With “21 Grams,” The NYFF Closes With a Bang! Bang! Bang!
by Brandon Judell
If you’re under the impression that the Sean-Penn-starrer “Mystic River” opened the 41st New York Film Festival with a Bang! then there’s no doubt you’ll argue that the closing night feature, the Sean-Penn-starrer “21 Grams” is closing the fest with a Bang! Bang! Bang! And you’d be right.
Directed by Alejandro González and written by Guillermo Arriaga, the pair who previously gave us the not-soon-forgotten “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” hits you over the head with its characters’ search for salvation, revenge, meaning, and not a little love. A suspenseful puzzle film, this ingenious work slowly weaves its pieces together in a way that will enthrall you as it simultaneously wipes you out. The cast, as you can guess, is uniformly top grade, especially, Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, and Melissa Leo. As for the plot, to tell you anything would lessen the effects of this movie’s masterful surprises, and I wouldn’t do that.
Also marching in as a high quality entertainment is Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” a sequel of sorts to his delicious academia parody, “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986). The same characters we adored back then are now a bit older, much less sexual, and slightly wiser, but only slightly. But what is the reason this gaggle of literary wits is regrouping? You see Rémy (Rémy Girard) is dying. Hospitalized, the ill professor finds himself under the control of his despised millionaire son who’s never read a book and his own ex-wife who’s never forgiven him for cheating on her.
Stop it already, Rémy fumes: “It’s been fifteen years since I humped a coed.”
When not harrumphing at his kin, between bouts of pain, Rémy tears apart capitalism, Mother Teresa (“a slimy Albanian”), and the United States. He also recounts great slaughters in history and jerking off over Julie Christie.
But this film has more on its mind than serving up one wise quip after another. It’s about facing death in a humane manner, and letting bygones be bygones. If you’re not teary eyed at the end, you’re either dead or Bill O’Reilly.
At the press conference attended by Arcand, Girard, actor Stéphane Rousseau, and producer Denise Robert (“Straight for the Heart”), Arcand noted why he and the film are so pro-euthanasia:
“I had several experiences with my father, mother, and grandfather. They all died of cancer in a prolonged manner. These were really nice people that I truly loved, and the last month in each case was not necessary. Worse than that, a dear friend of mine who was a great movie director, Claude Jutra, got Alzheimer’s disease at 50. He knew what it meant since he had been trained as a doctor, and so he tried to live with the disease. He even made a film while suffering. But when he declined, he threw himself off a bridge in front of the city of Montreal. I don’t think this is necessary. I don’t think a civilized society should make it necessary to throw oneself off a bridge. There should be a more humane way of doing it. This is something I truly believe.”
Playing with “Barbarians” is a 6-minute cartoon, entitled “Destino,” that would be the high-point of any festival anywhere. Directed by Dominique Monfery, this surrealistic venture was over a half century in the making. At the press conference, producer Baker Bloodworth explained how greed at the Disney Company finally led to the completion of a modern classic:
“Destino,” 57 years in the making, began in 1945 when Salvador Dali was living in Los Angeles. Escaping war-torn Europe, he happened to meet Walt Disney at a cocktail party at the home of Jack Warner. Disney jokingly, we are told, asked him if wanted to make an animated film and Dali replied, ‘Absolutely!’
“Two months later the contract was signed and Dali was reporting to work daily. He did so for 9 months at the Walt Disney Studios. This was a period of great hardship for the company, Walt was making propaganda films for the war effort. The money was not flowing, and so it’s no surprise that after 9 months of collaboration, the work was shelved, never to be seen until today.
During that collaboration, however, Dali worked with a story artist by the name of John Hench who is 95 years old today and still reports daily to work in our offices. Hench recalls that collaboration was fun, was very collaborative, was spontaneous, and Dali and Disney at their best. Dali painted some 25 paintings and sketched and story boarded the entire sequence, some 150 panels. He then supervised the recording, under Walt Disney’s direction, of the original soundtrack which you will hear today. It was recorded on acetate. The original song, “Destino,” we took off the acetate and cleaned it up here in New York at Sony Music. You will hear that soundtrack unaltered with the exception of the beginning and the end. Just to get us in and out of the picture, we’ve added some music by a local composer, Michael Starobin.
Flash forward to 2000: Roy Disney, overseeing animation in Burbank, is putting together Fantasia 2000, and he brings out all the art of the films that never made it to daylight. Among them, chiefly this work by Dali. Roy had the art work appraised, and finding to his surprise the value of the artwork, the attorneys at the Walt Disney company convinced him that we should make the film so that we can actually own the art. That began this collaborative process.”
From the surreal to the obscure is how you might describe NYFF’s annual paean to the really underground film network. It’s called “Views from the Avant-Garde,” and it’s curated by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith. To promote this weekend’s offerings, there was a press conference with Smith, Jeanne Liotta (“Loretta”), Julie Murray (“I Began to Wish“) and Courtney Hoskins (“The Galilean Satellites”).
I asked, “Whether these three women call their films ‘avant-garde?'”
Liotta: “I use the term experimental when I talk about my work. I use the term experimental because I like to think that the work I do is more akin to a scientific work in a sense that I make an experiment for myself and then try to see how it works out. You never know. There’s not a predetermined conclusion.”
Hoskins: “I think I kind of feel the same. When people ask me what kind of films I make, I usually tell them I make abstract, animated shorts because ‘experimental’ seems to kind of confuse people, and they seem to draw the conclusion that I don’t really know what it is that I’m doing. Nut my films are similar to Jeanne’s film;, they’re like scientific experiments. I manipulate light waves by bouncing them on different levels, but I know what the out come will be. It is an experiment in that I’m testing what I know.”
Murray: “I go along with the other two.”
At another Avant-Garde press conference, this one honoring the legendary Jonas Mekas, I asked the man behind the Anthology Film Archives, whom he’s influenced over the years?
Smiling, he replied, “That question was asking me not to be humble and tell whom I have influenced in cinema. Now I cannot talk about that. I can tell of some people who influenced me, and, of course, everybody, every film I ever saw influenced me. Sometimes films that I did not like, that I hated, influenced me. Actually, one of the main reasons why already in Germany, myself and my brother began thinking about cinema was seeing a film by Fred Zinnemann called “The Search” (1948). It’s about postwar Europe, and I thought it was so naive. So naive and stupid that we have to show what it really means to be an exile or a displaced person. That’s when we began making notes on film. So it was a reaction to that film. But, of course, I have been influenced by everything I have read, seen, and listened to. As for as whom I have influenced, it’s not for me to answer. It’s really easier for somebody from the outside to make some observations.”
What better way is there to say farewell to this year’s NYFF than with a quote like that? There is none.