October is New York Film Festival month. The festival has just begun as you read this. As soon as director Kent Jones announced this year’s programming a collective sigh of relief was heard from critics and NYC film lovers all over town. This year NYFF turns away from premiering major Hollywood studio releases and returns to collecting the best of narrative and documentary films from around the world. The Main Slate (historically, the foundation of the NYFF) has a red-hot lineup that includes Barry Jenkins’ post-Moonlight feature If Beale Street Could Talk—his adaption of James Baldwin’s book about life in Harlem in the early ‘70. The consistently provocative Claire Denis’ latest is High Light. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is his latest exploration of modern life in China. Christian Petzold’s Transit is a heart-stopping look at desperation in the face of love in his flawless adaption of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit Visa. The film plays with time and place, making a transit visa as important for refugees fleeing violence today as it was for Jews fleeing ethnic cleansing 75 years ago. And finally, yes, there is the new Coen Brothers collection of “western stories” strung together in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The documentary offerings include James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light. Longley brings a visual artist’s eye to the craft of filmmaking, as he did in Iraq in Fragments, and finds a rich humanity inside a country ravaged by war.
But at least one film NYFF has programmed, Errol Morris’ American Dharma, has exploded a firestorm of controversy. It focuses on Steven K. Bannon, Trump’s campaign director and former White House chief strategist. As Breitbart News editor-in-chief he popularized the use of the term “alt-right,” masking its real meaning: white supremacy. In the film, Bannon takes full credit for Trump’s win and claims he heavily influenced the selection of the majority of Trump’s cabinet choices. When Bannon left the White House staff his influence remained. He mentored Stephen Miller—author of Trump’s immigration policy. Note: the Secretary of the Treasury, billionaire Steven Mnuchin, and his family were the largest financial supporters of Breitbart News
Oscar winner (Fog of War) Errol Morris’ reputation as a documentary filmmaker is based on a body of work that has been recognized and awarded around the world. His choice of subjects has made him controversial; in the past, he seemed to fetishize both ordinary people and those with power.
At the press screening of American Dharma I was literally jolted out of my seat when I thought I heard Bannon say, “There will be a revolution; all we need now is a few more killers.” I thought that those words, if I heard them correctly, would put forward a very dangerous statement in theaters around the world, considering the current Fox News culture. I wrote to Kent Jones and asked for a response to my concern. He wrote back, with a detailed justification, saying (thoughtfully) that he disagreed with me—a challenging response which, in essence, expressed his belief that the film reveals how desperate Bannon is, which will cause him to do anything to get attention. Kent’s full response was detailed and nuanced. He reminded me that in the film Morris says to Bannon, (I think these are the words) “I think you are crazy and you frighten me.”
I remember my response to New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s canceling Bannon’s appearance at the New Yorker Festival because of a threatened withdrawal of other participants if Bannon participated: as a reader I would have preferred to have David Remnick confront Bannon. Complicated issues concerning freedom of speech in the age of social media, fake news, and software that can distort and change the intent of a speaker or creative work are complex and require discussion.
Here are a couple of NYFF films I have seen that I recommend highly:
director Christophe Honore
It’s 1993, Paris: AIDS is filling the hospitals and Act Up is in the street. The time is just before the introduction of new medications which will prevent death and prolong life. We meet a 22-year-old student who lives with his girlfriend in Brittany. She goes to sleep sexually unfulfilled while he goes cruising for anonymous, casual gay sex. By chance, he meets a visiting author on a book tour and they (as the saying goes) “hook up.” The author has become a single parent after one of his best women friends bears his child. (The two of them share parenting in separate homes and with separate lives.) The author is handsome and keeps his AIDS diagnosis secret. He is also looking just for sex, but falls in love. The student has fallen in love as well, and follows the author to Paris where he discovers the facts about the real life of the author… Sounds like a pulp fiction? Well, no, Sorry Angel is actually a universal story of attraction and desire, complicated by reality, that could just as easily be an opposite-sex couple’s story. It is a story of lust, love, and friendship. Go, if you have ever shared these emotions.
director Alex Ross Perry
Perry is part of the new New York narrative filmmaking generation now based mostly in Brooklyn. He is much revered as a storyteller in that well-educated millennial circle. His previous work, and this current release, focuses on contemporary stories of women and how they love. He could be thought of as the George Cukor of indie film. The only real difference between the two is that Perry is very much a heterosexual, and thus his gaze is tinctured—I suspect by his mother’s generation’s fighting for female liberation and creative expression. Rumors were that Her Smell was a fictionalized telling about Ms. Kurt Cobain . But Elisabeth Moss explores the myths of both bad boy and bad girl contemporary rock stars, mining not only the public Courtney, but others also. Her Smell is not specifically about Courtney; it is also about Axel. But their stories are such a public memory that they haunt Her Smell. In the same way that cloves of garlic are hung and worn to protect from black magic and all kinds of physical and emotional plagues that attempt to invade, apparently, the souls and psyches of superstars strung out on themselves, Elisabeth Moss is amazing and, with a velocity of complicated talent and humanity, fills every moment when she is on screen wrestling with rock and roll’s demanding demons. Her performance demands recognition—be it the Spirit or the Oscar attention—and may require Glenn Close to share the center spot for this year’s best acting Oscar. Ok, maybe this film is too punk for Oscar—but Moss deserves to gain a nomination. Not since the late, great Kim Stanley, have I seen see such a fierce and total commitment to a role by an actress. (Actually, Charlize Theron approaches her work in a similar manner.) Warning: do not be late and miss the first 20 minutes. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams takes us on a visual ride that feels like we are on a roller coaster with a broken safety strap. He creates a free-fall energy overload, capturing to perfection the intensity of punks on fire. I felt as if, suddenly, I had been taken from my seat in the theater and strapped onto a Harley and propelled into the dark side of Grrr music angst! Don’t miss this one—because, I suggest, soon everyone under 35 who loves indie film and music will have a very strong opinion on the merits of Her Smell. Repeat: Moss is amazing…
director Michael Moore
Currently in theaters is Moore’s response, in a way, to the Steve Bannon in American Dharma. Moore tries to wake up America as to just what went wrong. Like a modern-day John the Baptist, Moore really wants us to know how we got Donald Trump as president. (He was not surprised.) He sets out to challenge the current blame game. Fahrenheit 11/9 lifts the rock and looks at what squirms out. Moore takes a hard look at how the Clintons made the Democratic Party become Republican “light” and how white supremacists and Fox News convinced middle and broke Americans that Trump was their champion. Moore zeros in on the town he grew up in— Flint Michigan . He takes no prisoners but leaves only scorched earth and deception on all sides exposed. Oddly enough, both he and Bannon agree on something: there will be a revolution here in America. Who will win? Bannon thinks he knows for sure, and Moore tosses it back on to the American people. Trust me; neither will be a trip to Disneyland.
FLASH : The Metrograph will present a year-long retrospective of guitar legend and Beefheart aficionado Gary Lucas’ many film scores (performed live) accompanying classic films, both silent and sound, beginning Fri. Oct. 19th 2018 with his Spanish “Dracula” project. Wow—this is good news!