43rd New York Film Festival
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
23 September - 9 October, 2005

NOTE: Unfortunately, one of my rare days of actual work made it impossible for me to attend the press screening of Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers, and I couldn't make the sole public screening, either. I'll have to wait for its inevitable appearance in the Voice's Best of 2005 series at BAM next spring. And I'm gonna wait and see the video doc Methadonia when it premieres on HBO next month. Good Night, and Good Luck I'll be reviewing for both Esquire and Nerve. Already covered at Cannes (but you'll have to dig through the blog to find the relevant passages): The Child, Manderlay, Tale of Cinema, Three Times, Hidden.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan Wook, South Korea): 35

So I sat down just now to refute the arguments of this film's supporters, who maintain that Park is somehow interrogating the representation of onscreen violence, thereby producing in the viewer an equivocal and productively conflicted response, only to realize that I haven't actually read any such argument. All I've seen thus far are assertions. And since I have no idea what these people are talking about, given that the movie I saw consisted of 100 minutes of slick, flashy genre pyrotechnics followed by 12 minutes of patently insincere hand-wringing, there's not a whole lot I can say at this point. Steve Erickson has wondered aloud why Park isn't getting the benefit of the doubt routinely allotted to filmmakers like Cronenberg and Eastwood, who've plowed similar terrain -- perhaps it's because neither of them would demand dead-serious reflection upon thorny ethical quandaries not long after providing a cute sight gag in which an out-of-focus figure in the background soaps the floor, causing the person in the foreground to slip and be knocked unconscious. Nothing about this (emblematic) bit -- and it is a "bit," a routine, right up to the "punchline" of Geum-ja brandishing the bar of soap (as much to the camera as to her friend, given Park's deliberate obfuscation) -- anyway, nothing about this bit is designed to make us feel queasy, or blur the identification figure, or indeed do anything apart from elicit a chuckle at Park's cleverness. Even the physical type of the actress cast as the (literal) heavy suggests comedy and condones comeuppance. I can think of a dozen different ways in which Park could have started laying the thematic groundwork here (e.g. Cronenberg's gruesome carnage inserts in History of Violence), not one of which he employs. And so when we reach the ostensibly disturbing climax, and I'm suddenly expected to find myself (or at least part of myself) recoiling...sorry, I just don't buy it. The film doesn't earn that response. And while I get the impression I'm meant to feel something for the victim, or for the permanently warped souls of the perpetrators, I don't. I don't feel anything. This film made me feel absolutely nothing, apart from some grudging admiration of Park's formidable technique, which seemed more appropriate in the overtly cartoonish context of Oldboy. The conclusion doesn't feel like it's what the film has been inexorably building toward; it feels like a retroactive justification for everything preceding it. In short, I think Park is full of shit. But I eagerly await the case for the defense.

Through the Forest (Jean Paul Civeyrac, France): 59

Struck me more as an attenuated short than as a compact feature, singlemindedly dedicated as it is to a (rather mesmerizing) atmosphere of elegant creepiness. Civeyrac's decision to shoot every scene in a single languorous tracking shot lends the film a dreamy, narcotized feel (which I think may be enhanced by its flat, oddly soft look -- I'd wager this is Super-16, Waz, not 35), but at times he just seems to be following the actors around, a technique that only works if your goal is to convey a sense of urgency. And content-wise I found Through the Forest somewhat puzzling: (SPOILER) If she's transformed Hippolyte into the ghost of her dead lover, and they're having all this unearthly marathon sex, wherefore the whispers from the woods? Is this the same film as Under the Sand, basically, except with a temporarily soothing metaphysical twist? I didn't get it.

I Am (Dorota Kedzierzawska, Poland): 29

And no one heard at all -- not even the chair! A gratingly mawkish, often hilariously unconvincing portrait of childhood resilience; Empire of the Sun looks like Los Olvidados by comparison. Child actors tend to be so uniformly excellent, especially in foreign films, that it's startling to see one who's prone to pulling faces, though if he's a sharp little guy he may have decided subtlety was a lost cause in this context. In your run-of-the-mill bad art movie, the forlorn, abandoned tot will inquire about a litter of kittens and be informed that they were drowned in the river. "Who needs 'em," the requisite gruff old coot will shrug. But when the kid actually shouts, "Nobody needs me, either! Why don't you just drown me?!" -- well, then you know you're trapped in the clutches of a true incompetent. That this amalgam of my-life-as-a-mutt clichés can be taken seriously while a movie as boldly imaginative (if also deeply flawed) as Terry Gilliam's Tideland is treated like the puddle of congealed bile and eggnog someone ralphed up at the Christmas party...okay, needlessly repulsive simile, I'm trying too hard, but I mean Come On.

Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Sláma, Czech Republic/Germany): 50

Initially overbearing in its oppressiveness -- had this been shown in New Directors/New Films, where it clearly belongs, I'd most likely have fled -- Sláma's grimy slice of life ultimately does wind up inspiring something like interest, gaining in potency as it meanders along and as one family briefly, semi-miraculously forms from the ashes of another. Ultimately, though, it's the kind of modest, low-key movie about which there's never very much to say -- fine for a smorgasbord like Toronto, but shouldn't NYFF fare at least be striving for greatness?

Who's Camus Anyway? (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Japan): 85

Throws down the gauntlet with the very first shot, in which the camera glides sinuously all over the sprawling exterior of a university campus, caroming from one group to characters to another, for minute after self-consciously virtuosic minute, and just as you're idly wondering whether Fred Ward is going to show up and start ranting about the opening of Touch of Evil, we suddenly pick up two film students engaged in discussion of that very topic, who then proceed to address The Player itself. Except that Altman's achievement really is little more than a clever, hollow joke, whereas Yanagimachi has taken that sort of suffocating pomo referentiality as his subject. Ostensibly a fairly lighthearted havoc-on-the-set comedy, the film portrays a simulacrum of reality far more chilling than the one revealed in The Matrix -- a world in which no person, act or object exists for its own sake, free of antecedent. What's more -- and this is just shy of miraculous, given the premise and milieu -- it does so without any of the facile live-or-Memorex? rug-pulling that such treatises usually favor. (The genius of the climax, which keeps you poised on a serrated edge separating the merely horrific from the truly catastrophic, depends upon Yanagimachi's commitment to unforced naturalism.) So dense and resonant that I couldn't even begin to unpack it without a second viewing (already arranged, thankfully), and even then half of its appeal lies in the vivid yet offhanded sense of hectic collegiality that I was never able to articulate when trying to explain why I loved Irma Vep. Nor can I necessarily explain the gooseflesh I experienced when one character, reading DSM-IV diagnoses aloud in an attempt to understand the film-within-the-film's protagonist, is joined by another character reading aloud from The Stranger, their competing voices gradually drowned out by an ominous orchestral swell that turns out to be diagetic. It's the most terrifying lark I've ever seen.

The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, USA): 58

Wish I'd written something about this from Sundance -- it's been eight months now and I can't remember why I found it underwhelming, apart from being disappointed by the final scene and it's here's-what-the-title-means coarseness. As a child of divorce -- I was about the same age as Owen Kline's character when my parents split, and wound up being placed in therapy when I developed a weird tic in which I walked around compulsively miming finger movements for the recorder, which I'd learned to play in school that year -- I can certainly identify with the film's emotional turbulence, if not this specific literary milieu. And Baumbach invests this autobiographical work with an arresting specificity of detail comparable to my recorder anecdote above -- a degree of baroque truth that few imaginations are prodigious enough to invent from whole cloth. Performances are uniformly terrific, as I recall. I honestly don't know how this wound up in the B-minus pile. Best I can do is suggest that it simply didn't shake me, and that I felt a movie this personal, about a subject so uniquely harrowing and so sadly familiar, shouldn't leave me unshaken. But I think I'll see it again when it opens.

