Friday, October 16, 2009

NYFF 2009: In Praise of Festivals

A week removed from the final press screening of the New York Film Festival, I have had a little more time to think about this year’s festivities after the verbal fireworks that were threatened to diminish the actual program being presented. Some of these charges have come from critics (who will remain nameless) who I assume no one takes seriously, but the more surprising charges have come from AO Scott the The New York Times. Given his stature, his piece roused the rabble of pretty much everyone, including this critic. This post is my festival wrap up (a top ten is posted at the end) and an attempt to grapple with the criticisms offered by Mr. Scott in light of the actual festival of films being presented, which get less than half the actual text of Scott’s piece. I wondered if it was worth responding to in the first place. Full of baffling contradictions, I honestly have had a hard time trying to discover where Scott is coming from and what he is after. So, a festival of the multiplex? An underground festival? A conceptual festival of popular, passably interesting, fun movies yet to be made? Still, I got worked up enough I couldn’t help but give some thoughts. Please excuse this former debater for the self-indulgence. If you’re just here for the top 10, feel free to skip down to the end.

This week, AO Scott resituated himself as the smarter-than-the-populus populist in the New York Times, shifting his role from film critic to axe grinder, shredding the festival as one that “seems to have been organized in pointed opposition to the pleasure principle” and challenging the selection committee as critics out to sustain their own worldviews entrenched in guilt and depravity. Mr. Scott goes on to call the situation “festivalism” which fails to recognize “the nature and value of fun.” Following that with a quotation from TS Eliot, Mr. Scott plays both sides in his call for some kind of middle ground, again accusing the critics of programming the festival “more as critics than as curators” – an especially odd suggestion after Mr. Scott slams the cohesion of theme of the overall festival. Curatorial work is the thing where you use a variety of works to build around a central idea, right? Seems both worlds would be met (even though it’s a misplaced cry to suggest there is an actual theme other than the simple criticism that “those movies were depressing,” which, naturally, is also not all true.) What exactly is required to make a variety? 26 films of 26 different genres from 26 different countries? Instead, it just seems to be a complaint about festivals, in general. The general criticisms of festivals showing the same films over and over, making it a participatory back-and-forth between the same groups of people, is valid, but I wonder what the alternative is. Seeing as Mr. Scott doesn’t really discuss the films at hand and rather merely their status as “festival movies,” it hard to say if an addition of more accessible [American] titles such as A Serious Man or Where The Wild Things Are (two of the three most mentioned films amongst the “snubs,” along with Audiard’s A Prophet which was also at Cannes) would have transformed this, or if maybe its just a sad, depressing year for international movies. But, again, I ask what is the alternative? A festival full of Hollywood films? Or films never before seen? Or more passable international work? Who knows. Mr. Scott’s piece ends up being a call against festivals, more than anything else, offering no suggestions or alternatives other than “find other movies.” Good luck with that.

Ah, but who actually does offer something? The selection committee. Love it, like it, or hate it, they were, in fact, showing something over there at Avery Fisher for the last two weeks. Scott’s claims can’t really be dismissed, or verified, without talking about the movies – something I have tried to do here throughout the course of the festival, and something which some major outlets have failed to do, instead turning their nose up at the smell of something serious asking for more popular alternatives. Yet, “festivalism”’s key feature is showing films that have not been seen before and may never be seen again. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, New York all feature multiple titles that will never get distribution or only get distribution because of their presence at such festivals. This makes these festivals and their ongoing presence a celebration of work being done around the world. Rather than spit at what we’re given, it seems infinitely more positive, amid the dark films, to actually consider them for what they are and why they are here at this time, rather than searching for an enjoyable program of world movies that don’t exist. Moreover, I wonder what kind of “variety” people are missing. Mr. Scott calls for variety and unpredictability –two tenets I would strongly second. He finds weakness in the predictable selections allowing no room for “high-minded middlebrowism” to actually find an audience. Yet again, as Selection Committee head Richard Pena has said in years past, what is lacking is not adventurous movies, but adventurous audiences. Have any of these films been seen in New York before? In the United States? And have we become so redundantly theme-heavy in our criticism that major critics have actually started believing that this isn’t a variety? In a festival with numerous documentaries, ranging greatly in style and substance, foreign films, from old masters and young guns, and, yes, challenging films embraced by audiences at other festivals, the New York Film Festival continues to represent the best of world cinema out there in a given year. Party lines might be followed, as Mr. Scott says, but it’s a party for everyone and everything. New York, let’s keep the party going.

And now, the top 10 from a very strong slate of very different movies.

