October 1, 2008

NYFF. Junkets Dispatch. 1.

NYFF 46 The first in a series from Vadim Rizov.

The New York Film Festival's press screenings aren't just a clubby way for New York's circle of critics and journalists to catch up on world cinema together; it's also a chance to see many of the world's premiere directors speak about their work. But many of the questions turn out to be excessively vague or unhelpful; wasted opportunities abound. I recently sat in on as many panels as I could and took some notes on what went down.

Film: The Class
Time & Date: Monday, September 15, 1:15 pm
Moderator: Richard Peña, aided by the translation services of Anne Aghion, who herself will be screening a documentary (Ice People) at Lincoln Center on October 16. Truly (to paraphrase Noël Coward on Peter Ustinov), is there no end to the talents of Richard Peña? In addition to tactfully turning the most inane question into something palatable and even interesting, conducting Spanish Q&A's flawlessly as his own translator, Peña can also apparently converse fluently with Cantet in French. Aghion is a typically expert translator.
Subject: Laurent Cantet, writer/director.
Attendance: Extremely high. Few workaday freelancers can afford not to get as much material as possible out of the Opening Night film.
Tone: Extremely deferential.
Highlights: Cantet is vague on much, although he does note that this is the first time he's allowed improvisation on the set. It shows: it's his most relaxed, open film in a long time. Otherwise, not many surprises: shooting was a mixture of a pre-written stricture and revisions/improvisation on the set, 5 to 7 takes a scene to integrate everything, multiple cameras rolling. It's great, textbook quasi-documentary filmmaking. Cantet is capable of speaking in whole paragraphs, and probably speaks excellent English: he doesn't need any translation for the questions. His most explicitly political moment comes when noting, "You can't really expect to teach the language of Molière or Racine or Proust without listening to the students' own language."
Most Overambitious Question: "In the aftermath of the film's success, what has the effect of the film had on the people involved and audiences and on French educational politics and racial politics and real life?" Visions rise in the mind of rallies, landmark legislation and an epoch-making event in French social history; unfortunately, Peña jumps in. "We should mention the film has not yet been released," he says with a nervous laugh. "It'll be released on September 24th" (in France). Tackling the question anyway, Cantet cheerfully declares that the film will be, in regards to policy, "a very, very small part of a large debate, a debate that's much older than I am" on education, which he declares to be "almost a national sport." As for the kids, several of the previous non-professionals are already getting roles.

Film: Wendy and Lucy
Time & Date: Monday, September 15, 4:30 pm
Moderator: J Hoberman.
Subject: Kelly Reichardt, writer/director.
Attendance: High. Among other things, Wendy and Lucy is one of the only films here to have an honest-to-goodness star of sorts, Michelle Williams.
Tone: Laid-back.
Highlights: To get the script to Williams, Todd Haynes - fresh off working with her on I'm Not There - gave her the script, bypassing the agent entirely. Already an Old Joy fan, Williams was "very game, cool with not washing her hair for 20 days in character and moving lights between set-ups. Reichardt discussed her preference for editing everything herself: "I can't picture giving it to someone else at this point." With FinalCutPro, she says, it's not that expensive: "It runs up your electricity bill and that's about it." With all the freedom of time to write alone, shooting with a lot of people jars her. Driving back after shooting to New York, she looks forward to returning to that isolation, "to be with it by myself." Reichardt's simplistic liberal politics (which, in my opinion, drag the film down) emerge in the form of a snipe when discussing the evolution of Williams's character: "We always wanted her to be close to Alaska, which takes on a whole new meaning now," at which the room erupted in laughter. Reichardt revealed Wendy's backstory, completely absent from the film and better off for it, but completely plausible: "She was in Indiana and was a renter and had a house-fire and had no insurance and had to get out of the place where she was leaving." Further motivation: "That the fireman had damaged everything, so she was just sort of left with what she had, and that she had heard about people going into Alaska and working in canneries. She was probably wasn't one of the people who set out the way she set out, but she had enough gumption to try it out." Work started on the screenplay after Katrina victims too poor to flee the storm were mocked on conservative talk shows.
Most Unexpectedly Insightful Question: "I'm not sure you're going to like this question," the last question begins. "Who talked you into that long credit crawl, Peter Jackson?" Reichardt's voice instantly livens a notch: "My films aren't really feature-length, so I have to have this crawl. But I have to sit through it every time, so it's worse on me than it is on you."

Film: The Windmill Movie
Time & Date: Wednesday, September 17, 11:35 am
Moderator: Lisa Schwarzbaum
Subject: Director Alex Olch, producer/widow of subject Susan Meiselas
Attendance: Higher than you'd think, though not that high. Either people are really having less work to do these days as film writing jobs get scaled back, or there's some intangible curiosity attached to this film I haven't picked up on.
Tone: Kind of creepy and insider-y. From the opening disclosure by Olch that Richard P Rogers - the experimental filmmaker whose uncollected footage forms the bulk of the film - was his thesis adviser at Harvard, the conference takes on the weird tone of a small cocktail party the press has inexplicably been invited to.
Highlights: "It's a very sad story. It's a very real story." That's Meiselas on the film - which is true, but also self-congratulatory. Scharwzbaum compounds everyone congratulating each other on their bravery: "This is a gift that you were giving of yourself to this film." Then someone asks if Rogers's mom's anti-Semitism (they married after she died) would've prevented them from getting married if she had outlived her son. "It took us 30 years," Meisalas answers. "That's sort of about the film, but it's sort of not about the film. I think it's really important to talk about the film." So there are things that really can't be talked about, no matter how brave everyone is. Someone asks Meiselas about collaborating with Olch. "I guess if we had a few words, it was just that it didn't feel right to me in his attempts to capture what he'd heard from other people," she replies.
Question That Most Needed To Be Asked But Wasn't: The Windmill Movie is littered with swiped music cues - I spotted the main theme from Being John Malkovich, and I'm sure I heard a few others as well. There's no indication that this is a temp print, and it proved incredibly distracting. Instead, we got a question about the ostensibly haunting soundtrack. Oh well.

