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The Year's Best? Bleakest? Elitist? 10 Questions for the NYFF Selection Committee

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire October 9, 2009 at 6:08AM

Much has been bantered about regarding this year's 47th edition of the New York Film Festival, both with its new home at the Alice Tully Hall and decision to forgo the long-standing opening night party at Tavern on the Green in favor of the expansive foyer at the new venue, to this year's line up of 30 features representing 17 countries. French director Alain Resnais’ NYFF opener, "Wild Grass" (Les Herbes folles) set the tone for what has been a distinguishing characteristic of this year's edition of the venerable NYC event, lively debate among attendees in the Alice Tully lobby. "Wild Grass" was certainly polarizing - even amongst us here at indieWIRE - and that set the stage for similar feelings throughout the festival's two-week run.
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Much has been bantered about regarding this year's 47th edition of the New York Film Festival, both with its new home at the Alice Tully Hall and decision to forgo the long-standing opening night party at Tavern on the Green in favor of the expansive foyer at the new venue, to this year's line up of 30 features representing 17 countries. French director Alain Resnais’ NYFF opener, "Wild Grass" (Les Herbes folles) set the tone for what has been a distinguishing characteristic of this year's edition of the venerable NYC event, lively debate among attendees in the Alice Tully lobby. "Wild Grass" was certainly polarizing - even amongst us here at indieWIRE - and that set the stage for similar feelings throughout the festival's two-week run.

"Bleak" and "depressing" are words that have frequently surfaced when characterizing this year's NYFF roster, which Stephen Holden alluded to in his mid-festival assessment in the New York Times, though he sounded a generally positive closing note in his article, stating:

"Without such provocations, this wouldn’t be the New York Film Festival. And this year they exist on every level. From the grand, apocalyptic pretensions of 'Antichrist' to the nihilistic pranks of 'Trash Humpers,' there is something for every cineaste; for the mainstream moviegoer, maybe not."

Huffington Post critic Marshall Fine, perhaps, echos the sentiment of the popular mainstream, criticizing NYFF for having an "over-intellectualized approach." He even goes so far as to say that he doesn't attend Cannes because anything that's "good will open in theaters, and anything that's bad will be in the New York Film Festival.

Still, Fine's allusion to "elitism" is a topic often discussed during the festival. indieWIRE editor-in-chief Eugene Hernadez took on the topic in an article on October 1 in which he asked: "What is wrong with a little elitism?" In the article he states that it's "a terrific year for new international cinema, when so many New York Film Festival films are bound to polarize some event attendees, Resnais’ latest was such a fitting choice to open the fest. The fest’s reconfigured selection committee...is refreshingly serving up something to challenge, or a least provoke, mainstream sensibilities every single day of this seventeen day film event."

Then there was The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who likely ruffled the proverbial feathers most with his curt take on the festival. Scott suggested NYFF "produces more fatigue than shock, and seems governed less by a sense of adventure than by academic duty and confirmation bias."

But, what of the programming committee themselves and their assessments of this year's festival as it heads into its final weekend, which will be capped off on Sunday with Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces"? Even a group of individuals charged with curating a respected - and even loved - event such as the New York Film Festival are not immune to the reactions and chatter of individuals and the media in all its forms. indieWIRE asked the programming committee to talk about this year's festival, and they had much to say - touching on subjects written about the festival in the past two weeks, including "the bleak factor," audience reaction to the films, and how they go about curating a festival that historically film lovers have trusted over the decades to program any given year's round of "the most significant films." [Brian Brooks]

Eugene Hernandez: The first question is for Jim. Last week, while introducing the screening of "Lebanon," you said to the audience, "New York's a tough town, you're a tough audience. You shouldn't expect anything less." What inspired that comment?

J Hoberman: I was reading things online and elsewhere that seemed to be complaining that the festival wasn't -- I dont know -- warm and cuddly enough.

I thought that there's really plenty of that stuff out there if that's what people want. I can't imagine that people want to go to the Film Festival or ever want to really get involved in some sort of artistic experience just to be comforted - just to get things they are familiar with.

As far as I am concerned good art can never be depressing, no matter what it is about.

Eugene Hernandez: There are certainly more opportunities for people to lash out now, with Twitter, Facebook, blogs. Is this criticism consistent with past years?

Richard Peña: A few years ago I remember we got lambasted by blogs for the opening night film, "The Queen." I didn't seem obvious to me, but to others it was absolutely blaring. They accused us of dumbing down the festival in favor of a popular film. It's funny how in a few years I've become the person who's become the conjurer of films too challenging for New Yorkers. You get a lot more reaction now. People in the supermarket come up to me and ask, why didn't you show this film and why did you show that film?

For me, what's really been so gratifying in the new Alice Tully Hall, is to see people out there engaged in a passionate discussion. It's been really great to see that these films have really engaged people's interests in important ways.

Eugene Hernandez: And what about going back further. I've only been attending the festival for 15 years. What about before that?

J Hoberman: If you want to go back, the festival really got amazingly hostile press throughout the '60s and into the '70s. And a lot of those things the festival now gets credit for -- that are held up as great things that the fest did -- Godard, Fassbinder, Rivette, they were panned at the time. The Godard films were incredibly panned. Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" was like a revolving door.

One of the things that came up is that this festival is elitist. I dont know what that means. The idea is to be out in front of popular taste. Otherwise, what's the point?

Scott Foundas: The difference between now and the time that Jim's talking about is that there has been such an uptick in the number of festivals. [And] festivals that have bent over backwards to cater to the industry or [serve] as a launching pad. You start to question how much a festival is really programmed by [those] programmers.

