A long week of screenings, the Opening Night Party at the NYFF, and work to get things rolling for the Sarasota Film Festival, and somehow, I have had very little time to blog (yes, I know, it’s the hard knock life…). Today, I took the day off from screenings (my first since September 8th!) and got all caught up. For what they are worth, here are my thoughts on recent NYFF screenings. Let?s get down to business! Oh, and spoilers abound. Proceed at your own (relatively risk-free) risk.
L’Enfant by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Critics are reaching for thesauruses in order to find the new adjectives to praise this year’s Palm D’Or winner, but a thorough inspection of the latest film by the Dardennes shows a significant twist in their award winning, social realist formula. For this first time I can remember in their films, they present a protagonist so unlikable that, by challenging the audience with the task of following his efforts to rectify his great mistake, the story creates almost no sense of empathy. Whereas characters like Rosetta (in Rosetta, their masterpiece) and Olivier (in The Son) are struggling against the weight of incredible loss and injustice, L’Enfant‘s Bruno is the victimizer; a listless single father who decides the best way to financial independence is to sell his new-born son on the black market while his girlfriend (and the baby’s mother) is absent.
The act of selling one’s own baby for cash while using said money to buy tacky euro-trash leather jackets and living on the streets is, I guess, one way to expose the complete buy-in by the poor into consumerist model of happiness; it’s better to look good than be good. Just ask Breathless‘s protagonist Michel Poiccard (upon whom the Bruno character seems based- just look at that hat!). But what this approach does not do is engender good-will or interest in the audience, and this would be fine in the hands of almost any other filmmaker because we would probably be given psychological insight, time with other characters, and the distance to contextualize the crime. But this is a Dardenne Brothers film, and once we meet Bruno, we’re stuck with him for the full 100 minutes as the camera tracks his attempts to undo his terrible crime. This is at once compelling (thanks to a great performance by Jámie Renier) but also incredibly frustrating, because Bruno is a character who will never know the depths of his wrongdoing until the bitter (and I mean bitter) end. It doesn’t help that his punishment comes in response to another (albeit related) crime, because it takes a terrible price for Bruno to comprehend the depth of what he has done when, to every other sane person in the world, the horror of his actions are obvious from the start. This reduces L’Enfant to an experience equivocal with watching an adolescent learn his lesson the hard way, and despite the incredible style and artistry on display which we almost (and should not) take for granted in a Dardennes film, it is Bruno’s character that keeps complete emersion and empathy at a cold distance.
Havin’ My Baby: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L’Enfant
Methadonia by Michel Negroponte and Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes by Avi Mograbi
Let’s take these two documentaries separately and briefly;
This documentary is a fine example of the form and is an excellent addition to HBO’s series America Undercover, but the film is an unexceptional look at the impact of methadone on heroin addicts in recovery, and as such, tells a humane, interesting story about the struggles of heroin recovery and the use of ‘benzos’ in combination with methadone to create a heroin-like high. It also features some annoying techniques, like the oft-repeated choice to use slow motion and drop out the sound to emulate a drug-induced ‘nod-off’. But despite a New York City locale as justification, and the festival’s strong relationship with HBO Films (they are a sponsor and produced the Film Society trailer), the film is nowhere near the cream of the non-fiction crop this year.
High There: Michel Negroponte’s Methadonia
Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes
Avi Mograbi’s documentary about the historical relationship between Judaism and the suicide bombings that constantly rock Israeli society is interesting in so much as it makes an interesting case. Mograbi argues that Judaism itself celebrates two suicide-homicides as heroism; Samson’s murder-suicide in the Philistine temple and the mass suicide at the Jewish fortress of Massada. Interspersed with Israelis discussing the importance and heroism of Jewish legends who, when faced with hopeless odds and the proposition of enslavement, chose suicide/murder, the film cuts to scenes of Israeli checkpoints and the inconsistent, inept domestic system of dealing with the Palestinian question. Mograbi proposes that there is a historical key for Jews to empathize with the Palestinian struggle; Israel itself is built on a similar struggle. This is news to no one, but the film does present a compelling look at the enormous blind spots that any conflict seems to generate.
