Friday, September 25, 2009

NYFF 2009: What's Up, Docs?

by James Hansen

Perusing the titles for the 47th New York Film Festival, I had some trouble deciding if I was underwhelmed, pleased, or totally excited. With a laundry list of established directors represented, and remembering the critical community’s same excitement prior to an apparently guileless Cannes Film Festival, I felt the need to alter my perception slightly as to avoid aggressively bitchy posts, the likes of which we saw out of Cannes, that end up being more a reflection of a critic’s mental state during a never-ending festival than a clear minded critique, or even viewing, of a number of movies from envelope pushing directors.

Or is the envelope done been pushed for these familiar, if still strong, filmmakers? With works from Resnais, Haneke, Von Trier, Breillat, Denis, Dumont, Korine, Solondz, Rivette, and Oliveira, familiarity (by means of a auteristic international film marketing) can be both a good and bad thing. Of course, it makes it easier to know what to see if you’re versed enough to like or dislike a filmmaker, a “national cinema” (in general), or a type of movie. And its precisely this reason that the real “finds” and actual excitement comes from the unexpected work from young and/or emerging artists look to make their mark on the global film scene. As Jim Hoberman said this week, “It’s all about the mix.”

So here they come – dispatches from the 2009 New York Film Festival. This year, in an attempt to limit expository, wandering prose, I plan on writing individual reviews for films after (briefer than this) intros for each “dispatch” as you will see below. And, as hesitant as I am to grade things immediately after seeing them, I’ll give some form of tentative grade for each film, but let us all remember these things are always in flux. Also, I’ll include the public screening dates below each review for those of you in New York who are trying decide what to see. And don’t forget about a new policy this year: 50 $10 rush tickets are available one hour before every screening! All screenings are at Alice Tully Hall unless otherwise noted. More excitement lies ahead in the coming weeks, so I hope everyone who stumbles upon these entries will stick around and come back for all the coverage. Now – on with the show.

Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles, Alain Resnais, France): Might as well start with the intriguingly baffling new film from 87 year old Alain Resnais. A major splash at Cannes (and, thus far, following suit in New York), Wild Grass is the kind of film that is worthless to explain yet easy to recommend, even though I would approach it with more reservations than many of my head-over-heels colleagues. Wild Grass flows, like, well, wild grass – rooted in something, but freely blowing direction to direction changing tone, pitch, characters, and stories with each breeze. Overwhelmingly slapdash, and perhaps a little too excited to be so, Wild Grass follows the l’amour fou of an adventurous would-be couple who abrasively force their ways into an (un)connection with one another following an incident, of no particular importance, which ends with the return of a pair of shoes. With bits and pieces maniacally strewn together, Wild Grass takes THE French topic of choice and does something with it that no one has seen before. Its palpable energy is tough to sustain, but Resnais somehow does, up until the already classic (throw away?) last shot, recalling another French master who also has a film at NYFF, who has also severely played with L’Amour Fou. Impossible to completely grasp, let alone comprehend, with one viewing, yet an experience I won’t soon forget, Wild Grass is a film I feel like I should embrace a little more than I initially have. Of all the crazy films released this year, I expect there won’t be anything else remotely like Wild Grass. B?
Opening Night Film. September 25 at 8 PM.

Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA): With a large documentary presence at this years festival, its a pleasure to receive affirmation of new (or, at least, a fresh trend) directions and practices in documentary, even though the two docs I’ve seen thus far couldn’t be more different. The first of which is Sweetgrass, which follows a group of sheep herders in Montana on a final trek through a set of mountains. Through the first 20 mostly wordless minutes, Sweetgrass acquaints us with the intimate details of a sheep’s life – from birthing to walking to being shorn. This observational approach shifts from sheep to farmer and ends up being allowing the proclamation of Sweetgrass being “the final western.” Problematizing issues of the cowboy and his response and interaction with the animals and nature that coexist as major elements of their iconography, Sweetgrass is a fascinating account of these questions despite occasionally seeming unsure of its would-be “objective.” Still, its main set piece as it were, a phone call from a cowboy to his mother, is at once funny, pitiful, emotional, and astonishing. The scene challenges the connection of the filmmakers, audience, and subject to the material, landscape, and technology presented in Sweetgrass. Although it loses some steam after its ecstatic opening (but perhaps I’m just too into wordless documentaries that follow the duties of animals and/or workers), Sweetgrass is a quite a surprise and a thoroughly engaging work. B+
Sep 26 at 2:15 PM

Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong, China): The longest film of the festival this year at 172 minutes (a surefire sign that its right up my alley), Ghost Town is a Chinese documentary by a young filmmaker named Zhao Dayong. He’s so new he’s not even on IMDB (shouts the world)! Despite being only his second feature, Zhao’s direction is superbly focused and finely tuned. Ghost Town maintains a complexly fluid narrative drive throughout its triptych chapter structure (Voices, Recollections, and Innocence) which displays the directorial confidence and refinement of a skilled master. Set in a town called Zhiziluo, slowly evaporating in the mountains of Southwest China, Ghost Town finds individual people, a singular town, and a collective culture on the brink of nowhere. Having lost its past, the inhabitants and spaces in Zhiziluo fill in a devoid present while remaining in search for any future for their traditions and identity. While stylistic comparisons to Jia Zhangke seem out of place to me (Ghost Town plays a little more straight forward, albeit three hours long), Dayong's ambitious talent and keen eye make him a worthy colleague of Jia's in the Chinese film. Daunting as it may seem (and you might feel it in the overlong second section), Ghost Town is an absolute must see. B+
Sep 27 at 2:15 PM

A Room and A Half (Andrey Khrzhanovsky, Russia): A semi-fictional biopic (although the term doesn’t really fit) of Nobel prize winning poet Josef Brodsky, A Room and a Half is a fancy free “labour of love” from veteran Russian animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky. Combining a tilta-whirl of elements, including live-action, archival footage, and animation, A Room and a Half’s refusal to set any kind of tone, while simultaneously attempting to emotionally engage in a surrealist manner with a poet whose mental consciousness is reflected by changing forms in this mess of a film, makes for a very long 130 minutes. Aside from bits of animation, A Room and a Half feels wholly uninspired making its never-ending over-obvious reflexive musings on time, space, and memory slightly infuriating. Clearly, Andrey K. is using the varying formats to match the old with the new, the inner mind with its output, as well as reality and fantasy. The playful celebration of intellectual freedom and artistic inspiration, evidently an expository attempt to showcase the film mind as Brodsky’s own, goes mostly unrealized. Instead, A Room and a Half feels unexcitedly showy and surprisingly stiff. Its loose attitude, not all that unlike Wild Grass, although clearly striving for a[n] (unsuccessful) different end, backfires and, rather, indicates how structurally and conceptually sloppy A Room and a Half actually is. C-
Sep 30 at 6 PM


Anonymous said...

Um.. no. Sorry, but "Wild Grass" was the worst film I have ever seen. I just got home after watching it tonight at the Lincoln Center Film Festival showing at 8:00PM. Its haphazard story line (there was a story under all that senility-induced rubbish?) was so agonizingly torturous, my friend and I wanted desperately to walk out of the theater probably 87 times but stayed put out of respect for the venue and event. Horrible movie. It made no sense. And before anyone attempts to accuse me of being some sort of ignoramus, let me just put it on record that I'm a 37 year-old artist, professional, lover of classics, lover of modern anything, etc., etc. I defy anyone to prove the movie truly had anything worthy or interesting to say. It was not art. It was not an experiment of deconstructed mores or however one might desperately try to describe it. It was a white hot mess and I'm glad to have survived it without hurting myself or the good folks around me.

James Hansen said...

Anon- Thanks for the comments. I guess my reservations about the film may not have come through quite as clearly, perhaps because I knew I admired the craft of it and felt like another viewing may help out. That said, I was definitely trying to indicate some reservations I have about it as a whole, especially in light of unanimous praise I have read elsewhere online. I'm certainly not going to be the one to defend the film to the grave at this point, although there are plenty of others out there who might. Its definitely a baffling experience, as I mentioned, which it certainly seems like it was for you. I wouldn't go so far as torturous, as I was enamored with much of it, but I can understand the frustration.

And, just to correct you on one thing, its part of the New York Film Festival...showing at Lincoln Center (more specifically, Alice Tully Hall).

Unknown said...