New York Film Festival Diary – #1

NYFF 51-posterSince moving to New York in 1977, the New York Film Festival has been the big annual film event for me. At my first festival, the 15th NYFF in ’77, I remember seeing Handle with Care (d. Jonathan Demme), The Man Who Loved Women (d. François Truffaut), The American Friend (d. Wim Wenders), Padre Padrone (d. Paolo & Vittorio Taviani), and in a sidebar animation program, several great cartoons directed by Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. I realized this was one of the reasons I’d moved to New York. Actually, I came out here for a job with a motion picture lab, which turned out to be terrible and mercifully ended after 10 months, but it got me to New York. I soon realized this was where I was supposed to be.

I’ve attended every year since then, with a couple of exceptions. Film Society members can buy tickets in advance of public sale. These are reserved seats at Alice Tully Hall, then and now the primary venue. One year I was upset with where my seats were (having indicated my seating preferences when I submitted my order, which were obviously ignored) and returned all the tickets for a cash refund. I ended up not seeing anything, but I made my point. Right. Another year I quit the Film Society entirely because my issues of “Film Comment” magazine (a subscription is included with membership) weren’t arriving on time. In both cases, I’m sure I really showed them. I’d like to think I’ve evolved a little since then.

For many years, the NYFF, which began in 1963, screened predominantly foreign films. That has changed over time, and now there’s a good mix of foreign and English-language films. Additional screening venues at Lincoln Center have allowed the festival programming to expand greatly. In the 80s it was possible for me to see everything if I wanted. That’s impossible today, but it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’m seeing 14 films from the Main Slate of 36, and 2 from the Revivals  program of 11 films. I plan to write briefly about all of them every few days as I see the films. Here goes.

Friday, September 27. Opening night kicked off with Captain Phillips. I didn’t think I’d be seeing this, because both scheduled screenings at Alice Tully Hall were either too expensive ($75 members’ price @ 6:00 pm) or invitation-only (9:00 pm). But additional screenings were added and I was able to see it for $15 at the Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center just down the block. I had high anticipations for Captain Phillips, and was basically not disappointed. Tom Hanks’ performance, especially in the last 10 – 15 minutes, is amazing. The film is worth seeing for those moments alone. Paul Greengrass is one of my favorite directors. I love his two Bourne films (The Bourne Supremacy – 2004 & The Bourne Ultimatum – 2007) and find them to be endlessly repeatable. Captain Phillips is similar in many ways to his United 93 (2006), which I watched on the next night via the miracle of Netflix streaming. The new film made me want to see United 93 again, a film I like a lot, though it’s not an easy ride. Both films share a semi-documentary approach of great precision and detail in setting and performance, as well as focusing on individuals operating under great stress. There’s nothing casual about the way he puts his films together, a trait Greengrass shares with Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, two other excellent directors.

Captain Phillips-stillTom Hanks in the title role is excellent, as you would expect. He brings great commitment to the part. It’s like you can see him thinking in the pressure of the moment. His eyes tell a lot. Hanks is an immensely engaging actor. I can’t imagine anyone not liking him, though I’d like to see him play a bad guy sometime. He’s been compared to Jimmy Stewart in terms of appeal, but to me Stewart was more interesting in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and especially in the series of Westerns he made with director Anthony Mann. Stewart brought out a darker, obsessive quality to these films. It would be interesting to see Hanks like this as well, though who knows, audiences might not accept it.

It would also be interesting to see Captain Phillips in double feature with A Hijacking, a Danish film released last year that also features Somali pirates boarding a ship and taking hostages in demand for ransom. That film treats the similar scenario in a totally different way. It’s less amped up than Captain Phillips, conveys the tense, anxious boredom of captivity over several months with a constant threat of violence.

The performances in Captain Phillips are uniformly excellent. With the exception of Hanks and a few others, Chris Mulkey to name one, we haven’t seen most of the actors before, or at least not very much, which adds to the documentary feel of the film. Catherine Keener, playing Hanks’ wife, has basically a cameo with maybe 5 minutes of screen time at the beginning. She’s very good, as usual, but barely there. The leader of the four pirates who board Hanks’ ship is played by Barkhad Abdi, a member of the Somali community in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He’s never acted before, but he’s terrific here, a very intense presence.

This film opens on October 11th. Here’s a NYFF press conference with Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks, and Barkhad Abdi.

Saturday & Sunday, September 28 & 29. Saw two films on Saturday: The Wind Rises, from the great Japanese animation director, Hayao Miyazaki, and At Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman’s 4-hour documentary shot at UC Berkeley. The Wind Rises started at 12:30 pm and was out a little after 2:30, so I had some time to come home to feed the cats and recharge before At Berkeley at 4:30. On Sunday I didn’t see any films, but attended an HBO Directors Dialogue with Fred Wiseman in the afternoon.

