By S.T. VanAirsdale
Wow, September already? It seems like only, you know, 30 or 40 days ago I was anticipating a relatively promising summer's worth of films including some good R-rated comedy and an above-average Batman sequel. Indeed, we got them, and indeed, they consumed me -- elsewhere. It started in Los Angeles for a few weeks in June, continued in my Jersey hovel for a few weeks after that, and then back in the old Reeler HQ uptown since late July. The details are completely uninteresting, even if their chemistry yielded this desperately needed relapse. I promise not to overdose or throw up on your carpet.
Which reminds me: Did you read Simon Abrams's piece in the NY Press this week about the New York Film Festival? To borrow the story's headline parlance, "We didn't think so." So let me recap in brief: Simon Abrams is young. The Film Society of Lincoln Center's chief constituency is old. The NYFF is programmed with little sense of risk and/or adventure that would appeal to Abrams Youth. New Directors/New Films and Film Comment Selects programs other fest's retreads and shoddy, fringy dregs unwelcome elsewhere. The operation is borderline irrelevant. The new Bunin Film Center might restore hope, but until then, the kids are off to Film Forum. Did I miss anything?
I'm sure Simon will let me know, if so; a former contributor to this site, he reached out to me on Sept. 6 with an e-mail requesting comment for a piece he was writing about, in his words, "what draws you to a film venue, what kind of programming you're interested in seeing [...] whether you prefer MoMA to Lincoln Center or to Film Forum or fill-in-the-blank for certain kinds of programs and not others." It seemed like a straightforward-enough request, to which I promptly responded:
For sheer class, taste, intuition and range, nobody programs better than the Film Society of Lincoln Center. They're always pulling some diamond from the aesthetic rough that most institutions would fling aside like bottle caps. The example that most readily comes to mind is last year's Donald Cammell series, which not only unearthed but actively celebrated work I had all but forgotten as pulpy afterthoughts. Richard Peña and Kent Jones and company consistently make me happy to be wrong, or at least reward my gambles more often than not. The NYFF might lean too heavily on Cannes, but in the cases of Silent Light ('07), this year's The Headless Woman and other intriguing films without US distribution at the time, I can't always blame them.
If it wasn't succinct, it was sincere: I deeply, unambiguously love the Film Society of Lincoln Center, whose programs I've nevertheless second-guessed sometimes and with whose leadership I've quarreled on more than one occasion. It's like any relationship, and I think it's mutual. Which is kind of the point: This blog aside, the Film Society loves me back, same as any of its members, patrons or guests with any sense or appreciation of its character and institutional history. I don't always get that from other perfectly friendly, competent local venues, whose essential repertory missions can be clouded by inaccessibility (MoMA), inconsistency (BAM) and/or the worst fucking seats in New York (Film Forum). Which isn't to suggest each is inherently aloof or misdirected; for better or worse, they just don't have the touch you get at the Film Society.
While rejecting that touch this week, Simon did not include my quote. He knew what he wanted; I wish I had as well. That said, I think I understand what Simon was resisting when he went after the "blue-hairs" who've come to be recognized as the Film Society's core constituency. In an interview with me last year -- his 20th spearheading the NYFF -- Film Society programming chief Richard Peña acknowledged ambivalence about unearthing new work for its own sake, a sentiment most tellingly revealed in his antipathy toward programming new media at the NYFF. It was hardly a disavowal of the content or its audience, but rather an expression of taste that Pena preceded with the caveat, "This is exactly why someone new should probably take over."
But, Peña concluded, "I think we'll probably continue in this classical format for the foreseeable future. I think being in New York will give us the privilege of doing that." The new Eleanor Bunin Film Center opening next year, meanwhile, will boost the Film Society's mandate to diversify outside its flagship's more classical strictures. There's no denying that being in New York will also give it the obligation of doing that, no less rigorously, no less remarkably.
Alas, it will remain on its West 65th Street perch, perhaps a ZIP Code too far for the T-shirt brigades and Simon Abrams's hatchet. Its respective relationships to directors and studios and its self-professed distance from advancing technologies and industry turbulence may yet remain too tempting a target for complacency's critics. But in the last American city where sophistication remains the coin of the realm, even the most jaded filmgoers know that the New York Film Festival is a gem you cherish wearing once a year. Burnish it and appreciate it -- without fail, and however flawed, it wants the same for you.
Posted at September 18, 2008 8:03 AM
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