(Many candy) apples and (a couple of sour) oranges: The 45th edition of the New York Film Festival, running September 28-October 16, is underway. Comparing movies is a drag, especially in a noncompetitive event, but the choices in this famously selective fest (28 "official" features on top of the sidebars) vary in merit. Here's the skinny on 13 of the 14 full-length narratives (I missed French vet Eric Rohmer's "The Romance of Astree and Celadon") and the one doc showing during the first nine days; a follow-up on the second half appears next Friday.
Most of the foreign entries, and a few of the American ones, center on protagonists in existential turmoil, or at least in the midst of political crises. This depth makes it all the more disappointing that the NYFF tapped Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" as the opener - despite my realization that sponsors and dilettantes like high-profile stars for the inauguration. Three white brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) travel, mostly by train, through India, the culture of which is almost entirely a foil for their inane comments and actions. This failed $60 million juvenile effort at Marx Brothers and Three Stooges antics makes the Hope and Crosby road movies look like they were scripted by Margaret Mead. Really now, aren't we imposing our ways on the rest of the world enough these days? An excellent craftsman, the ethnocentric Anderson now plays to the lowest common denominator.
Far weightier is another American selection, "The Axe in the Attic", in which docmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small interview displaced Katrina survivors. Formally, it is nothing (wrong festival?), and the directors' insistence on calling attention to their "process" is annoying. Yet the testimony accumulates in effect. Pincus and Small's solid overview of government apathy, hostility, and bureaucracy as it has affected each of their subjects personally lifts these mostly black and poor victims right off the bland pages of the daily paper and the monitors airing the "he said/she said" banter of CNN.
On the flip side of documentary naturalism are exercises in style, such as Ira Sachs's "Married Life", a color neo-noir about two male friends (Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan) and the femme fatale (Rachel McAdams) that comes between them. The target audience seems to be adult, as it was for film noir, which was created in a postwar U.S. when grown-ups went to the movies. Unfortunately, though well executed, the film is an onanistic effort that adds nothing to the genre, itself so inherently over-the-top that it nearly defies replication or redefinition.
(For a profound reexamination of cinematic style, see Spanish director Jose Luis Guerin's beautiful French-language "In the City of Sylvia" - a major discovery. Guerin toys with shooting and editing strategies that underlie the look and sound of a film. A young man returns to Strasbourg in pursuit of an obsession: to find a girl he met in a bar six years before. He follows one suspect for a long time, stares at others. Guerin's unusually framed shots look more like real life than those in most films; he films faces at odd angles, against unconventional backdrops, for example. There is almost no dialog save for an exchange with the pursued for five minutes on a train. The sound that does exist--passersby talking, their heels striking the pavement--is modulated according to location: You feel like you are there.)
Faring better than "Married Life" is Abel Ferrara's "Go Go Tales", another study in gloss, yet of the sleazy, macho brand which the director owns. Set almost entirely in the artifice of Ray Ruby's "Paradise Lounge", a seedy New York joint in which young women sell lap dances to suits (it was filmed in Rome), it is the money-losing site of tension between Willem Dafoe's manager, Matthew Modine's backer, and the unpaid "talent." The look harks back to Ferrara's 1993 Madonna-starrer "Dangerous Game", the subject matter to his first feature, the 1976 hardcore porn flick "Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy" (in which the director stars). Just when you think that the story will not rise above gutter level, the ex-Catholic filmmaker pulls out his redemption card. Dafoe organizes an after-hours cabaret so that the dancers can perform for potentially helpful spectators their true passions, be they ballet or mime - and for that he is rewarded in a serendipitous moment. This is secular salvation.
More grounded, and falling into the existential hero camp that takes them beyond the limited Americavision of most of their colleagues, are Todd Haynes's brilliant Dylan collage, "I'm Not There", and the Coen Brothers' uneven but provocative "No Country for Old Men", based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. True, Dylan's crisis is in large part a function of being a celebrity, but the difficulty he had over the decades with being pigeonholed in spite of his constant evolution has been a huge burden on such a gifted and prescient public figure. Six actors plays different Dylan personas, all keyed to distinct film genres, particular periods in his musical development, and the appropriate songs - with Dylan's own recordings on the soundtrack. Words can not do justice to the brilliance of the editing, the intensity of the compositions, and the fertile imagination on view throughout, both Dylan's and Haynes's. Cate Blanchett in drag may be winning the accolades, but the one who wows is Christian Bale as Dylan the folk singer and Dylan the Pentecostal preacher.
