NYFF 08: Che, Cantet, Rourke And….David Bowie!

NYFFYear1small.jpgSo it’s that time again. It snuck up on me because I was unable to make it up to Toronto this year which is in and of itself, a minor tragedy. I love the Toronto International Film Festival and all its attendant studio pomp and circumstance. But that’s no matter. What’s passed is past. It’s New York Film Festival time and for pure film geek glee, it’s right up there. Sure, some films suck and the program is often lacking in real surprises, but honestly, that’s not what I really look for in the festival. Should it take more chances? I think so, yeah. For example, the omission of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York has ruffled a few feathers this year and the the overall predictability of the selection from year to year has been bemoaned on the circuit for years. That said, it’s not an industry event. It’s for the public and none of these films have played in New York. All in all, it’s one of my favorite film events of the year and not just because I love the opening night party/after party.
I don’t always go to Cannes or Toronto and as a result, the NYFF often has 15-20 films I haven’t seen and this year, it’s got more than that. Not only that, but almost every film in the main selection has a full press conference following the press screening, something which only a handful of festivals provide. It has also provided me with one of the more surreal moments of my life in the form of John Ritter in 1996.

It was at the opening night party at Tavern on the Green. I had seen Sling Blade at the press screening and was completely blown away. At the party I approached John to tell him this (needless to say, as a child of the 70’s/80’s and a neophyte journalist, I was rather nervous to be approaching Jack Tripper). He couldn’t have been nicer and more excited to hear my reaction to the film. He lit up and grabbed my hand, saying “Oh! We have to go and find Billy Bob so you can tell him that!” With that he dragged me hither and thither across the massive restaurant until we found Billy Bob Thornton. John planted me in front of him and said: “Go ahead! Tell him!” So I told him. Billy Bob was less effusive than John and nervous as hell (“scared shitless,” he may have put it) but no less gracious and excited by the good reactions he was getting.
Here’s something funny. On May 29th, I emailed someone I know at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (who put on the NYFF, of course) and wrote: “It occurred to me last night that Nagisa Oshima’s vastly underrated Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is turning 25, this year and that it would be a brilliant film to show at the NYFF….! What a cast! David Bowie, Tom Conti, Takeshi Kitano, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jack Thompson. Oshima’s still kicking around. Oshima retrospective, anyone?” The reply I received read: “oshima? we’re way ahead of you. it is the retrospective for the festival this fall…. (hopefully you won’t be disappointed!).” I just wanna say, I am psychic and I am very excited.
I swear to god, if David Bowie’s at this year’s opening night party, the butterflies I felt 12 years ago in approaching John Ritter will seem like mere larval jitters compared to the chance of saying word one to Bowie. I’ll behave, I promise, but inside I will be jelly. Why might he be there? Well, he’s one of the stars of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence of which I am extremely fond. You might even say besotted. I first saw it at the then UA Theaters in East Hampton when it was released in 1983. I was a 14 year-old Bowie fan, but even at 14, I knew it wasn’t going to be like an Elvis movie and that it was a serious work of cinema. And so it is.
Flash forward some 19 years and I programmed it at the Hamptons International Film Festival as part of the Films of Conflict and Resolution sidebar. The powers that be rogered me on screening slot (9pm on a Friday night) and it was raining, so the turnout at the Sag Harbor theater was, erm…less than robust, but at the end of the screening, there was not a dry eye in the house and each patron personally thanked me for programming this beautiful anti-war film that they hadn’t heard of. Thinking back, we were one year into the war in Afghanistan and four short months from invading Iraq. We need more anti-war films, it would seem.
Ok, enough about that. Tomorrow I will be seeing Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning film The Class and I can’t wait. His 2001 film Time Out also screened at the NYFF and it was a masterpiece. I’ll let you know! Among other films Adam and I will be covering here include Steven Soderbergh’s Che, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights With Anna, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Gerardo Naranjo’s I’m Gonna Explode (Voy a explotar), among many others.
My father was many things, among them was the attorney for the government of Cuba from 1960 until his retirement in the mid 1990’s. During the time he and his law partner Leonard Boudin were in Cuba courting the new government’s business, my dad became fast friend with Ernesto Che Guevara. Of course I never knew Che. He was killed two years before my birth, but the friendship between he and my father, started over a poolside chess match in Havana and cemented over many a game in Cuba, Geneva and elsewhere, informed my life. So… Soderbergh, if you fuck this one up, so help me god…..
I loved Aronofsky’s The Fountain and while I may be in the minority, I am not alone among respected writers. That said, the cynical and cutthroat media (of which I am part, on occasion) pretty much wrote his follow up off before seeing it, especially since it starred a “has been.” Now that the film won the Golden Lion in Venice and got picked up in Toronto, it seems as if he’s an indie darling, once again. Good for you, Darren.
As for the Skolimowski, I’ve only seen his Deep End, which is a brilliant piece of cinema. Four Nights With Anna is his first film since 1991 which might give one pauce except for the fact that it opened Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight and it received a solidly positive review from a critic I admire, Variety’s Derek Elley. With respect to Reichardt’s Wendy and Lisa, I need to confess something. I was at countless film festivals with her last film, Old Joy and I missed it every time. I know. I’m a jerk. Well, I hope to make up for it by catching this one. It stars Michelle Williams, an actress I’ve been a fan of for years and who never fails to delliver a fantastic performance, be it in great films (Brokeback Mountain) or, erm, not great ones (The Baxter). In the latter, I would have clawed my eyes out if it weren’t for the fact that Williams lit up the theater every time she was on screen. Do yourself a favor and read her profile in yesterday’s New York Times.
All right, that’s enough for now. There’s plenty of time for more from the NYFF!
Photos credits, Top to Bottom: My first NYFF press badge, 1996; Janus Films/Film Society of Lincoln Center; Wild Bunch / Film Society of Lincoln Center; Wild Bunch / Film Society of Lincoln Center; Oscilloscope / Film Society of Lincoln Center

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