August 21, 2007

Two Weeks in Manhattan

A veteran critic turns rookie programmer for the 45th New York Film Festival

By Scott Foundas

(L-R) The Darjeeling Limited, Persepolis, 4 months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, No Country for Old Men, Secret Sunshine and Flight of the Red Balloon are among the selections at this year's NYFF
(Photo collage: D. Fith)

On Monday, July 30, as I arrived in New York for my first tour of duty on the New York Film Festival selection committee, I received an e-mail announcing the death of Ingmar Bergman -- one of two devastating blows that would be suffered by the world film community before the week was out (or even half-over). A fortnight -- and some 60 or 70 movies vying for a coveted NYFF slot -- later, I felt assured that, despite the doomsday tone of many Bergman and Antonioni obits, cinema itself was still very much alive and well, and that anyone claiming otherwise simply wasn't looking very hard.

Indeed, for two weeks in Manhattan, I did little else but watch movies, staggering the seven blocks from Lincoln Center back to my hotel most nights in a kind of euphoric daze, my thoughts abuzz with the movies and pieces of movies I had seen in the hours prior, my brain feeling as though it needed a rub down. Looking back on it now, I can say without hesitation that it was the tougher (if also the most rewarding) of the two jobs I have worked in the thick of a sweltering East Coast summer -- and if I tell you that the first was putting roofs on houses underneath the Florida sun over the three months between my freshman and sophomore years of college, that should help put things into perspective. There are, of course, people out there who believe that watching movies for a living fails to qualify as "real" work. To which I say: Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

Now, I've long considered myself something of a moviegoing marathon man. On any given day, in the course of my work as film editor and chief critic at L.A. Weekly, I see at least one (and more often two) new films, while at film festivals I start to feel guilty if I see less than five in a 24-hour period. But the festival selection process is a something else entirely: It is, for starters, a collaborative endeavor, which means not just seeing movies and forming opinions about them, but then sharing those thoughts in the company of four passionate, opinionated colleagues (in this case, The Village Voice's J. Hoberman, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Kent Jones, and our fearless leader, Film Society programming director Richard Peña). It is about the Goldilocks-like act of balancing one's personal taste against the considerations that go into organizing a festival program -- in other words, not too much of one thing (French costume dramas, say) or too little of another (documentaries, for example), but a program that feels just right. And it is, above all, about choosing 30 films (28 new works plus two revivals) that will entertain, enlighten, challenge and otherwise stimulate the NYFF audience come September.

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That's a weighty responsibility, especially when the festival in question has 44 years of storied tradition behind it: Herzog, Jancso, Renoir, Sembene, Straub, Truffaut, Visconti, Welles -- and that was just 1975! I myself first attended the NYFF in 2000, purely as a spectator, returning for a few years after that in a journalistic capacity, and the memories of the movies I saw in those years remain especially vivid: A screening of Jia Zhangke's Platform, at which I spied an empty orchestra seat from my perch in the mezzanine and, 10 minutes or so into the film, moved down to grab it and to bring myself closer to Jia's radiant images; the projection of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., during which my perfectly good watch of several years suddenly stopped working, as if I too had been pulled into some Lynchian void. Which is not to mention the general air of formality, the reserved seating, the unfailingly punctual start times, the spotlight that shines on the filmmakers' box seats at the conclusion of each screening.

Those are, I suspect, some of the very things that have caused naysayers to dismiss the NYFF as outmoded and old-fashioned in the age of ostensibly hipper, younger festivals like Sundance and Tribeca. But long before I had made it to Cannes, Berlin or any of the other old-world European fests, it was the NYFF that most seemed to me like a temple where cinema was worshipped with due reverence. When Richard Peña called me this past spring to invite me on to the selection committee, I did not hesitate.

Of the selection process itself, I suspect what may surprise people most is that it is not fraught with compromise -- at least not this year, when the overall quality of movies was so high that our most difficult discussions centered around which titles to exclude from the final program, rather than trying to make cases (as I am assured happens in many years) for inclusion. Does that mean we all love each of the 30 films equally? Of course not. But speaking just for myself, there is not a single movie in that lineup that I feel doesn't belong there. As the artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, Thierry Frémaux, commented to me in an interview earlier this year, "The point of this job is not to say 'I like' or 'I don't like.' My job is to say, 'Do we have to screen this film or not?' Maybe I don't like a film, but I think I have to show it. Maybe I like a film, but I'm not sure that we have to show it." Which, having now experienced a similar process first-hand, I can say is about as apt a summation of festival programming as one is likely to hear.

But as one director of a major international film festival sagely advised me when we spoke mid-way through my stay in New York, selecting films is sometimes as much about the movies themselves as it is about the day on which you watch them, and the order in which you watch them on that particular day. In the most reductive terms, a light comedy may play better -- or worse -- for coming on deck just after a devastating drama about Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War, while a lushly stylized, widescreen horror picture may seem a refreshing change of pace on the heels of some unbearably grungy, Dogme-style exercise in self-loathing. Sometimes, a movie is not so much at the mercy of the committee than that of its own producers: Several films show up on prints lacking English subtitles, requiring the presence of a live, simultaneous translator during the screening -- not an automatic death-knell, to be sure, but certainly something that makes for a less direct viewing experience. Meanwhile, one highly anticipated title arrives on a DVD that simply will not play, on any of three DVD players and two laptop computers, and despite repeated inquires for a replacement copy, it never comes.

Fifteen of the films screening in this year's NYFF premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, some of which we saw and invited at that time, others of which were first seen by us during the August screenings. The rest is new work, much of it showing for the first time anywhere in the U.S., and by far the headiest pleasure of having a hand in making that selection was the feeling of discovery -- increasingly rare for professional critics and all but forgotten by the general moviegoer -- whereby one sits down in a darkened theater, gazes up at the large screen, and knows nothing (save for the title) about what will appear, whether it be the latest film of an established master or a masterful film by a relative neophyte. (This year's lineup offers plenty of both.) We know far too much about the movies we see nowadays before we ever see them, so my advice, dear reader, is to read as little else as possible about the films of the 45th New York Film Festival and to simply head to Lincoln Center in just over a month's time and take a gamble. The odds, if I do say so myself, are in your favor. And by then, the first chill of fall will be in the air.

Comments (1)

"Meanwhile, one highly anticipated title arrives on a DVD that simply will not play, on any of three DVD players and two laptop computers, and despite repeated inquires for a replacement copy, it never comes."

My God, it is so good to know that it even happens to the NYFF... Makes me feel so much better!

As a programmer, I really enjoyed this article, Scott. You certainly understand our dilemmas, joys and pains; And you didn't even have to deal with premiere turf wars, people pulling films, etc etc. Wondering if this experience has re-shaped your own thinking about the way in which you experience other film festivals now, and whether you may have more sympathy for other programs (not saying you didn't before, just curious).

See you in September,
Tom Hall

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