And Now, in a Mad Rush, the New York Film Festival (Well, Some of It)

Okay, at long last, the New York Film Festival. Sometimes it feels like every year I see fewer and fewer films despite my best intentions. This year, with only three more days of screenings, I’ve seen ten films so far, about a third of the new films on offer. It’s too small a sample to make any definitive statement about the state of the art – as if any one festival could give you enough data for that purpose – but it feels like it has been a good festival. At any rate, I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen. In quick brushstrokes, here are the films I’ve seen (with the exceptions of the stuff I’m reviewing for Jewish Week), in the order in which I saw them.

Fados (Carlos Saura). For his latest excursion into dance-on-film, Saura pays tribute to his Portuguese neighbors and their most important musical gift to the world, the fado, a plaintive song of longing. The film itself is essentially a series of rather unconnected musical and dance performances, linked primarily by share physical space and projected images, mostly of Lisbon (one of my favorite cities). The music is wonderful, ranging from period recordings of Marceineiro and Amalia Rodrigues to contemporary Portuguese hip-hop takes on the fadista tradition and fado-influenced songs from the former colonies. There is a lot made of the tension between three-dimensional space the the flattened images of the projections, but I’m just not sure how Saura is using the screen space to unite the film formally, and I have some mild misgivings about its overall structure, but the music is wonderful – I would definitely buy the soundtrack album in a heartbeat – and the film has a playfulness that is really charming.

The Man From London (Bela Tarr). This could be the Bela Tarr film for people who hate Bela Tarr; it’s an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Fred Keleman, a modern-day noir without the smartass cynicism that has disfigured most of the neo-noirs. In short, it’s a real throwback to the moody, fate-drenched worlds of Lang and Wilder in the ‘40s and, at slightly over two hours should be accessible enough for anyone.

What hasn’t changed about Tarr, and what I love about his films, is the slow unfolding of screen space and the extraordinary care with which he uses camera movement to explore his visual universe. The opening shot of The Man From London is a masterpiece of slow disclosure, encapsulating the entire plot in a seven- or eight-minute take that links a ship at the docks, a control tower, two little jutting pieces of land and the city of Bastia, a desolate harbor town. We see a man toss a bag of smuggled money off the ship and two men fight over the loot, all from the point of view of Maloin (Miroslav Krobut0, a shabby, exhausted railroad worker. Once he inserts himself into this drama, things can only go from bad to worse in typical noir fashion, but Tarr works out this tale of retribution and redemption with the pitiless inevitability of Fritz Lang, tempered by the compassion of Jean Renoir and illustrated by his own trademark gliding camera movements and well-concealed sense of humor. This may be Tarr’s most accomplished film to date, not an omnium-gatherum with the power of Satantango perhaps, but a shrewd usurping of genre prerogatives for his own purposes. An undeniably great film by one of the best working filmmakers in the world today.

Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant). Van Sant continues to explore the nether regions of the teen psyche in this bleak, yet strangely lyrical film about a kid who accidentally causes the death of a security guard then tells no one what has happened. The boy, Alex (Gabe Nevins) is the latest in a series of opaque, impassive protagonists that van Sant has been exploring in his recent, Bela Tarr-influenced films as he turns his back on Hollywood narrative to try something more indeterminate, more elusive. Paranoid Park is probably the most accessible of his films since Elephant, particularly since it lacks that film’s insistently slow rhythms and occasionally offers us a fleeting glimpse into its central figures mind in sumptuously shot skateboarding sequences. The title refers to a skateboard park of sinister reputation in Portland, where the film was shot and set, but it could just as easily stand for the state of mind of its disaffected adolescents. As in Elephant, these kids aren’t exactly rebelling against the world their parents made for them. It’s more like they’re opting out, although without any particular animus or display of strong feelings. An elegant piece of filmmaking and an disturbing ride.

I’m Not There (Todd Haynes), The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan, Newport, 1963-1965 (Murray :Lerner) and Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach). I reviewed these three films for Jewish Week, and the piece will be posted on-line on Thursday.

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov). After his last couple of films, I began to fear that Sokurov had lost his way. I have a sense that Russian Ark represented more of an epistemological break than even he had intended and films like Father and Son feel distinctly like the work of someone treading water until he figures out his next move. (I, for one, wouldn’t be heartbroken if he never completed that trilogy.) In fact, Alexandra feels like a deliberate and refreshing throwback to the political films that Sokurov made around the time the Soviet Union began to collapse. The film is simplicity itself: Alexandra Nicolaevna (the magnificent Galina Vishnevskaya) is the grandmother of a Russian officer stationed in Chechnya, not in a combat zone exactly, but close enough for discomfort. She goes to visit her beloved grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), stays for a few days, meets his comrades, goes into town and becomes friendly with a local Chechen woman, then gets back on the train to go home.

Sokurov deliberately avoids every temptation of melodrama and the film’s palette (it was shot by Alexander Burov) is similarly muted, seemingly coated with a patina of brown dust. Vishnevskaya is commanding as the old woman, bringing all her diva-ness to bear with a delicious show of dignity and self-assurance. Although nothing much happens during the film’s 92 minutes, there is an air of impending violence hanging over events and the town itself is seen as a dilapidated, bullet-riddled wreck, punctuated by a bedraggled open-air market filled with Russian military gear that soldiers have bartered away. With their omnipresent cellphones, the Russians are apparently seldom out of contact with home, but the result is not solace but a sullen dissatisfaction. Like the violence that never happens, the Sokurov’s deep distaste for Vladimir Putin’s imperial venture in Chechnya is never stated but always in the air. The result is one of his best films in a long time.

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (John Landis). This has been a big year for Hollywood directors trying their hands at documentary. We’ve had Yippee, the Paul Mazursky film about Breslover Hasidim, Peter Bogdanovich’s epic film about Tom Petty (which is press-screening tomorrow morning, so watch this space), and this valentine to Rickles from John Landis. And make no mistake about it, this is a valentine, albeit a very funny one. (And boy, is his figure less than Greek!) Intriguingly, the bouquets are not only aimed at Rickles but also for a kind of Vegas act that no longer exists. If Scorsese’s Casino was a eulogy for the mob-run city of the ‘40s-‘70s, this is the gracenote to finish it. Thoroughly enjoyable – Rickles emerges as, to borrow a phrase from Landis’s remarks at the press conference afterwards, a performance artist rather than a stand-up, a sort of demented litmus paper against which to measure our prejudices and tolerance for stereotypes. In other words, he’s Sarah Silverman, only funny rather than ironic and smug. Landis soft-pedals Rickles’s sentimentality, although you catch enough of a glimpse to recognize it for what it is, but the guy’s inner teddy bear does come out in a surprisingly likeable way. The film will be airing on HBO in early December, so I will withhold further remarks until I do a full-length review for Jewish Week. (Hey, this is a very, very Jewish film.)