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NYFF '08 | Politics and Cantet on Opening Night; Film Criticism in Focus; and McQueen's "Hunger"

By Indiewire | Indiewire September 28, 2008 at 8:49AM

It's hardly a surprise that the U.S. presidential race was a hot topic on Friday night as the New York Film Festival kicked off in Manhattan with its traditional bash. With fewer than 40 days before the American general election, the opening night screening of Laurent Cantet's "The Class" took place at the same time as the first televised debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Heavy mist dampened the post-screening party at Tavern on the Green in Central Park where guests seemed torn between talking about the opening night film, winner of this year's Palme d'Or in Cannes, and the evening's debate. Reactions to both seemed about the same: somewhat mixed. Although enthusiasm for both the film and Barack Obama's performance was considerable among those informally polled throughout the night - though the crowd were most likely not a typical cross-section of America's political spectrum.
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It's hardly a surprise that the U.S. presidential race was a hot topic on Friday night as the New York Film Festival kicked off in Manhattan with its traditional bash. With fewer than 40 days before the American general election, the opening night screening of Laurent Cantet's "The Class" took place at the same time as the first televised debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Heavy mist dampened the post-screening party at Tavern on the Green in Central Park where guests seemed torn between talking about the opening night film, winner of this year's Palme d'Or in Cannes, and the evening's debate. Reactions to both seemed about the same: somewhat mixed. Although enthusiasm for both the film and Barack Obama's performance was considerable among those informally polled throughout the night - though the crowd were most likely not a typical cross-section of America's political spectrum.

The weather made for an especially crowded Tavern atrium, jammed with reserved round tables adornred with candelabras. Cantet worked the glass room with producers Caroline Benjo and Carole Scott, greeting well-wishers. Chatting with indieWIRE he saluted the kids in his new film, excited to be experiencing the gala event through their eyes and adding that he was particularly happy with the warmth that he, the kids and his film, were received on opening night.

The movie was also greeted with positive critical notices on Friday. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised it as artful and intelligent saying that the film is "as much an emotional experience as a head trip." Reviewing the film for indieWIRE, Reverse Shot's Leo Goldsmith honored the naturalism of "The Class" noting, "Cantet's film renders the erratic whims of a roomful of teenagers in a manner that is as gripping in its drama as its image of reality is patient and vivid." Both critics singled out the work of Francois Begaudeau, the former high school teacher, film critic, and author of the book upon which the movie is based, who also co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the movie.

"With his fashion sense and low-key good looks, Begaudeau could easily be mistaken for any number of French leading men," noted critic Goldsmith, "But in his role as middle-school teacher Francois, he seamlessly portrays a fictionalized version of himself. His performance is therefore notable because it is so unnoticeable, and fully in keeping with the film's tone without the slightest hint of amateurism." [Eugene Hernandez]

Critical Voices

While the range of film criticism available from a variety of outlets is stronger than ever these days, the economics of criticism is gravely challenged, agreed a number panelists on Saturday afternoon at the New York Film Festival. One audience member declared that film criticism is in an intellectual heydey and no one seemed to dispute that. But, paralleling the situation on Wall St. and with U.S. banks, critics also seem to need an economic bailout to save some of the cornerstone publications that create and support international film writing. Or perhaps the role of the critic needs to change dramatically.

At the New York Film Festival yesterday (left to right): Pascual Espiritu, Emmanuel Burdeau and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Emmanuel Burdeau from Cahiers du cinema spoke rather ominously about the financial prospects for the venerable French journal. "This crisis is both economical and an editorial crisis at the same time," he explained, detailing the losses incurred by his publication at a time with its readership is dwindling, advocating a militant shift, transforming film critics into film distributors who release and advocate for quality cinema, ensuring that the world's best filmmakers have access to international audiences who now have more and more ways to see their films.

During the discussion, particpants spoke often about fostering a broader community of connected critics and audiences, and the growing needs for critics to serve as curators for viewers. All of this can be facilitated through the modern interconnectedness of writers and moviegoers alike.

"I started out as a film critic in New York, Paris and London and at that time you had to live in a city like that if you were going to learn about the history of cinema," explained Jonathan Rosenbaum, former film critic for the Chicago Reader. "Today, you can learn about the history of the cinema anywhere in the world virtually. Some of the most sophisticated film venues exist in places like rural Argentina and some of the most sophisticated film viewers I know live in the middle of nowhere." Prasing outlets such as panelist David Hudson's Greencine Daily, which offers a deep round-up of links to the latest international cinema news and reviews.

