NYFF Revels in Backlash Against the Backlash; Gus on "Elephant"; and a Wondrous "Young Adam"
by Brandon Judell
Graham Leggat is happy. If he's happy, we should be, too. As the debonair director of communications for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, besides supplying a classy exterior for the organization, he's also is its thermometer, and he's hitting a comfortable mid-70s this week.
"Everything's going smoothly," he shared at the Walter Reade Theater on Tuesday afternoon just after the "Elephant" press conference. "From opening night with a terrific studio to work with (Warner Brothers) and a film ("Mystic River") that seemed to float a great many boats," he continued. "It was a terrific opening weekend, too, with varied offerings from 'Piccadilly' to the Ozu retrospective to Nicole Kidman in 'Dogville' and two or three other sorts of supporting cast films as it were. This week some premieres dot the landscape. I feel very comfortable this year, and there's no real way for me to explain it except that it does seem like we're getting better than usual results from, not a minimum of effort...but we don't seem have to work really hard to inflate the balloon of the Festival. It seems to be already in the air."
But this ease has a lot to do with the NYFF being a landmark fest. Does being an institution ever have its downside?
"Definitely," Graham notes with grace. "Last year and perhaps the year before when Tribeca first came on the scene, a lot of people took potshots at the Festival. 'It's old.' 'It's out of date.' 'It's dull.' 'It hasn't changed in 40 odd years, and Tribeca's the new game in town, etc. etc.' This year, though we don't seem to be doing anything vastly different from what we've ever done, suddenly everyone's gilding the lily of the Festival. 'The white-hot New York Film Festival.' 'The New York Film Festival's terrific offerings.' There seems to have been a backlash against the backlash," he says with a laugh.
But what about the lack of directors showing up this year? At least 15 films are unspooling without their helmers to introduce them. "It's true," Leggat admits. "The only political issue this year is Jafar Panahi ("Crimson Gold") who'd been treated poorly by the authorities previously...needlessly poorly. He did not want to subject himself to the same humiliations. Beyond that, it seems in all cases to simply be that the directors are working hard. They have money for new films. So we're disappointed but it seems to be just the throw of a dice."
But as it was previously noted Gus Van Sant did show up with members of his pachyderm crew: executive producer Bill Robinson ("The First Wives Club"); director of photography Harris Savides, ASC ("The Yards"); and producer Dany Wolf ("Psycho").
For someone who has a fun reputation and hangs around with Harmony Korine, Van Sant was pretty dour at the conference as were his pals. Maybe it's the subject matter of "Elephant": high school kids gunning down other high school kids a la Columbine.
The film, which I must admit improves greatly on a second viewing is a meditation on teen life and how it can easily go awry thanks to institutional indifference, dysfunctional parenting, natural adolescent cruelty, the availability of documentaries on the Nazis, and a lack of gun control in our society. Majestically shot by Savides and wisely edited and directed by Van Sant, "Elephant" benefits greatly from its mainly unprofessional cast. But the question is will the film that's been embraced by both Europeans and Cannes (Palm d'Or and best director Awards) find an equally rapturous welcome on its home shores?
Van Sant replied, "I always thought that the international audience, maybe inspired by action films and westerns, liked to see Americans shoot each other. I think more so because of the style of 'Elephant,' it would be perhaps easier to take in Europe than in the United States."
Harris was then asked whether his background making slick music videos (e.g. Madonna's "Rain") influences his film work? "I'm very conscious of that," he admitted, "and I try not to bring any of those tenets into the work I do, especially in a piece like this that wants to be very natural and real. I try to be very careful not to use very stylized lighting."
Then Van Sant was asked about the controversial same-sex-in-the-shower kiss between the two teen killers. Was it meant to be gay?
Gus replied, "That was a way to explain the boys' intimacy. It's not supposed that they are gay kids or that they have ever kissed each other before. But they're going some place where they're not going to return, and things don't really matter any more. So this particular moment comes up, and one guy had never kissed anybody. It was a spontaneous thing that I think just came up to imaginatively to describe something that I thought could be within their world. Just an incident that might be within their world."
Playing with "Elephant" this Friday and Saturday is Annemarie Jacir's 17-minute short, the irresponsible pseudo-documentary "Like Twenty Impossibles." It tells of an Arab-American woman returning to the West Bank to a make a film with Arab actors. Stopped at roadblocks and harassed on a side road by Israeli soldiers, the unevenly acted flick feels so lopsided and dogmatic that it only preaches to the converted. Half a dozen offerings at this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival handled the same subject matter with more insight and balance, especially "Ford Transit," the phenomenal documentary by Hany Abu-Assad.
Tonight, though, you can run and see Claude Chabrol's 50th effort, "The Flower of Evil," not an especially blooming effort to say the least. This supposed black comedy tells of two families who have over the decades married, and intermarried, and killed each other off. Limp and dissatisfying, it's basically for only hard-core Francophiles. (To be honest, the anti-American chatter and pro-smoking chatter early on is a bit endearing but it only goes so far.)
David Mackenzie's "Young Adam" is another story altogether. And although some might find the last 20 or so minutes less than fulfilling and the film's flashback structure unintegrated into a pleasing whole, the acting here is wondrous. Ewan McGregor is Joe, an author with writer's block, who is working on a barge owned by the very married Ella (Tilda Swinton). The duo, attacked by uncontrollable lust, decide to have an affair under the nose of Ella's oft-drunken spouse Les (Peter Mullan). Add a dead woman's body floating in a river, and you have a carnal mystery. Based on the underground novel by Alexander Trocchi, this one might just have legs. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in 2004.
Other film's of note to see this weekend include Errol Morris' "The Fog of War," Ross McElwee's "Bright Leaves," and Barbara Albert's "Free Radicals."