New York Film Festival 2007, Part VDirector:
fter a slew of festival shorts which declare their one-dimensional characters to be completely pathetic only to forgive them in a final gesture of supposed “humanism,” a real little slab of art like Pedro Costa’s 23-minute The Rabbit Hunters gets thrown to the avant-garde sidebar—because it’s good? Of course, the festival committee probably didn’t get a chance to select The Rabbit Hunters to the main program since it’s part of a commissioned compilation of shorts, but it’s a worthy sign that the great breadth of the New York Film Festival is still, like some of its films, rather limited.
In fact, I’d prefer not to talk about The Last Mistress, A Girl Cut in Two, or Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project at all—all of which might as well be seen, if not remembered—and to talk about some other films instead. Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate, Arnaud Desplechin’s L’Aimée, or Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais, for example—three new films by quite possibly the three greatest French directors working in France today, all of which aren’t included in this especially Francophilic edition of the festival. As aren’t new films by Raoul Ruiz, Ermanno Olmi, and Manoel de Oliveira.
But there’s only so much I can quibble about films I haven’t seen—better to quibble with something I have, like Jia Zhang-ke’s Useless. Jia (Platform, Unknown Pleasures) is clearly one of the greatest narrative directors working today, but Useless, in not entirely beneficial ways, is not a narrative at all, and not only because it’s a documentary. Divided into three parts whose links to each other aren’t as clear as they should be, Useless, like Jia’s feature The World, suggests political critiques that aren’t necessarily there. The first focuses on factory workers in Guangdong as they mass produce articles of clothing—and as if to show Manufactured Landscapes the film it could have been, Jia uses endless tracking shots that slowly move past his ostensible subjects, as if searching for something that isn’t there.
But the camera movement, endowing some mystery to very banal circumstances, is lost in the second part of the film, about a Chinese fashion designer visiting France, who boasts that her clothes are individually made. Is she working in reaction to the fashion factories of the first part, or are they her factories? It’s unclear, and Jia shoots the entire segment like a typical A&E; back-stage look at models trying on clothes and designers boasting New Age nonsense—although there’s one indelible shot in which the camera moves past the models at hip-height, ignoring their faces, and checking out their bodies and what they’re wearing, in what seems to be some terrible indictment of deliberately impersonality of fashion culture. Finally, in the third part, Jia films areas near his home, including miners and a couple who sits bored in front of the camera with nothing to say.
Jia’s great talent has always been to locate the thrills of severe fear and longing in an everyday, ritualized, extremely materialistic setting that frustrates their impulses—even with two people sitting on a couch and watching cartoons, standing around in a bathroom, or waiting with their broken bike by the side of the road. And yet in Useless, Jia seems mostly unable to reconcile the tediousness with the ecstasy, and so we get alternating passages of both: parts where Jia puts on a pop-song and ambient music as if to lend some mood to his bored, boring characters, and other points where he lets them sit there and say whatever’s on their mind, which isn’t much. His HD cinematography near-completely neuters his visuals of whatever mystery they might have, flattening the images so that they’re largely impenetrable to the eye (only Costa seems to have exploited the rigid, sculptural tendencies of digital filmmaking), and making much of the movie look like a high-quality youtube fashion special.
Jia’s primary theme has constantly been the loss of cultural memory, to which fashion would seem to be a perfect corollary, but content to offer as superficial a look at the conditions surrounding the industry as a glossy magazine spread would allow, Jia instead delivers a discombobulated slide-show (without the helpful intertitles) that’s only as good as its individual shots. Some of which, to be fair, are haunting, and wonderfully paced: a man walking after a train on its tracks in the evening, the miners in the dark, their helmet-lights and eyes staring squarely at the camera amidst a flutter of dust, and a couple on a motorcycle against a blank sky, the man yelling and spinning his shirt in the air behind them. It doesn’t add up to much of an impressionistic look at Chinese societies; but with its few astounding passages and not enough justification, Useless does give a glimpse into the great half-hour or three-hour documentary Jia should have made instead.
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project
If Useless occasionally lives up to its title with too much reliance on standard documentary tropes—ambient music, functional imagery, interviews with shockingly unoriginal people of all types—Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, in its much less daring ambitions, uses these adequate devices much more appropriately, and the result is a very entertaining and deliberately superficial look at the great heckler-comedian Don Rickles, celebrity roast hero and hater of everyone for any reason he can find (“Is that your wife? Jesus Christ”).
