“The idea of risk, anathema on the current filmmaking scene, is central to anything worthwhile in movies,” writes critic Kent Jones in the introduction to Physical Evidence, his 2007 collection of essays. But how do we measure risk in a medium that, little over a century into its existence, has seemingly seen it all before? Jones, the newly heralded chair of the selection committee of the New York Film Festival and one of the most cherished film authorities in America, writes about the particular sensation most modern cinephiles feel when parsing through the wild array of independent films, Hollywood buzz-builders, repertory restorations, and avant-garde programs that buffer any reputable film festival today: it’s as if the movies have gotten both bigger and smaller at the same time. It isn’t necessarily that higher production values equal a limited scope of human interest or that independent film is just a whole lot of navel-gazing nonsense — rather, there’s just so much of it, and for the uninitiated, it’s hard to know where to begin.
The films playing NYFF 51 included the largest main slate in the festival’s history (36 films) and a whopping 45 programs in the indispensable Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar, in addition to a near-exhaustive retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard. There’s an unquestionable public service (and collective insanity) in providing an overabundance of diverse films to see, and this surplus indicates that Jones and co. weren’t wasting any time. But it also shows us where film culture is right now — namely, that the idea of an overarching coherence suggested by the banner of a major festival is a false one. As the festival’s loud and impersonal trailer that accompanied each screening made perfectly clear, so-called “personal” filmmaking has been reduced to a brand, now more fragmented and dubious than ever. How much of a risk — whether commercial, physical, material or temporal — is necessary to create a lasting work of cinema? And how does the viewer figure into this pound of flesh? Most great movies aren’t simply talking to themselves.
One can consider the example of a celebrated filmmaker whose methods have hardly changed over the last 40 years. Cinéma vérité stalwart Frederick Wiseman’s filmed studies of American institutions are reputable for being hermetically sealed against the formal impurities of most modern documentaries. They include no interviews, no voice-over narration, no onscreen text to provide specific context, giving us a direct, present-tense, “unobtrusive” view of a society in miniature and the many bureaucracies that keep it together. In At Berkeley, the filmmaker shows us the public university during the months leading up to major budget cuts in 2010 by the state of California. Over the course of four hours, Wiseman oscillates mainly between extended administrative meetings on the budget and visits into the school’s classrooms, where the pragmatic dialogues of the administration are juxtaposed with the various academic discourses offered to, and occasionally rejoinded by, the students.
This pedagogic panorama includes an extended discussion about systemic racism in a course on public policy and a silent robot learning to master the art of folding a towel, all shown under Wiseman’s dispassionately lucid lens. But when an extended protest sequence comes late in the film, in which hundreds of students march across the lawn and rail against the school’s tuition hikes and other indignities, the students are unable to clearly articulate their own perspective; and it is here where Wiseman’s film becomes disquietingly muddled. By not giving the same “reasonable” and rational point of view to the students, this distended epic reveals itself to be less pluralistic than one imagined. Wiseman, and by extension the viewer, sees Berkeley merely the way the administration does, leaving a sense of disingenuousness and complacent doubt that systemic change is possible. We may never know what Wiseman would have thought of the Occupy Cal protests a year later, but with this capricious framework it becomes necessary to look outside Wiseman’s film to find the whole, um, vérité.
One can risk artifice while still championing the underprivileged, as Jia Zhang-ke demonstrated with one of the festival’s most surprisingly slick efforts. A Touch of Sin finds the acclaimed Chinese director working in the broadest strokes of his career, at times teetering on the verge of genre spectacle, but without ever sacrificing his scathingly abstracted vision of everyday indignities. Once again, the director mixes reality with fiction, this time spinning loosely connected stories based on real incidents of murder and suicide in four Chinese cities: in one, a mine worker wields a shotgun when he realizes the extent of corruption in the corporation run by a billionaire former classmate. In another, a young man quits his factory job to work in a pleasure palace, experiencing the overwhelming pangs of adolescence in a microcosm of commerce and empty spectacle. The filmmaker has noted the influence of the wuxia genre pioneered by King Hu on his conception of the film, and while the movie contains no martial arts sequences, the violent scenes indeed have a swift purity to them — preordained, with little struggle, much like the expectations of a capitalist system that each of these characters combat daily. Playing something like L’Argent by way of No Country for Old Men, Jia’s episodic narrative of all-too-ordinary madness is a rare epic of rightful dissent, as cinematic as it is shot through with black humor and sympathy.
