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Cinema Gotham Catches
The 41st Annual New York Film Festival
Cinema Gotham Braves the Red Carpet
Cinema Gotham Braves the Red Carpet
December 3, 2003 | The idea of covering this year’s New York Film Festival for Cinema Gotham and DVD Talk was an exciting, if daunting, prospect. I have never had much luck in securing tickets over the years – even though I have been a fairly regular member of the Film Society of Lincoln Center – so the very notion of being able to attend the films and subsequent press screenings with some of the more serious film fans and journalists in the world was certainly rousing.

The lineup - which featured many films already screened at Cannes, Venice and Toronto, including ones directed by Gus Van Sant (Elephant), Lars von Trier (Dogville), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Errol Morris (The Fog of War) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams) – was also promising in that it suggested a group of deeply polarizing films. This is, in my estimation, normally a good thing, though a quick composition of thoughts after such a roster of reportedly challenging films is not - to put it mildly - an easy task. With a steely resolve, I took the subway up to 66th Street and made my way to the check in, half wondering if the fine festival people had already realized the error in their ways in granting me a pass. After all, this would not be real until I had that lanyard around my neck with my glorious mug shot on the ID badge.

Film Coverage Note:
As a handy reader guide to my typically long-winded and wholly subjective coverage of five of the higher-profile films featured at the 41st New York Film Festival, I have decided to place the following remarks / caveats before discussing the films proper. Please make a courteous effort to recall them as you progress through this portion of the article.

1. The five films covered all require more than one viewing.
2. They let this guy into the press screenings?
3. Watching adults throw temper tantrums is very, very funny. In a sad sort of way.
4. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.”
5. They let this guy into the press screenings and they gave him free pastries and coffee?

Check in at the Walter Reade Theater was surprisingly straightforward, and the group of mostly volunteer assistants proved as helpful and cordial as one might imagine. Moreover, the morning screenings included coffee, breakfast treats and complimentary trade magazines, which were all greatly appreciated after waiting outside the theater. The lines for press, directors, and distributors turned out to be, in many ways, as interesting as the films themselves: some familiar faces from other festivals, recognizable critics from other periodicals, the downtown hip, the suburban square, and the flat-out strange.

The New York film crowd (if I dare label it such) is, in my experience, a deeply committed and extremely knowledgeable one. However, it is still not immune to cliques and overall curiosity, and I entertained myself by watching everyone trying to read each other’s badges and quickly size them up. Surprisingly, I overheard very little conversation about film itself on the lines as the days progressed, with the notable exception of arguments following Elephant and Dogville, in which the positions seemed to only be: a) von Trier, or b) Van Sant, is either a) a Genius, or b) a Hack.

For the most part, people on the lines tended to keep to themselves, reading, surveying Lincoln Center, and generally just hoping to get in. Many people ate with abandon, the smokers were often frowned upon, and most of us (between the eating and smoking) just checked out the program for the Ozu retrospective that was also taking place. Occasionally, someone with a limited access pass – which pretty much guaranteed admission, though it was not quite as swank in design or function as the full access pass – would become openly indignant about having to wait outside until the full access people were all admitted. (At such events in New York, it is useful to remember that everyone is important - just ask them). Watching presumably educated, erudite folks throw tantrums certainly has its own rewards, but after a half hour or so, all I really wanted to do was see a movie. Any movie.

Dogville

The first screening I attended was for Lars von Trier’s latest provocation Dogville. The word on Dogville was decidedly – and unsurprisingly – mixed. Even though I have been nonplused (The Idiots, The Kingdom), admiring (Breaking the Waves, The Element of Crime and Europa), and flat-out offended (Dancer in the Dark) by the Danish iconoclast, I was really looking forward to this one. Featuring a stellar cast including Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Philip Baker Hall, Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, etc., Dogville is set entirely on a stage-bound version of a small, seemingly benign town in Depression-era Colorado. Dogville initially seemed to a familiar revisiting of von Trier’s more current work involving unsympathetic communities and abused women, this time via Brecht.