Brian Brooks: Picking up on the passionate discussion going either way in the lobby, I've heard some discussion about movies that weren't included in the festival. How do you react to criticism about particular films that were omitted from this year's lineup, specifically the Audiard ("A Prophet") and the Coens ("A Serious Man")?

Richard Peña: I prefer to discuss films in the context of what did play in the New York Film Festival. I never want to discuss in the context about why we didn't show a certain film.

Eugene Hernandez: Jim spoke earlier about the festival being ahead of popular taste. Is there a programmatic mission or approach that you give the committee during the process?

Richard Peña: Each year we try to present a snapshot of what we think is the best in contemporary world cinema. I tend to think if there is any directive I give, it's to try and drop any agendas we have. I think it's very important that the the audience feels that every film they see in the lineup has been selected or chosen.

Scott Foundas: For me, one of the pleasures of having done this for three years now, is there's a remarkable lack of ideologies. I don't think we bring a lot of baggage through the door.

Richard Peña: Nobody wants to promote films from non-Western countries more than I do for instance, but I think it ultimately doesn't help if you just shove a film in. I think this year we have an incredible wealth of documentaries, for example. Two years ago, we had all these American films. But we had seen a lot of films from Americans that we liked that year.

Eugene Hernandez: How many years has each of you been on this committee?

J Hoberman: Three years recently and three years previously.

Scott Foundas: Three.

Dennis Lim: This is my first.

Melissa Anderson: And this is my first.

Eugene Hernandez: So for Melissa and Dennis, this being your first year, what sort of reactions do you have from the experience?

Melissa Anderson: The whole process itself has been really amazing, actually talking to audience members before they've had time to go to Facebook, Twitter, blogs. I'm speaking with audience members of all different generations, all very excited about what they've seen or are about to see. To have that kind of intimate interaction has been, for me, some of the most exhilarating work.

Dennis Lim: I'm very proud of this slate. I don't understand the complaint that we're showing one kind of film. There's a real diversity here. I think the criticism is very reductive. I do see different films attracting different kinds of audiences. The "Trash Humpers" screening was much younger. The discussions have been very lively.

Scott Foundas: Some of the things that have been written about the festival are written by those who are mainly experiencing them through the press screenings, so they are not seeing it through the actual festival.

Eugene Hernandez: I've been to a number of public screenings that have had a frustratingly small audiences this year. Are the crowds smaller than in previous years? And if so, to what do you attribute this?

Richard Peña: I think the economy has a lot to do with it. Even people who do have jobs are are very cognizant of saving money - it's primarily the economy. It doesn't seem to me like a slate that's that different [from previous years]. Some of the crowds have been thinner than we would have liked. I do really think that has to do with economy."

I think the price has gotten to the point where some people are hesitating. People's viewing habits have changed, so they're confident that some of what we show will eventually end up on DVD, which is the fact in some cases, but not in all.

Scott Foundas: You guys may know this, doing the specialized box office weekly, but my sense is that a lot of films that play a week-long run in Manhattan probably don't have an audience that is more than even a half full Alice Tully Hall. I certainly know that's the case in Los Angeles. So I think it's a question of how you motivate audiences to go see specialized cinema these days. [Everyone] is still trying to figure that out.

Eugene Hernandez: We have to ask specifically about Tony Scott's article [in the New York Times] because he is such prominent critic. He was quite critical of the committee and its selections. Do any of you wish to react to it in any way?

J Hoberman: I think of it as a New York Times article.

Something that Richard Roud, Richard Peña's predecessor, pointed out on many occasions was that Vincent Canby, who was the film critic for The New York Times, would write every year a festival piece and one year he would praise it to the skies and then the next year he would pan the hell out of out it. It was like a cycle. The festival is there, and The New York Times has to have an opinion about it, and there you have it.

Richard Peña: I agree that with festival pieces through the years you'll see extraordinary fluctuation. Tony Scott wrote a festival article four or five years ago and praised us for a carefully selected program.

I'm most gratified by audeinces. After reading how depresssing the festival is, [we were] turning people away from "The White Ribbon." Tony Scott may not like it and that's his choice, he's a critic. But we turend away large lines last night.

Brian Brooks: So having traveled to various festivals this year and through your selection process, do you feel that there's a broader trend towards darker films today?

Scott Foundas: During Cannes [this year], there was a lot of talk then about how bleak and violent and depressing the films were. It's just been that kind of year. No festival can make the movies, we can only select them. We can't make them from scratch.

J Hoberman: It may be significant that Tony wasn't in Cannes this year.

Scott Foundas: There were not a lot of great comedies. Generally, the movies that you see in festivals tend to be tilting in a serious direction - violent content, fatalism.

Richard Peña: Filmmakers are artists who react to the world around them. There hasn't been a very happy timline in the past fifteen months.

Melissa Anderson: An aspect or trend I've noticed - Dennis and I were talking about this - is that there are [several distinctive] queer films. People like to focus on the bloodiness or the violence. [But], "To Die Like a Man" is such a great example of a new voice from queer filmmakers.

Scott Foundas: There are films that are joyous or euphoric at times...

Dennis Lim: I don't think thematically that many of these films are bleak. "Everyone Else" is a kind of an exhilarating movie. "Trash Humpers," the way it played with people here, is as feel good movie.

Scott Foundas: "Precious" is certainly another one. Some of these movies put you through hell, but they have a kind of release at the end.

This article is related to: Festival Dispatch