Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 37, November 2002



Martha P. Nochimson


New York Film Festival 2002



The 40th annual New York Film Festival was framed by the refusal of the United States government to grant Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami a visa to attend the screening of his film, _Ten_. In protest Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, whose apolitical film _The Man Without a Past_ was also on the Festival program, decided not to attend. A week or so into the Festival, Bertrand Tavernier found himself unable to attend his press conference after the screening of his highly political film, _Safe Conduct_, because he was in the hospital. He sent a letter to the Festival apologizing for his absence which made it clear that he had wanted, in addition to discussing his film, to make his own statement about the insult to Kiarostami. Tavernier saluted Kaurismaki for his gesture, but said that his way was to be present at the Festival to raise his voice. Tavernier specifically called attention to the bitter irony of lumping Kiarostami with the Arab terrorists and with Saddam Hussein, only because of his national origin, when the Iranian director had devoted his life to affirming the values of freedom and condemning dictatorship.


The differences between the ways that Tavernier and Kaurismaki chose to address this problem, and the American attitude toward Kiarostami as an artist within the context of George Bush's anti-terrorist agenda, gave a particular energy to the question of what it means to express one's vision, a question that was provoked by so many of this year's films. Where does the individual fit into the broad cultural landscape? What are the implications of silence/absence and language/presence in marking out the territory of expression?


Five films which struck me as provocatively suggestive as a group with respect to these questions, though they have no overt political implications, are _The Son_ (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne), _Auto Focus_ (Dir. Paul Schrader), _The Man Without a Past_ (Dir. Aki Kaurismaki), _About Schmidt_ (Dir. Alexander Payne), and _Punch-Drunk Love_ (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson). Together they present the possibility of discussing a rich spectrum of issues regarding the expressive possibilities of 'The Movie Star', the filmic texture of mise-en- scene/cinematography/editing, and the creation of filmic space through the use of sound/music/dialogue/silence.


All five films are about men confronting the dark, ambiguous, half-hidden regions of their being. _The Son_, the most silent, ambiguous, and indeterminate of them, is also the most powerful person journey. Olivier, played by Olivier Gourmet who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance, is the protagonist. He is a depressed, recently divorced man, in charge of a carpentry training center for troubled boys who have completed detention for criminal behavior. He stands at the axis of their futures, providing a possibility that a viable skill will enable these boys to turn away from their downward descent into the underworld of society and become useful citizens. The slender story follows the relationship, which far outstrips the plot in interest, between Olivier and a young man named Francis (Morgan Marinne) as Olivier gives special attention to the boy, ostensibly because he is new to the center and must learn the ropes. As _The Son_ begins, although we become so intimate with the physical tone of Olivier the viewer can almost smell him, so engaged does the film make us in the textures of his body and his manner of doing things, it is almost impossible to know where we are situated and what Olivier is about. Only gradually do we learn who and what he is and that his obsessive, furtive interest in Francis is not erotic, nothing could be further from his intentions -- even though the point of view from which the film shows him examining Francis suggests film cliches by means of which stalkers are often depicted. For reasons that I will not disclose to forego ruining any reader's first viewing of this magnificent film, Olivier is torn between rage, curiosity, and his professional responsibility, as he (and the filmgoer) gets to know Francis in momentary glimpses and fragmentary conversations. Francis is completely unaware of Olivier's motivations until a final confrontation that will create a profound 'rehabilitation' for both of them. The Dardennes' strategy is to invite us first into the chaos of the human heart and only belatedly into the plot as a way of forcing the audience to forego the safety of the customary distance from the frenzy of onscreen characters. The result is a filmic experience of great richness and purity born of a situation and location so seemingly colorless and mundane that it would seem to defy the visual medium that carries it. But this vision of two ordinary lives plunges the viewer into the depths of the conflict between ego and our highest capacities for spirituality.


A similar ambiguity pervades audience introduction to the world of The Man (Markku Peltola) who is the protagonist of _The Man Without a Past_. Kaurismaki's film opens with the almost wordless observation of an obviously tired working class artisan travelling on a train with a small suitcase and his tools. This Man gets off at his stop without any exposition about the reason for his journey, his point of departure, or his identity, only to be mugged and severely beaten by a trio of psychotics. The first third of the film is a slow emergence of character from the depths of amnesia, followed by a full recovery, for character and audience, of the circumstances that preceded his coma. Again, distance from the maelstrom of character confusion is collapsed, though Kaurismaki does not submerge us in a sea of perceptions as the Dardennes did, but rather puts us in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of comic absurdity. We must, along with The Man, learn the rules of the tiny town into which he has been abandoned. The comedy of his re-discovery of his skills and talents at the craft of welding, by which he once made his living, the re-discovery of love with a lonely Salvation Army woman, the re-entrance of music and joy into his life from the silence of trauma, and his dealings with the hurdles of what has been left behind, all leave us breathless with pleasure at the persistence of life, even in this very violent world. Ultimately, the film is about those sensations and the joking spirit of human survival, rather than about plot.


In _Punch-Drunk Love_, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) begins the film in a state in which three-quarters of him is buried under a chronic torpor composed of congealed silent rage, leavened by fits of manic activity. In the opening shot he is depicted behind a large, bare, rectangular desk, motionless in a barren, cinderblock warehouse. The stasis is punctuated by flurries of activity: a truck dumps a very small piano, unfathomably at the bottom of the warehouse driveway; a pretty blonde, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), leaves her car to be fixed, with much emotional subtext, also not quite fathomable. Barry's hordes of sisters and brother-in-laws (the sisters played by seven women who are not professional actresses, but are sisters) constantly talk about a childhood event in which torpid Barry broke up the place with a hammer. This seems unimaginable until Barry suddenly has had enough of their taunting and shatters all the glass he can find in the dining room of one of his sisters. As with Kaurismaki and the Dardennes, the first approach to the audience takes us beneath the surfaces of Barry's world, which are much more polished and smooth than anything in either _The Son_ or _The Man Without a Past_. _Punch-Drunk Love_ represents a near-perfect blend of slick Hollywood glamour and porous sensibility. The film plunges us into Barry's hilarious compulsiveness at the same time that it attends to the textural range of environments that he moves through: from the stark warehouse, to the cluttered comfort of a middle-class home, to the clean or even bare aesthetics of the apartment of the single person, to the lushness of an upscale Hawaiian resort. The film contains the best sound design of the offerings in the Festival, an aspect of the film that deepens our commitment to who Barry is, and what his world is made of, that supersedes our engagement with what happens to him, amusing as that is. The comic plot, which concerns how his manic collection of enough pudding cans to gain him a million free airplane miles leads to the fulfilment of a full emotional experience, would normally provide the distance to make Barry a puppet cavorting for our momentary entertainment. But the fact that the plot is a belated aspect of the film, preceded by the audience's immersion in Barry's sensibility, changes our relation to the mechanics of the story spine. The feeling of what happens precedes in importance the sequence of events. Anderson takes us beyond entertainment to a broadening of our sympathies, laughing all the way.


By contrast, even though Alexander Payne and Paul Schrader told us in detail about how deeply they were committed to the pain and suffering and pure humanity of Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) in _About Schmidt_ and Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) in _Auto Focus_ respectively, the resulting films are superficial, cliched, and negligible. Unless you count two Star Performances by Nicholson and Kinnear, each of whom is everything the Hollywood system yearns for and more. But what does a Star Performance express of the character who faces, or so the plot insists, the meaninglessness of his life. The very high polish of the Nicholson persona chews up and spits out the situation the film keeps telling us it represents, that of an insurance executive who upon retirement loses his wife and goes on a road trip in the RV that was supposed to convey them through their sunset years. The initial image is very promising and very similar to the initial image of _Punch-Drunk Love_. A remarkably Buster Keaton-like Schmidt is sitting as motionless as death and as static as indeterminacy, listening to a ticking clock in an office that has been completely packed up except for the desk. But as the film unfolds, it turns out that this figure is a Star named Jack Nicholson, only loosely disguised as Schmidt.


Between Nicholson's magical Star discourse and the relentless plot of this film, we never get under the surface of Schmidt. Everything is a gesture that represents the chasm of old age and regret. Creaky but competent, this tired old sausage-machine plot turns out a nice, comfortable old-time sexist construction of the maudlin, self-justifying male text: 'I do the best I can, but I'm on a ship of fools. No one appreciates me or knows the real me.' It still works; after all it was chosen for the Festival and takes its place among truly impressive filmic achievements, saddled as it is with the same old tired crew that always accompanies the misunderstood patriarch: the sweet but wrongheaded daughter that Father cannot steer in a direction he knows best, and the idiot son-in-law with his mother in tow. Can you believe it? The mother-in-law is a barracuda, who makes some very unwelcome sexual advances toward Schmidt. I'll bet you never could have guessed. The problem is she's played by Kathy Bates, who in France would be Simone Signoret. At the press conference it was obvious that she is a highly attractive, big woman, of deep sensuality. No film has ever permitted me to see this side of her. But in Payne's film, once again, she's a big joke, with a lot of unwarranted nerve. Clearly, Bates has learned to roll with it, the way the potentially lovely Louise Beavers made herself obese in deference to the Hollywood moguls who wanted her for roles only as a huge, black maid.


At the press conference, Nicholson charmed the lighting fixtures off the walls, or at least persuaded them to shine only on him. And he also, involuntarily, gave away the shallow workmanship of the core of his performance as he gave us insight into Schmidt's voice-over which frames the film, the strategy used most often by Hollywood to bring us to intimacy with a character we might not ordinarily sympathize with. Most of the voice-over is Schmidt's recital of the letters he writes to Ndugu, a little African child to whose welfare he is contributing through one of those long distance Save-a-Child programs. Significantly, Ndugu remains silent. (At the end a French priest writes back to Schmidt for him.) Nicholson told us that in searching for an anchor for his character he was relieved to find the name Ndugu, which, he opined, is innately funny. Every voice-over in the film silently screams with Nicholson's amusement at its sound. How, he asked us, can you go wrong when you have a name like Ndugu to make the audience laugh? Indeed. Laughing at non-Western names has saved many a Hollywood film. This shtick, and innumerable others, distance the audience so completely from whatever sensibility Nicholson might be endowed with that, at the end, when Schmidt bursts into tears, finally 'seeing' that all he has left is Ndugu's gratitude conveyed by someone else, that his life is empty, it is beyond impossible to care. Though it is possible to say: 'Boy that Jack Nicholson is some great star.'


_Auto Focus_ is all that and more, or less, because Greg Kinnear is not as great a star as Nicholson. He approaches his character just as externally as Nicholson did, but he doesn't have the monstrous charisma of the older actor. This chronicle of Bob Crane, the actor who played Hogan on _Hogan's Heroes_, a television show (for the information of anyone who has the good fortune not to know) that was based on the most unpromising but wildly successful premise that we will enjoy the hijinks of our boys in a German prisoner of war camp. By contrast, the premise of the film looks juicy on paper: nice, church going boy increasingly obsessed with pornography and drugs, abetted by John Carpenter, a techie who keeps Crane abreast in the most literally way of the latest tools for recording himself in the sex act. Cool, there's also a homoerotic subtext in their odd relationship. But the film barely rises above the level of the sitcom itself. Full of talented actors, it forces them into one cliche after another. It leers childishly at Crane's 'auto focus' on his sex life with whores without engaging the audience in any form of understanding. It tiptoes around homoeroticism without any honest exploration of what was happening between Crane and Carpenter. The frame composition rivals that of the basic sit-com shot pattern. There isn't one shot that doesn't appear to be awash in three-point lighting, even in what are supposed to be strip dives in Los Angeles, even when Crane has some drug induced hallucinations.


All about the subconscious of its main character, _Auto Focus_ never invites the audience into that shifting, mysterious place. It asks us to take on faith that Crane is confused and out of control within a film in which nothing is out of control. It is all spit, polish, dialogue and expository scenes. It even purports to clarify the real-life mystery of who killed Bob Crane, a mystery that was never actually solved. The film unequivocally identifies Carpenter as the culprit. Schrader claims that the film is about selfishness, and that Crane's increasing involvement with pornography is a symptom of Crane's decreasing ability to empathize with any point of view but his own. It's a good idea, but it never reaches the screen. If any film's rhetoric ever worked against its own premise -- the descent of a seemingly decent guy into decadence and self-destruction -- this one does. What does it mean to cinematically represent the dead-ends of orgiastic abandon? Can a film do so when it only speaks the language of television production values?


Other films from the festival that I would like to attend to are _Talk to Her_ (Dir. Pedro Almodovar), _Russian Ark_ (Dir. Alexander Sokurov), _Safe Conduct_ (Dir. Bertrand Tavernier), _Chihwaseon_ (Dir. Im Kwon-Taek), and _To Be and To Have_ (Dir. Nicholas Philibert). In important ways, _Talk to Her_ and _Russian Ark_ not only raise questions about the language of movie making, they are directly about that language. With _Talk to Her_, Almodovar deals with the problems of making a film about a one-sided conversation. The central figure of this film is a young, comatose ballerina -- while men and events swirl around her hospital bed. Her plight is soon augmented by the arrival in the hospital of another comatose woman, older than she and in the more exotic profession of bullfighter. Almodovar approaches this seemingly unpromising story idea by pulling out all stops cinematically. He has said that he was afraid and filled with anxiety all the way through the process of making this film, but aesthetically it is a major success, bearing original and unique cinematic rhythms and structure. Setting the viewer up obliquely, the film opens with a performance by the Pina Bausch dance company that creates the tone of the situation of the silent, comatose women on whom the film depends; the director also creates his own extremely funny silent film-within-a-film midway through the proceedings, again to obliquely convey what cannot be directly stated. _Talk to Her_ is the *tour de force* of a master craftsman. Some have noted that for all Almodovar's avowed interest in feminine identity, this one reduces women who are of particular physical vitality to profound passivity. True enough, but this potentially satiric representation of the male/female-dominance/submission pattern also pushes the envelope regarding the nature of telling stories on film.


_Russian Ark_ is one long foray into seeing how far a director can go. It is a 96 minute film shot in one take. This is no small feat, to say the very least, and many will spend the entire hour and a half wondering how Sokurov did it. One decision that was basic to Sokurov's ability to effect his *tour de force* is to set the entire film in one location, the magnificent Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Interestingly, although _Russian Ark_ does examine the architecture and many of the paintings of the Hermitage, the film did not recreate for me my breathtaking first experience of this museum and its almost magical riches. But it did create a flowing historical image of Russia from the 18th Century to the present, and it contains the longest scene ever put on screen of leave-taking after a ball, certainly an elegiac farewell to Tsarist extravagance that would not have been possible to represent only a few years ago. Some will think that its image of flow is somewhat idiosyncratic and distorted as an overview of the evolution of Russia, but it will be hard to dispute its importance as a landmark in the history of the long take.


_Safe Conduct_ and _Chihwaseon_ each directly tackle the subject of social control over the artist. Neither makes excursions into the depths of human consciousness, nor prods the technological limits of cinematography; these two films are both more or less historical in their approach to their narratives. Each takes a particular stance on well known figures in French and Korean history. _Safe Conduct_ is an encyclopedic, multiplot story of screenwriters working in France at Continental Pictures, run by the Germans during the World War II Occupation, the name of the company being the goal of the invading army as well. It is a revisionist project that, in the words of the press kit,


'focuses on the attempts of the men and women working within the French cinema industry to continue working and by-pass the Nazis' propaganda machine. It is an understated allegory for the situation as a whole in occupied France.'


There is already much debate over whether this film is apologist in its claim that it is infinitely difficult to draw a clear line between collaboration and resistance. The film is a melange of close calls and clever stratagems in dealing with the Nazis that avoid the full horror of World War II. But the tapestry is complex, and clearly Tavernier sees very few having a real 'safe conduct' pass during this time. He is more tolerant of behavior that others would call collaborationist than perhaps he should be, but he draws interesting portraits, whether they are historically accurate or not, of Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) and Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), the two main protagonists, as studies in methods of combining survival and some form of integrity in a world controlled by despicable men and ideas.


_Chihwaseon_ depicts the life and times of Jang Seung-Up (Choi Min-Sik), an artist who lived in late 19th century Korea, a time of chaos and upheaval. Jang was by birth a commoner and so unable to belong to the only two categories of artist recognized by his society: the court painter and the literati painter. But his passionate determination and a talent that would not die allowed him to create himself as a category of one. He took the pen name of Ohwon, a way of proclaiming himself in a league with the two painters who were the lions of his day: Syewon and Danwon. Ohwon means 'I too am one'. Born in 1843, after a career of individualistic assertion in a society that did not permit such displays, Ohwon disappeared mysteriously in 1897, never to be heard from again. The film does not ask what kind of inner landscape resulted in a person so distinctive and different from his peers, but asks us simply to take note of the progress of a man noted for his personal excesses (women and wine) and disregard of class distinctions in a period of manners, moderation, and status consciousness. In the press conference, Im Kwon-Taek admitted to an identification with Ohwon, and thus to an autobiographical edge to this biography of an enigmatic painter. In his press kit, which was the most learned of all the kits at the festival, Im Kwon-Taek says that he met Ohwon spiritually while he was preparing for the film, and that he considers the painter 'another shape of me who keeps struggling for art with a camera instead of the brush he held a hundred years ago'. Clearly, the director believes that the artist must go his own way to express anything beyond social cliche. This extends to the end of the film, when the disappearance of Ohwon is interpreted by Im Kwon-Taek. Ohwon is shown to walk voluntarily into a red hot oven and is reduced to charred cinders. However, this is a scene of apotheosis, unlike the realism of events that preceded it. It emerges out of the spirit of Ohwon's attitude and the imaginative level on which his paintings exist. Unlike Schrader, Im is not nailing down as a pseudo-fact an event that cannot be historically understood. He is, rather, raising it to the level of mythology.


Finally there is the documentary _To Be and To Have_, which purports to be a more or less direct reflection of history. It recounts a year in a one-room schoolhouse in northern France run by teacher George Lopez, who, along with the pupils of the school at Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson and their families, are the sole 'cast' of the film. The film begins in the snow, with a herd of cattle being moved for reasons that are never clear, by people whose identity we never learn. Forward and back the cattle go, from one spot to another, but not to a barn, as might have been expected, but to a mill in the shining snow, the cattle called here and there by anonymous men and women, made more anonymous by their heavy winter clothes. The scene then shifts to children getting onto a school bus which takes them down a treacherous winding road to a school warm and reassuring in its comforts, not the least of which is George Lopez, their gentle and understanding teacher. Is there an analogy being made between children and cattle? It's hard to tell. Because there is no other reason for the cattle to be there, this would seem to be the case. But the genuine care and interest shown by Lopez would seem to negate that first impression. Or perhaps the answer is 'yes' and 'no'.


The film is a series of vignettes, with no particular story except the structure of the school year leading to graduation, or completion of a step toward it. As with all documentaries, _To Be and To Have_ makes one ponder whether it is recording history or creating it by the intrusiveness of the camera; whether it is telling the stories of the children and their schoolmaster or exploiting them. These questions become particularly poignant at the end of the film, when summer is beginning, and the landscape is green and idyllic, and Lopez is watching the children leave school, some of them forever, contemplating his own retirement of which he has spoken. In a long take of his face, what are we witnessing? Do we see candid emotions flicker across his eyes and mouth, or is he posing for the camera after a year of apprenticeship as its subject?


This collection of films and all the others from the festival, which for a variety of reasons have not been discussed here, press us to consider the ambiguous relationship between narrative and film, that marriage that is a staple of commercial distribution. What does plot enable us to say, where does it block expression? How does it become a convenient surface for political pressure to pounce on, allowing governments (and others) an excuse to turn a blind eye to the richness of other means of expression available to the director and his cast, simplifying a complex statement for easy digestion? The 40th New York Film Festival offered a charmed occasion to be immersed in these questions, and the pleasure of some brilliant international company.


Mercy College, New York, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Martha P. Nochimson, 'New York Film Festival 2002', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 37, November 2002 <>.



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