No fun in Dogville tonight
No fun in Dogville tonight
Kidman works admirably, giving this ugly, borderline brilliant, borderline preposterous drama her all. (Given Kidman’s expressed admiration of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc – and von Trier’s penchant for throwing his heroines under the train – it seemed inevitable (in hindsight) that the two would eventually work together.) However, von Trier serves up this tale with a sucker punch ending that is remarkable in both its cynicism and sadistic glee. To call Dogville anti-American (as some Cannes critics opined) is to suffer from myopia: the misanthropy on display is too rampant and complete for such a pat dismissal. Dogville indicts the darker aspects of human nature in general rather than any corner of the world in particular. However, and true to form, von Trier provides enough facile finger-wagging to supply ample fodder for those disposed to crushingly obvious readings.

This inability to resist having it both ways leads to a curious coda: by the time David Bowie’s "Young Americans" appears over the closing credits, accompanied by Depression-era photographs, it seemed as though equal amounts of people were laughing in amazement at his sheer gall while others were moved to tears. I was ready to start throwing things at the screen (after three hours invested, the payoff leaves a sour, albeit somewhat mischievous taste), and all I recall thinking was “he did it again.” (Frankly, I am still not even sure what that means, although I will certainly catch the film again.) If von Trier had even half of Buñuel’s genuine wit, Dogville might have achieved something much more worthwhile.

There was no press conference following Dogville since von Trier refuses to fly, and Kidman – due at the Festival the following Saturday - was presumably otherwise engaged. This was regrettable, as I can only imagine the fireworks that could have flown at that one.

Mystic River

Next up was Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which had already generated very positive buzz at Cannes. I took my place on line very early for this one, as it was rumored that most of the stars - and director Eastwood - would be in attendance immediately following the film for the press conference. From its opening moments Mystic River grandly announces its über-seriousness, which I welcomed: my favorite Eastwood films are the ones in which he is completely invested (Bird, Unforgiven), and I was hoping for a return to form. For a film that simply gets so much right, including some excellent performances and a strong sense of place, it’s a shame that Eastwood’s own score and occasionally ham-fisted direction often compromise the proceedings.

Sean Penn, in particular, delivers a raw, momentous performance as an ex-hood suffering the loss of a child with vengeance in mind. (Some noted his performance is pitched at a completely different register than the rest of cast; to me, this makes absolute sense since his relationship to the deceased is qualitatively different than everyone else’s.) Rounding out the cast of imperfect friends still suffering the consequences of a childhood betrayal is Tim Robbins (generally good, though prone to mugging a bit) and Kevin Bacon (as the Eastwoodesque cop). Marcia Gay Harden delivers a nicely tuned performance as the increasingly suspicious wife of Robbins’ murder suspect, and Laurence Fishburne finally appears to be at ease, back home from Zion.

As the film ended and a respectful crowd applauded, the onslaught began. Teams of video press and photographers began swarming into the Walter Reade, and soon after Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Clint Eastwood, Marcia Gay Harden and Tim Robbins appeared, as did screenwriter Brian Helgeland and novelist Dennis Lehane. I have never been this close to this amount of paparazzi, and the sheer overwhelming insanity of the flashbulbs is amazing. It hurt my eyes from about twenty rows back, and I simply have no idea as to how celebrities could possibly get used to it. All were gracious and jovial, even Eastwood in his dismissal of a preposterous question as to whether or not this sober meditation on violence was an apology of sorts for the Dirty Harry series. (The reason I described the question as “preposterous” is because a) of course it is, as was Unforgiven; and 2) to ask a veteran, cagey director such a blatant question will not elicit a good answer. And it didn’t.) Robbins had to split early to tape Letterman, and the Q&A summarily wrapped up.