Wind Rises-stillIf you’ve seen any of Miyazaki’s films, you know how amazing they are. I haven’t come close to seeing all of them, but my favorites so far are Spirited Away (2001), which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003 (the film was released in the US in 2002), and Porco Rosso (1992), the incredibly inventive story of a WWI pilot in Italy in the 1930s who has been turned into a humanoid pig and rescues children kidnapped by flying pirates. His many other features include Castle in the Sky (1986) and Princess Mononoke (1997). The Wind Rises is different in that it’s the biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a real-life figure who designed airplanes for the military in 1930s Japan, most notably the Zero fighter. I thought it unusual that Miyazaki would focus on a real-world subject, but his imagination takes flight, so to speak, in Horikoshi’s dreams and fantasies, which are quite elaborate and involved. It’s a wonderful film, with a touching love story and an understated anti-war message. This trailer gives a good sense of Miyazaki’s visual style.

Fred Wiseman’s At Berkeley is something else again. I was apprehensive because of the 4-hour running time without intermission, especially on top of the earlier film, but found that I settled into a groove after the first hour or so, and the rest of it seemed to go by rather quickly.

Wiseman in the Walter Reade Theater lobby, 9/28/13

Wiseman in the Walter Reade Theater lobby, 9/28/13

Wiseman is a great documentary filmmaker, or filmmaker, period. He studied to be a lawyer, didn’t like that, and began his film career at age 30. He’s now 83, but doesn’t seem ready to stop making films. The subject of his next film is the National Gallery art museum in London.

Wiseman’s earlier films include Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Basic Training (1971), Welfare (1975), Public Housing (1997), Domestic Violence (2001), and Boxing Gym (2010). You can tell from this sampling of titles that his subjects are almost always institutions (For a complete filmography, see his Wikipedia entry). I don’t know how he gets the access he does, but with a three-man crew he gets into the guts of how these places work. There’s no exposition, no on-screen titles to identify people or places, no narration or interviews. It’s the very definition of fly-on-the-wall observation. Though Wiseman doesn’t like terms like  “cinéma vérité,” which he once called a “pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned.” He has said, “What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure.” He has also said his films are “based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions… The editing is highly manipulative, and the shooting is highly manipulative…What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it… all of those things… represent subjective choices you have to make.” His films have a point of view, but you don’t get hit over the head with it.

In a 1991 interview with Frank Spotnitz in American Film, Wiseman said, “All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical… aspect of it is that you have to… try to make a film that is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on… My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they’re a fair account of the experience I’ve had in making the movie.”

At the excellent HBO Directors Dialogue on Sunday, Wiseman said he doesn’t start with a particular point of view, but begins to collect footage to see where it leads. For At Berkeley he shot on digital cameras for 12 weeks, resulting in 250 hours that was edited over a period of 8-10 months down to 4 hours. Watching the film is a bit disorienting at first, because we spend time in conference rooms and classrooms without knowing who the people are (though you pick that up) or what exactly is going on (you pick that up, too). There are wonderful moments throughout. My favorite is almost a throwaway. We’re in a robotics lab watching a machine with robot arms fold a towel over and over. Each time it ends with motions of the arms that suggest elegant “Et voila!” gestures.

Many of the meetings we see deal with financial matters such as budget cuts due to reduced state funding. In one of these meetings, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is astonished to learn that they now have only one guy who mows the campus lawns with Berkeley’s single lawnmower. “He does a pretty good job!” Birgeneau says.

A powerful sequence has students who are military veterans talking about what it’s like to be back in school. In another we see administration officials discussing security for a planned demonstration by students against tuition hikes. Mario Savio and the Free Speech movement of the 60s have created a proud tradition of protest at Berkeley. We see the protest march, followed by the occupation of a library for several hours by students who make speeches, then peacefully leave.

I think the goal in his films is to get inside institutions like UC Berkeley to show how they work, how they function.  After seeing all the administration meetings, classroom discussions, students going to and from classes, etc etc, I felt like I had a sense of the ongoing life of the university. This is Frederick Wiseman at his best.

At Berkeley will have a limited theatrical run, followed by showings on PBS and a subsequent DVD release. I know 4 hours seems like a long haul, but this one is well worth the time. – Ted Hicks

Fred Wiseman & Kent Jones on Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fred Wiseman & Kent Jones on Sunday, September 29, 2013

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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1 Response to New York Film Festival Diary – #1

  1. Tom Thel says:

    Ted, when did the New York film festival move to New York?

    We have a great good friend named Rachel Fletcher who moves to New York for every film festival.

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