Film: Afterschool
Time & Date: Monday, September 22, 3:50 pm
Moderator: J Hoberman
Subject: Writer/director Antonio Campos, teenage actors Ezra Miller, Addison Timlin, Jeremy White and DP Jody Lee Lipes, who isn't asked a single question the whole time and sits with a pensive smile.
Attendance: Low but lively.
Tone: Engaged. Because Afterschool deals with some hot topic issues - New Media, the influence of said NM on young people - everyone is very concerned. And the kids - at least Miller - are talkative in an untrained way.
Highlights: Provided by Miller, who seems thrilled to be asked not just questions that take his answers seriously, but to be the momentary spokesman of a generation. In response to an excessively vague, think-piece-ish query as to How Media Affects Youth, Miller's off and running: "With the exception of the blind youth of today, I think we're constantly pounded with videos. Videos dominate my life and I don't particularly think they're a negative force." A few sentences later, he's turned to porn: "There have been studies done that show that watching a lot of internet porn, especially the really visceral internet porn, can lead to impotence later in life. Your brain changes itself." No one knows how to respond to this. Campos also reveals that to get reaction shots, he showed the kids cell-phone footage of 9/11 jumpers, which manages to add 9/11 to the mix and make the whole thing even more pseudo-weighty.
Most Tactless Question: "I'm very glad that you said Rob [the protagonist played by Miller] is not based on you, because he's sort of one brain cell above a zombie." He then asks why there's a shot of a girls' genitals in the movie (which "any distributor would cut out"), when in fact the two shots in question clearly don't show genitalia.

Film: I'm Gonna Explode
Time & Date: Friday, September 26, 3:30 pm
Moderator: Lisa Schwarzbaum
Subject: Writer/director Gerardo Naranjo, cast members Juan Pablo de Santiago, Maria Deschamps, Daniel Giménez Cacho
Attendance: Pretty low; maybe most of the press corps already saw it at Toronto.
Tone: Engaged again. In addition to dealing with Afterschool's pet topics, I'm Gonna Explode also addresses corruption in Mexican political life. Truly something for everyone.
Highlights: A long, long list of movies Naranjo showed his teen actors to get them in the right frame of mind: Pierrot Le Fou and innumerable other Godards, Rushmore ("I think it is one of my favorites now," Deschamps adds), The Lovers on the Bridge, and apparently every single swooningly romantic teen-minded film ever in general. Someone in the press raises the specter of Arturo Ripstein's 1973 The Castle of Purity, which has never occurred to Naranjo but which appears to please him. Naranjo speaks many times - as does his cast - of the general suckiness of contemporary Mexican life: "We are surrounded by lies and stupidity and media." Naranjo confirms that his violent movies come from an authentic place: his lead actor had never touched a gun, but Naranjo's schooldays were full of them. Various allusions to past indiscretions follow throughout. Eventually everyone starts talking about the media, which is apparently all that matters. "Our generation is a media generation," Deschamps announces, making this officially the festival of Media Addled Youth.
Worst Phrased Question: Unfortunately, straight from Schwarzbaum, who asks Naranjo about his relationship to the so-called Mexican Three Amigos (Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo Del Toro) vis-a-vis his friendship with filmmakers like Azazel Jacobs and Goran Dukic. Schwarzbaum proposes, quite reasonably, that he has more in common with Jacobs and Dukic, his film-school buddies, than the grouping of Mexico's three most commercially prominent directors. Unfortunately, she ends her question by asking if Naranjo wants to talk about "the aesthetic that is your Mexican Revolution." An audible snort travels down from three aisles behind me. As it turns out, Naranjo thinks Carlos Reygadas is the best working Mexican director anyway.
Worst Phrased Question, Pt II: After a question about the film's entirely creditable awkward youth sex scenes, the last question goes to another one on the media. "We have another film here called Afterschool," a woman asks. "The kids today don't like confrontation because they live on the internet." That's when I left.

-Vadim Rizov

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Posted by dwhudson at October 1, 2008 12:38 PM


Oh my gosh. Vadim Rizov has much more patience than I do.

Posted by: Maya at October 2, 2008 8:58 AM

This is a hilarious recap. Thanks for this. The AFTERSCHOOL conference was bizarre. Lots and lots of unchecked teen wisdom. And that is a great question about the credits crawl in WENDY AND LUCY--the credits looked kind of unfinished.

Posted by: John M at October 2, 2008 12:22 PM

Vadim, maybe one day you could write a primer or something? Like: "Thou shalt not ask what you can Google." Just saying, you would be doing everyone a favor.

Posted by: Amanda McCormick at October 3, 2008 7:32 AM