This year the New York Film Festival did something barbaric. Something unthinkable. Something that flies in the face of logic. This year the New York Film Festival scheduled their morning press screenings at 9 a.m. That is, if one wanted to see the press screening of every film at the NYFF, one had to get up early enough to be at Lincoln Center by 8:45 a.m. latest. Oh, the humanity!
To put this as simply as possible: If I wanted a quote career that involved being anywhere other than bed at 8:45 a.m., I would not have spent my quote adult life writing about movies and rock and roll. And yet, I’m told, many of my fellow critics turned up in time for these screenings. This astonishes and horrifies me. Maybe next year the Festival will turn a more civilized face towards the press and our much-needed REM.
dir. Kelly Reichardt (USA).
Genre’s been dead a while now, and so merged (in Hollywood) with A pictures that genre exercises are by definition Bs. To be a B is to wrestle with practical limitations of budget, scope, and vision. B success has traditionally been an achievement in tone. Genre Bs that sustained an idiosyncratic, profound tone broke through to rewrite the genre code and usually contributed to ending its particular genre’s relevance—Easy Rider, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Touch of Evil, Two-Lane Blacktop. Moving profundity to the foreground while delivering genre kicks made too plain the philosophical/intellectual limitations of all the other Bs in the genre. They all became less satisfying by comparison or, depending on your mood, totally more so. Sometimes willful reduction, to say nothing of stupidity, cures what ails you, sometimes it don’t. Whatever, one way or another, all the less profound Bs lost power, became less hypnotic, came to seem more a collection of their genre tropes and less a cohesive whole. They’d been out-wholed, if you will, by a more complete vision. A vision that despite its reach still functioned within genre’s grasp.
Westerns have suffered more than any other genre. Perhaps they suffer most from irrelevance. It’s been almost impossible to make a non-self-conscious, topically/morally relevant Western since The Wild Bunch (Genre death-stake that it was, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is wildly, gleefully self-conscious). Given that The Wild Bunch is a touchstone American film, it may not quite qualify as a B (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Robert Ryan, Strother Martin, LQ Jones—sounds mighty B to me), but it sure as hell rewrote the genre code—rewrote the genre code, set it on fire, pissed on the blaze, and salted the Western soil with its ashes. Almost every Western since has taken pains to point out that it knows it’s a Western. That kind of over-sharing can—in the right hands—work fine in Noir (Touch of Evil, Point Blank, Sexy Beast, Layer Cake). In Westerns it smacks of desperation. Or of cuteness, desperation in its most loathsome form.
No one has any idea what a Western means or suggests anymore, though the Coen’s upcoming True Grit may remind us. Their No Country For Old Men was the most recent sincere attempt to wrestle with the themes of honor in an honorless land, the limits and expansions that gunplay provides, and how manly men cope with men more manly—which by definition means more evil. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford sprang from tone-perfect genre material—the painstaking, colloquial novel of the same name. But the director over-emphasized two non-Western aspects: neurotic gunslingers and arty nature shots.
In No Country, nature never became, as in Jesse James, merely nice to look at. Rather, it might be nice to look at, but, as Western landscapes must, the land always incarnated the existential struggle of the men seeking to define themselves within it. In Jesse James the landscape was pretty, and the director’s vesting in its prettiness undercut his well-intentioned effort to make a viable modern western.
Now comes the absurdly over-anointed Meek’s Cutoff, praised rabidly by folks who haven’t a clue what a Western means or appropriates. Meek’s, we are told, is an existential Western (historical note: there are no non-existential Westerns, not even those starring Gene Autry), a philosophical Western, even a feminist Western. The last comes because women point guns at men and get men to do what they want, sorta. If Meek’s can be said to possess organic themes—rather than themes imposed by director Kelly Reichardt’s usual heavy hand—those would be the tedium of Manifest Destiny as lived out by the common run o’ folks, the tedium of hard-working women putting up with the know-nothing blowhardedness of men who held the women’s lives in their hands, and the tedium of the bedrock hard work of getting up in the morning and making coffee.