Capote (Bennett Miller, USA): 54

On paper, this looks like my kind of biopic: tightly focused (just the In Cold Blood years), with a clearly discernible theme rather than just the usual Big Apple bus tour of Notable Events. Alas, here the theme is rather too clearly discernible -- Dan Futterman, apparently terrified that audiences might not appreciate his seriousness of purpose, invests the film's screenplay with all the decorous subtlety of Robin Williams' Birdcage wardrobe. Notice how I've now made clumsy, jerry-rigged allusions to the previous career highlights of both of the film's principal artisans? That's roughly the level of acumen we're talking about here, difference being that I'm knocking off this capsule in less than ten minutes. Starts off fairly impressive but gets increasingly blunt and schematic as it goes along, until we eventually get Harper Lee actually spelling out the subtext for the slow learners. Hoffman's obviously not to blame for the stuntlike nature of his performance in the title role (nor is it his fault that the movie doesn't continue long enough for us to hear him yell "Moose! Moose, you imbecile!"), but it still strikes me as 80% expert mimicry and only 20% acting. (I didn't understand all the hosannas for Blanchett's Hepburn last year, either.) The relationship between Capote and Perry never seems remotely as fraught or painfully conflicted as the movie (and its sledgehammer of a theme) clearly intends -- indeed, I never really got a clear sense of why Capote was fascinated by this rather banal crime in the first place. Hamhanded and nebulous is a tough combination to pull off, but this movie somehow manages it.

Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (Avi Mograbi, Israel/France): 41

I realize some of you are growing weary of my Why-is-this-a-film? rhetoric, but tough noogies: Why is this a film? Mograbi has only one (admittedly provocative) idea -- Palestinian suicide bombing as an extension/appropriation of the Jewish cult of heroic martyrdom, extolled in the Biblical tale of Samson and the historical mass checkout of the Zealots at Massada -- and it's much better suited to an in-depth essay; instead, we get multiple repetitive scenes of Arabs being harassed at checkpoints interspersed with multiple repetitive scenes of Israeli tour guides spouting hoary, hypocritical mythology. Only at the very end, when Mograbi finally loses his cool and berates a group of maddeningly arrogant soldiers, does the film briefly come alive -- it's as if Michael Moore had suddenly abandoned his folksy-quizzical persona in the face of a choice bit of bureaucratic idiocy and just gone ballistic. Unfortunately, this electrifying bit of street theater (or rather desert theater) only underlines the tendentious nature of everything that precedes it. Watch the first 25 minutes and you've seen it all.

Bubble (Steven Soderbergh, USA): 58

Quite possibly the strangest film I've seen all year, precisely because it's so resolutely ordinary. Working in middle America with a non-pro cast, Soderbergh goes for the creepily ascetic approach, establishing a prosaic, enervated mood right at the get-go and never modulating it one iota, even when Syd Field turns up with a late-breaking Inciting Incident. Studio or indie, all of the director's previous films -- including the wildly experimental jump-start tossoff that was Schizopolis -- are unmistakably the product of a sensibility steeped in cinema; Bubble, by contrast, feels like the work of an idiot savant, someone who's seen only a handful of movies and understood them imperfectly. With its deliberately flat performances, its transparent narrative and its muleheaded refusal to sensationalize the banal, it acts as an implicit rebuke to various dark-heart-of-America fever dreams, notablyEraserhead and Blue Velvet. But while its utter lack of affectation makes it almost as arresting as a Lynch movie, that same quality all but guarantees a lack of resonance -- indeed, the film's entire meaning appears to be contained in its primary setting (a doll factory) and, even more significantly, in its title. Shit, I'm starting to sound like Hoberman here. Point being I'm not really sure what to make of this queer curio. I admire its parsimony, up to a point, but as the closing credits appeared (over a striking montage) I still felt hungry for a bona fide movie.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania): 33

When I walked out of this back at Cannes, it merely seemed dull and obvious; turns out subsequent scenes are actively risible, with virtually the entire nation's medical staff lining up to piss on this poor old duffer. Not that I don't believe that many doctors and nurses are oblivious, abusive, insensitive, opportunistic, imperious, etc. -- just not all of them, and especially not in the face of someone who's clearly in immediate need of emergency surgery. Like most victim films, what Lazarescu offers -- the secret of its success among a certain class of cinéaste -- is multiple opportunities for the viewer to feel smugly superior to the cartoonishly unfeeling bastards surrounding the designated martyr; at today's screening, I swear I could actually hear tongues clucking (plus one gentleman who loudly chortled at each peevish or self-absorbed line of dialogue: "Ho ho ho!" he kept ho-ing, so very proud of himself for recognizing ignobility when he sees it). Might have worked as a black comedy, and some folks seem to have convinced themselves that that's precisely what it is; Lazarescu Dante Remus quickly becomes far too pitiable for us to enjoy his tribulations, though, and on the whole the film's tone seems much more outraged and sorrowful than antic or mordant. According to the press notes, this is the first entry in a proposed Rohmeresque sextette; be still my palpitating heart.