The Reeler


February 14, 2007

The Selects Few

Verhoeven, Brisseau and the gang at Film Comment take over with annual program

(L-R) Carice van Houten and Michiel Huisman in Black Book, the closing-night presentation of 2007's Film Comment Selects series (Photo: Jaap Vrenegoor / Sony Pictures Classics)

By some reckonings, Gavin Smith has the cinephile’s dream job: In his duties as editor of Film Comment, he attends the year’s major festivals, then cherrypicks his favorites when programming the annual Film Comment Selects series (the 2007 version of which opens tonight at the Walter Reade Theater). But what started as a way to catch New Yorkers up with prominent festival-circuit films without distribution has become a slightly less esoteric, collaboratively assembled grab-bag of titles with varying levels of prominence and distribution -- mostly foreign, with some older, rarely-screened American movies like the director’s cut of Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming and Frank Perry’s Play It As It Lays added for good measure. From the outside, the series still may have little discernible context or internal coherence, especially if you don’t read the magazine that programs it (which, considering that the magazine’s total number of copies printed per issue is 22,096 and that every Film Society of Lincoln Center member is automatically subscribed, is a distinct possibility). As Smith told The Reeler last week, however, the series initially stemmed from reader frustration.

“When we originally started out, it was a real tough time for foreign-language movies," he said. "There (were) just a lot of really interesting, challenging movies that weren't getting picked up for distribution, so we felt like we were filling a vacuum a little bit. We would periodically get letters from people, readers from different places across the country who would say, ‘I really like the magazine, it's really exciting to read about all these films that you're discovering, but it's very frustrating because here I am out here in the backwaters and I'm never going to get a chance to see these films. These films are not going to come out, and they're not going to be in my local video store.’ The idea was that, 'Well, yeah -- the magazine is writing about films people can't see, so let's try and show some of these films.' Then of course Netflix came out, so people who do live away from major cities and who read Film Comment -- in the long run -- they're going to be able to see a lot of what we write about. And that wasn't true 10 years ago.”

Smith acknowledges that the series fulfills a different function for New Yorkers, who once had to wait until February to see films that institutions like the New York Film Festival now calls dibs on months earlier. Programming of older films is part of reminding people that Film Comment writes about older films, as well as helping to achieve a balance avoiding an emphasis on what Smith referred to as "just all new, foreign, obscure movies.” Though he said he has seen about 75 to 80 percent of the 2007 line-up, he added that some films are programmed sight unseen based on the recommendations of contributors who’ve made a strong case for their inclusion.

A good example is Mamoru Oshii’s Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters. The selections' program synopses often cite their strongest advocates; in this case, it was Olaf Moller, the Cologne-based writer whose sometimes infuriating column “Olaf’s World” is a highlight of each issue of Film Comment. A typical piece announces an impossibly obscure line-up of exciting films that are, in all probability, unknown (or certainly unseen) in the United States. Tachigui itself isn’t much -- an anime-addled freebasing riff on Japanese history, seemingly made with the intention of replicating a Pynchon novel for omnivorous devourers of pop history -- but programming it allows local audiences the rare opportunity to catch up with Moller, who dubbed it “the most unique, dazzling and funny film from my list.”

Reached by e-mail at the Berlin Film Festival, Moller underscored the necessity for more programming along the lines of Film Comment Selects. “I believe that people who want to see something will find a way to see it," he wrote. "I did; others can do it just as well. I should say that, to a certain degree, my 'target audience,' if there is one, are festival and cinematheque-etc. programmers -- i.e. people with the kind of access, budget (and) 'mission' to make seemingly rare but hopefully interesting and meaningful stuff available for public viewing.”

Another Moller-blurbed highlight is the slightly better-known Longing, currently being pimped in some circles as a product of the “New German Cinema.” (Moller dismisses the label: “I think that we have, at this point in time, an obviously great cinema -- in earlier days it was less obviously great”). Longing, like many of the films in the series, has a small distributor (Hollywood Classics) that doesn’t yet have a release date slated for it. Grumpily, this viewer would like it to stay that way -- it’s a film characterized as much by its mundane tact and understatement as by any positive attributes it actually has -- but there’s little doubt that the series can help promote the film as much (if not more than) its distributor. Other smaller films being screened include the Chris Chang-recommended Bardo -- a distributor-less video wasteland of angsty sex and Romero-esque flesh-eating -- and These Encounters of Theirs, the final severe dispatch from Jean-Marie Straub and the late Daniele Huillet in which five duologues between ordinary mortals speaking of the Greek gods’ relationship to man and the meaning of eternity are rendered in static shots with no other distractions. Unsurprisingly, it also awaits American distribution.

(L-R) Raphaële Godin and Frédéric van den Driessche in Jean-Claude Brisseau's controversial Exterminating Angels (Photo: Rezo Films)

Other better-known films range from the reasonably prominent (Colossal Youth, the Cannes sensation that led critic Mark Peranson to declare that there was only room for one Pedro in his canon -- Costa, this film’s director, rather than Almodóvar -- hence he would not be seeing Volver) to those almost certain of art-house success (like closing-night film Black Book, director Paul Verhoeven’s return to Dutch cinema after extravagant American successes like Robocop, Basic Instinct and, er, Hollow Man). The series opens this evening with Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels, in which the controversial French director fictionalizes his lawsuit for sexual harassment on the set of his erotically-charged previous excursion, Secret Things.

In Angels, Brisseau’s directorial stand-in Francois (played by Frédéric van den Driessche) auditions a series of women for a movie exploring “female pleasure” -- and suffers the consequences when professional boundaries break down. A compellingly self-aggrandizing defense wrapped up in Greek mythological motifs and other trappings, it slowly makes sex banal and hardly worth all the fuss; near the bitter end, one of an infinite series of women masturbating (it’s their screen test) says, “You must be used to women masturbating for you.” “I’m beginning to be,” Francois replies.

The real Brisseau told me Tuesday that he was amused to learn about the existence of Film Comment Selects, let alone that Angels was the opening-night film. “I don't know exactly what is the link between Film Comment and my presence here,” he said through a translator at the start of a promotional blitz beginning tonight at the Walter Reade Theater. “I've been told to come, I come. I'm very happy. In fact, previously I was to come to New York four years ago to Lincoln Center because they screened all my films. In fact, I did not come. Only one thing I'm very sad about: I asked God to send me Frank Sinatra to sing me ‘New York, New York’ when I arrived, but Holy God disagreed. He told me, ‘You can buy “New York, New York” in the store. He won't come back.’ ”

When told the nature of the program, Brisseau responded simply, “I don't really understand distribution problems very well.” Perhaps, then, it is the duty of programmers like Gavin Smith and series like Film Comment Selects to save the filmmakers from themselves -- if not from the predilections that necessitate their works' selections.

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