All worthy themes worth exploring. But Reichardt’s films generate alienating credibility problems. That is, I seldom believe a word her characters say. Every now and then I’m awestruck by the note-perfect naturalism of some utterance, and want to give her props. But she isn’t David Mamet; it doesn’t advance her dramas for me to get all awestruck. Her forced naturalism is supposed to further the drama and it never does. Often, because there ain’t no drama. Usually, there’s mostly a sense of dress-up: in the immortal words of The Firesign Theatre: “The lives of honest working people as told by rich Hollywood stars.” The primary cred problem with Reichardt’s last film, Wendy And Lucy, is that it’s about a woman and her dog. Only the dog clearly has no idea who the actress is, nor the slightest interest in connecting to her, or saying hello, or accepting even one little scritchie. Since the dog and her fate are the supposed motivation for everything the star actress does, nothing is ever believable. The doggie stares off-screen, as well it might, since the dog belongs to Reichardt. Did the director think we wouldn’t notice?
So Meeks seems—except for a few moments that ring frighteningly true—like stars playing dress-up. Michele Williams never rises above being Michele Williams in a bonnet. Paul Dano demonstrates, as ever, that no one else of his generation can so utterly inhabit the gestalt of the film he’s in, but he gets so few close-ups he cannot save the day by his lonesome. The cred problem here surfaces because the covered wagons and horses, etc. are so de-mythified, rendered so ordinary and dull…but whoa—those oxen! The characters in the film are dying of thirst and hunger, it seems. Walking for days without sustenance, it seems. Dying for some cool, clear water… and yet—lookit them oxen! Perfect glossy coats, shining eyes, rippling muscles. Them oxen ain’t undergoing no hardships and for good reason: oxen are damn expensive. And the ox-wrangler on this picture clearly takes good care of his beasts. Having only B money, Reichardt can’t afford to cast silky strong oxen and wizened dying-of-thirst oxen. But there the well-fed oxen are, in every shot.
That the story makes no sense, who cares? That it underlines its own, like, parables and cosmic questions with the subtlety of a dorm-room discussion about alternate universes, who cares? That Meek’s aspires to be El Topo and The Big Trail, who cares? Those aren’t criticisms, or even insights—they’re description. Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t work on its own terms, however convoluted those terms might be. But I saw it at a public screening and the public gave it a standing ovation.
So, good for the Film Festival for at least starting to re-educate audiences on the great American genres.
dir. Clint Eastwood (USA).
And bad on the Film Festival for once again selling out for mediocre big studio product. If the NYFF and Hereafter were in a relationship, you’d have to say that both of them were fucking down. Does the Festival grant Hereafter arty cred, and how would that help it if it did? Does the NYFF get commercial cred and if so, why would it bother? Screenings of art-Westerns and Thai meditations on ghosts sold out. Hereafter ain’t the Festival’s demo. Let’s hope by now they understand that.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand).
Director Apichatpong is groping after something. That something seems to be how the practicalities of life merge with the spiritualities of death. But death here remains pragmatic, with the deceased showing up both in both human and Monkey Ghost form. Both prove pretty damn haunting, but neither advance Weerasethakul’s either a) reaching for a Tarkovksy-derived sublimity in exquisite, digital, painterly composition or b) showcasing tiny life moments and the larger irrevocable decisions emerging therefrom. Whatever his Syndromes and a Century might have been about—and I haven’t a clue—it was profoundly moving, poetic, gorgeous and seemed to be searching to describe, however obliquely, modern Thailand’s soul. Uncle’s a shambling meditation, a patchwork with a middle section—a tale of a Princess and her sexual partner, a catfish—that has no place in the dominant narrative. Uncle feels like a sketch of a greater film that’s never going to get made.
TUESDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
dir. Radu Muntean (Romania).
