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A Day at the New York Film Festival
here are few things that do more to set a movie buff’s heart a-quickening than the prospect of attending one of the major film festivals. On October 2, I had that opportunity, and headed up to Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the 2004 New York Film Festival (actually, the whole thing is running over three full weeks, but who's counting?). Between over six hours spent actually watching movies, another hour or so attending post-screening interviews and panel discussions with each film’s cast and director, grinning like an idiot while standing no more than five feet away from Peter Bogdanovich (pathetic celebrity worship, Film Comment-style), and nearly knocking down the delightfully non-judgmental widow of Samuel Fuller with an inadvertent shoulder tackle, my day at the New York Film Festival was packed full. I assure you, Dear Readers, my actions were all in the service of Great Art. Except maybe for the time I fell asleep in the middle of the theater—about which more later.
The three films I saw were (by design), wildly different in style, thematic content, and, in a sense, their visions of what film itself should be. This is one of the true benefits of attending festivals—through explicit comparison, we are able to see the artistic ideologies of each director. Without putting too fine a point on it, the way in which a film presents itself to an audience tells us as much about the director's view of film's place in the world as it does about the film's actual content. Of the three movies I saw in New York, two were brilliant and one was a disaster. It's no accident that the two good films were expressly visual and cinematic, while the failure seemed to wage war against its own medium, appearing to regard itself as a stage play that happened to have a camera shooting the action. So without further ado, here are my evaluations of three films screened at the New York Film Festival, each one (hopefully) coming soon to a theater near you.
The Big Red One
[Director: Samuel Fuller]
[Cast: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine]
Introduced by critic Richard Schickel as "one of the two or three greatest war movies ever made," the recently restored version of Samuel Fuller's classic World War II epic melodrama more than lives up to expectations. Originally over four hours long, but cut in half for its theatrical release, The Big Red One benefited from the loving attention of Schickel, a Fuller fan who was determined to restore at least part of the late director's original vision. The recut version adds approximately forty minutes back to the film, in addition to the usual remastering and upgrading. The result is an astonishingly bracing masterpiece about soldiers attempting to hold onto their humanity in a white-hot crucible of violence, terror, and abject human suffering.
The film's title refers to the appellation given to the American First Infantry Rifle Unit by its own members (they all, literally, have a big red "1" sewn onto their uniform arms). It could also of course refer to the war itself, a massively bloody conflict that sees the unit (led by gruff WWI veteran Lee Marvin, in a brilliantly subtle performance combining leathery toughness with occasional revelations of compassion) go from the 1942 invasion of North Africa to the 1945 liberation of the Czechoslovakian death camps. Through a series of harrowing vignettes, we get to know the heart of the 1st Infantry, a group of fresh-faced lads who, in a very real sense, grow up over the course of the film. But this is no uplifting John Wayne flick about finding your manhood through war. Fuller, in his typically unsubtle but devastatingly effective manner, is after nothing less than the depiction of war as a surreal madhouse. The scene where the Big Red One hunts down Nazis staked out in an insane asylum plays like an expressionist nightmare, with one of the inmates scooping up a fallen German's submachine gun, spraying the room with bullets, and screaming "I am sane!!! I am one of you now!!! I am sane!!!" as spittle sprays crazily from his lips. Mr. Fuller, consider your point made.
Fuller based his entire career around using joltingly funny, shocking, and over-the-top cinematic stories as thin covers for his scathing social criticism. The Big Red One is in that sense no different from a film like Shock Corridor; each vignette serves a specific purpose about a specific theme. The scene in which each soldier essentially volunteers to wander out into a courtyard and get shot by a hidden sniper underscores the military's willingness to use human life as cannon fodder. The scene in which the infantry unit delivers a French girl's baby in the middle of a battlefield is a masterpiece of absurdist comedy and a darkly ironic depiction of trained killers fumbling incompetently as they try to bring human life into the world. And, in a sequence that is quintessentially Fuller, a soldier nearly gets castrated by a cluster bomb. His crotch a blood-soaked mess, he stares up in horror at Lee Marvin, who calmly explains "that's why God gave you two balls instead of one," then tosses the soldier's dislodged testicle over his shoulder and walks away, ready to fight the next battle.