In "No Country for Old Men" (Centerpiece), Josh Brolin's cowboy, who lives in a trailer in rural Texas near the Mexican border, is an anachronism, a point made clear when the massacre he stumbles upon involves not stolen cattle but a drug smuggling operation gone haywire and a vindictive, automaton-like id figure (Javier Bardem) more Frankenstein's monster than Old West villain. A non-introspective man in moral crisis, Brolin is caught between greed and nearly forgotten codes of right and wrong, whereas Tommy Lee Jones's sheriff upholds them to little avail. Roger Deakins's shots of wide open West Texas landscapes are exceptional. Too bad that the Coens let their occasionally hilarious movie (in part a Texan Fargo) fall into a lengthy, tiresome cat-and-mouse-and-mouse game (Jones following Bardem stalking Brolin).
In the festival's foreign films, directors adopt a more mature stance toward man's relationship with society and the universe. Okay, Julian Schnabel is American - SO American - but his mind-blowing French production "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is gallic in language, setting, and feel. After all, it is an adaptation of former French Elle editor and bon vivant Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 autobiographical book that was "written" by transmitting his words via the blink of his one usable eye after he was felled by the immobilizing disease known as locked-in syndrome. (Thankfully, Johnny Depp dropped out as Bauby and France's finest actor, Mathieu Amalric, stepped in.)
Schnabel tracks Bauby's journey from suicidal despair to embracing life, from isolation to the recognition and acceptance of love emanating from those who help him self-actualize under circumstances we can hardly fathom. At the same time, the director creates outstanding visuals illustrating a parallel world experienced by a man who can not move. Although Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona's psychological horror movie "The Orphanage" is an overrated gothic, its central character, played by the marvelous Belen Rueda, transforms herself from grieving mother to the orphanage-raised child she once was in order to connect with cosmic realms beyond her grasp.
Minimalist Hungarian director Bela Tarr goes generic in "The Man From London", adapted from Georges Simenon's policier about a seaside watchman who, like Brolin, inadvertently comes across a bundle of stolen money after witnessing a murder. In order to keep it, he commits one himself, wrestling with his conscience and his god, if you will, about the moral implications of his action. He is a lost soul in an environment that is both aesthetically and emotionally noirish. In Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine", Lee Shin-ae is a young widow whose son is kidnapped and murdered. The movie is overlong and half-baked, but Lee is terrific as a lost soul grabbing onto straws, whether it be a lover or evangelicalism, to keep facing life.
The most cosmic of the existential narratives is Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's sublime "Silent Light", about a Mennonite father and husband who commits adultery- a cardinal sin in that austere, hermetic religious community. Reygadas shot the film in 'scope, and his non-professional actors, all Mennonites, pose against the vast openness of Chihuahua. As telegraphed by the opening segment, an incredible tracking shot from the star-filled heavens down to the ground and right into the man's kitchen, the story captures the confused hero's struggle between his earthly desires and his spiritual needs. It also sets the stage for a Dreyerian miracle late in the movie that flaunts the realism inherent in the camera lens and convinces us of its possibility.
More socio-political than existential are two of the best films, which, like a majority of those discussed here, were first presented at Cannes. Christian Mungiu's impressive "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days", from Romania, is spare, with long takes and much of the dramatic events taking place off-screen. During Ceaucescu's dictatorship, when abortion was illegal, a dorm resident (the talented Anamaria Marinca) takes her pregnant pal for an illegal abortion in a shabby hotel. (All of the settings are depressing: This is Romania in 1987.) The plot is uncomplicated: The abortionist insists on sex for payment, the friend has a tiff with her boyfriend while the other one expels the fetus all alone. The beauty is in the technique, although I don't understand why Mungiu goes against his otherwise consistent m.o. and shoots a baby-like fetus. It almost turns the film into a pro-life tract.
The other: Russian master Alexander Sokurov's "Alexandra", arguably the greatest of all. Opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya plays the eponymous elderly Russian babushka who shleps to a makeshift military compound in occupied Chechnya to visit her grandson. Difficult to please, horrified by her own nation's capacity for violence, and completely fearless, she wanders into the nearby Chechen town, much to the chagrin of the soldiers, befriends a local woman, visits her apartment, and shares universal stories over a cup of tea. In a soon-to-be-classic, three-handkerchief sequence of humanist cinema, the Chechen woman's friends see Alexandra off at the train station.
"Alexandra" was shot in Chechnya; the train its heroine travels on is decrepit, the real McCoy - light years away from the one constructed for Wes Anderson so that the guys could horse around in a controlled environment. Variety may be the spice of life, but the chasm here is way too deep. Consolation is in knowing that the apple will survive the test of time, the orange sink into (profit-making) oblivion.