The reason the post-revolutionary Russians spent so much time writing about and theorizing upon cinema, according to David Mamet, is that they had no film. International boycotts and trade embargoes kept raw stock from reaching Russia, and since filmmakers couldn’t make movies, they talked about them instead. Post-revolutionary Romania is now moving through an analogous historical period: there’s no money in Romania. But there’s an astonishingly mature wave of ambitious filmmakers who won’t be denied. They revel—by necessity—in the basics. Simple, earth-bound shots—no cranes, no CGI—one, usually wide-angle, lens and a profound vesting in the quotidian human experience. They can’t afford car chases, blood bags, or, it seems, extras. So they make restrained, deep-focus periscopes into the realest and more realist depictions of daily life in the new Romania. Police, Adjective; 12:08 To Bucharest; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days make Romania the new, ahem, Iran. The Iran of 18 years ago, when one low-budget masterpiece after another escaped the borders, and most strove to capture daily life in its awkward glory.
The hallmarks of Romanian cinema so far are loving deployment of classical filmmaking grammar, understated naturalist performances, and uncanny neorealist dialogue. If Tuesday has no overt political subtext—it details a familiar but wrenching love triangle —that’s because the protagonists incarnate something revolutionary in Romania: a secure middle-class with middle-class problems. Now that people have enough to eat and can speak their minds, they have the leisure to get in their own way…and Netflix Instant has all the above Romanian titles.
dir. Jean-Luc Godard (France).
Well, for the first time I have to admit: I have no idea what the old boy is on about. And for maybe the fifth time, he succeeded in boring me shitless. The first half is all late Godard: insanely beautiful and laden. The second half is all mid-Godard: arid and over-composed. Godard loves his little jokes and, as we’ve learned the hard way over the last 50 years, does not give two shits whether we’re in on the joke or not. So he tortures us non-Francophones with what he calls “Navajo Subtitles,” which prove to be more like how Tonto spoke than the Navajos (who have one of the most complex languages on the planet). Every sentence gets only two or three code-words of translation, and how they relate to what’s really being said is any English-only speaker’s guess. I quit guessing about halfway through. Tellingly, no native French speaker has been able to explain it to me, either.
dir. Benjamin Heisenberg (Austria/Germany).
The Robber aspires to be the German Straight Time and that’s aiming high. Rather than stay aloft on a tightrope of tone, like Straight Time, The Robber repeats its own motifs until the virtues of its tone appear more and more like tropes; or, to be more accurate, trope. That repetition makes the final 15 minutes something of an ordeal rather than a revelation. The robber himself gets out of jail and runs marathons. He wins trophies. He robs banks and runs to make his getaway. This makes for unique chase scenes, and robbery scenes, and even scenes of high German Protestant self-flagellation (by running). There’s a toughness in the widescreen compositions, and director Heisenberg knows his noirs and especially his Melville. But he’s undone by the early portentousness of his script. Perhaps The Robber suffers the fatal flaw of its protagonist: an absence of the charm that might make his violence seem less exploitative.
dir. Olivier Assayas (France/Germany).
There’s one incredible moment—as well there should be in a five hour historical re-creation—in Carlos that nails the moment history changed, even if those changing it did so by omission. The game-changing moment came when Carlos—the definitive ’70’s Euro-terrorist—held a hijacked plane-load of hostages and found himself unwilling to die with them. He preferred to live, and to sell his hostages for cash and a shameful getaway. You can almost see the light bulb go on over heads worldwide: why should developing nations depend on these egoistic, over-educated chickenshit bourgeoisies when the world’s slums are full of cannon-fodder who’d rather die first and think later? Despite his desire to be a messiah to the downtrodden of the world (and to get laid), Carlos’ greatest gift to terrorism might have been teaching those he ached to lead to do it themselves.
LET'S GO WITH PANCHO VILLA
dir. Fernando de Fuentes (Mexico, 1936).
Every year the Festival’s sidebars become more nourishing and diverse. Along with a much-needed retrospective of Masahiro Shinoda (in conjunction with the Japan Foundation), the Festival presented this early epic of the Mexican Revolution. A deeply cynical, clear-eyed depiction of the futility of revolt and of the heartlessness even the most heroic leader (in this case, Señor Villa) must develop if he wants to stay alive, Let’s Go features epic battles and note-perfect peasant conversations that seem the logical next step after Eisenstein toward developing a cinema of revolutionary consciousness. Sadly, the picture never made a dime.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.