"What I do find is that even though there is more of everything on the Internet, which makes it very confusing, I find that I am constantly meeting people in their 20s who know much more about film than I possibly could have in my 20s," Jonathan Rosenbaum explained, "So I cant think its either the end or the beginning of anything, its that we are right in the middle of a lot of very big changes in which we're using old definitions for new things that are going on. So there's a lot of confusion."

Wisely, participants in Saturday's Lincoln Center session abandoned talk of a tension between online and print criticism. "That's an arguement that's really finished, its over and done with," Film Comment's Gavin Smith noted at the start of the sessoin, "I feel we are all in it together." Others on the dais included Jessica Winter from O magazine, Pascual Espiritu from Strictly Film School, Kent Jones from The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment, and Seung-hoon Jeong, formerly of the Korean weekly, Cine 21.

"All of these things are different versions of big changes," Rosenbaum explained in lengthy opening remarks, "They are changes which even relate to whether the future of cinema is in theaters or not, because there are some arguements that maybe its not. And that changes the notions of community and notions of audience." [Eugene Hernandez]

"Hunger"

"It was one of those moments that just sticks in your head," director Steve McQueen said of his earliest recollection of IRA member Bobby Sands, the subject of his film, "Hunger." When he was eleven years old, McQueen was watching the news with his parents. "What happened was there was an image of this guy on the TV screen - a photograph. Underneath the image was a number and every night that number would increase. Slowly I found the reason this was going on was that this person stopped eating. And this image just got louder, resonating with me."

Michael Fassbender in a scene from Steve McQueen's "Hunger." Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

"Hunger" dramatizes Sands' story, in which he led the 1981 Irish hunger strike and participated in the "no wash protest," whereby incarcerated Irish Republican members would be recognized as 'political prisoners.' The film follows events in Northern Ireland's Maze prison in the six weeks prior to Sands' death, including his rapid deterioration. The film took the Camera d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and is making its Big Apple debut at this week's New York Film Festival after exceptionally well-received screenings in Telluride and Toronto.

At a press conference in New York this past Thursday, McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning visual artist who had spent years working with film and video based installations, discussed why he felt a move to the cinematic medium was essential to tell Sands' story.

"The narrative was very important for me with this piece," he said. "What interests me is that everyone from Papua New Guinea to Alaska to Nicaragua knows a story - can tell you a story - but not everyone has been steeped in the idea of Western art. And that really interested me in making feature films - language and story that can actually translate and transcend."

One aspect of making films that McQueen was skeptical about was working with actors. "I used think actors [are] over-bred racehorses. A bit tempermental, a bit too much actually."

But then he observed, "I found out through the process that actors are sorts of people that can actually translate humanity and what they have to do in order to do that is quite remarkable."

McQueen said his method of working with the actors was "just a case of conversation" and "getting our minds back to the early '80s."

"I go back to smell," he said. "I always associate the early '80s with a certain kind of smell - like a British Sunday. Where everything was closed and it was miserable. It was awful. And I had that kind of idea of the early '80s... So going back to that time with the actors, discussing, talking and actually rehearsing - rehearsing, rehearsing... It wasn't a case of acting. It was a case of 'being.' And that is what I wanted. I wanted the actor to almost be like a sphere which you roll 'this way' or 'that way' and wherever you roll it, it's perfect... And with actors I get the impression that some directors aren't necessarily honest with them. For me, it was a case of if you're honest with them, they go as far as you and try to go further."

One example of McQueen's claim can certainly be suggested in the performance of Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands. Losing 35 pounds for the role, Fassbender's remarkably inhabits the role physically and emotionally. Still, McQueen wasn't initially sold on Fassbender.

"When we did auditions, Michael came in and I wasn't hot on him at first," McQueen reflected. "Again, it was my first time seeing actors walk in the door and doing their stuff. It's difficult at first to get in that mode... But the main thing with Michael was that I got to talk with him. And when I got to talk to him I thought, 'Yes, this is the guy. We can actually work together.' And his commitment to the process of the fasting was very straightforward. He knew he had to do it. It was part of the piece.. I mean, the film's called 'Hunger.'" [Peter Knegt]

Get the latest coverage of the 2008 New York Film Festival in indieWIRE's special New York section.

This article is related to: New York, Festival Dispatch





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