Film Comment Selects: A Mixed Bag of Challenging Films
by Matthew Ross
If the New York Film Festival is the jewel in the crown of Lincoln Center's art film programming, and the New Directors/New Films Series is its respectable minor league for buzzed-about up-and-comers, the Film Comment Selects series is the underground haven for world cinema misfits that haven't gotten enough love. Now in its second year, Film Comment Selects, a collection of undistributed films from 2002 chosen by the editors of the FSLC's Film Comment magazine, has already built up a cult reputation among cineastes in New York City as an event that demands attention. Its existence also serves as an indictment of the sorry state of theatrical distribution in United States today -- this may be a group of difficult, often imperfect, sometimes bad films, but most of them deserve a chance to face a ticket-buying audience.
Unlike the inaugural series last year, in which a sizable portion of the films hailed from Japan, this year's program -- which ran January 31 through today -- was a decidedly mixed bag, encompassing everything from psychosexual shock cinema (Larry Clark and Ed Lachhman's "Ken Park," Phillippe Grandrieux's "La Vie Nouvelle") to a sampling of Thai new wave (Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Monrak Transistor," Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Blissfully Yours") to mini tributes to Chris Marker and John Frankenheimer. There were also a couple of minor films by established European art-house stars (Oliver Assayas' "demonlover," Catherine Breillat's "Brief Crossing," and Raoul Ruiz's "Love Torn in a Dream"), a couple of American indies (Alan Rudolph's "The Secret Lives of Dentists," Michael Almereyda's "Happy Here and Now") and a smattering of new work from Kazakhistan (Darezhan Omirbaev's "The Road"), India (Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Shadow Kill"), and China (Wen Zhu's "Seafood").
There was also a film about September 11 that might as well have arrived with a "GUARANTEED TO BRING ACCUSATIONS OF ANTI-AMERICANISM" warning label attached for any U.S. distributor thinking of touching it. That offering, which opened to mixed reviews at last year's Toronto Film Festival and at this series, is "11'9''01." Like the Film Comment series, the project -- in which 11 directors each contributed an 11-minute short related to the terrorists attacks -- has its share of clunkers, yet the range of perspectives about how the United States stands in relation to the rest of the global cultural community is fascinating. My favorite piece came from Iran's Samira Makhmalbaf, who offers a simple but very effective story that shows how much cultural ignorance can reveal about economic and political inequality. In the film, a young Afghan teacher struggles to explain terrorism to her young students, who cannot fathom that a building as big as the World Trade Center actually exists. Ken Loach's segment, in which a Chilean refugee recounts his own country's September 11 horror -- the assassination of President Allende by the Henry Kissinger-backed fascist August Pinochet in 1973 -- is also quite good. In the end, the important of "11'9"01" as a cultural document and the handful of first-rate work contained within made it the most compelling film in the series. It deserves to be seen.
"Ken Park" is Larry Clark's best film since "Kids," whatever that means. This time, Clark and cinematographer/director Lachman (in a severe gear shift from the Technicolor fantasy of "Far from Heaven") ignore the censors completely, and include a number of hard-core sequences in which the characters (if not the actual actors) are well below legal age. For that reason, "Ken Park" is kind of the ultimate Larry Clark movie, in that it takes as its subject the director's career-long obsession -- poor, unhappy, uneducated white kids and their loveless sex by -- then isolates and magnifies it to a unsettlingly explicit degree. Clark is an acute social critic and he's a pornographer, and "Ken Park" is the clearest example to date of how that duality shows up in his work.
One highlight, though not a total success, was "demonlover," Assayas' slick riff on corporate culture in the age of cyber-porn. While many took the film to task for its gaping plot holes and narrative inconsistencies, the first 45 minutes of "demonlover" show one of France's most exciting talents working at the top of his game. Yes, the story may not end up making much sense, but Assayas' command of tone is at times masterful, and bodes well for future projects. The Sonic Youth score and the sight of Chloe Sevigny, Connie Nielson, and Gina Gershon catfighting (and speaking French) also make for some nice guilty pleasures.
Less effective is "Brief Crossing," the newest game of sexual manipulation from Catherine Breillat. A story of a night of romance between a 16-year-old boy and a cynical 30-year-old woman, the film's psycho-sexual dynamic pales in comparison to Breillat's more incisive work in "Fat Girl," and reminds us that this is a director who can lapse into pretentiousness at the drop of a brassiere. Grandrieux's "La Vie Nouvelle" is an oblique, brutal tone poem on the Eastern European sex trade, featuring almost no dialogue whatsoever. While it boasts an accomplished visual style and has breathtaking moments, "La Vie Nouvelle" is more of an installation piece than a narrative film, and it probably belongs in a gallery space.
"Monrak Trasistor," an epic Thai musical comedy, wasn't to my taste, but if your kitsch tolerance extends beyond the minimal (mine rarely does) then you might enjoy it. "Path to War," Frankenheimer's retelling of Lyndon Johnson's ill-fated involvement in Vietnam, is a competent if unsurprising made-for-HBO work. In "Happy Here and Now," the talented Almereyda loses narrative coherence in his search for atmosphere, and his film -- anothercyber-thriller about a girl looking for her lost sister in New Orleans -- never makes it on an emotional level.
As a whole, the Selects series contained fewer hits than misses, but that's not really the point. The Film Comment editors who programmed the series did what they set out to do -- provide an outlet for weird, quirky, ambitious, button-pushing movies that could never survive in today's less than adventurous theatrical marketplace. For getting these movies seen and giving them another shot at a sale, they deserve a round of applause.