NYFF 2011: Team Twitch Wraps Up: Part 2

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Aannd we're back with part 2 of Peter Gutierrez and Aaron Krasnov's wrap up of the 49th annual New York Film Festival. Part 1 can be found here. And now... a veritable NYFF blow-out with the dynamic duo dropping some paragraphs on Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, Pina, Corman's World, A Separation, The Artist and The Descendants.

Aaron Krasnov: One emergent festival theme I've started thinking about since we started this correspondence is the disturbed female: through Miss Bala, Melancholia, A Dangerous Method, Shame (though not the focus), and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Elizabeth Olsen and Martha Marcy May Marlene epitomized this for me (note: I have not seen A Dangerous Method yet), a fragmented narrative aiming to disorient and frighten, evoking empathy through reconstruction. Melancholia, though gorgeous and well acted feels insular compared to Martha May, which reaches into the numbed confusion and examines what it means to exist in this world, with family, with society, sexually, behaviorally and ideologically. Blurring dreams, reality, past and present, the confusion is allowed to evolve. Where as the symptoms in the festival's other films tended to remain more one-note.

Peter Gutierrez: That's great to bring up -- because now I can be yang to your yin, or vice versa, I'm not sure. I was sick and couldn't attend Martha Marcy May Marlene, so now you've made me look forward to it more than ever. On the other hand, I saw and loved A Dangerous Method and a lot of what you say applies to it as well. That is, much of its greatness lies in its anti-one-noteness, if you will. (I also think you've hit on the hinge issue with The Loneliest Planet -- audiences will tend to like it if they appreciate the setting-in aspect you describe.)

shame_fassbender.jpgI won't repeat the points from my review, but the richness of subtext and point-of-view in Cronenberg's film puts most other recent dramas to shame, not just those at NYFF. And speaking of Shame (how do you like that segue?), or maybe I should say "speaking of psychological conditions," it troubled me at the press conference when director Steve McQueen seemed to be emphasizing the "affliction" at the center of his film. That's because it confirmed the feeling I got in the final third of Shame, which is that, sadly, it was nothing more than a very arty disease-of-the-week movie. I don't mean to make light of sex addiction or suggest that a memorable or hard-hitting film can't be made about the subject. But Shame, despite its occasional flashes of brilliant direction, or art direction, my favorite performance from Carey Mulligan thus far and another strong one from Michael Fassbender, is not that film. Virtually everything in its wind-it-up-and-watch-it-spiral-down approach felt like it had a thousand antecedents, from Hubert Selby, Jr., to Brett Easton Ellis, to something even as ancient as Midnight Cowboy. So while 4:44 Last Day on Earth was easily the NYFF film I liked the least, it was nowhere near as disappointing as Shame, perhaps because Hunger struck me as particularly original in so many ways.

What about you, though? Anything you saw that really exceeded your expectations--or did the opposite?

AK:
McQueen also mentioned during the press conference of Shame that shooting Hunger had exhausted him so much he didn't want to make another film. Eventually he fell back into the process, and Shame feels like the easier, younger cousin of Hunger. Not reaching for too much, deftly visualizing the elements at hand, shot in a place McQueen wanted to capture. I don't see this as a bad thing, and thankfully I had heard a lot of backlash before hand and went in without expectations. It is, as you put it, just another addiction film, and one that certainly doesn't do anything new, but captured through McQueen's lens it has a glossy, aggressively operatic quality to it that is deserving of more.

Pina-005.jpgPina was the film for me that stood out. I knew the genesis of the project, and its eventual turn-around after Pina Bausch's death, and had heard some great chatter coming through the waves. What I wasn't prepared for was the best use of stereoscopy in a completely live-action film that I have seen, and one of the most vivacious celebrations of an artist's work I have been privy to. The spaces the film's dances live in are chosen to complement the dance and the camera, deep welcoming spaces that let stereoscopy do its thing, expanding the screen backwards on the z, while giving contours to the images at the fore. Jubilant and expressive, choosing to tell the artist's story through her work and the polar opposite of Patience (After Sebald), this is aesthetic documentary at its least traditional.

I keep hearing about the importance of A Separation, which I did not have a chance to see. You did though, and are echoing the masterpiece talk. What makes that film such a standout?

cormans-world-2011-a-l.jpgPG: Sorry I missed Pina -- and before I get to A Separation I should mention a wonderful doc that also happens to be a celebration of an artist's work, although in this case a very different kind of artist. I'm talking about Corman's World, which gained some strong reviews out of Sundance and which opens theatrically on December 16th. Super smart, yet made with a fan's enthusiasm and boasting some unexpectedly revealing scenes about other filmmakers (I have more fondness for both Jack Nicholson and Ron Howard after seeing it), this is really a film made with a Twitch mentality in mind. Everything from Bergman to cheesy scifi flicks of the '50s (and cheesy Syfy flicks of today) is covered, and it's all presented at a nice pace and great sense of proportion for the many stages of Corman's career. Really, really not to be missed.

a-separation_small.jpgNeither is A Separation. I'm hesitant to use the word "masterpiece" since I'm not always sure what it means, or how it makes some sound when using it. But I'm not hesitant to say that I was blown away by what Asghar Farhadi has accomplished. In a fest full of stylists of the highest order -- Tarr, McQueen, Von Trier -- Farhadi's relative invisibility in his own work was more than refreshing. Describing
A Separation as a drama, or family drama, in a naturalistic mode makes it sound far more boring than it actually is.
But describing it in generic terms as a "legal thriller" or "courtroom drama" also sells it short: you're fairly far along in the narrative before the main characters appear before the investigating magistrate, a kind of one-man-grand-jury, and things have already been riveting from the get-go. You can easily identify with the plight of several of these characters, and the ingeniously crafted script slowly draws all the believable, everyday details and events of their lives together in a way that catches both them and the audience in its net. I guess the best thing I can say about A Separation is that one can't easily pinpoint why it's so successful -- the acting talent on display, its wonderfully twisty and yet utterly convincingly plot, or Farhadi's direction in service of both. As in any truly great movie, they all go hand in hand.

