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NYFF '09 Notebook: "What's wrong with a little elitism?"

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire October 1, 2009 at 3:29AM

"Elitist bullshit" yelled an audience member at the New York Film Festival on Tuesday night. "What's wrong with a little elitism," countered another inside Alice Tully Hall, site of the 47th New York Film Festival. Members of the typically reserved Lincoln Center crowd were stirred by Don Argott's "The Art of the Steal," among the latest of festival titles to rile some moviegoers here. There are more to come.
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"Elitist bullshit" yelled an audience member at the New York Film Festival on Tuesday night. "What's wrong with a little elitism," countered another inside Alice Tully Hall, site of the 47th New York Film Festival. Members of the typically reserved Lincoln Center crowd were stirred by Don Argott's "The Art of the Steal," among the latest of festival titles to rile some moviegoers here. There are more to come.

Argott's doc, a slickly constructed look at the Pennsylvania battle to move The Barnes Foundation, a rich man's multi-billion dollar private art collection, from the outskirts of the city to downtown Philadelphia, stirred passions from both sides of the issue. Those against the move stumped for support in the bustling Alice Tully lobby, distributing leaflets and buttons, while Barnes board members apparently sat in the audience, paving the way for a rambunctious Q & A that moderator (and festival progamming committee member) Dennis Lim successfully struggled to keep under control.

If art is collected by the rich and privileged who then control how, when, and where that work can be experienced, is that elitist? Does the commodification and marketing of art to a mass audience lessen its value and draw lazy consumers who don't truly value the work anyway? These are just two of the underlying questions that seemed to stir passionate Lincoln Center moviegoers on earlier this week. And they are issues of prime relevance during a New York Film Festival that seems just fine being called "elitist" every now and then.

Situated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the New York Film Festival is unlike most other fests in that it's actually more of a nightly showcase. A pair of evening screenings cater mostly to upscale types who can afford the $20 tickets. Over the years it's earned the reputation of being an event more for insiders than the everyday New Yorker. Its annual lineup of typically challenging international cinema can narrow its appeal even more. That said, as a contrast to other big city fests that try to offer "something for everyone" (Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles, Tribeca), the NYFF has traded on its elite label even if that turns off some moviegoers once in awhile. And, there are some signs of change as new leadership try to open the event up to more people.

The ongoing annual debate about the fest's roster kicked up on Friday night in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall as patrons spilled out into a more modest opening night party, relocated to the new site this year after a long run at nearby Tavern on the Green. Alain Resnais' "Wild Grass," from this year's Cannes Film Festival, was considered by some to be an unlikely choice to kick-of this year's festival given that it debuted months ago. During the party, the beautiful new film from the French master was praised by some and mocked by others. Even so, it marked an exciting moment for a lot of cinephiles, celebrating Resnais fifty years after the launch of a French New Wave that paved the way for the New York Film Festival.

Mara Manus and Richard Pena at an IFC Films party earlier this week for "The Art of the Steal." Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

In a terrific year for new international cinema, when so many New York Film Festival films are bound to polarize some event attendees, Resnais' latest was such a fitting choice to open the fest. The fest's reconfigured selection committee -- this year comprised of Film Society progamming head Richard Pena and critics Melissa Anderson, Scott Foundas, J Hoberman and Dennis Lim -- is refreshingly serving up something to challenge, or a least provoke, mainstream sensibilities every single day of this seventeen day film event. But, for some reason a few festival attendees this year seem particularly at odds with specific fest selections.

Take for example, João Pedro Rodrigues's "To Die Like a Man." A row of older women near the back of frustratingly sparse Alice Tully Hall last night jeered at the beautifully challenging queer film. "Sacrilegious " exclaimed one woman, well into the movie, when an aging drag performer kneeled at the foot her bed to pray before going to sleep. "This is the worst movie I've ever seen," she gasped during the powerful movie's emotional climax, after also calling the film, "disgusting." Why the group stayed through a movie that bothered them so much, only to continue to disrupt guests with their commentary, remains a mystery.

Critics and bloggers have praised "To Die Like A Man" and many other NYFF titles, as is evidenced in indieWIRE's regularly updated survey of the entire film festival lineup.

Back on Saturday, Lisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor's "Sweetgrass" also tested the patience of some who seem to expect their big screen docs to be visually beautiful and structured with a three act narratve. A slow study of the last herding of sheep across the public lands of Montana, the film's low res video imagery broke down a bit on the massive Alice Tully Hall movie screen, but the impact of this close look of the lonely life of sheep herders and their flock was no less affecting. The unconventional doc is set for a Film Forum run early next year, with a distributor pursuing the movie for a theatrical release beyond New York City.