[Director: Eric Rohmer]
[Cast: Katerina Didaskalu, Serge Renko]
I hesitate to even write about this movie, having missed about fifteen minutes of it while napping comfortably in the packed theater. I asked my friend Ben about the scenes I missed, but he slept through part of it too and could provide no help. Overall, multiple cases of narcolepsy during the debut screening are not good signs for the film's director—in this case, the legendary Eric Rohmer. Known for making both comedies and dramas that are unusually talky but often well-received (including 1998's acclaimed Autumn Tale), here Rohmer pulls the neat trick of crafting a spy thriller that contains no action and features a pair of central characters who provide the audience with roughly the same amount of energy as a bottle of NyQuil. I usually feel bad about trashing truly iconic directors, but I have no compunction about telling you that Rohmer's big name does not change the fact that Triple Agent is a stupendously dull waste of everyone's time.
The concept of Triple Agent is promising enough; taking place in pre-World War II Paris, the film features an exiled White Russian couple who look skeptically at the growing French radicalism around them. The Communist Party has just had its most successful election ever, and the two conservative ex-Muscovites attempt to navigate an increasingly heated political climate, with the leftists in their adopted country starting to flex their muscles and the shadow of Nazism looming ominously to the east. Husband Fiodor begins to show signs of political opportunism, rubbing shoulders with his mortal enemies, the Soviets, and even speculating about moving to Germany and aiding the Nazis. Soon, even his lovely young wife Arsinoe has no idea where his true convictions lie, or for that matter if he has any to begin with. The film is supposed to work as a tale of amorality, opportunism, and the consequences of deception—no one knows exactly which side Fiodor is on. But by the end of the film, no one cares.
Triple Agent, you see, is an absolute talk-a-thon, which might not be a problem if the main characters were given any complexity. Fiodor is shady and untrustworthy, but effaces a pleasant, understated manner that does not change for two interminable hours. Nor is his supposedly complex psyche delved into with any real insight. His wife is left to pine away during her husband's long absences and wonder if she can really trust him. That's it—that's the film. Rohmer does nothing interesting visually throughout the entire movie, and indeed seems unaware that he is not in fact directing a stage play, and a fairly uninvolving one at that. Judging from audience reaction to the post-screening interview session, plenty of people seemed to like this film, or at least thought they were supposed to. But there is a fundamental sense in which Triple Agent represents a kind of un-cinematic cinema, a trend that I find at best boring and at worst an example of artistic cowardice.
There was one element of suspense in this film—would the extremely attractive female lead, often clad in nothing but a nightgown, get naked? Alas...
[Director: David Gordon Green]
[Cast: Jamie Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas]
With the viewing of Undertow, I was able to leave the festival confident that I had seen two masterpieces in one day—not bad for a few hours work. As one of the ever-expanding cultish followers of filmmaker David Gordon Green (director of All the Real Girls, the Stylus staff's choice for Best Film of 2003), I was ecstatic about the prospect of Green venturing into Southern Gothic territory, and I can happily report that he exceeded some already lofty expectations.
The film stars Jamie "Billy Elliot" Bell and Devon Alan as two teenage brothers growing up in the rural south, raised by their father John (Mulroney). John's ex-con brother Deel shows up and immediately starts wreaking havoc, finally destroying the family with a horrific act of violence that sends the two boys on the run, chased by their homicidal uncle. The kids make their escape across a Southern landscape of shantytowns, broken down car lots, railroad stations...the whole thing has a deeply Night of the Hunter-esque feel to it, an homage that Green readily copped to in his post-screening discussion. But Green filters a somewhat classic story (with echoes of the Hardy Boys, Treasure Island, and the like) through his own distinctively dreamy Southern vision. The result is an extraordinarily moving and entertaining piece of work, confirming Green's growing reputation as a filmmaker of preternaturally spooky talent.
This impression is hardly the official Stylus word on the film, though. Liz Clayton reviewed Undertow at the Toronto Film Festival, and found it torpid, despairing, and more interested in visual imagination than sustained storytelling. I suspect that some of the critical polarization the film has received is linked to (by the director's own admission), Green's first attempt to make a movie for his audience's tastes rather than his own. Where I found a greater epic quality in Undertow than in Green's previous efforts, others have seen uncertain storytelling and an overly broad canvas. And it's true that this film is to date's Green's least "personal" work, which may account for the emotional distance some viewers have experienced while watching it. But I'm convinced that Green was interested in creating a new kind of Southern myth, the cinematic equivalent of the "rednecks sitting on the front porch bullshitting" stories he loved to hear growing up in North Carolina. To my tastes, he succeeds brilliantly.
By: Jay Millikan
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