44th New York Film Festival
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
29 September - 15 October, 2006

Previously seen at Cannes: Offside, Volver, The Host, Climates, Marie Antoinette, Pan's Labyrinth.

I'll get to them in commercial release: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen; Our Daily Bread; Paprika

Oops, I overslept and the sole public screening conflicts with Flags of Our Fathers: These Girls

Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France/Italy): 58

Strange little film, with both form and content quite intriguing and yet somehow at the same time just a tad off-putting. Ayckbourn's play doesn't amount to much more than a sketchy portrait of dissatisfaction and yearning, but in the hands of these actors that often seems like plenty; only at the end, when the expected revelations fail to manifest themselves, does it become clear how thinly contrived everything is. (Ayckbourn's best work, by contrast, is very richly contrived.) Resnais, meanwhile, while unafraid of staginess -- there's no earthly reason to keep the ailing father just out of frame -- does perhaps go a little overboard with his Big Visual Metaphor, which entails placing semi-opaque barriers between the characters in almost every shot -- basically the directorial equivalent of having somebody pick up the golden bowl and announce that it has a crack in it. On the other hand, I don't know that I've seen another moment this year as unexpectedly sublime as the one in which Pierre Arditi takes Sabine Azéma's hand across his kitchen table, which is suddenly moonlit and covered in a drift of fallen snow; that kind of expressionistic beauty is cinema's glory, and it shocked me into a realization of how doggedly mundane most movies are. Had that been the final shot, it's possible that I might have been (um) snowed into overlooking the overall undernourishment -- but the script plodded on, to no great effect, and the spell was broken.

49up (Michael Apted, UK): [Incomplete]

Never saw the last one, mostly because the reviews were less than ecstatic and I couldn't help feeling that the project must have peaked at 35, by which age most people (though admittedly not yours truly) have fairly well settled down. And the 70 or so minutes I saw of installment the seventh seemed to bear that out -- apart from having less hair and more body fat, everybody seemed not terribly far from where I'd left them (ulp) 14 years ago. So when the video projection abruptly died at the press screening, and they solved the problem by skipping ahead to the next chapter/subject (thereby omitting a good 10-15 minutes by my estimation), I decided to bail, just as I wouldn't continue reading a novel upon discovering that pages 117-136 had been ripped out. It was most likely heading for a rating in the B- range. Sorry not to see Neil, though.

Poison Friends (Emmanuel Bourdieu, France): 62

Almost as blunt as its title, which is a bit of a problem. Bourdieu clearly knows these preening collegiate chuckleheads inside and out, and he's assembled a remarkable cast of unknowns to embody them; each character makes a vivid and distinct impression, even though most of them are in geosynchronous orbit around the group's virulent ringleader, a spiteful tool who employs fear of mediocrity as a bullwhip. Trouble is, Bourdieu doesn't know from subtext and seems allergic to adjectives like "glancing" and "allusive." Everything gets laid out neatly at the get-go, and nothing ever develops; the film is so utterly straightforward that it winds up feeling both overdetermined and a little thin -- it's almost as if Bourdieu went ahead and made the Hollywood remake of his movie, only in French. Still, the milieu is endlessly fascinating, the performances are casually terrific across the board, and Bourdieu's knack for hyperliterate gamesmanship partially fills the void left by Whit Stillman, whose Metropolitan is an unmistakable influence...though the tone here is less affectionate, more corrosive. Or, I dunno, maybe I just can't resist a movie in which having the temerity to write and (god forbid) publish fiction or poetry is tantamount to indecent exposure. There's a germ of hard truth here, viz. that success can get you ostracized almost as readily as can failure.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, France/USA): 49