A similar emotional blend feeds Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ deeply melancholic take on the 1960s American folk revival and its culture, just shy of the period when it became exploited and developed into a commercial industry. Llewyn Davis is another one of the Coens’ “serious” men, stuck in purgatory: a dignified fuck-up stubbornly going solo after his ex-partner killed himself, forever cranking out acoustic standards at the Gaslight Café while couch-surfing the city in search of a lucky break. But the same old songs won’t get him anywhere while his contemporaries record treacly, layered pop for the airwaves, and everyone else is burning cultural surplus: when Llewyn finds himself dining on moussaka in the apartment of his Upper West Side benefactors, it turns into a satire of cultural appropriation. (Only the Coens could make a crack about an Asian-Jewish intermarriage and get away with it.) Even the courtly John Goodman shows up as a heroin addict well-versed in black magic — or at least he says so, before drifting off into a drug-induced stupor. So what’s the value of a folk singer that never traveled anywhere? The Coens’ relentless cynicism here gives way to a melancholy rarely felt in their work, even as the soundtrack’s hi-def, close-mic’d renditions of folk classics seems to jibe with the film’s morbid view of authenticity. The elegantly desaturated image here is as manipulated as O Brother’s sepia-toned wonderland, and Llewyn’s circular odyssey makes it that equally Homerian film’s darker cousin — yet far more pointed. You might borrow someone else’s past while coming to terms with your own, but as long you piss a few people off in a world of indifference, you’re doing something right.
For me, few moments at the festival were as exhilarating as the scene in Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy where Anna Mouglalis suddenly runs up the street, the camera smoothly tracking her movement across several blocks, making it back home to find her lover (the director’s son, Louis Garrel). “I thought you’d be gone,” she says, but he acts as if that was inconceivable and moves on to a different subject. Garrel, the irrepressible fatalist of French cinema, crafts moments of emotional texture as rich as his gorgeously lit black-and-white frames, his characters forever ebbing between torrid affection and radiant torpor — just a few of the many human contradictions laid bare by his highly elliptical narratives.
This time, he casts his son in a role based on his own father, Maurice Garrel, a stage actor who at 30 years old left his wife for another woman. In the film, he remains attached to his young daughter, who he even takes along on his dates, and her inquisitive nature and acceptance of this fostering reality masks the bitter thought of what could have been. In Garrel, the emotional topology is complex: every interaction is weighed with unconsummated potential, as if Garrel were conjuring his own ghosts of lovers past. The long, unbroken master shots allow for distinct spaces — a domestic living room, a dressing room backstage — to feel truly inhabited, as if to ease the sudden, yet inevitable uprooting of desire that impacts each and every character. To get on Garrel’s wavelength, you have to accept that betrayal is where life begins and that “waiting is death,” as one character blithely puts it. Perhaps that’s why this film, at a mere 75 minutes, is his most direct and accessible work.
There were many great films at the festival and a great many that I missed. My main regret is that I wasn’t able to attend more than a handful of avant-garde screenings, where one is more likely to discover voices and films that by nature cannot be so easily assimilated. I walked into a screening of the late San Francisco experimental filmmaker Robert Nelson’s “Suite California Stops and Passes” (1976-78), a wonky two-part travelogue that was screened from recently restored 16mm prints. A portable odyssey in fits and starts, Nelson combines first-person views of Tijuana, Death Valley, San Francisco, and elsewhere, using in-camera effects and onscreen text to further enliven the personalities and landscapes he stumbles upon, often with little rhyme or reason — and it’s a blast.
If I had to pick a favorite shot, it would be one that effortlessly blended both private and public vision, the preordained and the unexpected. Bringing his 16mm camera to Hollywood Boulevard, Nelson stumbles upon a movie theater playing the first Godfather film, where a huge line of ticketholders in the California sun are being ushered into the theater. Could it be opening weekend? Nelson stands facing the crowd and films them for what feels like an eternity, though it’s really only about 10 minutes. We see many, many couples of different sizes and styles of clothing, as well as lone moviegoers, all walking towards the camera and into the theater in varying states of anticipation or boredom. Aside from being a time capsule of a film event that would become a cultural milestone, it’s a sustained moment with an endless amount of detail to take in, and Nelson only turns away briefly to film two children standing beside him, wondering what all the fuss is about.