New Directors/New Films
Alice Tully Hall | MoMA @ the Gramercy | Walter Reade
24 March - 4 April, 2004

Comes a time when a man has to say, in effect: Hey, you know the drill, and if you don't know the drill then you've been painfully remiss in your study of the drill and Remedial Drill Appreciation is probably in order. This festival takes place in New York City every spring. It is called New Directors/New Films. Its focus is new directors and the new films they have made. Most of these pictures are vaguely promising at best, who-did-the-Albanian-cultural-minister-blow-to-get-this-selected-and-where-can-I-meet-a-girl-with-that-kind-of-skill-and-enthusiasm at worst. Occasionally, however, they sneak a Daughter From Danang or a Leila or a Buffalo '66 in there, so it pays to be exhaustive, however exhausting that may be. I try to hit as many as I can, frequently bail at the end of reel two; as ever, all a walk-out signifies is that I wasn't having the world's greatest time and chose to conserve my forbearance for the next Hou Hsiao-hsien anomiefest. What follows are not so much reviews as drive-by impressions, largely unencumbered by clarity or insight but liberally garnished with sarcasm. I am too lazy to provide context; if you want to know some basic information about these films, mosey over here. Anybody falls below a certain level I'm not permitted, listen to me, I'm not permitted to give them the premium leads. I'm trying to run an office here. Will you go to lunch. Go to lunch. Will you go to lunch.

(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, the films below are not currently scheduled to be released in the U.S.)

In Your Hands (Annette K. Olesen, Denmark): 71

Superior theological melodrama in the Dogme style, with uncomfortably intimate framing lending a jangled urgency to its multiple moral dilemmas and investigating every troubled pore on the faces of its two stellar leads, Ann Eleanora Jørgensen (still an alarming dead ringer for Leslie, former love of my life) and Trine Dyrholm (whose steely-eyed stoicism here makes Spartan's Val Kilmer look like Albert Brooks). Not hard to divine where Olesen's heady scenario is headed, but her conclusion nonetheless packs a gut-wrenching wallop that had me shuddering all the way back to the office. Haunts me still, matter of fact, which is more than I can say for Ordet or Diary of a Country Priest or other classic films in a similar vein. But maybe that's just because I'm temperamentally inclined to empathize with its ultimate subject (rendered here in rot13 to avoid a spoiler): gur erwrpgvba bs tenpr.

Dig! (Ondi Timoner, USA): 64

Skimps on the music, which is unfortunate -- we must hear snippets of at least two dozen songs from each band, but not a single tune from beginning to end, so that anybody unfamiliar with their work (and I knew nothing of the BJM) will come away with only the vaguest sense of why they were worthy of attention in the first place. On a simple "Whoa, check out the nutcase" level, however, Timoner's remarkably protracted diary of expedient success and stubborn failure is arresting from start to finish, and the juxtaposition does prompt meditation on the relative merits of assimilation vs. defiance, even if the use of Courtney Taylor as narrator inevitably makes for a one-sided argument (despite his constant, effusive praise of Newcombe as a musician). Also, only one fleeting shot of Zia performing topless? I'm sorry, but that's just not right.

No. 17 (David Ofek, Israel): W/O

Meandering, ugly, seemingly kind of pointless doc investigating a Tel Aviv bombing in which one of the victims remained unidentified. Very sad, of course, but I never got a clear sense of why Ofek felt this particular story was worth telling -- knowing who it was would surely be of value to the dude's family, but how it was meant to enlighten, enrich, deject or discomfit we the viewers remains every bit as mysterious as No. 17 himself, at least for the first two "reels." (Rassafrassin' video projection...) Sometimes I get the sense that there are way too many people standing around with tiny video cameras asking of everything that comes within their field of vision: "Hmm...could that be a film, perhaps?"

Everyday People (Jim McKay, USA): 45

And so on and so on and shooby-dooby-dooby. If nothing else, McKay's well-meaning exercise in liberal piety -- as strident and phony as his previous ND/NF entry, Our Song, was relaxed and authentic -- gives me a newfound appreciation for what Sayles, for all his recent clumsiness, is still doing right. Nobody here has a smidgen of life beyond his/her status as sociological object lesson (single mom pondering self-degradation in exchange for extra cash, smooth-talking Oreo hell-bent on bringing Banana Republic to the hood, etc.); after the umpteenth awkward cross-cultural exchange and studiously casual subversion of expectation (any member of a family belatedly introduced will inevitably turn out to be the "wrong" color), I began to feel like I was watching a position paper carefully disguised as a movie. Even the multiple unresolved endings feel didactic rather than graceful, as if McKay were implicitly scolding us for desiring closure. Generally well acted, but then so were all of Cary Grant's weddings.

Strong Shoulders (Ursula Meier, Switzerland/France/Belgium): 73

Bracingly astringent treatment of potentially cornball material, given extra heft by Louise Szpindel's ferocious, singleminded turn as track and field's very own Rosetta. (Szpindel even shares Dequenne's disarming visage, equal parts chipmunk and fox.) Flirts with convention but rarely follows through -- one scene I initially thought trite wound up revealing alarming new depths to the protagonist's well of opportunism. Begins sharply in medias res, gradually accumulates emotional force, ultimately pulls off an optimistic, perversely triumphant ending that feels fully earned. Minor supporting characters (especially the girl's mom, played by Anne Coesens) make an indelible impression. Solid, intelligent, affecting, quietly wonderful. Pity about it looking like ass, though.

The Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Davaa & Luigi Falorni, Germany/Mongolia): W/O

Once upon a time there was a camel who found himself the subject of a run-of-the-mill ethnographic study. For miles around, all the camel could see were magnificently barren landscapes and quotidian domestic rituals. Also other camels. Bored, the camel waited patiently for something to happen, as the title of the run-of-the-mill ethnographic study seemed to promise a narrative development of some kind. But one reel passed, and then another, and still there was nothing to occupy the camel's attention except old women boiling milk and little kids playing with goats and stolid herdsmen trading such trenchant remarks as "Looks like that colt won't be born tonight." (The piquant reply: "Maybe tomorrow, then.") The camel was pretty sure he could see stuff like this on PBS at least four nights out of seven, if only he had a television set, or electricity. And the camel wept. [Opens 4 June 2004 in New York City.]

The Middle of the World (Vicente Amorim, Brazil): W/O

Not an auspicious beginning. I'm as prone to become restless with depictions of grueling poverty as any other complacent overnourished indolent American, but shooting hardship in the overwrought style of a Fed Ex commercial clearly isn't the solution; it's hard to take the family's predicament seriously when the very first scene includes a low-angle baby-in-the-road-with-truck-barreling-down shot straight out of Raising Arizona. Characterizations likewise seem one-note, especially Wagner Moura's preening interpretation of the proud, macho paterfamilias. Lovely musical interlude at one point (mom and one of the kids busk at a dusty café), but it wasn't enough. [Opens 2 April 2004 in New York City.]