1. Trash Humpers
2. Ne Change Rien
3. Police, Adjective
4. Antichrist
5. To Die Like A Man
6. Everyone Else
7. Ghost Town
8. The White Ribbon
9. White Material
10. Bluebeard


Tony Dayoub said...

Great piece. It may be challenging to watch films that are less mainstream (which is arguable considering Almodovar, Denis, Haneke, Korine, Rivette, Solondz, and von Trier all had films on NYFF's slate this year), but one cannot deny how rewarding it is.

The films this year were consistent in their high quality, and should all find a relatively large audience.

Brandon Colvin said...

Why does AO Scott get to write for the New York Times? It's pathetic. I can't believe he's pontificating about movies being "fun." Does he not understand the relativism of that term? I had a shitload of fun watching THE WHITE RIBBON. The "fun" is as much in the viewer as the film. Maybe AO Scott should work on funning himself up a little before he goes around complaing that the NYFF doesn't show 26 Pixar films.

Joel Bocko said...

Hey guys, I have a question. I am involved in an interesting discussion on the blog Wonders in the Dark - where a poster has rather boldly asserted that "there just isn’t a whole lot of it out there" in terms of non-narrative experimental cinema for the 1990s. I doubted this, but am unable to name many films myself - I've seen several (what's that one with the mud creatures slinking through the NJ forest?) but don't know their names. Out of curiosity, and off the top of your head, what would be a number of titles you'd recommend?

Keep in mind we're talking strictly non-narrative here, not semi-narrative, and as the poster has a strong formalist bent, something minimalist (i.e. a single-take of someone performing a simple action) probably would not be of much interest. Nonetheless, I'd presume that with the sheer volume of film/video experimental works from the 1990s, there's a good number of excellent non-narrative films. And that you guys would be the ones to ask given your interest in and knowledge of the film.

Actually the question's relevant to me too, as I am hoping to do a long-term canonical effort one of these days, and want to check out a lot more avant-garde works before I do so. Thanks.

Joel Bocko said...

And apparently he's thinking features only. Not sure why, as that seems a rather arbitrary distinction to make with experimental films, but there you have it. Let me know your thoughts if you get the chance.

James Hansen said...

MovieMan- In fear of overtaking this post for no reason, is there a better place to contact you? This thread person sounds kind of insane (even the formalist structuralist classics are mostly not features, save the very long experiments of Brakhage, Snow, Warhol...) but there is still plenty there. Happy to help. Feel free to email me:

Joel Bocko said...

I hear you - sorry to hijack the thread, but as the admittedly weird conversation developed I thought of you guys (you can delete these comments too if you wish to keep it festival-oriented). My e-mail is

The discussion over there is winding down, but as stated, I have more altruistic reasons to seek some sort of canon as well - I'd love to explore more recent experimental work (as well as older works outside of the "classics") both for the hell of it and anticipation of assembling a broad-based personal canon for eventual discussion on my blog.

And don't rack your brain too much, unless you enjoy that sort of thing - if there's a good list out there you know of, I'd be happy to take a look at that as well. As for the feature/short thing, I can suss out what is and isn't from said list.

By the way, I've mostly been ignoring the festival headlines, as I'm no longer in NY and don't have much context for them. But in glancing at your piece, with reference to an unfamiliar and apparently firestarting A.O. Scott article, I'm going to have to return to this post when I get the chance (unfortunatley can't give it much time at this moment). This is going to be quite interesting...

Joel Bocko said...

Well, I actually was able to take a look at the article and at your rebuttal.

Scott's piece is frustratingly vague, but through the generalizations and turns of phrases I can sort of see what he's getting at. His analysis, if you can call it that, is in fact an expression of profound malaise, limited not only to him but to the film community in general. There are a number of factors involved here: yes, a certain movement away from cinematic pleasure in international filmmaking (or at least the perception of such, which must stem from somewhere), the lack of movements at hand - other than the intriguing but largely underwhelming and extremely limited field of "mumblecore", the decline of American independent films, the continual dumbing-down of blockbusters. But most importantly, the perceived death of criticism itself.

There's a lot of silver lining out there: the Criterion Collection, Netflix, the blogosphere, the possibilities of online distribution, the affordability of filmmaking technologoy (see a pattern here?) - film culture is popping up in new places, with new manifestations. But none of this seems to have translated into a renaissance of actual films, so I see where the low spirits come from. But I wish Scott was more specific and direct in his complaints, and you're right that perhaps the NYFF was not the appropriate venue to lodge said complaints.