forth between high school and the eponymous skate park. The flat affectlessness of Van Sant's young male protagonists this time around is countered by snippets of the lead's letter to an imagined female audience in the form of a confessional, posing throughout the film as interior monologue. The dialogue has a clipped, perfunctory feel to it that suggests it too is a part of the written account. Unlike Elephant and Last Days, Paranoid Park takes a subjective, written document as its basis, rather than an 'objective,' sensationalized media event; also, this document is fictional, a novel. This results in a more conventional plot that allows for the most direct presentation of what Van Sant has been doing all this time -- transforming traumatic events into visual and aural fantasias that, by distancing us from any logic imposed by adult authority figures (journalists, police, teachers, psychologists, novelists, etc.), allow the viewer to experience it in a safe space free of bombardment by media cliches, in some sense rediscovering objectivity. That this experience tends to be private and incommunicable is Paranoid Park's chief thematic concern. Alex, the protagonist/narrator, grapples with his involvement in the death of a security guard whose gruesome end splits the film in half, causing him to go about his life fractured, numbed, by a secret he can't tell. Here we are confronted with the paradox of the internalized trauma -- Doubling as a stand-in for the viewer, Alex is only able to maintain a real connection to himself (his emotions, his safety, his identity) in the face of horror by keeping his memory of it locked away from others, thus alienating himself from the rest of the world; and yet this secret grants him a unique fascination, the allure that makes him a subject for the camera and its audience. The fantasy of both the film and novel is that by expressing himself in writing, then destroying it (as he does in a bonfire near the end of the film), he can arrive at a sort of compromise. Van Sant exposes the truth of so-called adolescence here, at the point where its 'immaturity' presents us with what at times seems like the only practical solution to the mediasphere's insatiable urge to erase every human tragedy with sensationalist platitudes. In the Q&A following the screening, Van Sant called Paranoid Park a "Young Adult film," and this seems like the most appropriate genre heading to me.

3. Blade Runner, The Final Cut, dir. Ridley Scott

Blade Runner really doesn't need anything else to be written about it. Probably the film most discussed by academics ever made, every crowded frame bears the seeds of a thousand dissertations. All the hot topics are here: free will, artificial intelligence, the postmodern city, noir and pastiche, psychoanalysis, the list goes on. It's also Ridley Scott's last really good film, after which he made nothing but overproduced shit with the possible minor exceptions of Black Rain and Thelma and Louise. It makes sense in retrospect that Scott's one major innovation over the content of Philip K. Dick's novel was to make dystopia sexy, a great service for future filmmakers/advertisers/propagandists who needed to sell people on a way of life that regularly produced violence, misery, urban blight, and environmental catastrophe. Dick gave us a comedy, Scott a tragedy, and it's interesting to reflect on which treatment criticized its subject and which glorified it. A discussion of the changes in the final (?) cut can be found here, along with still more debate about whether or not Deckard is a replicant. The changes are minor and mostly cosmetic, the transfer to HD bringing out the vibrancy of the colors but the increased clarity making a few shots look a little empty (only in comparison to all the other ones). Is Deckard a replicant? I'm going to be boring and say the film is inconsistent, though I've always thought the answer lay in Goff's memorable parting shot: "It's too bad she won't live! But then again who does!" We're only human in our dreams (this is also works as an answer to the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi's famous butterfly dream). At any rate, it was nice to see it at the Ziegfield.

Appendix: Eastern Promises dir. David Cronenberg

This wasn't at the NYFF but we saw it shortly afterward, and this rather presumptuous post could always use more filler. Following a dispiriting trend, much has been written about this film as well, so I will instead pick out a few elements that played to my interests. Or rather, the point where all elements converge: Viggo Mortensen. Why so fascinating? Because, as in History of Violence, the film is so structurally and aesthetically neat by virtue of Mortensen's character, his performance, his incredible presence, and yet at the same time he is the one thing that remains out of place. In Promises, Cronenberg/Mortensen start us off with the familiar archetype of the good soldier. Preternaturally competent, the good soldier has no history, no personality, no 'inner life.' He seems to exist only to obey the commands of a given organization, even though the reasons why he might do so, if given, are always arbitrary. That organization is usually shown to be corrupt, and by reflecting its betrayed ideals in a purer form he provokes a conflict between them. A fairly recent example is Forest Whittaker's character in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, whose unexplained adherence to the samurai code first brings him into submission to the Italian mafia, then turns them against each other. What Cronenberg seizes on in Promises is that the good soldier's blind submission to corrupt authority in some mysterious way both feminizes him and intensifies his power/attraction. Nikolai (Mortensen) is the object of desire for everyone in and outside of the film. The closeted Kirill wants to fuck him, his father the mafia boss Semyon wants to use him, and it seems like everyone except Naomi Watts' female lead wants to see him naked. Nikolai's body is a mirror, though an idealized one, as its images are seared into his flesh in the mafia's own language (much in the same way as his sculpted physique reflects an ideal masculine body image to the audience), as a symbol of his might (marks on his knees signify that he "will kneel before no man") and his subjection. In the initiation scene, he is forced to renounce his parentage; he will have no history, no identity other than the one written on his body. Comparisons can be made to Cronenberg's other male heroes, both empowered and enslaved by technological remaking. In Promises, masculinity itself is a technology. Every man is a kind of cyborg. But when Nikolai is revealed to have ulterior motives, we see how his very presence subverts the traditionalist, patriarchal order of the Russian mob at every turn, turning son against father, etc. When we learn he is an undercover cop, this at once valorizes all the suffering he receives (and distributes) and puts the lie to the shared fantasy of technofetishists and manly men: that the whole truth of a man/machine can be reducible to his apparent actions and physical form, that he can be wholly externalized, turned inside out. A real man, like a real machine, should be a reliable (predictable) tool. The seductive power of this fantasy and Nikolai's mastery of it brings about the mafia's downfall. As soon as Semyon thinks he can mediate his conflict with his son through Nikolai, he opens the way for Western moral authority to reassert itself. What is often interpreted as the feminization of the male hero in Promises and Cronenberg's earlier work consists of two properties: an appearance that suggests he can be rewritten at will (the power of seduction), and the mysterious way in which his motivations exceed all rewriting (the power of deception). This actually brings it closer to Marx's definition of money than any traditional notion of femininity. Like money, Nikolai dissolves the old rules of the Eastern mafia subculture and restores the rules of money's true owners, Western civil society. The single, sterile woman (Watts) is given an orphaned Russian baby and restored to motherhood. Semyon is removed and Nikolai (apparently) put in his place. But in the ambiguous final shot, the recurring motif of Russian peasant authenticity -- the voice over diary narration of the baby's dead immigrant mother -- is repeated again, reminding us that all the main characters are still of Russian origin and keeping alive the tension between East and West. Like many, I found the diary to be the weakest aspect of the film, but it does highlight the point at which the film's 'inner' logic -- what I've tried to outline here -- exceeds its narrative and aesthetic rigor. Along with motherhood and the dominance of the Free World, conflict too is restored, if only for ambiguity's sake.