October 8, 2013
In its 51st edition the venerable New York Film Festival is testing its boundaries. While still a small, tightly curated affair compared to the industry bacchanals of Toronto and Cannes, they’ve been slowly increasing their scope. There are 36 official selection entries this year, thirteen more than 2011, and have expanded the Revivals and Views of the Avant Garde sections to the point where they could stand on their own. A mammoth Jean-Luc Godard retrospective is also running concurrently with the festival. The official selection was heavy on the Brits this year (with four, although I didn’t see any), and otherwise tried for their usual balance of star power (Captain Phillips) and experimentation (Norte, the End of History, all of Views).
The Centerpiece screening was the world premiere of Ben Stiller’s The Secret World of Walter Mitty, the second adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, following the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle. Stiller’s directorial outings, from The Cable Guy (1996) to Tropic Thunder (2008), have been dark and masochistic comedies about pop culture’s corrosive power. Mitty, on the other hand, is a nostalgia piece, mourning the transition from analog to digital. Having little relation to Thurber’s moody miniature, Stiller’s Mitty takes the daydreaming office drone and shunts him into a world-hopping, mountain climbing journey of self-discovery, kind of a middle-aged male’s Eat Pray Love. Where Thurber’s story ends with Mitty fantasizing about his own demise, Stiller’s closes with all of his dreams coming true.
It is bafflingly saccharine coming from Stiller, who had previously spent his acting capital to make scathing commentaries on self-help sludge such as this. Yet it is clearly a deeply personal work, sincere in its efforts to convince people to re-connect with the world. It is also very well crafted, especially the first third. The opening shot is wordless, with Stiller’s Mitty sitting at his laptop, stymied in his attempts to update his eHarmony profile. In one striking shot, he paces into the background and goes out of focus, forcing the audience to stare at an empty, perfectly quiet frame. It’s astonishingly bold for a $100 million would-be blockbuster. Fox hedged their bets by ladling on product placement. In addition to eHarmony, there are prominent cameos by Papa Johns and CinnaBon.
Mitty is the negative asset manager for Life Magazine, who is publishing their last issue before becoming online-only. Prone to fantasies of action-movie heroics – he usually inserts co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) as his damsel in distress. While Mitty’s daily routine is framed in long shot with a smoothly tracking camera, when he leaps tall buildings the camera goes all Greengrass, turning into the handheld quick-cut style so favored by today’s action auteurs. The film is loaded with these clever visual ideas that contrast old and new, yet they are in service to a story that is thuddingly conventional. The reliably funny Wiig is reduced to arm candy, her role to prop up the self-pitying Sillter. The rest of the superb cast, including Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn and Shirley McClaine, are equally underserved.
On the other end of the budget spectrum is Lav Diaz’s Norte, the end of history, a four-hour immersion into the Filipino justice system. Loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it tracks the parallel stories of a nihilistic law student dropout and a saintly laborer. Fabian (Sid Lucero) is disgusted with the state of his country, ravaged as it is by official corruption. He advocates violent revolution on the grassroots level, and puts his ideology into action when he murders the local money-lender he is indebted to. Unbeknownst to him, Joaquin (Archie Alemania) threatened the usurer with violence earlier in the day, and he is immediately arrested for the murder. Joaquin and his wife had planned to open a restaurant, but a leg injury sucked up their funds and put them in debt. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, Joaquin is convicted and sent to prison for life. Diaz shifts back and forth between these parallel tracks, as Fabian digs deeper into his ideological rabbit hole, where violence becomes an end in itself, while Joaquin works to salvage a life in prison, forging friendships through his selfless aid to others. Diaz captures a wide swathe of Filipino society, from lawyers’ cafe bull sessions to working class dinner preperation, all captured in Diaz’s patient long takes. There is a palpable tension as the two narrative lines bend towards each other, their joining a flashpoint that might put an end to it all. Norte was acquired by Cinema Guild for U.S. distribution, and it will be the first film by Diaz to be released in the United States – a true cause for celebration.
Hong Sang-soo movies also put me in a celebratory mood. This prolific Korean profiler of indolent man-children makes one of his chatty humiliation fests a year, and they keep getting funnier. Nobody’s Daugher Haewon continues his shift towards featuring female characters, which started in Oki’s Movie (2010) and continues through the most recent Our Sunhi (2013). Haewon is at loose ends after her mother moves to Canada, her identity seeming to drift away with her. She’s only halfway present in all her relationships, from her intermittent affair with a married professor to her rapid infatuation with a teacher on vacation from San Diego. Even her consciousness is in doubt – the film is either a lucid dream or a sleepy reality.
Also taking place in a liminal dream state is Stranger By the Lake, a minimalist thriller from French director Alain Guiraudie. An isolated stretch of shoreline is used as a gay cruising ground, where Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular. He develops an intense crush on Michel (Christophe Paou), who looks like Tom Selleck circa 1985, but who is always engaged with other men. Franck returns day after day, Guiraudie depicting this daily routine as a kind of incantation, and the woods up on the hill as an enchanted fairy land, a mystery world of lush greenery and pitch black shadow. The sex is explicit but natural, outgrowths of the land. When Franck witnesses Michel soil this sacred space with a criminal act, he is attracted and repelled. Michel becomes a monster stalking through the once-sacred land, inviting all with him to disappear into the darkness. The film’s bewitching mix of naturalism and fable is inherent to Guiraudie’s work, which will hopefully gain a wider audience when Strand releases Stranger by the Lake early next year. See That Old Dream That Moves (2001) his lyrical short feature about the closing of a factory, if you can find it.
Also recommended with public screenings still to come: Corneliu Porumboiu’s hilarious meta-movie When Evening Falls in Bucharest or Metabolism (no distributor, wrote about it here); James Gray’s gorgeous turn-of-the-century melodrama The Immigrant (Weinstein); and Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical poison pill Abuse of Weakness (no distributor, wrote about it here).