AK: It's time to touch on the charming, buoyantly old-Hollywood The Artist. As somewhat of a silent film novice I missed many of the references in the film, though was taken with the exuberance with which the film captures Hollywood's transition from silent cinema to the talkies; Singing in the Rain's silent, less musical brother if you will. Captivating and reverent, expressively detailed and utterly transportive, this is the type of film that makes me love the art-form. One of my favorites of the fest and a film I will be seeing again with friends upon release.

The Artist.jpgPG: I think The Artist is so much fun that it's apt to turn some people into silent film buffs. There's not only the exuberance you mention but also such intelligence and sheer love-of-movies in just about every scene that you sit there with a stupid grin plastered to your face for the entire film -- at least I did. Like Corman's World and A Separation, it's really not to be missed -- and especially on the big screen, in all its 1.33 glory. You're dead-on when you state how transporting The Artist is, and of course I loved some of the references such as Singin' in the Rain and also Citizen Kane, which director Michel Hazanavicius cited in a kind of self-mocking way after the screening. The nice thing about those borrowings or nods, along with ones to early Joan Crawford films, Astaire and Rogers, and so on, is that they're lightly done and, moreover, do not constitute direct "sampling" of film text. I had a big problem with the actual clips of Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro followed by star Jean Dujardin cut in on the close shots. Why not recreate a Fairbanks-style sequence for a few seconds using present-day freerunners? I mean, this is a French production after all, right? Worse, the long climactic sequence is scored by an uninterrupted chunk of Bernard Herrmann that does not fit the time period, unlike so much of the great, occasionally Gershwinesque contributions of composer Ludovic Bource. What pains me is that I love Hazanavicius' choices -- Vertigo is one of my two or three favorite films of all time and it boasts the most gorgeous music for the screen I've heard -- but there's a big difference between paying homage and using a crutch. Anyway, I'm griping too much about a film that I absolutely loved. Not only would I make a point of paying to see it again in theaters when it opens in a few weeks, but I suspect it's one of those movies that you can derive joy from just by being there for others' first experience of it.

AK: You were not happy with The Descendants when we exited, and I can understand the same-old formula in a lush environment producing that sort of sentiment. But, I am on the complete opposite side of the proverbial fence here. The Descendants certainly doesn't do anything new: the better living through family, brought together by a disaster and better for it model, is well worn ground, though not a fault in my book. As someone who spends his life telling and listening to stories, I've learned it's not always the content of the story, it's how the story is told. The Descendants is one of those stories that gains strength as it moves along, presenting a familiar situation which slowly, disarmingly proves affective through strong acting and the great writing we have come to expect from Alexander Payne.

The-Descendants_small.jpgPG: Well, I know we got in an animated conversation after the screening, and I think I can be a bit more charitable with the passing of time. I like how some of what one expects to be big dramatic moments actually avoid standard, formulaic payoffs. The trouble is, the payoffs then need to come somewhere where you don't expect them, and for me they never do. Instead, the movie gets mired in its own understated indie-feel, with a surface gloss of iconoclasm and Clooney charm helping it get by for long stretches. However, these elements can't really hide the fact that the deeper currents are exceedingly trite. The air of creative laziness that sometimes crops up -- a voice-over that's inexplicably abandoned after establishing key info, visual and narrative telegraphing, a reliance on "beauty shots" of Hawaii -- doesn't help matters. More disheartening, the brand of bold awkwardness that works so well in Alexander Payne's other films (and yes, I did laugh several times here, too) comes across in The Descendants as mere schtick, neither insightful nor disarming. Overall, then, I can't help but feel that Payne, whose work I've always admired, has dumbed himself down to the point where this will undoubtedly be his most successful picture.

AK: It's a film that is overwhelmingly blunt in its thematics: parenthood, natural preservation, infidelity. That works within these universal confines, teaching us that if you are true to yourself everything will be OK, as long as you're not a prick. It's a film where not everyone wins, where life deals you a shitty hand and you need to figure out how to deal with it, then maybe things will start getting better. It's a film about the power of communication, growing up and moving on. It's a film with all of those fluffy morals that is unconcerned with anything loftier, just finding a way to improve things through family and a little bit of humor. 

Across the board, from the smaller roles of Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster to the front and center work of relatively unknown Shailene Woodley the acting is the star. Archetypal or not, these are characters I'll remember, and feel a kinship with; and thinking back this is true of most of Payne's characters. There is a life within them, a want for something better, that moment of catharsis where you feel good about yourself as a person, that striving I see in all of Payne's central rolls. You harp on the quirk a bit, but without that humor, that lightness of conversation, in which anyone can say something dumb if it will teach them a lesson or lighten the mood, we wouldn't have as much character progression. People learning from their mistakes while providing the film a bit of spontaneity not allowing it to be weighed down by the death that gravitates the film. There are certainly a few times where the histrionics burn through, but in-general the film skips the heavy-handedness and lets the actors do their thing, something I warmly welcome.

PG: Well, all in all, an amazing festival -- and that's without my catching so many of the "Nikkatsu" pictures or classics such as The Exterminating Angel, another personal favorite. Instead of simply feeling like the green room for would-be Oscar contenders, or just a collection of Cannes or Toronto leftovers, NYFF really seemed like an incredible, and incredibly generous, "festival" in the true sense:  a tremendous amount of fun, and an experience it's hard not to feel inspired by if you love the art form in all its myriad shapes and sizes.

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