Sunday, October 7, 2012

The New York Film Festival At A Glance

Cruel were the New York Film Festival programmers, scheduling Centerpiece premiere “Not Fade Away” a day after their screening of Olivier Assayas’ “Something In The Air.” Both films, powered by music of the sixties and seventies, seem to suggest coming-of-age during politically-troubling eras where disaster was intertwined with the birth of mainstream rock and roll. Both also reportedly skew heavily autobiographical, which complicates this comparison even further, as it suggests one artist specifically light years removed from the other, in this case David Chase, making his directorial debut with “Not Fade Away,” suffering in the transition from television.

It was Chase who helped remold post-millennial television by creating “The Sopranos,” a television series that elevated the form to something approximating actual art. Never feeling constrained by the one hour formats, Chase was able to create a body of work with that show that constantly tested the boundaries of it’s own seemingly earth-bound storylines, finding poetry in the mundane, pulling highbrow aesthetics from sometimes lowbrow stories and themes. But it appears that long-form storytelling may have been more suited to the filmmaker, if “Not Fade Away” is any indication.

Focusing on a shaggy-haired moppet who wants to be a rock star, Chase plays with ideas of ethnicity and iconography, casting a distinct shaggy-haired Bob Dylan-type (John Magaro) as a young man who thinks he can one day be a Mick Jagger. To hammer home the point inelegantly, the film begins, quite randomly, with a black and white flashback to an early meeting between Jagger and Keith Richards which lasts roughly two minutes. This moment, and the final-scene arrival of a narrator walking onto a pre-filmed sequence via green screen to summarize the film’s themes, suggests this was a beast wrestled with during post-production, a dragon Chase could not slay. The film is at once over-simplistic (garage band discovers how hard it is to succeed in show business) and overcomplicated, loaded with digressions like the establishment-fueled anger of the boy’s volcanic father (James Gandolfini), to the protagonist’s girlfriend, who struggles with a drug-addicted sister who vanishes from the narrative and is never spoken again.

There are enough honest details in “Not Fade Away” to suggest that a stronger focus and slacker runtime (the film tips over around two hours) could yield a more interesting tapestry. Compelling subplots are treated as buttons, with characters going out of their way to emphasize just how much social change is going on -- in a film with no black characters, name-dropping Martin Luther King Jr. seems like a cheap signifier more than actual character building. “Not Fade Away” feels like a broad canvas -- expected from someone who created “The Sopranos” but cramped, squeezed onto a narrow table, with the creases and tears showing. To say that this is the worst film I’ve seen thus far at the New York Film Festival is to also suggests it’s been an extraordinarily strong fest. But this is the worst film I’ve seen thus far at the New York Film Festival.

Again, perhaps distance from “Something In The Air” might be a blessing for the film. But it has no effect on Assayas’ time-in-a-bottle narrative about a group of politically-militant teens in late sixties France who flee after one misguided stunt puts a security guard in a coma. As the characters hitchhike through Italy, Assayas very carefully keeps that plot strand alive, further emphasizing the ramifications of their rebellious actions. You can change the world, but your mistakes will always remain at home, waiting. His camera is not judgmental, however -- this is dissimilar to Assayas’ explosive “Carlos,” which cast pity and light ridicule on it’s star terrorist, in that it’s characters are at once naïve and informed, exciting and banal.

When attending a film festival for guerilla filmmakers (who claim to provide cameras strictly for documentation, “not fiction”) one character complains why their straightforward pro-union documentaries cannot themselves have revolutionary narratives and style. The combination of answers he receives from others afterwards come from varying political perspectives, and it’s a question Assayas explores for the remainder of the film. The lived-in nature of “Summer Hours” returns, particularly during a single-shot through a mountaintop villa that tops the party sequence at the close of that film. It’s also scored by Captain Beefheart’s sinister “Abba Zaba,” and concludes with a borderline surrealistic house fire that suggests Assayas is a restless artist, one who must keep innovating to remain vital.

Each year, obscure film appreciators Exhumed Films stage Ex-Fest, dedicated to screening obscure beloved exploitation films within the paradigm of action, crime, sex and comedy. Within the next thirty years, a perfect fit for that showcase would be Lee Daniels’ gleefully schizophrenic “The Paperboy.” Daniels adapted Pete Dexter’s 60’s-set novel about shifty Death Row inmate Hillary Van Wetten in Florida and the lawyers who attempt to exonerate him, but instead focused on the stories within the margins, specifically the lead lawyer‘s brother, played by Zac Efron. Eroticized in his tidy whities, Efron has a sweetly affectionate relationship to only one woman, family maid Macy Gray (excellent), but soon his eyes turn towards Van Wetten’s flirtatious fiancée, a vamp personified by an over-the-top Nicole Kidman.