First things first: This film looks hideous. Lynch used the Sony PD-150, the same camera that made both Tadpole and Personal Velocity resemble something spit up by a teething infant, and it's not as if he's pioneered some new and singular form of murkiness -- it's just a David Lynch movie that's been stripped of all visual texture, and it's enough to make you weep. Then again, it's not as if hi-def or even celluloid was gonna save this half-assed id upchuck, which plays exactly like what Lynch has frankly admitted it is: A bunch of disconnected scenes (some simply lifted from shorts he's been posting to his website) that he wrote hurriedly, one at a time, without the foggiest notion of how (or if) they might eventually add up. For a while, this shuffle-play approach gives Inland Empire a mesmerizingly oneiric quality, with a new Betty/Diane-style transmutation occurring roughly every five minutes; during the bugfuck middle hour, I was convinced I was watching the most aggressively avant-garde narrative feature ever made. But the audaciousness is only and merely structural -- Lynch has no vision here, only a welter of fragmentary ideas that he's scattered willy-nilly across the screen, charging us with the task of investing them with meaning, or even just import. It's as if he's filmed pages of his notebook at random. Even that might be of some value were individual moments sufficiently startling and powerful, but with the exception of Dern's big monologue (which was apparently the film's starting point), there's nothing really gooseflesh-worthy, no Silencio or Robert Blake cackling in unison with his disembodied voice on the cell phone. (And stuff like the hookers performing "The Loco-Motion" just seems desperate, a sad self-parody.) I think what I'm trying to say here is that this picture is pretty kind of Oakland in my and Gertrude Stein's opinion. But even if somebody eventually comes up with a compelling interpretation, I don't think I can bring myself to wade through all that blotchiness again.

The Go Master (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China/Japan): 38

Got excited for a moment when I realized the film concerns a master of the Chinese board game called Go, but of course Tian's interest in strictly historical-metaphorical -- if you don't know the rules going in, you'll still be ignorant when the credits roll. (Looks like a variant of Othello to me.) Nor does he care much about his ostensible subject, Wu Qingyuan, a real-life champion who has the misfortune of being played here by Chang Chen, Taiwan's most boring actor. No, I'm afraid this is yet another of those movies in which the foreground action amounts to little more than the pretext for a super-compressed history course, buttressed in this instance by a short seminar on Sino-Japanese relations and an abbreviated thesis concerning obscure Buddhist sects of the mid-20th century. Tian gives every scene, every character, every event the same bland, respectful non-emphasis, and after a while The Go Master turns into the visual equivalent of one of those white-noise CDs designed to soothe frazzled nerves with the sound of ocean waves or chittering cicadas or whatever the hell. (Even the bomb falling on Hiroshima in mid-tournament fails to dislodge the film from its stately groove.) Too bad you can't see Fortissimo's press kit, bound with string and printed on paper that looks as if it's sustained fire and/or water damage; it's far more creative and expressive than the movie itself.

The Queen (Stephen Frears, UK): 46

Must be nice when you play both sides of the fence and folks obligingly mistake your timorousness for complexity. Knowing full well that the presence of Helen Mirren in the title role will provoke auto-empathy, Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan merrily devote most of the film to a sniggering portrait of emotional constipation, using Tony Blair (uncanny mimicry by Michael Sheen) as an incredulous audience surrogate. For all its pretensions to sociopolitical relevance, at bottom The Queen is just a run-of-the-mill therapy movie: Her Royal Highness, after considerable denial, learns to relax a little in deference to shifting public mores, and the staunchly progressive PM comes to respect the burden shouldered by those born into a life of stifling privilege and responsibility. (It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.) Mirren is capable but does precisely what you'd expect -- the hosannahs you're reading could have been written the day she was cast -- and Frears, in his amiable-hack mode, seems to think he's showing admirable restraint by turning Elizabeth's back to the camera when she finally breaks down in tears. Plus I hate to say it but seriously: Who gives a shit? Given everything that's happened in the world just over the past decade, it's hard to imagine a subject more picayune than Buckingham Palace's non-reaction to Diana's death, even if you care to extrapolate that paltry tabloid skirmish so that it encompasses the function and future of the monarchy. It's just some people with sticks up their asses; don't try to sell it as a urgent national colonoscopy.

Gardens in Autumn (Otar Iosseliani, France): 50

At a loss for what to say about this amiable trifle, I checked my "review" of Iosseliani's previous film, Monday Morning (NYFF 2002), only to discover that I'd come up equally blank, listing its merits as "absence of demerits" and its demerits as "absence of merits." Uninterested in narrative or character, Iosseliani doesn't make movies so much as he makes philosophical treatises in the shape of movies -- this one, in which a government minister is stripped of his privileged lifestyle and embarks on a hedonistic journey across Paris, is basically the complete works of John Locke reimagined as a mildly absurdist revue, complete with Michel Piccoli playing the dude's mother in blatant Kids in the Hall drag. That detail isn't nearly as funny as it probably sounds, though, and the film as a whole coasts along on tiny puffs of curdled whimsy, with Iosseliani's elegant tracking shots surveying overstuffed tableaux à la Greenaway or Wes Anderson. If expert formalism and a single abstract idea are enough for you, I imagine this is potent stuff; I tend to find his films undernourished to varying degrees, though Gardens does at least occasionally provoke audible laughter, as when an enormous, ostensibly marble statue is carried casually across the room by a man of perfectly ordinary build, without any strain. Shame the movie is equally featherweight.

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mali/USA): 30

So I spent some time duking this one out with Michael "Film of the Year" Sicinski over on the Movie Nerd Discussion Group, and when the dust settled and stalemate was declared I had to admit that I'm just temperamentally unsympathetic to what Sissako's trying to do. It doesn't help, of course, that his chosen dialectic plays to me like that recess game in which you're forced to choose the lesser of two revulsions. Would you rather pluck every hair on your body one by one or wear soaking wet socks for a year? Would you rather watch a lengthy debate about African debt relief or experience "everyday life" (= nothing happens) in a small Mali village? Individually, each tactic bores me to tears -- trouble is, I'm not even receptive to Sissako's pointed juxtaposition, churlish pragmatist that I am. There's a good reason for excluding poetry and pathos from matters of policy, and I'm not convinced that providing a forum for same, as a reminder of what's been (quite sensibly) verboten, amounts to anything more than special pleading. Would it also be Art to hold an abortion debate in the backyard of a working single mother, cutting back and forth between impassioned arguments for and against (including an elderly woman singing Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children" a cappella, preferably in unsubtitled Spanish) and mundane, quotidian shots of the family, impoverished and paternal-free yet often industrious and content? Or would it be, I dunno, kinda cheap, and fundamentally pointless?

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea): 66

Not sure I see how this is significantly more accessible than Hong's last few pictures, apart from the absence of his trademark anti-eroticism. (He practically fades to black whenever jiggyness commences, sparing us the spectacle of his characters methodically grinding away.) People everywhere are comparing it to Rohmer, and while the tone is unmistakably different -- less playful, more sour -- it's true that Hong, like Rohmer, seems inclined to make the same film over and over again, with minute variations; this one is basically Turning Gate crossed with Woman Is the Future of Man, much livelier than the latter but not quite as bracing as the former. The been-there-winced-at-that factor kept my enthusiasm in low gear, but it's encouraging to see Hong acknowledge that women can be more than just passive receptacles for male cluelessness; given that Ko Hyeon-gang is reportedly a smiling superstar on Korean television, I'm guessing her moody, semi-calculating performance here must create the same sort of cognitive dissonance as Jennifer Aniston's bizarre passivity in Friends With Money. A slightly frustrating film: sharp, incisive, often funny, very well acted, yet it still feels like Hong coasting down a shallow grade; I suspect he could make one of these every three months without breaking a sweat. Tale of Cinema wasn't quite as effective for me (though I need to see it again), but its formal risktaking was a lot more interesting.

Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France): 42

Less a witty homage or a sorry desecration than just a dumb, overlong (even at 70 minutes) joke. I've seen Belle de Jour only once, and that was back in the summer of 1995; no doubt several winking allusions sailed over my head. But I recall the atmosphere of casual depravity Buñuel created vividly enough to know that Oliveira's feeble 40-years-later conceit amounts to little more than a belated raspberry. At least Piccoli seems to be enjoying himself -- pro that he is, he still can't quite bring himself to fall in line with Oliveira's weirdly declamatory style, and while most of Henri's speeches play like somebody reciting coverage of the earlier film, it's a marginal pleasure, as it was in I'm Going Home, to experience the forbidden art of, y'know, inflection. And I suppose one could argue that it's a species of reflexive comedy to have Henri befriend the all-purpose sounding board that is a bartender (though it would have been funnier still had MdO abruptly placed the passive listeners in Uncertainty Principle or A Talking Picture behind previously nonexistent bars). Still, in the final scene, as the servants tidy up and repeatedly mutter "What a weird guy," I wasn't convinced it was Henri they were talking about.

August Days (Marc Recha, Spain): 54

August is my least favorite month, and I walked out of Recha's previous film (Where Is Madame Catherine?), and Waz fairly cackled at the prospect of my sitting through this meandering travelogue-cum-memoir -- long story short, my heart rate was a long way from elevated as I took my seat. But the expected agony never arrived, though long stretches of the film are kind of magnificently pointless. Thankfully, any pretense of narrative falls by the wayside quite early (apart from a late and ill-advised swerve into faux Antonioni); if you can tune out the oft-pretentious voiceover, courtesy of an unseen Recha sibling, what remains is a gorgeous reverie, one in which the sounds of fauna chirping and flora rustling are as captivating as the majestic Catalan landscape. Plus, after a while I became fascinated by how much strenuous effort Recha expends in an attempt to feign spontaneity -- if you see this, think at all times about where the camera is and how it got there, vs. where it might be in a genuine captured-on-the-fly road flick. Not my thing, ultimately, but not painful either, and sometimes quite lovely. Personal note to Marc, though, should he ever stumble onto this: Lose the fake wisp of ponytail, dude. You look like a major dork.

Little Children (Todd Field, USA): 48

Unfortunately, they mean the audience. We can't be trusted, apparently, to empathize with Kate Winslet's stifled homemaker unless she's surrounded in early scenes by a gaggle of repellently shallow and judgmental soccer moms prattling about the benefit of scheduling marital sex. ("That's what Lewis and I do. Every Tuesday night at nine.") Nor does the movie give a damn about our heroine's boring husband -- though, offensively, it pretends to care for a moment, shifting to his point-of-view and relating the particulars of his obsession with online porn icon Slutty Kay before banishing him forever to the role of oblivious cuckold. (The other spouse in the equation receives a bit more attention, but only, it seems, because she's played by Jennifer Connelly; the character as written is just as bland and thinly conceived.) By the time Winslet's Sarah joins a book club just in time for their discussion of Madame Bovary (complete with pointed comments by one of the disapproving soccer moms), I'd lost patience with the film's clumsy vacillation between painstaking naturalism and barn-broad satire, to the point where I actually found myself beginning to miss the presence of the sardonic omniscient narrator, whose wall-to-wall psychological exposition in the first reel had made me feel like I was watching the most expensive Book on Tape ever created -- and one that had somehow mistaken Tom Perrotta for John Cheever. Not as oppressively, self-importantly hushed as In the Bedroom, thank god, but Field is still trying way too hard; he's got all the right intentions but zero sense of proportion.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria): 52

Apparently I'm not a True Believer, because while Tropical Malady struck me as a major breakthrough, investing Joe's bizarre amalgam of the mundane and the surreal with metaphorical grandeur and an almost heartbreaking sense of emotional urgency, this film, like his earlier work, seems like little more than playful dicking around. Individual scenes are charming or eerie or faintly elegiac or whatever they happen to be, but despite the (usual) bifurcated structure and (expected) doublings and repetitions, no identifiable gestalt emerges -- even the glowing reviews seem uncertain what the film is actually about*, invariably resorting to terminally vague muttering about the nature of memory, which frankly I'd like to see anyone reach that conclusion without first gleaning from other reviews, festival blurbs or the press notes that the two main characters were inspired by Joe's parents. Furthermore, if I were to compare a film to "a nice nap" (see Victor Morton's Toronto capsule), it wouldn't remotely be a compliment. Fact is, Syndromes really does approximate a nice nap: It's pleasant, soothing, and utterly devoid of passion or vitality -- a quaint curio. And it worries me a little that Joe is starting to get predictable in his unpredictability: When the final shot began, I knew instantly that it would be the final shot, not because it's in any way a culmination but because it's so obviously the sort of waggishly irrelevant coup de cinéma that Joe would end a film with**. Indeed, my basic problem with S&aC is that it could theoretically go on forever in the same low-key, observational, cryptically allusive vein. Or it could have been a 37-minute short. Everything is unique, but nothing is necessary.

* Yes, I'm afraid I do need a movie to be "about" something.

** But if anyone has located an mp3 of that insanely catchy tune, contact me immediately. Also the song from Citizen Dog. Should I just start buying Thai pop albums? Any recommendations?