I will go on record and say what no one else seems to want to say out loud; these two films have absolutely no place in the line-up of the New York Film Festival. Sad, but true. As is well known, the NYFF Selection Committee is, much like the one in Cannes, notoriously conservative about including documentary films in the festival. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise the level of scrutiny about the docs that do make it in. I don’t mean to complain too strongly, but I simply can’t imagine why these two films are in and films like Into Great Silence (which seems to fit more explicitly with past documentary choices like To Be and To Have) or Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder were not chosen. There are many, many excellent, revelatory non-fiction films that could certainly use the imprimatur of inclusion in the NYFF, and so it makes it all the more frustrating that a film like Methadonia, which airs next month on HBO, has been included. In addition, despite being a relatively new film that presents a provocative argument that might surprise the Upper East and West side denizens of Lincoln Center, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes is a decent film but is inferior in every way to similar films like Yoav Shamir’s Checkpoint. With the rise in popularity of the non-fiction form, and great festivals like Silverdocs, FullFrame and the like showcasing amazing doumentaries, the bar has been raised. At best, the NYFF risks losing its credibility as a programmer of non-fiction film (especially when compared to its fiction film excellence) and at worst, the festival risks becoming irrelevant to an important film movement. They have an excellent Avant-Garde program, why not upgrade the non-fiction offerings? As a Programmer, I understand the politics of inclusion and sponsorship, especially in such a tightly focused line-up, and films like Methadonia and Avenge But One of My Two Eyes would be fine selections in almost any other film festival, but in the highly-selective NYFF line-up, they feel wholly out of place. I promise a future post about the selection, as I have other gripes (Tsai Ming-liang, anyone?), but it is clear to me that the general excellence of the fiction program has not been equaled by the non-fiction selection.
Regular Lovers by Phillippe Garrell
There are movies you love when you see them, only to forget them soon after leaving the theater. Then there are the films you see, aren’t sure you like, but cannot get out of your mind for days. Such is the case with Phillipe Garrell’s absolutely anomalous love letter to the Paris revolution of 1968, Regular Lovers. Shot in black and white, using what seems to be 16mm film (the 4:3 ratio alone makes the film feel much older than it is), the film is the story of a young poet named François (played by Garrell’s son, Louis), his life in the midst of the drugged out youth movement, and his free-love affair with a young sculptor named Lilie (Clotilde Hesme). Interestingly, the film has been touted as a response to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and that film’s depiction of the build-up to the May ’68 revolt. I found the film to posses more commonality with The Dreamers than real difference; both films are cautionary tales about the emotional wreckage of free-love ideals. Regular Lovers, however, feels even more claustrophobic than even Bertolucci’s shut-in apartment; almost the entirety of the film’s three-hour running time is spent indoors (save for a stunning, pitch-black twenty minute sequence on the student barricades, illuminated only by firelight). The interiors in and of themselves are not a problem, but in addition to the cramped apartment where the characters spend their time, Garrell frames the majority of the film in languid close-ups; long takes of beautiful young faces smoking opium (there is a lot of drug use), talking to friends and lovers (rarely about politics), and simply hanging out. In fact, Regular Lovers may be the most focused documentation of hanging out ever committed to film.
Young Love: Louis Garrell and Clotilde Hesme in Philippe Garrell’s Regular Lovers
The most striking thing about the film is its style and its tone, both of which make the movie feel like it was pulled directly from a Parisian time capsule circa 1969. This is not to say that the style and tone are homage to the French New Wave, they are of it. Miraculously, the film feels like it is a document of the time it is representing, with Garrell utilizing the music, ideas, and cinematic temporality of that historical moment in place of the typical narrative, psychology, and conflicts to tell his story. As pure style, the film is huge success; there are several breathtaking sequences (a dance party, the night on the barricades, a police chase to the rooftops of Paris right out of Feuillade’s Les Vampires) and an overall unreal sense that the film is absolutely impossible; how can it exist? At the same time, all of this antiquated style also highlights the narrative deficiencies in the story. As a love story, the romance between François and Lilie brings no fireworks and their casual approach to free-love (and the fact that their tepid romance is underscored by Lilie’s constant declarations of her depth of feeling) lends no gravity to the proceedings. François and his wealthy, drugged out pals never articulate their outrage at the French system they seem so invested in bringing down; if their lifestyle, spent in a stoned stupor and full of half-assed rationalizations of their own privilege, are the cornerstones of May ’68 (which, I believe, is at the heart of Garrell’s critique), we’re all the better for their failure. The same problem is central to the film itself; it’s a beautiful trip to nowhere at all.
Manderlay by Lars Von Trier
Lars Von Trier is an asshole, but that’s what I like about him. Writing about Dogville, I was (and remain) impressed with its structured critique of the negative impact of American idealism on our own society and abroad. Two years on, watching his Dogville sequel Manderlay, I found myself laughing out loud at his provocations, but this time, the laughter hurt; this film is totally specious. Despite their glaring similarities, there are several reason why Manderlay fails where Dogville was a success. First and foremost, there is the character of Grace, originally played by Nicole Kidman and currently embodied in a game, if somewhat stagey, performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. In Dogville, the story was as much about the mystery of Grace’s character and her motivations as it was about her suffering at the hands of the cruel citizens of Dogville; we wanted to know who this woman was, who she was running from, and what her true story was. As an unknown quantity, Grace was the perfect vehicle for audience sympathy; it is only the late revelation of her own capacity for cruelty that turns the film on its head and exposes the underlying sadism in our social contract. In Manderlay, Grace is a known quantity; we know who she is and what she is capable of. However, when she decides to disembark from her family’s cross-country journey in order to re-arrange the power structure at an Alabama plantation (the titular Manderlay) still practicing slavery, she seems to have not only learned nothing from her Dogville experience, but her character completely (and without reason) changes. She is no longer Grace the good-hearted victim, but has somehow become Tom Edison, the idealistic heartbeat of Dogville’s sadistic social experiment. And so, setting the film’s utterly predictable plot machinations into motion, Grace embarks on the task of re-creating the exact social conditions she herself recently escaped from; conditions in which she was chained, raped, humiliated, and driven to murder. Maybe this is Von Trier’s point, that idealists are destined to repeat the cruelties they suffer, but if so, he spends far too much time on his completely inept and condescending view of American race relations to articulate any larger point.
Graceless: Willem Dafoe and Bryce Dallas Howard in Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay
The echoes of Dogville are frequent; here are the town meetings, the ‘lessons’ in democracy for the ignorant masses, the condemnations of ‘American’ ideals, the sexual idealization of the ‘other’ (Grace’s own racism in this case), the nearly-empty sound stage set with floor outlines. But where that film gave us Grace as an identification vehicle until its fourth act twist, Manderlay is without a compelling protagonist; it’s Dogville told from Tom’s point of view. Instead, we are left with Grace again, only this time, it is her ignorant, condescending approach to democracy and justice that Von Trier expects us to swallow. It is a huge failure; left as the mocking mouthpiece for the Director’s ideas about American racial attitudes, Grace loses all credeibility as a character. Let’s summarize, shall we? Black Americans are the victims of economic wage-slavery and the well-intentioned but condescendingly racist idealism of American whites. In the face of these injustices, the black community responds by lowering its own standards and preserving the ‘socialist’ ideals of slavery (whereby everyone is provided for instead of having to compete in an inherently unfair economic system) while needing a white ‘master’ against whom to lodge complaints, to be the final word on social justice and order. Yes, this is Manderlay‘s twist; the black community is responsible for its own enslavement, because hey, they’re stupid Americans too.
I said above that Lars Von Trier is an asshole and that this is one of his qualities I like best, but this time, he comes off like the white kid at the party who likes to drop the ‘N-bomb’ into conversations to prove his own identification with racial enlightenment; he comes off as just plain ludicrous. In this case, a Dane talking about slavery and domestic race relations in a nation he has never visited takes a huge toll on the plausibility of his story; its not just that he gets racism wrong, but unlike in Dogville, he gets American liberalism wrong as well. I don’t mind an open, honest discussion of race (in fact, I encourage it), but in an effort to provoke liberals, Von Trier’s dishonesty rears its ugly head. The real tragedy about race and class in America is not the disingenuous liberal desire to do good, but the historic and institutional entrenchment of attitudes and discrimination that manifests itself in a (now) seemingly benign way. Escalating the issue of race by evoking a bogusly constructed slavery metaphor, Manderlay undermines its own modernity by failing to show the true face of racism today; that smiling, ‘I’m-not-a-racist-but’ attitude that stands as as big a barrier to progress as neo-liberalism ever did. Lars needs a field-trip; without understanding this country, I fear that his legitimate arguments will be sabotaged by Grace’s phony pronouncements and strategies. Manderlay might just be laughed right out of the art house.