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Up in the Basement

Up in the Basement

Many people consider the idea of getting paid to watch movies a laughable luxury, the prospect of attending daytime screenings a dream job as compared to showing up at an office. So what about the notion of seeing 70 films in two weeks, beginning at 9 in the morning and finishing up at 7 p.m. or later? Because that’s what five of us did between July 26 and August 6 to select the 28 features to be shown at the New York Film Festival beginning September 24.

In fact, we started our work back in May at the Cannes Film Festival, which ended up supplying 13 of our eventual titles. One weekend in June, I joined longtime festival program director Richard Peña and my fellow critic colleagues Melissa Anderson, Scott Foundas and Dennis Lim for a weekend bulging with eight prospective entries, and we all caught some screenings or had DVDs of other prospects to watch before convening for the heavy lifting late last month.

This is my first time on the committee — I replaced the departing Jim Hoberman — and it was an invitation I accepted enthusiastically, having long been curious about the process. Because various friends, including Scott, John Powers, David Ansen and other critics, had been selectors in the past, I had heard stories about films turned off after five minutes, movies running together in people’s minds and the general state of ocular and mental bleariness that sets in after such a grueling regimen. To offset this, I promised myself I’d work out everyday, treat myself to some nice evenings and otherwise try to live some semblance of a balanced life.

Hahaha, as Hong Sang-soo might say. Not only was anything resembling real life obliterated, but the idea of maintaining this blog during my spell in the basement became purest fantasy; after 10 or more hours of movies daily, it was inconceivable to imagine charging off to any new ones in a remotely receptive frame of mind, and even less so to summon the energy or find the time to write about them afterward, hence my silence since the last week of July.

After all we’ve seen, there is certainly much to write about, but that will have to wait, as our opinions of everything that passed before our eyes during the selection screenings are naturally quarantined for now. What I can say is that I believe it’s quite a strong program this year. Any festival that can boast of at least four authentically great films on the bill has something going for it and I feel that’s the case due to Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Le Quattro Volte,” both from Cannes, and two new ones you’ll have to wonder about.

There are also three or four entries I’m not wild about — those who read my Cannes dispatches will likely recall my feelings about Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme.” But, I could scarcely argue that there won’t be a significant audience in New York passionate to see Godard’s latest head-scratcher.

If I were running a film festival that involved a committee, I’m sure I would be sorely tempted to exercise a little droit de seigneur, the right to impose two or three or four films I strongly felt should be on the program, no matter what anyone else thought. But Richard Pena doesn’t operate that way. He prefers a consensus, if such a thing is possible within a group of people with strong and informed opinions. There were numerous cases in which all five of us agreed (much more often on a films worthlessness than on its quality), but quite a few more where it was four to one or three to two. Sometimes, of course, we were mixed or positive with reservations, and we would generally put these titles on a back burner for further consideration, once we’d seen what else was out there; you don’t want to book your festival so completely that there’s no room for entries viewed on the final day.

In this department, the gorilla in the room was Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” As late as early May, the reclusive auteur’s incipient effort was still awaited as a possible last-minute entry at Cannes. After its non-appearance there, it was considered a sure thing for the Venice-Toronto-New York circuit. We got excited when we learned it wouldn’t make those first two fall-season festivals but would almost certainly be ready for us in New York, which allowed us to dare to dream of the most brilliant closing night attraction ever.

All through our recent two weeks in the dark, we received periodic updates and tentative promises about the imminent arrival of the film for us to view; even well into the second week we were still being thus tantalized. Finally, of course, came word that Malick was still not done and it now seems clear the picture will not be opening this year. I can’t prove it, of course, and he’s supposedly set to start shooting a new film in Oklahoma in October, but I’m convinced we won’t be seeing “The Tree of Life” until, at the earliest, the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Or perhaps it could turn up at the New York Film Festival a year from now.

Our daily m.o. consisted of gathering at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, where dozens of teenage dance students would stream by into the adjacent Juilliard School every morning and where Richard always had a breakfast spread and strong coffee waiting. We’d rarely know the bill of fare in advance, with the exception of a few specialty distributor films which were hand-delivered and then instantly returned to their sources. We all had a pretty good idea of many of the dozens of films we were going to need to sample, but Richard liked to surprise us and keep us off balance to an extent, mixing highly anticipated hot titles with films by directors no one had ever heard of.

It was amusing how we distributed ourselves around the 290-seat theater; practically from the first day, we found seats we claimed as our own, not so far apart that we couldn’t hear one another if there were jokes to crack or anything important to be said, but still at discreet distances from one another. A few films turned up in finished 35mm prints, but the vast majority were on DVD or some digital format.

After several hours interrupted only by a brief run for midday sandwiches, we were normally obliged to cede the Walter Reade to the paying public (a Ken Russell season was unspooling through most of our fortnight there and it was bracing to see the old rascal himself in the outer lobby one afternoon waiting to make a personal appearance). Our daily marathon then continued in Film Society offices upstairs, specifically in a cramped storage room piled with DVDs and graced with a home-sized monitor.

With so many films to get through, there is simply no way a selection committee at any film festival is going to slog through every submission in its entirety (the New York crew may suffer more than most since the festival charges no submission fee for aspiring entrants). At a certain point with many films, you have to admit that enough is enough. The tricky part is deciding when that is. Certain previous committee members were notorious for their quick trigger fingers which could shoot an unpromising film down within minutes. Jonathan Rosenbaum recalled to me recently his bafflement in Cannes decades ago when the entire New York Film Festival selection committee under then-director Richard Roud, sitting together, would often get up and walk out en masse during screenings; how was it, Jonathan wondered, that these people shared not only identical tastes but also the same precise limits to their tolerance?

Some films indisputably announce their mediocrity from the outset and instantly demand to be put out of their misery. My general inclination, however, is to give a film a little time; not everything is designed to grab you by the collar and show its hand at the outset. Through the first 10 or 15 minutes of most films, I was slightly on edge that someone would state a desire to move on before I was ready to call a halt. Two or three times with work by esteemed directors who had earned sufficient respect, I asked if we could agree beforehand to watch their films all the way through regardless, just so I wouldn’t have to worry about the boom being lowered.

Almost invariably, however, when a film was formidable enough to be a contender, there were no midstream demurrals, even from committee members who might not “like” it; strong directorial command over storytelling, visuals, mood, emotion and theme are usually hard to miss, even if something isn’t your particular cup of tea, which made the final determination of our lineup surprisingly easy and unacrimonious, given how spirited some of our post-screening discussions and disagreements had been. Richard showed a deft hand at sorting out our respective preferences to shape an overall program that’s serious and artistically formidable but also balanced between films that are demanding (several entries this year are very long indeed) and engagingly accessible. In the end, there’s only one film in the lineup I could easily live without and one film I dearly wish had gotten in — and you can keep guessing what those are too.

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