Hey, that’s fucking Sean Penn” - Mystic River
”Hey, that’s fucking Sean Penn
- Mystic River
As I entered the aisle to exit the Walter Reade my shoulder accidentally hit the person already moving up the aisle – to my amazement, it was Sean Penn, wearing a mustache and a black suit. We exited the theater together side by side. Though I kept my professional demeanor and nodded knowingly at him for a brief moment, the entire time I could not stop thinking “hey - that’s fucking Sean Penn.”

Lastly, as I stood outside the Walter Reade to check my voice mail, Clint Eastwood walked out and graciously greeted a few well wishers and Film Society higher-ups. I stood about fifteen or so feet away, noting how strong and elegant he still appears, and how genuinely happy he seemed to be.

All the while, Juilliard students walked past with instruments in tow, either consciously or unconsciously oblivious to it all.

Elephant

The next film I screened was also the most troublesome - Gus Van Sant’s latest indulgence / curious homage (this time out to Béla Tarr, as was the case with Gerry), the Palme d’Or winning Elephant. Though he adamantly maintains that Elephant is not about the Columbine shootings (because HBO would not allow that picture to be made according to him) it most assuredly is. Filmed at a decommissioned high school in Portland, Oregon with a cast of mostly amateurs, at least the film looks great. Shot in full frame in order to give the proceedings a documentary feel (Van Sant cites Frederick Wiseman here), Harris Savides’ calm, flowing camera floats, follows, and joins various students throughout a fateful day, its conclusion already foregone.

Although I want to see Elephant again, I am doubtful my opinion will fundamentally change. Van Sant refuses to offer any answers or reasoning behind the massacre, but that does not stop him from casually throwing out various, instantly recognizable cultural signifiers: Nazi documentaries, devil-head car fresheners, violent video games, etc. He also sets a supremely languorous pace with Beethoven accompanying, and then nearly scuttles the entire enterprise with some god-awful attempts at humor concerning a group of bulimic young women. Lastly, he thickens his stew with a kiss between the killers that will undoubtedly act as a lightning rod.

Funny, I don’t feel empty - Elephant
"Funny, I don’t feel empty”
- Elephant
At the conference following the feature, Van Sant remained as elusive and elliptical as the film itself. He alluded to European sensibilities being more attuned to the formal qualities and pace of the film (he then sardonically noted that perhaps they enjoy seeing Americans kill each other), and generally refused to offer any insight as to him truer aims. I do not need answers in films, nor do I require historical accuracy in films based upon actual events; what I do require, however, is faith (and evidence) that the filmmaker is actually striving for something greater than a set of vacuously pretty pictures, especially when it leads up to a wickedly designed and executed third act.

I would not dare call Elephant irresponsible; I would note, however, that the film is utterly bereft of meaning and is defensively obtuse. Van Sant, I suspect, is shrewd enough to realize that like other empty canvasses, meaning can be assigned and projected. So far, the ruse seems to have worked in his favor.

The Fog of War

The film I was most anticipating did not disappoint: The Fog of War, the Centerpiece to this year’s festival. In short, Errol Morris continues to astound me. I tend to admire greatly those that have a ceaseless curiosity; add to that a smart-ass sensibility and a moral compass and you can consider me your friend. Morris has always approached his wide-ranging array of subjects from a somewhat mercurial standpoint, but in The Fog of War he tackles Robert S. McNamara – Secretary of Defense to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and the chief architect of the U.S. Vietnam policy – head on, which creates some very interesting results.

Once a college student who openly protested against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, one can sense Morris champing at the bit to question McNamara directly, to poke, prod and blow off steam. What is especially remarkable about The Fog of War is not only McNamara holding his own – in his eighties, he is still feisty and spry – but that Morris resists simply painting the man into an easy corner. In short, two formidable intellects are essentially trying to hash it out, and both come off the better for it. Moreover, McNamara is viewed wrestling with his own record and his own conscience without Morris' help, which makes the film all the more rewarding.