Another pensive new documentary, Zhao Dayong's "Ghost Town," was greeted with a Sunday New York Times feature about its outsider status. Independent filmmaking is illegal in China where movies must be approved by the government ahead of production. While looking for a location to shoot a narrative feature, Zhao Dayong found a fading rural town that became the subject for his deliberate, three-hour examination of contemporary life. It's another unlikely doc that drew tremendous acclaim, even as some called it "too long" or "too slow." Zhao Dayong's self-described subjective look at impoverished local life hit home when the filmmaker said that the scenes on screen were close to his own personal living situation.

"Ghost Town" director Zhao Dayong with Karen Chien from dGenerate Films. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

"We anticipate the day when we can screen indepedent documentaries for such a conscientious audience in China," "Ghost Town" producer David Bandurski said, at a post-screening NYFF Q & A. During an after-party in Hells Kitchen later, he and Zhao Dayong spoke of plans to continue making more movies together, outside the system.

Other films have proven equally provocative, but no less satisfying, here at the New York Film Festival. A pair of apparently frequent NYFF attendees moved up to sit in a closer row inside Alice Tully Hall for screenings of both Sabu's "Kanikosen" on Sunday and Corneliu Porumboiu's "Police, Adjective" on Monday. Reacting rather boisterously to the films for a bit -- laughing and talking -- the two middle-aged women quickly tired of each movie and walked out at about the forty-five minute mark. But, many others went along of the ride and seemed to leave quite satisfied.

Porumboiu's long observational scenes -- of a young couple listening to and chatting about a YouTube rendition of a love song or a secretary typing as a police detective waits for a meeting -- clearly tried the patience of some, but tickled numerous others. One audience member awkwardly questioned the exciting new Romanian filmmaker about his observational filmmaking style, only to stir a round of mocking laughter from some in this year's clearly tough NYFF audience.

"Proudly, at times lazily, this is a festival that always demands discrimination from its audience, A sense of adventure, even as it also relies on no small amount of brand loyalty," New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote about the festival two years ago.

If in fact the New York Film Festival itself (and its audience) is elitist, it seems to wear that term as a badge of honor. "We've been accused of being demanding, inflexible and insanely selective," the Film Society of Lincoln Center proclaimed in a trailer promoting the event three years ago, "Remarkably, like our audience."

Inside the lobby at Alice Tully Hall. Photo by indieWIRE

New films from Harmony Korine ("Trash Humpers"), Lars von Trier ("Antichrist"), Bruno Dumont ("Hadewijch"), Todd Solondz ("Life During Wartime") and Michael Haneke ("The White Ribbon") are among the fest films that will both preach to the choir and test moviegoer tolerance over the next week here at Lincoln Center. In fact, if anyone expected that the recent change in leadership atop the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- that saw the departure of numerous stalwart staffers -- would water down festival programming, those fears seem to have been put to rest.

"On one hand, I'm happy that this might allay any concerns that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is selling out," Movieline's Stu Van Airsdale told indieWIRE recently, when polled along with a number of other bloggers and critics about this year's lineup. "On the other," he continued, "I don't foresee half of these films *literally* selling out."

Certainly the nearly 1100 seat Alice Tully Hall has seen its share of empty seats for many NYFF screenings, but showings of movies by the aforementioned provocateurs (Korine, Dumont, von Trier, etc.) have been hot tickets and those film should play to crowded houses. Additionally, in the wake of a recent staff shake-up at the Film Society, executive director Mara Manus and Pena also unveiled new ticketing procedures this year, including $10 rush tickets that let folks get into the theater for half price.

Even as the Film Society of Lincoln Center unveiled this 2009 lineup that would challenge its patrons, Manus told indieWIRE last month that she was aimed at making the festival feasible for more moviegoers. The movies may be tough, but it should be easier to get into the event. "I was hired to grow the organization," Manus explained at the time, noting that her goal is, "to provide greater access" to the festival and the Film Society's year-round programming. Her comments would reflect some of those core issues about art that came up during Tuesday night's NYFF screening of "The Art of the Steal."

The Film Society of Lincoln Center survived considerable change over the past year and still seems to be solidly engaging finicky crowds and continuing a reputation for showcasing arty, often quite challenging new cinema.

"This is just like what's happening at the Film Society," charged an outspoken NYFF attendee on Tuesday night during another outburst at the aforementioned "Art of the Steal" Q & A session. The vocal festival patron was trying to draw a link between the battle for control of art in Pennsylvania with the change in leadership at Lincoln Center, not realizing that Film Society programming chief Richard Pena was seated right nearby.

Later, over drinks at an IFC Films party celebrating the new movie, Pena related the story to Film Society head Mara Manus, responding, "What? We're moving to Philadelphia?"

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch