Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 43, November 2003

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson

 

New York Film Festival 2003

 

 

This year there was a noticeable presence at the New York Film Festival, whether intentionally or not, of films reflecting back on the past, both real and imagined. A second wave of millennial summing up, more profound than that forced by the media in the year 2000, these films, at their best, seek with courage and compassion to understand the larger forces at work in the troubled 20th century. At their worst, they stand as work riddled by self-deluding cliches in collusion with our own worst impulses. Among the number of 'films of remembrance' shown, those that demand to be discussed because they best exemplify the ongoing struggle to make cinema responsive to the needs of filmgoing audiences to know reality 'again for the first time' (pace T. S. Eliot) are, in a rough order of importance: _S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine_ (Dir. Rithy Pan); _The Fog of War_ (Dir. Errol Morris); _Dogville_ (Dir. Lars von Trier); _Mayor of the Sunset Strip_ (Dir. George Hickenlooper); _Bright Leaves_ (Dir. Ross McElwee); and _The Best of Youth_ (Dir. Marco Tullio Giordana). Alas, among the NYFF 2003 films of memory and summation, it is also necessary to discuss _Mystic River_ (Dir. Clint Eastwood), but only because of its inexplicable media notoriety, a sad testimony to a Dubya phenomenon in things cinematic. This is one hanging chad. Among the festival films not informed by this core trend, but eminently worthy of mention, are: _PTU_ (Dir. Johnnie To); _Free Radicals_ (Dir. Barbara Albert); _Crimson Gold_ (Dir. Jafar Panahi); and _Raja_ (Dir. Jacques Doillon), though, unhappily, it would strain this portmanteau overview to talk in detail about more than the first two.

 

_S21_ and _The Fog of War_ are both documentaries that probe the edges of two of our greatest cultural nightmares: the regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975-1979, and American aggression in the last half of the 20th century, primarily in Vietnam and Cambodia. In many ways, these two documentaries interface not only in their focus on the same historical epoch, but also in their rejection of the usual address to the audience through action and event. In their reliance on unadorned testimony, both give evidence of filmmakers who have come to the conclusion that in telling these stories there would have been something essentially corrupt about imitating fiction film with narrative recreations. To the credit of both films, the cheap emotionality of the pathetic fallacy, so dominant in the works of panderers to the spectacle of human suffering like Steven Spielberg, is cleanly avoided. These documentaries are more in the tradition of Claude Lanzman's approach to the European Holocaust.

 

Both Rithy Pan and Errol Morris grapple unflinchingly with the question of how one makes a film about events that are barely understood, events that challenge us to come to grips with the darkest moments in human history. Of necessity, the films give two different answers. The American documentary frames the question from a relatively safe perspective, that of the concerned onlooker; Errol Morris was a participant in the Anti-War movement in the 1970s at the University of Wisconsin and at Princeton, far from the napalm and the genocide. Rithy Pan speaks from the center of the South East Asian holocaust. He was 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over his country. He lost his entire family to their terrorism and was himself sent to a labor camp, from which he miraculously escaped to Thailand and found his way to France, where he made his first steps toward becoming a filmmaker.

 

There is also a stark opposition between the materials available to these two filmmakers. The American documentary directly interrogates one of the major architects of the debacle in South East Asia: Robert MacNamara, the Secretary of Defense for both President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, the man materially responsible for the savaging of the country of Viet Nam and the creation of the kinds of conditions in Cambodia that caused the rise of the Khmer Rouge. By contrast, Rithy Pan creates his film out of the memories of the most helpless of the survivors of S21: Vann Nath, a fine artist, who was imprisoned in S21 for reasons he still doesn't understand, one other survivor, and a dozen of the former Khmer Rouge, some of them his former jailers. The New York Film Festival, in bringing these two films together in one event, reveals one of the more unexamined bonuses of the festival phenomenon: films that might have drifted in their own orbits by being distributed in very diverse venues, are made to talk to each other. _S21_ and _The Fog of War_ look blankly into each other's eyes, the first featuring a man asking for someone to take responsibility, the second featuring a man denying the possibility of such a thing.

 

Pan's _S21_ is about the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge death camps, which were instituted for no other reason than to kill Cambodians for utterly imagined crimes against the government. The prisoners were brought to S21 like animals intended for slaughter. They were starved and beaten, manacled 24 hours a day in a prone position, except when they were put through a ceremony of death that principally involved the use of torture to elicit painstakingly detailed confessions to crimes they never committed, crimes that never occurred at all. There is no film footage in the documentary of any of these events; I have no idea whether any exists. The film begins with a beautiful image of a woman washing a baby, strangely it is a grandmother figure not the mother, who is nowhere in sight. This is perhaps the distillation of what is to come, a statement that though life goes on an entire generation is missing. Pan then permits us to overhear the conversations of Vann Nath who, along with only two other S21 inmates out of a total of 17,000 prisoners, is still alive to tell what happened. Nath speaks with one other survivor, and several former guards. The guards, who began to work at S21 in their teens, describe, as if recovering some part of their memories that they have long locked up, their daily routine. Their bodies propel them into re-enactments of daily chores, words used long ago burst from their lips, as if they are sleepwalkers. When asked direct questions they can only say, without any self-consciousness born of the Nuremberg trials, 'I followed orders'. Pan tracks the camera around the maze of rooms in the now empty camp; Vann Nath speaks while he paints brightly colored, expressionistic images of lines of men manacled to each other. We see the endless piles of photographs and elegantly written confessions of chimerical crimes painstakingly recorded for each one of the 17,000 souls to come through this process, a process arguably rooted in lessons learned from the French about the need to document everything. We somehow become soaked in the air, the dust, the molecules of this setting. We begin to know this place, as does Nath, while like him we cannot know why it happened. In every way Nath's questions, which become ours, go unanswered: How could it happen and why has no one apologized or even said they were sorry?

 

The brilliance of Pan's film is manifold. Born out of his own need to tell this story, it is utterly without self-pity, without rage, while it remains steadfastly uncompromising in its refusal to blink at anything, including his belief that 'memory is fragile'. There is no attempt to satisfy a demand for certainty, to give what can be recovered even the slightest appearance of solid fact: the fate of fact in this instance is all too devastatingly present in the piles of coerced confessions slowly turning to dust. Instead, the film boldly releases the power of what is not there. As the former guards give their somnambulist performances, what can never be recovered for sight emerges from the empty space. Nath's non-realistic paintings populate the terrible rooms with the bodies of real people and the sufferings that can never be directly shown. And out of all this rises the phantoms of the Khmer Rouge leaders, so elusive and distant in every way, being never in direct, embodied communication with the guards in the trenches, who nevertheless pitilessly carried out their will to the smallest detail. Because the film will not reduce these perpetrators of one of the most horrendous persecutions in human history to graspable villains, they become unforgettable in their ineffability, daring us to do something with this new knowledge of evil. _S21_ approaches perfection in its documentary purity, putting to shame the vulgar compromises made by so many who have sought to excavate the European holocaust and other human tragedies by forging for the camera the appearance of solid representability that it craves.

 

In _The Fog of War_ Errol Morris makes the vulgar choice, but with a knowing, satirical intention, imitating in the structure of his film what is also the content: the representation of a man with the soul of an engineer, with all the longing of his kind for clean edges, even though he is dealing with the irretrievably messiest circumstance known to the human condition: war. _The Fog of War_ catches on film the bottomless pit of internal contradictions that make up such a man as Robert McNamara, illustrating a mind moving slowly in endless circles of self-justification and angst by creating a tension between the overt structure of the documentary and the content. Morris begins the film with some old footage of McNamara holding a pointer in front of some pristine, clearly articulated charts by means of which he is about to explain everything to his audience of government officials. Morris then goes on to divide the film into eleven 'clear cut lessons', in the style of the self help book, including: 1, Empathize With Your Enemies; 2, Rationality Will Not Save Us; 7, Belief and Seeing are Often Both Wrong; 9, In Order to do Good, You May Have to Engage in Evil; and so forth. The lesson titles themselves are a study in confusion and the abdication of responsibility. McNamara's augmentation of these points, presented as if great clarity were being reached, is a Sargasso sea of motives and memories that nothing will ever untangle. Unable to apologize (since how can he assign guilt when he has come to the conclusion that reason, belief, and perception are so immensely flawed) he is also unable to rid himself of the sorrow that reason, belief, and perception have forced upon him. With wit and irony, but also compassion, Errol has constructed a deceptively simple portrait of the United States as weeping assassin. The accomplishment pales before that of Rithy Pan's surgical removal of his heart for exposure before a film audience, but it is a substantial achievement: an American self-appraisal unalloyed by the cloying treacle of pseudo-patriotism.

 

Like _The Fog of War_, George Hickenlooper's _Mayor of the Sunset Strip_ and Ross McElwee's _Bright Leaves_ also demonstrate the growing American interest in (and genius for) documentary. These are both much smaller projects than those of Morris and Pan, and though each is a confrontation of a suitably enigmatic subject, neither could or does aim for the heart-stopping importance of either of the above discussed films. Nonetheless, _Mayor of the Sunset Strip_, in chronicling the unusual life and times of Rodney Bingenheimer, shines a light on a subject of interest: the pathos and incongruities of the hysteria for celebrity. Bingenheimer, a small, almost inarticulate, self-effacing man, who responds to questions about what makes for a great musical artist with comments that add up to an endorsement of rhythm and melody, inexplicably spent a couple of decades in Los Angeles, as a Rock and Roll star-maker. Through a chain of events that the film attempts to probe, this likeable nerd who at first lacked a job and never had financial resources to speak of, became the final word on which music groups had 'it'. Later, when he became a disk jockey for KROQ, he made careers simply by playing on his show music that other, more established stations wouldn't touch. Plainly it was simply the proximity of the records to Bingenheimer that did the trick; though his lack of anything ordinarily associated with charisma or eloquence gives the film ample occasion to play with mystery. Moreover, in a business hardly known for either its memory or its warmth, the heavy hitters that Bingenheimer helped propel to stardom (David Bowie, Cher) remain surprisingly grateful and warm toward him, despite the fact that he no longer has a platform from which to promote anyone, not even himself. Once the man to sleep with, not for his own attractions, but because he was the attainable hand that had touched the hand of everyone's unattainable rock idol, he now lives alone in an apartment filled with the rock memorabilia of his halcyon days, dreaming of the ideal woman.

 

Hickenlooper's documentary is replete with star interviews, great vintage footage, and a curiosity about the lives of others who had all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that the sixties and seventies had to offer, almost certainly as mirrors of our own unrealized fantasies of notoriety and debauchery. Ross McElwee's _Bright Leaves_ cuts out the middleman and goes right to self-examination, not of our dreams and wishes for glitz and sleaze, however, but of the desire for roots and a distinguished pedigree. In a very funny self-satire, McElwee goes once again in search of his southern roots, this time spurred on by a wonderfully depicted dream about tobacco leaves which opens the film. Now, why did I dream that, he wonders and his wife enlightens him. The old days below the Mason Dixon line are calling to him. Returning to North Carolina, McElwee reconnects with a cousin, the heretofore unknown riches of his spectacular collection of original 35mm Hollywood prints and memorabilia, and, best of all, a family secret that will finally make up for the injuries the McElwee family has suffered at the hands of the Duke family. Old Duke, it seems, cheated Old McElwee out of an important tobacco patent which ruined him financially and raised the Dukes to the heights of pre-eminent social power in North Carolina. However, the McElwee family secret that the documentary maker is greeted with on his trip home is that _Bright Leaf_ (Dir. Michael Curtiz, 1950) the Patricia Neal/Gary Cooper film, is the story of his family's agony. (For those uninitiated in tobacco lore, Bright Leaf is the name of a commercially desirable variety of tobacco.) The Dukes, as he says, may have Bull Durham, but the McElwees have their own Hollywood movie.

 

Or do they? Following up on this genealogical lightning bolt, McElwee has hilarious encounters with Patricia Neal; the widow of the author of the novel on which Bright Leaf was based; tobacco farmers; film critics at the North Carolina School of the Arts; an old teacher; eccentric relatives worthy of Tennessee Williams; the 50th and final Tobacco Day parade with all its beauty queens; and friends trying to quit smoking. He dredges up old home movies that pose more questions, including that of why his staunchly Protestant father is wearing a yarmulke during a Christmas day telephone call. Ultimately, of course, McElwee is playing with issues so fruitful for documentaries: How can we know what we know? How do we use popular culture in constructing our identities? What is the nature of history?

 

Fiction can equal and even surpass documentary in its exploration of human mysteries, only, however, if it takes a suitably oblique route. Though there have been many towering feature films about the nature of evil, there has never been a single onscreen fictional narrative about the European Holocaust that didn't trivialize the suffering of all those who perished in the death camps of the Third Reich, on the battlefield, and on the home fronts across Europe.

 

Similarly, although the devastation of abuse has fared better in popular culture fictional narratives, films about abuse too often dwindle into message films, with the tones of case files, or become another form of exacerbating abuse because of the unexamined blind spots of their directors. The latter is the case with _Mystic River_, a film choking on cliches, both visual and narrative, and gleaming with thickly disguised misanthropic contempt for women, working class people, and, worst of all, men who are not in complete control of their destinies.

 

I will give Clint Eastwood, who according to Marcia Gay Harden is very nice to his actors, the benefit of the doubt; I doubt any awareness on his part of what a hateful film he has made. He is not likely to find enlightenment any time soon either because he has managed, as always, to push the buttons of the audience and of many reviewers unable to resist saluting that vigilante masculinity that masquerades as the 'no bullshit honesty' so dear to Americans. I would also like to state, before proceeding further, that I have not read the book by Dennis Lehane from which the film was adapted, so I don't know if Eastwood has swallowed from the source pre-packaged biases against women, working people, and men who share the universal human condition of frailty but have had worse luck than some. In any case, somewhere in the story he seems to have found inspiration for this new version of Dirty Harryism, with its liberal looking face-lift -- a disguise that may have fooled such normally aware actors as Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Sean Penn; either way, it certainly misused their talents. *Warning*: I will have to expose every significant plot event in the film in order to give this film the justice it deserves.

 

_Mystic River_ is the story of the lives of three smalltown boys from Massachusetts: Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn), a tough little customer, and Sean (Kevin Bacon). It uses flashback and present-day action to explore memory and the consequences of actions taken long ago. In flashback we learn that, as little boys, Dave, Jimmy, and Sean were accosted by a man purporting to be a policeman who, determining that Dave was the most sensitive of them, intimidated him into getting into an unmarked 'police car', after which Dave was abducted and repeatedly raped by the ersatz police officer and another man disguised as a priest. After four days, which we don't see except in very brief flashcuts, Dave escaped from the physical clutches of his tormentors, but indeed he never escaped from them psychologically. Cut to the present-day, thirty years later, and Jimmy is now the unofficial boss of the South Buckingham's underworld and is married to his second wife; Sean is a policeman who is emotionally blocked and has thereby alienated his wife to such an extent that she is in hiding from him, calling him from time to time without saying a word when he answers; and Dave is married and has a son, but he is still haunted by the terrible memories of his abduction. When Jimmy's teenaged daughter is murdered, Dave's next crisis flowers. Because of cliches about what abused children become as adults, he is suspected although he is innocent, and eventually when circumstantial evidence convinces Dave's wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) that her husband is indeed the person who murdered the girl, she confesses her fears to Jimmy. Sean is unable to keep Jimmy from murdering Dave in retaliation because he gets to Jimmy too late with the news of what really happened. Jimmy is at first overwhelmed by guilt, but makes his peace with it when his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), using a combination of sex and self-serving rationalization, successfully dissuades him from turning himself in.

 

Understood by many as a hard-hitting drama about ordinary people, an unflinching look at modern chaos, the film is actually the opposite side of the Hollywood coin, and buys into the fantasy of the patent on beauty and charm held by those rich enough to buy high fashion clothes and live in fabulous mansions. If decades of mind-numbing schlock has attached all the virtues to the rich -- so persuasively that I for one was devastated by disappointment when I met real rich people -- then _Mystic River_ is rotten with the corollary fantasy that is equally effective in supporting Hollywood's obsession with money. If the rich have all the beauty and charm, then what's left to say about the working people? Obviously, the 'fantasy' that attaches all ugliness and vice to people who cannot buy stylish clothes and who live in dark, cramped quarters. This is a film that never met a working-class man or woman it didn't think was ugly and spiritually deformed, a throwback to the old films of the 1930s and 40s in Hollywood. You want real, as opposed to fetishized glamour? Make it ugly. This mode of characterizing ordinary people dogs the work of Frank Capra, for example, though he at least allows one or two charming real folks among a sea of the unprepossessing masses. In Hollywood's most insulting fantasies, poor people have to be cleaned up by rich people in order to look good, as in _Annie Get Your Gun_ (1950). In Eastwood's film, among the denizens of the low rent district, with no Pygmalion in sight, only the murder victim, Katie (Emmy Rossum), the doomed 19 year old girl, radiates any human loveliness. Otherwise, Eastwood indulges in close-up shots and lighting that make the characters in this film look as ugly as possible, with the prize for grotesquery going to Dave and his wife. Yes indeedy, it's the boy who didn't become a cop or a gang boss, the boy whose sensitivity attracted the abusers who becomes the physical manifestation of repulsiveness; the other two, tougher boys, are only sneeringly mean in physiognomy. Not nice, the film whispers secretly, but more masculine, and better than the fate of soft guys.

 

But if the film registers a contempt for working class men who have the nerve to be sensitive, it is even more unforgiving of people who have the nerve to be working class women. Maybe the guys would have worked it all out, bad as the situation was, if not for the women, who are even softer than the soft guy; well, in terms of becoming emotional -- actually they're kind of hard in an emotional way. The film's hatred for women treads round and round this involution, creating an absurd scenario, almost completely lacking in motivation, in which women bear the responsibility for the heaping on poor Dave's head of suffering after suffering. The lack of female motivation for creating trouble is hidden under slathers of mock earnestness. Jimmy is really earnest when Celeste comes to tell him that she thinks Dave killed his daughter. That theory was already on the table, but Jimmy, earnestly, was holding out for evidence. Celeste doesn't actually have any, but the fact that Dave's wife would say a thing like that carries weight for Jimmy. And Celeste, tell us again just why you went to Jimmy with your fears. At least Annabeth does have financial and sexual motivation for keeping earnest Jimmy from going to the police when he learns he killed an innocent man, not to mention a friend. Breathing heavily and pawing him incessantly, Annabeth tells Jimmy that his actions are those of the man who will do anything for his family, and how proud that makes her, and how comforted she is to have him around the house. And his motivation for letting her convince him is completely understandable, once you understand how completely helpless the strongest man is rendered by working class female sexuality, that pernicious force. Whose guilt wouldn't cave in completely with Laura Linney crawling all over him, praising his manliness, and exhibiting many of her own tattoos? To switch metaphors with lighting speed, it turns out that Annabeth is Jimmy's Condoleeza Rice. If you drag your own values into the film, the two of them become contemptible. But how does the film itself frame them?

 

Here is probably where the audience divides about _Mystic River_. Perhaps some might dismiss the film's final turn of the knife as an inoffensive coincidence with little bearing on the meaning, but I see no reason to look away from the fact that emotionally repressed Sean finds immediate release right after Jimmy's act of vigilantism, stimulating his wife to speak. Film narrative works by the implications that emerge when pieces of film are spliced together. In the famous Kuleshov experiments, viewers assumed that the very same image of a man denoted hunger when juxtaposed to a bowl of soup, and sadness when juxtaposed with a coffin. The juxtaposition of Jimmy's violence and Sean's release is at work in the film even if no one wants to talk about it. Moreover, the final scene, a parade full of American flags in bright sunshine, may seem ironic to some, but I cannot find anything in it but a new rapport between Jimmy and Sean. In this last scene, Sean has not yet brought Jimmy in to be tried for Dave's murder, although he knows Jimmy's secret. Why not? Does he intend to give Jimmy a pass because boys will be boys, or to keep mum out of friendship for a man who is tougher than his innocent victim? These are in the air as Sean playfully points his finger at Jimmy to simulate the firing of a gun, while the parade passes by and Jimmy shrugs his shoulders back at Sean, with a kind of insouciance. Some will argue that the final mime between Sean and Jimmy is enigmatic, or implies a threat offered by Sean to Jimmy. But, it is necessary to dismantle the entire rhetoric of _Mystic River_ to avoid interpreting the closing frames as a sunshine-soaked version of the good old boy hand shake. Sure murder is wrong, but, Hell, it's more manly than 'taking it up the butt', to put it as crudely as the subtext of Eastwood's film does. If this isn't the most disingenuous cocktail of homophobia, misogyny, and misanthropy that has ever appeared in American movies, it will do.

 

Eastwood's version of an American summation of the past is chilling, distorting the processes of memory in order to reinstate with shiny new packaging all the old prejudices so many of us struggled so long to unwrap and discard. But again, if we consider that the festival permits films to talk to one another, the thickly cloaked biases of _Mystic River_ make a fascinating juxtaposition with Lars von Trier's latest film _Dogville_, which shows the ostensibly good, smalltown people of the American heartland to be precisely so cloaked. Contrasted with Eastwood's earnest 'realism' -- that turns out to be a mimetic style far from reality that savages ordinary life -- von Trier's cold contemplation of the supposedly decent 'ordinary Joe' of the American Depression era is utterly abstract in mode, re-evaluating, by means of the distancing powers of reflexivity, the nostalgia with which Diane Arbus's photos of the Depression are commonly regarded. The abstractions form a compact between film and audience that promotes an active contemplation of the difference between what things seem to be and what they are, as opposed to Eastwood's attempt to seduce us into believing that he's 'telling it like it is'. Happily, I will be able to proceed with a discussion of this and all the other fiction films to follow without giving away whatever narrative surprises there may be.

 

_Dogville_ takes place in a tiny, mythical American town of that name in the scenic Rocky Mountains, but there isn't a single natural setting in the entire film. The town is drawn like an architectural plan in chalk on a black floor. Bits and pieces of scenery indicate the presence of homes, shops, fields, and the town hall, but there are no complete sets. Moses, the dog, after which the town may have been named, is, until the end of the film, a diagram with sound effects. The costumes are correct to the period of the 1930s, but so very evocative of the fact that they are costumes. The acting styles announce that the performers are playing recognizable types: Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the young, aspiring, would-be writer; Grace (Nicole Kidman), the beautiful mysterious stranger; Tom Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall), the kindly retired town doctor; Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) the town curmudgeon; Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) the wise old woman; The Big Man (James Caan), the ruthless gangster boss; and so forth. The film contains a certifiable plot replete with suspense, surprises, and emotional moments, but it is narrated by John Hurt in the tones of a tale for children, very reminiscent of the narration of Stanley Kubrick's _Barry Lyndon_. There is no doubting the film's reflexivity; it presents itself as fiction and as a film.

 

There is nothing new in the tactic of peeling away the first positive impression to reveal unsuspected nether levels of evil, but von Trier makes it new, primarily because of what is revealed about Grace, the beautiful stranger. The revelations about the townsfolk of Dogville and their peccadilloes hark back to the naturalism of Sherwood Anderson in _Winesberg, Ohio_, which broke the news there was a range of kinds of sexuality in smalltown America, just like in the big cities, and also frequent lapses from the Judeo-Christian ethic even where there were no foreigners and Communists. Von Trier adds to this mix the possibilities for evil in that most seemingly virtuous of political forms: egalitarian, direct Democracy.

 

I'm going to go out on a limb to say, however, that Grace is von Trier's most completely original invention in this film, and she is the focal point of the film's narrative, which concerns the consequences of her mysterious arrival in Dogville. Dressed and coiffed glamorously, she has the skin of a woman unaccustomed to housework or any other type of manual labor. Sweet and frightened, she is running away from someone whom she will not discuss. There are, of course, potential dangers involved in taking the word of a stranger about whom one can know nothing, but Grace appeals immediately to the chivalric impulses of handsome, young Tom Edison, who is the first to find her and then hide her from her unknown but clearly sinister pursuers. At first blush, it is hard to imagine that Tom might have made a mistake in believing that she could not be guilty of anything that might make him regret sheltering her, and this first impression is re-enforced, unlike our immediate impressions of the townspeople, by Grace's subsequent behavior. As the Dogvillites shed their poor but honest veneers, Grace's immediately visible beauty and sweetness is augmented by clear evidence of her willingness to work hard and cheerfully; her courageous commitment to ethical, Democratic behavior; and her Christian forbearance toward those who would injure her. Nevertheless, her guileless Mary Pickford/Tess Trueheart purity begins to morph before our eyes, as she maintains it in the face of the growing cruelty of the townspeople, into something reminiscent of De Sade's Justine. So that, even before the final reveal at the end of the film, we are already beginning to feel uneasy about those virtues, a creeping discomfort with what keeps looking like infantilized earnestness. When the final word of the film is spoken, it is clear that von Trier believes that the ordinary concepts of virtue that Grace has embodied not only ignore the realities of the human condition but also create the circumstances for bringing out the worst possibilities in human nature that ordinarily lie dormant. Von Trier puts it this way:

 

'The idea behind Grace's treatment at the hands of the townspeople was that if you present yourself to others as a gift, then that is dangerous. The power that this gives people over the individual corrupts them. If you give yourself away, it will never work. You have to have some limits.'

 

I should note that von Trier's legendary taste for martyred women takes a very new turn in this film; in this too, nothing fulfills initial expectations.

 

In von Trier's press notes, he wittily defends himself against the critics of his last film, _Dancer in the Dark_, who attacked him for making a movie about a country he has never visited, by saying that he knows a lot more about the United States than Warner Brothers knew about Casablanca. He proves that he also knows a lot more than Clint Eastwood does about his own country, though he insists, with justice I think, that he isn't really talking only about America, but about all people. Indeed, in the final frames the dog that has previously been a two dimensional image is transformed into a three dimensional animal looking directly at the camera, as if to say, 'All this has a reality of its own kind for you', an address that would equally apply to any spectator of any nationality who saw the film. Does anyone think, with me, that 'Dogville' is an interestingly resonant pun on Dogme, the name of the filmic movement hell-bent on purity of presentation that von Trier pioneered in Denmark?

 

Retrospective narrative about the 20th century is given impressive heft and duration in Marco Tullio Giordana's six hour saga of the Carati family from 1966 to 2003, _The Best of Youth_. Originally intended as a television serial, it was released in Italy for theatrical distribution, though the press notes are silent about the logistics of the commercial release of this extremely long movie. Its story juxtaposes the lives of the two Carati boys, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), both of whom are idealistic, cultivated young men. Otherwise they are as different as the proverbial night and day. Nicola is dark and slight, good humored and easy going; Matteo is fair, well built, and rigidly determined to create order and control. How each brother approaches the student uprisings of the 60s, the fight to save the artworks in Florence from the floods of the that era, Red Guard terrorism, and attempts to bring the Mafia under control in Sicily, structures the frankly melodramatic events of _The Best of Youth_. As is typical of melodrama, the politics of the 20th century are filtered through the personal lives of Nicola, Matteo, their families and friends, suggesting that the perfectionism that makes possible both art and fascism has a self-destructive quality, while the contrasting life-loving impulses of the Italian culture that foster humane values are what really shape the country's future. The film is short on intellectual acuity about cultural trends and counter trends, recapitulating the cliches of the Mediterranean versus the Nordic personality -- dark people are by far happier than the tormented blondes that populate this family history. But the film is very long on the satisfactions of marvelously created characters with whom one may easily empathize, and the beauty of the European landscape, from Sicily to Norway. It is no doubt simplistic in its philosophy, suggesting that Italy has ridden out and beyond the upheavals of the past century toward a brighter future that awaits the generation of Matteo and Nicola's children. But, in showing how the post-war generation failed in its immediate goal of refusing to accept the world as it is in order to make it a bit better (but paved the way for a better world for their children), the film is full of warmth and an irresistible love of people.

 

Finally, Johnnie To's _PTU_ and Barbara Alpert's _Free Radicals_, in a counterpoint to the dominant festival trend, point away from memory to the fragmented present moment. _ PTU_ takes place in Hong Kong, during one night in which the streets are alive with various kinds of law enforcement officers, Triad gangsters, and what may or may not be ordinary citizens. The film contains the barest outlines of numerous overlapping plots. Sergeant Lo Sa (Lam Suet) has allowed himself to be baited by a young gangster, getting himself beaten because he isn't thinking, and worse, losing his revolver. Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam), who is part of the elite Police Tactical Unit (PTU), decides to help Lo, out of professional comradery, by delaying the report of his missing weapon, an infraction of the rules that would jeopardize his promotion. At the same time a Triad gangster named Pony Tail has been murdered and the CID has been put in charge of the investigation. Much to Mike and Lo's chagrin, CID unit leader Leigh Cheung (Ruby Wong), who keeps turning up in their vicinity, is suspicious about their behavior, and they have to keep her from learning that they are trying to find Lo's gun before the last possible moment when the missing revolver would have to be reported. But these pro-forma narrative structures are not what interests To, who uses them to adumbrate what really compels him: the details of how the subcultures formed by the police and the Triads work internally, as well as how they relate to each other. To's 21st Century world is a maze that people bonded by the rules of their own tribes must negotiate in order to fulfill their commitments. The film is full of absurdist images of technology (cell phones, flash lights, and cars) which confuse communication, and indeterminate images a young boy on a bicycle, much too young to be out in the wee hours of the morning, who breaks car windows setting off the car alarms, seemingly as part of some larger scheme that is never identified. Indeed, the cosmic order that moves inexorably while human beings are focusing on the minutiae of their own machinations is the point of the film. In the end, people die but no one's efforts pay off; what resolution occurs is reached completely by chance, or is it destiny, another of To's preoccupations. To's minimalist images are stunningly beautiful, his humor fresh and original, and his suggestion of the city as a stockade within an enigmatic universe is provocative.

 

Barbara Albert's _Free Radicals_, loosely predicated on chaos theory, also envisions the human race stranded within a befuddling cosmos, boldly tracing the discontinuities in the lives of a number of lower middle class Austrians in a small town. The theme of the film is sounded immediately with the seemingly meaningless situation of Manu (Kathrin Resetarits), a young woman who is the only person to survive a plane crash on her way home from a Mexican vacation. Four years later, now married and the mother of one child, she dies suddenly in a car crash while returning home from a girl's night out at a disco club. Clearly, in a courageous stroke, Albert trounces the conventional expectations of the filmgoing public, who have been trained by numerous fantasy films to now expect to be illuminated about the meaning of fate and destiny involved in a remarkable survival. But the expectation is raised to disappoint it: there isn't any special fate at work here; the seemingly 'chosen' survivor can be marked for destruction in an equally unexpected moment. In _Free Radicals_ neither religion nor psychologically based therapies can mitigate the indeterminate intrusions of joy and sorrow into human affairs. At the same time another character, a math professor, is able to validate the fractal principle: form does reiterate itself from the large outlines of a pattern to its smaller pieces, all form mirrors itself, and here again the easy, bite-sized comforts of the meliorist film are not involved in this discovery. Manu's accidents mirror each other in form, but not in ways that she could have made use of to help her to guide herself through life.

 

This then is the situation: how can people live in a world that has no inherently humanized form? Albert ponders this question by means of the random swerves of the unpredictable romances and moments of good and bad fortune that punctuate this film -- for Manu's promiscuous best friend; her bereaved husband; a punky, belligerent teenage girl and a conventional, very popular teenage boy; a young woman of mixed racial heritage; and a lonely, heavy-set woman longing for love -- which, like long fused roman candles ignited by some unseen hand and then forgotten, explode when least expected. Albert reaches no definite conclusions, but, throughout, both the selfish and generous impulses of the plethora of characters, all seeking intimacy as a kind of anchor in the flux and change of events, are blessed by the director's charity and compassion, and an occasional moment of peace.

 

New York Film Festival 2003 featured an abundance of richly original and/or courageous films; even its worst selections were made meaningful by the interplay among them. There was a positive attitude toward past and future, and the impulse toward some kind of healing of the scars of history seemed to characterize the retrospective subjects of many of the films. Our sufficiency to negotiate the discontinuities of the present were also center stage, even if in fewer offerings. Contradictions abound in the festival films, but ultimately the world's filmmakers give evidence of faith despite the sometimes unfathomable horror of the forces strafing the darkling plains on which the human community toils.

 

Mercy College, New York, USA

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson, 'New York Film Festival 2003', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 43, November 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n43nochimson>.

 

 

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