Though Daniels was known for directing Oscar favorite “Precious,” “The Paperboy” seems entirely like a product of it’s production company, Millennium Films. The company specializes in low-fi, fly-by-night productions that shoot in areas with extraordinarily compensatory tax situations, nabbing big stars with the promise of swift, hefty paychecks and quick shoots, before selling the international rights to various international regions for a pretty penny. Most of these films tend to be cheap exploitation, though many are straight-faced genre exercises lacking the sense of humor of Millennium’s predecessor, Cannon Films. “The Paperboy” captures that aesthetic by shooting in the swampiest, sweatiest areas of New Orleans, featuring a truly unusual collection of actors (as a murderous backwoods retard, John Cusack is memorably terrible) and indulging in grotesque cheap thrills, from a gruesome post-orgy sequence to the unforgettable visual of Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron.

What makes Ex-Fest so memorable is the fact that most of those films were made in an earlier era, when there were no DVD’s and film schools for directors to learn how a movie is “supposed” to look, move and feel. As a result, what looks like “incompetence” in a more contemporary light, is actually a director learning as he goes to tell the story as he sees fit. Lee Daniels harkens back to that era with shoddy photography, sloppy, halting close-ups and clumsy natural lighting, possibly intentionally, possibly not. People who lean more modern have already spoken out about this “amateurish” style, but a more seasoned viewer, particularly one who has been to Ex-Fest, will recognize this as Daniels’ reckless rejection of décor, of the “accepted” way of telling a story, as “The Paperboy” quite intentionally goes off the rails. Surely no filmmaker this year will have the stones to transform their leading character as much as Daniels does to Matthew McConaughey’s crusading lawyer in the dizzying final half hour of this ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining movie.

Speaking of ridiculous, Brian De Palma returns with one of his more academic De Palma-y efforts, the Sapphic thriller “Passion.” Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace play boss and underling of a major advertising firm, a position McAdams embraces with relish. When Rapace pioneers the rough form of a daring new ad, McAdams takes the credit, using BFF bromides and flirty come-ons to diffuse tension. What follows is ostensibly a remake of the French thriller “Love Crime,” though it’s impossible to mistake this as anything other than a wholly De Palma effort, with hypnotic split screen, dizzying changes in perspective, and an emphasis on the recorded image that sees him employing his aesthetics through viral video, camera phones and security footage.

The audience of critics laughed heavily throughout the screening I attended but upon speaking with them afterwards, it appears they had no idea this was intentional. This is classic De Palma, not necessarily new ground but a filmmaker deploying his old tricks with a welcoming wink. There’s a moment where a character gasps at a very old De Palma trope as if to say, “Oh, God, I’m in a De Palma movie, aren’t I?” and it’s a bracingly funny moment of self-reflection -- the final half hour shifts perspective every five minutes, twisting the viewer into a knot as to what the final outcome shall be. To not laugh would be to take this too seriously, which is probably a mistake.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Night Across The Street” both received showcases at NYFF, as the final films from international titans Alain Resnais and Raul Ruiz. The former begins with grandiose, canned orchestral horns and CG-animated medallions behind the film’s anachronistic title, spelled out in a font that suggests some sort of 30’s desert adventure. Shortly afterwards, the same shot of one of several actors floats by, in artificial shadow, facing away from the camera as they dramatically receive the news of the death of a colleague. If you know your French actors, it’s essentially a Franco-Justice League. Well, ok, maybe a Franco-Suicide Squad, the French Justice League appeared in last month’s “Little White Lies.”

The group, two separate generations of performers, are united at the friend’s estate, a playwright who penned an adaptation of “Eurydice” which every participant performed over the course of a few years. His last wishes involved those actors determining whether a more contemporary version of the play, a radical reinvention caught on tape and performed in an abandoned warehouse, passes muster. As the actors watch the newer production, their minds return to the original work, and soon both groups of actors are reliving those moments once again. The bulk of the film is performance, cutting back and forth between three separate groups reciting the playwright’s prose. Visually, it becomes a little repetitive.

