NY Film Fest Report: For Whom The Film Tolls: Mr. Jones, The Toll Collector, And Getting Distant
by Brandon Judell
When you are one of the best in your business, whether a plumber or an endocrinologist, you can attract top talent to assist you. And since Richard Peña, Program Director of the Lincoln Center Film Society, is considered by many to be one of the best, it's no wonder he was, five years ago, able to acquire Kent Jones as his Associate Director of Programming.
The two, by the way, are the only permanent members of the 5-member New York Film Festival Selection Committee, the replaceables this year being: John Anderson, Dave Kehr, and Geoffrey O'Brien. (You probably don't have to squawk about no minorities or women being on the panel, because these guys are all noted humanists and/or feminists to boot, or so I've been told.)
Anyway, I sat down in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall with Mr. Jones the other day after a press screening of "Distant." This tall, smartly-bearded gent, with a slightly reserved manner, was nicely attired in a well-pressed shirt and trousers. But would you expect otherwise from someone who started out as Martin Scorsese's video archivist, worked his way up to film archivist, and then contributed to the script for Scorsese's Italian cinema doc, and just recently on the helmer' blues doc? Of course, not.
What an opportunity, I thought, to get a look at the inner workings of the NYFF! Immediately, I asked how are the films chosen? By quality or by quality plus the need to represent such unheralded countries as Sri Lanka with its "Mansion by the Lake" this year?
"There's not really an agenda," Mr. Jones replied. "Look at it this way. It's more like there are five of us. We all have our own ideas about the cinema: many we share, some we don't. We all have strong voices, and I think cinema is at the center of our lives. So what we're doing is filling those slots with films that we all agree upon. We go to Cannes, and we look at films for a very intensive period during the summer, and all year long we're obviously looking at things. It doesn't really come with an agenda in terms of like 'Are we getting X number of movies from this part of the world? Or from that part of the world?' It's interesting that there's a film from Sri Lanka, but it's not like we set out to represent an underrepresented country. We're just looking at the films that are available to us within that year, and choosing 24 from them."
And does Mr. Jones have any favorites this year?
"Personally, Bu San's 'Goodbye Dragon Inn' because I really love his work in general. His work is already minimal, but this one is even more minimal. I think there are some of the longest takes here I have ever seen in a narrative film, but it's also a film that really speaks to the experience of going to the movies in a big movie hall. That might sound like a rarefied idea, but in fact it's something that a lot of us share. I found it very eloquent and pretty haunting.
"I also really loved Marco Bellocchio's film about the Red Brigade, 'Good Morning, Night,'" he continued. "It's a very gutsy movie to make about that particular event and to do it in that particular way. It's a kind of poetic exploration through the eyes of this woman. I was really taken."
Finally, I asked, "What happened to all those wild NYFF filmgoers from the early days who went crazy after seeing films like Godard's 'A Letter to Jane?'"
"I remember, when I first started coming to the NYFF, the violent reactions to Bresson's 'L'Argent,'" Mr. Jones recalled. "People just were hooting and hollering. Two years earlier there was a short before Godard's 'Passion,' 'You the Better' by Ericka Beckman. The audience practically ripped the screen apart. The same thing happened with a Straub/Huillet movie called 'Class Relations,' an adaptation of 'Amerika' by Kafka. But then at a certain point, and I can't tell you exactly when, probably in the mid- or late-eighties that all kind of subsided, and everybody got very polite."
Would you blame this impenetrable calm on the rise in popularity of antidepressants?
"Maybe that's what it is," Mr. Jones considered, "Maybe there's a stockpile of them somewhere in Manhattan. But it's probably just that the tenor of things have changed. It has though a good side. People are becoming more accepting of things, because it's not like the festival has hedged its bet and started showing strictly commercial fare. It's just that times change, and people become more acclimated to different things. By the way, I woke up this morning and I saw Kill Bill. I can't wait to see it again."
One film I can't wait to see again is Rachel Johnson's 10-minute-long "The Toll Collector." This claymation, stop-motion short tells of a young woman who's considered a freak because of her extremely long legs. To avoid confrontation with humanity, she works in a toll booth late at night on an infrequently traveled road. As for her very tall house, it resides on an unsociable hill. The depressed gal spends her time knitting and making believe she's a ballerina, but her lack of companionship soon has her hallucinating. Can she be saved? This absolutely stunning, little gem ends on a note of high hope that she can be.
Ms. Johnson, who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, noted over her cell phone Sunday evening that she was really excited she was accepted by the NYFF: "I heard that it was a pretty hard festival to get into. I started this film like two and a half years ago. This is pretty much my first film, so I'm sort of new in the industry."
More importantly does a melancholy film reveal a melancholy director?
"No," Ms. Johnson laughed. "I know it sounds like such a lonely, sad, depressed film but I'm not a sad person at all. It's true one of my legs is shorter, so I've lived with like a bit of a disability physically, but it hasn't really affected me that much. Then when I made this, I didn't even realize that it was like about me until after I was finished. 'The Toll Collector' was just a way to get everything out, but it wasn't really meant to be in anyway a personal film. I mean there are parallels, but I'm definitely not a depressed person at all. I did live in the Czech Republic to make it, and I didn't know anybody there, and I was so gung ho on making the film and getting things to happen, so I guess really I was sad at the time because I didn't know anybody. I didn't speak Czech in the beginning, so maybe it was... I don't know. I could have been."
It doesn't really matter in the end because the result is, happily, a modern classic.
On the same bill, and just as fine is Julie Bertuccelli's "Since Otar Left." This winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes 2003 tells of three generations of women living in Tiblisi, Georgia, the country, not the state. Grandma Eka (89-year-old Esther Gorintin), daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze), and granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) all love each other madly yet get on each other's nerves. But when Otar, Eka's beloved son dies in Paris, Marina and Ada hatch a complex plan to prevent Eka from learning about it to save her from the grief. After all, how much longer will she live. Touching yet hard-nosed, the film rises to a whole other level thanks to Gorintin's unforgettable performance.
Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold" is another perfect film from the director of "The Circle." Based on true events and written by Abbas Kiarostami, the picture opens with a tragic, yet comic, jewelry store robbery that goes awry. So how did Hussein, a pizza delivery man (played by real pizza delivery man Hussein Emadeddin), get into such a deadly fix? The movie, an acute study of Iran's class structure and mores, will reveal it all to you in a series of episodes where Hussein often ends up eating the pie. A must-see.
As for the Turkish offering, Nuri Bilge Ceylon's "Distant," that's more like a warning than a title. Here an unemployed, uneducated Yusuf travels to Istanbul to find a job on a ship. Until he gets one, he's residing with his distant relative Mahmut, a successful commercial photographer who's pining over his ex-wife and the lack of artistry demanded by daily chores. The two gents will eventually clash, but not enough to make this offering worthy of sitting through. There's more going on in ten minutes of "The Toll Collector" than in the 110 minutes of brooding, yet beautifully shot, self-indulgence of "Distant." Now is that fare? I mean fair.