Actually, the ironic thing about Mr. Warmth is that it lives up to its already-ironic title; John Landis, the sometimes great director of The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Thriller, opts for a sweet view of a family man beloved by comics everywhere (perhaps because of his ridiculously blatant racism, a number of black comics tout the ultra-Jewish Rickles as one of the first black comedians), who misses the old days of Las Vegas when it was run by the mob, and not the worst tendencies of capitalism. So there’s the usual, beautiful archival footage, the talking heads (Chris Rock, Bob Newhart, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, etc.), the backstage look—all of which is clearly meant to pad the 17 minutes of footage Landis was able to get of Rickles on-stage. It’s those 17 minutes that convince, even better than the rest of the movie, that no documentary film could really do this stage-bound presence justice.
The Last Mistress
Equally entertaining, more raunchy, and only somewhat less insulting: Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. Breillat’s penchant for treating characters as types is well suited to her 19th century setting, and a typical 19th century story (based off of the novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly) in which a man marries a nice girl but is still tempted by his mistress of the previous ten years. That mistress is played by Asia Argento, and the film is wholeheartedly hers: as if existing in perpetual orgasm, Argento fucks her dandy lover like a rapist, barely able to restrain herself for the proper decorum of the time. The only thing remotely original about the film is its recognition of full-on sex in a costume drama; there’s an awesome cameo by the journalist Claude Sarraute as an old grandmother who gets her sexual kicks from story-telling, but the most you could say for the film otherwise is that it’s in focus, that Argento is the fuck of the century.
A Girl Cut in Two
Another love triangle and another competent, perfectly amusing film that’s hard to describe beyond its plotline, A Girl Cut in Two is Claude Chabrol’s take on the Stanford White murder at the turn of the century; set in modern times, Chabrol reveals his usual ability to ground flashy, Hollywood narratives in everyday reality. Here, he’s providing less a real-life Hitchcock tale than real-life Douglas Sirk. The wit of the film is a sly, elderly writer (François Berléand), the mystery of the film is a woman (Ludivine Sagnier) who may or may not be manipulating him and an arrogant heir to a fortune (Benoît Magimel), who is the absolute joy of the film.
Parking his car sideways in the street, throwing girls up against walls, and biting his fingernails with a throw of the head like the fey megalomaniac he is, Magimel’s character is utterly ridiculous, and his performance perfect in throwing into relief the sly and slightly stuffy babble between the rest of the modern-day aristocracy, who seem to be the sole occupants of Chabrol’s France. The plot concerns the men both falling in love with her, and her falling in love with both of them, one after the other, some tastefully-rendered blowjob lessons, and the two men’s jealousy of each other; standard stuff, with an intermittent subtext of whether she’s using them to advance her career, and a few winks from Chabrol at the preposterousness of his barely believable film.
Go Go Tales
There is no generalization to make about the New York Film Festival this year, but it’s undeniable that these last films are slight—and not too surprisingly, the same has been said about Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. A glossy gloss on John Cassavetes’ masterpiece A Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Go Go Tales is a comedy about a few strip club managers (led by Willem Dafoe) desperate to save their workplace home from the clutches of Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It’s neither quite as funny as Allen’s film or quite as desperate as Cassavetes’; what there is of a plotline follows a search for a missing winning lottery ticket, with interludes in which Asia Argento shows up to lick a Rottweiler during a striptease, the girls all threaten to rebel for their money, landlady Sylvia Miles mocks everyone from the bar (“this place is a loser!”), bouncer Bob Hoskins turns away a group of Chinese businessmen who show up with a man dressed in a lobster suit, one of the girls gets pregnant, and so on.
The place, in its striving for class, is absolutely a loser: the only patrons are relatives of the dancers (including one dancer’s unsuspecting husband), and Dafoe’s creepy introduction of the girls (“Yes, I’m Ray Ruby, and this is my paradise”; “Mission control, get ready to launch!”) makes it clear that he’s basically a blundering ringleader in a shitty circus. Like Mr. Warmth, Go Go Tales’s crassness is only a cover over affection for total sleazeballs.
Ferrara’s off-beat rhythms—he likes to cut to side-show conversations and watch the main action through video cameras—usually deflate the comedy, and the film, despite its shiny luster, is obviously every bit as amateurish as its protagonists; it could just as well be called The Last Striptease Show. But that’s pretty much the point: Ferrara’s valentine comes across as something of a home movie, with more scruff and spark than any streamlined Jia, Breillat, or Chabrol. It’s personal; it’s full of personality.
The ragtag group of entertainers who fancy themselves artists is obviously the counterpoint to Ferrara’s independent gang (who took the stage after the film to do Sopranos impersonations), and the film, in seeing productions as lottery, as a striptease, and as a constant battle against corporate influence, is about nothing less (or more) than itself: a little bit risky, a little bit revealing, with preposterous amounts of affection for characters struggling in life to do nothing more than entertain themselves. I completely fell in love with it.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-10-22