Robert S. McNamara pleads his case in The Fog of War
Robert S. McNamara pleads his case in The Fog of War

Utilizing the Interrotron, a device created by Morris which allows his subject to be facing him by TelePrompTer only (and vice versa), has never served him better. As McNamara cajoles, recounts, wavers, and openly questions himself, the illusion of directly engaging this man is unnerving and compassionate. Expertly weaving archival and original footage, newly presented audio tapes between McNamara and President Johnson, McNamara’s face and a somber, pulsating score by Phillip Glass (“No one does existential dread like Phillip Glass” notes Morris), The Fog of War is an astounding portrait of a remarkable life told with great candor, a wise eye toward current events, and a laudable ethical framework.

Morris spoke after the screening, noting current political and military parallels, sizing up Rumsfeld in comparison, and dodging at least one unforgivable question (concerning McNamara directly addressing the camera; this journalist had obviously never seen a Morris film before, or even consulted the press notes for that matter).

21 Grams

It was ridiculously windy on my final day at the festival, and as I waited outside to enter the screening an older woman was actually blown down to the ground (she was not injured, or so she poker-faced). Little did I know at the time that the vaguely depressed mood the event created was the perfect mind set for viewing my last feature: 21 Grams by Alejandro González Iñárritu. This screening was at Alice Tully Hall, which boats an extremely impressive theater – more spacious than the Walter Reade, it is also where the Frasier Crane crowd normally congregates for an evening of cinema. If any director at this year's festival could shake this place up, I figured Iñárritu was it.

Penn and Watts, 2/3 of 21 Grams
Penn and Watts, 2/3 of 21 Grams

Featuring outstanding performances by Sean Penn (again with Sean Penn), Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams similarly mines a horrific accident (as did Amores perros) for dramatic and spiritual fodder. It also features an initially jarring, elliptical narrative structure that consistently keeps the viewer in a state of deliberate unease. This is a tough, sober, and wise film, and after the charged theatrics of Dogville and the questionable beauty of Elephant, it was a welcome relief.

My initial thoughts immediately following 21 Grams veered more toward respect than enjoyment, and I felt more beleaguered than anything else. At the press conference, Iñárritu graciously spoke about shooting the film in Memphis, his pleasure in working with all his actors, and his continued collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. When asked about a similar scene in Mystic River featuring Sean Penn brandishing a weapon, he noted that he had not seen the film. Wryly, he then added that Penn had never told him about that scene, and if it were indeed true, that Penn was merely practicing for Clint in order to nail it in 21 Grams.

Having seen both films subsequently, 21 Grams' stature has grown considerably in my eyes and Mystic River's has diminished. Once the distraction of Iñárritu's narrative structure is removed, the poignancy and motivations on display are terrifically heightened. If ever a film demanded a second viewing (for the right reasons), 21 Grams is it.

That's a Wrap

To summarize my thoughts on the films and filmmakers screened at this year’s festival: Errol Morris' The Fog of War, the film I most look forward to revisiting, may just be the masterpiece of the festival; Van Sant continues to bob and weave with Elephant, suggesting to me that his reception at Cannes is the real elephant in the cultural living room; von Trier continues to be von Trier, though he answers his critics this time around with a bitter, dour sarcasm in Dogville; Iñárritu demonstrates the same complexity and cumulative power previously unleashed in Amores perros and his contribution to 11'09"01 with 21 Grams; and Eastwood honorably - though heavy-handedly, and not without a few missteps - picks up where Unforgiven’s consideration of violence and its perpetual damage left off with Mystic River.

All in all, the 41st annual New York Film Festival was a great experience. The screenings were remarkable in their respect for the very act of moviegoing: no cell phones, no chattering, no crinkling of surreptitious sandwich wrappers. Disagreements were generally respectful, the fans were mostly savvy, and the artists gracious enough to appear were treated with a respectful distance. Lastly - and perhaps most valuably - the festival is non-competitive, so there was relatively little schmoozing.

Just watch your hands when approaching the breakfast trays, as that remains pretty dicey.

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