Cornell Professor Amy Villarejo breathes new intelligence into critiquing the horror genre, the important issue of the genocide in Darfur gets the cinematic attention it deserves and yet another addition to summer's Asian-influenced film festivals are highlighted here as some of the many films events occurring in New York this week.
It's Only a Movie!
Up in Queens on Sunday night, the Museum of Moving Image's horror series, "It's Only a Movie" came to an end with a very special screening of Wes Craven's "Last House of the Left." Heralded by many critics, the film is often considered one of the most disturbing of its genre, particularly for its bizarre mix of light offbeat comedy and graphic documentary-esque violence. Craven himself admitted that the film was partly a reaction to the news coverage of the Vietnam War. Focusing on two hippie girls who are terrorized after a failed mission for marijuana goes awry, "Last House" is brutally shocking even by today's standards, though not nearly as timely. Cornell Professor Amy Villarejo, a teacher of Feminist, Gender & Sexuality studies with keen eye for film was on hand for an introduction and short discussion afterwards. She admits, "Even I need help with this film," speaking not of the graphic content, but of the rather off-putting construction that Craven employs to shock the audience. She equates it with the two other genres of filmmaking that "illicit a bodily reaction from the audience": Romantic Comedy ("or tearjerkers") and Pornography, citing that though Craven's work is not conventional by any standards, it does serve the same functions as many other horror films, those of shock and disgust.
Other topics discussed by Villarejo in the Q&A portion of the evening included both the racism and the sexism in the film. Rather than taking a judgmental standpoint and accusing Craven of being prejudice in either vain, Villarejo wisely accepted the film for the way it was and discussed the possible connotations that those had on the message of the film as a whole. She cited specifics regarding Craven's discussion of feminism and ran through lists of readings of the film, leaving intact the validity each one. Though this mini-lecture was contained in the already remarkably well-curated series, it was far from the usual base comparison affair, offering a pleasantly surprising world of possibilities in the way we view this intensely graphic moment in cinematic history. That being so, it was unexpectedly followed-up with perhaps the most insightful comparison piece in the entire program - Neil Jordan's "The Descent", which Villarejo displayed a liking for but "confesses(ed her) disappointment in the monsters." Much more than the icing on the cake, Villarejo's appearance made "It's Only A Movie" go out the same way it came in; with a bang.
"The Devil" Comes to IFC Center
Wednesday marked a very special series of three screenings at the IFC Center for Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's disturbing and powerful documentary, "The Devil Came On Horseback." A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Horseback" tells the story of ex-Marine Captain Brian Steidle who took a position for a peacekeeping mission in Sudan, only to discover the horrors of the recent Darfur conflict. While there, Steidle took thousands of photographs which would later become a key piece of the controversial New York Times article on him. Tortured by nightmares of what he had seen, Steidle felt the need to break his confidentially agreement and speak out to raise awareness about the systematic genocide going on in that part of the world. This engaging documentary portrays Steidle's story admirably, filling the viewer with the vigor and chaos of the situation and then presenting enough photographs to not only make the stomach turn, but also to inspire one to act.
Steidle was on hand for a Q&A at the trio of opening night showings to promote the different ways in which one could help, including regulating Sudan's oil supply through their provider. "Putting pressure on China through the Olympics... I think it's a great idea." At the first showing, Steidle was confronted by an audience member who was skeptical about the plan to bring peace in Darfur, claiming it didn't work on Sadam Hussein. Steidle, displaying that he not only has a serious conscience and a great amount of intelligence and class, handled the situation incredibly diplomatically, pointing out the differences in the two situations and politely disagreeing with the viewer. If Steidle's character doesn't sell you on delving deeper into the issue, maybe his photographs and story will. "Devil Came on Horseback" plays at the IFC Center through next week and, though not the most outwardly enjoyable of moviegoing experiences, certainly the most important and insightful one in the coming weeks.
Asian-American Fest Begins
Finally, continuing with the revolving door of Asia influenced film festivals to pop into New York City in the past two months, the Asian-American International Film Festival was in full swing this weekend. Kicking off with the New York Premiere of IFC First Take's upcoming release Justin Lin's "Finishing the Game," a fabricated tale of the tryouts to fill Bruce Lee's role in his final feature after his sudden death (he only had twelve minutes shot!), this veritable plethora of Asian-American filmmaking continued through the week and will not stop until Saturday night with highly anticipated closing night film Gina Kim's "Never Forever". The fact that both "Game" and "Forever" are alums of this year's Sundance suggest that perhaps the festival's theme offers slim pickin's for programming, but also that said options are packed with an admirable level of quality. IFC's own Ryan Werner, a jury member at this year's festival, spoke to the variety in the program, citing "an incredible breadth of films both in terms of style and in content from around the world." Well, if Werner's fellow juror, legendary Chinese director Patrick Tam's presence was any indication of quality, this year promises to be one of the best, including a special screening of Tam's very own latest masterwork, "After This Our Exile".
Opening This Week
"The Devil Came on Horseback" (July 25), directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Distributor: International Film Circuit Official website
"This is England" (July 25), directed by Shane Meadows. Distributor: IFC First Take. Distributor website
"The Camden 28" (July 27), directed by Anthony Giacchino. Distributor: First Run Features. Official website
"Naming Number Two" (July 27), directed by Toa Fraser. Distributor: Cyan Releasing. Official website
"Laura Smiles" (July 27), directed by Jason Ruscio. Distributor: Emerging Pictures. Official website
"No End in Sight" (July 27), directed by Charles Ferguson. Distributor: Magnolia. Official website
"Moliere" (July 27), directed by Laurent Tirard. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics. Official website