This week in Gotham, the New York Film Festival was in full swing with its 45th annual run of being the most prestigious act around, offering up a bumper crop of contemporary cinema alongside a 25th anniversary screening of "Blade Runner" and a coinciding academic panel. Away from the hubbub, Lynn Hershman Leeson's "Strange Culture" infuriated viewers at MoMA, while at the IFC Center, Jennifer Vendetti's "Billy the Kid" delighted them.
The 45th New York Film Festival opened last Friday night with a screening of Wes Anderson's latest painterly ode to adult adolescence, "The Darjeeling Limited," kicking off one of the more impressive line-ups of recent years. The praiseworthy films of the first week include Christian Mungiu's Palme D'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"; Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", based on a true story about a man who manages to communicate after being paralyzed everywhere but one eye; and Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light", a hypnotic tone poem about a muted love triangle in Mexico's Mennonite community.
On Saturday, the Film Society showed "Blade Runner: The Final Cut," in celebration of that film's 25th anniversary and recent, purportedly final restoration. In what has become by now a familiar story, the studio worried that audiences might not warm to Ridley Scott's grim, atmospheric spectacle of a hellish Earth in 2019, infiltrated by human-like Replicants, homicidally frustrated by their abbreviated life-span, and Blade Runners assigned to find and "retire" them; consequently, the film was released with an odd film noir voiceover and a tacked-on happy ending, where it failed both critically and commercially. It became a cult hit, and when the director's version was released in 1992, sans voiceover and with the original ending, was now considered a classic.
The event was further commemorated with an invigorating academic panel on Saturday morning (which stayed lively for its entire three-hour duration, even after the opening night's festivities ran very late), which was clearly a personal satisfaction for program director Richard Pena, who introduced the panel by saying "'Blade Runner' is a film that was to a certain extent saved by academics; long after the critics had passed on the film... 'Blade Runner' remained alive because it excited so much academic interest."
Harvard University professor Guiliana Bruno gave a terrific comprehensive critical overview of the film, discussing the setting for the film in a city that holds immense futuristic buildings alongside the familiar buildings of today (and yesterday), all of them dilapidated, an effect which Bruno says "makes a statement about the future as it involves the decay of modernity, the ruins of modernity".
"This was all too smart for me," said "Blade Runner" screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who attended the panel alongside several other production team members and Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa. "I remember writing... feeling... 'will anybody get this?", and here you guys are actually saying those things. It's like I've died and gone to heaven." "Blade Runner: The Final Cut" opens in a limited theatrical release on Friday.
MoMA eyes some "Strange Culture"
A dystopia of a more familiar stripe was on view at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday night, for the premiere of Lynn Hershman Leeson's documentary hybrid and Sundance entry "Strange Culture". The film concerns conceptual artist Steve Kurtz, who was arrested in 2004 after his wife Hope died suddenly of cardiac failure, and a police sweep of the house revealed suspicious bacterial cultures and several flyers with Arabic writing. While subsequent investigations revealed that the bacteria was both legal and harmless--Kurtz and his wife were using them for an art installation on organic food--and the Arabic writing turned out to be a party invitation, Kurtz' legal nightmare only deepened, as the FBI set out to make an example to other potential dissident artists; they concocted a convoluted form of mail fraud in order to charge him with a felony, despite the fact that he had clearly committed no crime.
"This has given me a good crash course in civics," said Kurtz after the screening. "The deck is very much stacked against any defendant, and they can indict anyone."
As Kurtz is still going to trial, the filmmakers were limited in how much of his story they were allowed to tell (or how much they should--his lawyers advise against him speaking to the camera directly), an obstacle she got around by recreating Kurtz' story with actors Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and Peter Coyote. After the screening, the always fantastic Swinton reflected on the importance of the movie as it related to artists, saying "Artists, in a very real way, are the canaries in the coal mine.... they reflect what is happening in a culture. That's what makes this movie so important." The film opens in New York on Friday at Cinema Village.
IFC Center finds a "Billy" silver-lining
After a week full of movies about abortion in fascist states, full-body paralysis, nightmarish future worlds and scary government actions, audiences in search of something more life-affirming were welcome to come to the IFC Center on Tuesday night, where director Jennifer Venditti was present for a screening of her winning documentary "Billy the Kid" as part of the third run of that theater's "Stranger Than Fiction" series--co-presented by SXSW, where the film won the Jury prize for best documentary. The movie shows several days in the life of teenager Billy, a sweet-natured but misfit kid whose blunt demeanor and abrupt temper often prove alienating; after the film was completed, Billy was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism that manifests itself as a particular type of social awkwardness.
For Vendetti, a casting director looking to make a series of character portraits, the entire film fell into her lap. "I met Billy in a lunch room, he was the kid that was being bullied," said Vendetti in the Q&A which followed the screening. "When he opened his mouth, I was in heaven. I was, like, 'are you kidding? Who is this person, and why isn't everyone interested in him?"
While portraits of endearing oddballs often find themselves subjected to accusations of exploitation (see: Al Maysles, Errol Morris, et al.), what impresses most about the film is how overwhelmingly humane it is. Said Vendetti, "my goal with this film was to understand someone for who they are, and how they see the world, not how other people see them and define them". "Billy the Kid" will open in theaters in late 2007/early 2008; Stranger Than Fiction continues weekly at IFC through the end of November - next week's screening of Andrew Rossi's "A Table in Heaven" comes complete with a reception afterwards, catered by Le Cirque.