But Resnais, who may or may not be working on another “final” film, seems to be suggesting, particularly through the title, that this play, and others before and after it, will continue to mutate, to be carried on through the ages, passed down and altered for each new audience. It’s a thought given extra weight when you consider Resnais an artist coming to terms with his place in the paradigm -- his work will fade into the slipstream of art, it will merge with the rest of the culture as even he fades away.

Morality was on Ruiz’s mind before he passed on, leaving “Night Across The Street” as his final work. The film follows an old man who may or may not be slipping into the afterlife, seeing the ghosts and memories of his time on Earth, usually as he reforms himself into the boy he once was. “Street” features sequences of characters merging in and out of the background, as if to suggest reality becoming far more malleable as final days tick away. Ruiz’s protagonist even shares screen time with a displaced Beethoven, who proves himself to be an obnoxious brute absolutely terrified of the contemporary world. I cannot recall how this elliptical film began or ended (though a séance was involved -- filmmakers always seem to know when they‘ll die), though a sequence where two characters crawl into the barrel of a gun as if it were a sewer drain will stick with me for it’s obtuse playfulness.

I struggled with “Araf - Somewhere In Between” for fairly unusual reasons. It’s a straightforward Turkish drama about young day laborers, both of whom are unfocused youngsters with reasonably sad dreams rooted in a universal longing. It’s literally with the introduction of a gun, however, when the film becomes something more propulsive and hard-to-watch, uniquely transitioning from a film about Third World ills into a Neo-Arthouse exploitation film. Near the film’s close, a metaphorical gun goes off, resulting in a sequence of appalling nastiness, one that overshadows the entire film thus far. I’m not sure the film recovered from that moment of shock as much as I’m not sure that I’ve recovered.

Much more full of joy is Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” which foregoes the filmmaker’s usual cynicism for a bracing sweetness. It should be clear for anyone following his work that he’s largely indebted to Woody Allen, and “Frances Ha” captures New York City in a woozy romanticism not seen since “Manhattan.” But Baumbach also seems like he’s become a follower of Andrew Bujalski and the mumblecore movement, creating a film that, hopefully, puts a button on that entire subgenre.

Borrowing that scene’s leading lady Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote), “Frances Ha” takes a look at the broke post-graduate ennui of middling artists. But the film doesn’t fall into the self-loathing traps of the mumblecore films (or Baumbach’s recent miserablist efforts), with a witty script that allows each cast member to fire rat-a-tat lines of dialogue as a way of distancing themselves from the very real problems they are facing. For Gerwig, an exciting actress within her element, this allows her to experience fleeting moments of grace, like a “Modern Love”-scored traipsing across Manhattan streets, or a solo trip to Paris that’s both frustratingly anti-climactic and, in it’s own way, bizarrely romantic. It’s a gorgeous picture made of those small moments, the pockets of serenity found when one faces a life of no prospects, and it may be Baumbach’s greatest achievement.

The NYFF found space for two documentaries that seem to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction. “Caesar Must Die” tells us, with no narration, that the performance of “Julius Caesar” we’re watching happens to be put on not by professionals, but by prison inmates. “Caesar Must Die” is almost entirely Shakespeare’s play through constant rehearsals and performances, and it’s only briefly where we see these men in their true selves, defeated and resigned to a life behind bars. Similarly, “Leviathan” also hides it’s subject matter, working against itself consciously as a ninety minute you-are-there recreation of a fishing boat at see. Without context, the camera captures the heavy machinery of the boat as if they were tendrils stretching out to sea, a Lovecraftian nightmare accentuated by the endless rain and darker-than-black darkness that, we assume, is the sea. On Earth. Allegedly.

More straightforward, and nerdier perhaps, is “Room 237,” an OCD doc about the separate, sometimes bananas theories of a group of unrelated personalities who have spent countless hours pouring over Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Without a single talking head, Rodney Ascher’s funny low-fi doc takes us through footage of “The Shining” to piece together the minute elements of the film that these theorists slave over in their own words. Some seem plausible within the framework of the film, others absolutely insane. But the validity of these ideas is not the point, but rather the lengths some will go to put together the puzzle that is a film in their minds. It’s not as if Kubrick, and particularly “The Shining,” was without his eccentricities, making analysis of the film that much more maddening -- why is Jack reading a Playgirl in the lobby of the Overlook Hotel? Why does the television they watch have absolutely no electrical outlet?

More coming soon…

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