A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K
Festivals: New York 1994
By Robert Horton
Boasting Assayas, Tarantino, Moretti, Kieślowski, Allen, Burton, Lai, and more, 1994's NYFF was unforgettable
Butch, the boxer (Bruce Willis), is driving away from his apartment, where an extraordinary series of events has just played out. He thinks his chapter of Pulp Fiction is pretty much over, but he’s about to be sucker-punched by another extraordinary—and increasingly deranged—turn of plot. So he’s driving this little Honda and the car radio is playing the old Statler Brothers chestnut, “Flowers on the Wall.” You know—countin’ flowers on the wall, that don’t bother me at all—and Butch sings along, the way a person sings along to the car radio even in the midst of deranged and extraordinary events. And the song comes to the part where is goes “Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo,” and at the start of the word Kangaroo the guy doing the bass part in the song chimes in with the low-voiced Kang on the downbeat—and by this point in Pulp Fiction you just know that Butch, for all the insanity and chaos swirling through his life at the moment, is going to hit that note. It’s not the kind of thing that a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie could possibly miss.
I haven’t seen many people use the word “exquisite” to describe Tarantino’s movies. But they should. What better word for the delicacy of conversation, the specificity of reference, the suspended-in-air anticipation of violence, the judicious counterpoint of the soundtrack songs? It’s frigging exquisite, I’m telling you. Pulp Fiction was not merely an apt Opening Night film for the 32nd New York Film Festival, it was the unavoidable, exquisite choice—the American movie of the year, but also a collage of every other type of festival movie in sight: gangster opus, Hong Kong schlock, Downtown chic, avant-garde vision, self-aware arthouse deconstruction, screwball comedy, French film noir. It has everything but a theremin mixed into the music, and I’m not entirely sure it doesn’t have that.
Pulp Fiction signals the future, is the work of a director at the beginning of his career, and shapes three stories into one. At the end (he insists) of another career, Krzystof Kieślowski has also taken three stories—but made them into separate films. Rouge closes out Trois Couleurs with a story about a Geneva model (Irène Jacob) who discovers a wounded dog, which leads her to a chilly judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), which leads her to a boat trip, which leads her to…the end of the trilogy. In which, though I will certainly not say how, the trois parts of the series all get tied together. This finale might play as either a rich summing-up or a Polish joke of a most ironic order. It’s both, and Kieślowski functions as a sardonic god who plucks his characters from harm at the last moment, having already bestowed saving grace on them through his films. There’s something desperate and beautiful about the crossed paths and accidental meetings that fill these movies, a willed whimsy that Kieślowski doesn’t quite believe except as movie-made deception.
At a press conference, Kieślowski insisted that Red is his final film. A few minutes later, someone who was either skeptical or hard of hearing asked him what his next film was going to be. “I’m going to do just what I am doing now,” he said. “Sit on a chair, drink coffee”—he waved his paper cup—and do what they won’t let me do in this building: smoke a cigarette.” His craggy face and shorn hairstyle are making him resemble more and more his absurdist forebear, Samuel Beckett. Frowning down from the stage, Kieślowski looked happy.
Yet another director worked in the triptych form: Italy’s Nanni Moretti, with Caro Diario (Dear Diary), the comedian filmmaker’s first film to receive broad notice in the States. Moretti rides his Vespa through an empty Rome in August (the movie’s finest visual trope), he sulks after seeing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, he visits the site of Pasolini’s murder. The final episode of the film, scary and amusing, recounts Moretti’s real medical battle. It’s admirable. But a couple of demurs: Moretti’s not much of an editor; at 100 minutes, this movie feels draggy. And he likes to have things both ways. The scene in which he berates the pro-Henry critic is a funny, irresistible idea, but I’ll bet Pasolini would have appreciated Henry.
Incidentally, for the record, Moretti declared at his press conference that, his filmed avowal notwithstanding, Flashdance was not the movie that changed his life.
Bullets Over Broadway
Moretti is considered, so press releases tell us, the Woody Allen of Italy. The Woody Allen of America had his own new film in the festival, Bullets Over Broadway, which turned out to be the Woodman’s funniest movie in years. May I suggest that, aside from its lovingly realized 1920’s Broadway backdrop, there is something vaguely Italian about this film: something of Fellini in the way its true artist character (a gruff gangster played by Chazz Palminteri) is willing to die for his art, unlike the weak-willed playwright (John Cusack) who is taking credit for and uncertainly directing his overblown maiden script. Lovely stuff, though I wish Allen would pay more craftsmanlike attention to pure comedy—given this wonderful milieu, many comic possibilities go untapped—and trust his audience to pick up the integrity vs. compromise messages so dear to his art.
From the other coast, another American production took a period look at showbiz: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which is just daft enough and just deft enough to satisfy high-culture and low-culture aficionados alike. Like Woody’s hero, Ed Wood must make compromised choices to fulfill his artistic dreams, including the casting of actors—somebody’s girlfriend, somebody’s son—who come attached to the financing. And somewhere in both films is the awful question of what an artist does when smacked in the face with his own lack of talent. In the Woody, the answer is acceptance and withdrawal; in the Wood, the answer is: “Cut! That was perfect! Next setup!”
Red Lotus Society
Taiwan’s Edward Yang is no Edward Wood, as his confident A Confucian Confusion proves. This movie and Stan Lai’s Red Lotus Society take the measure of Taipei today, and find more than their share of Type-A activity. Yang’s cross-stitched pattern of frantic moderns has some kind of splendid choreographed logic, though I must say I found the film so genuinely confusing on a who-does-what and who-goes-where level that a good hour went by before I felt my cinematic feet gaining purchase. And despite Yang’s introductory advice to hold on for the ride, A Confucian Confusion is actually slower than it ought to be: one feels the movie lagging behind its restless characters.
On the other side of town, Lai begins Red Lotus with some gorgeous shots of a sunrise city, and a superb breath of secrecy—but promptly veers off into a bewildering antinarrative. Surely there is a world to construct around a young man investigating the hushed, ancient practice of “vaulting,” that secret ability of leaping and flying that, once learned, must never be openly demonstrated. Perhaps Lai’s approach to narrative holds true to this code: with a decent story to tell, he cannot bring himself to tell it out in the open. Too bad.
Both these films are outpaced by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, which splits its narrative, Tarantino-style, into two distinct but not entirely separate stories. Head over heels with stop-motion—more like chop-motion—and gleefully spinning off socko genre lines like “57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman,” Chungking Express ought to be a huge amount of fun. I am reminded of what Quentin Tarantino said in these pages lately—do I sound like a hopeless Quentinite?—about the difference between stories and situations. (Something tells me Howard Hawks probably said it first.) What Chungking Express has are a couple of interesting situations, which don’t quite justify a feature-length movie. Still, the second half of the film, in which a daydreamy clerk at a fast-food joint begins to occupy a customer’s apartment while he’s not there (she tidies up the place, adds some accents, and such), is a truly winning vignette. If only Wong didn’t repeat himself so often telling it.
The Silences of the Palace
Moufida Tlatli strikes another set of cultural rhythms entirely in her debut film, The Silences of the Palace, a mostly artless but evocative look at a woman remembering her childhood as the illegitimate daughter of a Tunisian bey. Life in the close quarters of the palace is defined by female acquiescence, the solidarity of the women in the servants’ station, and a young girl’s clear, still-untainted voice. Her song is as simple and passionate, as deliberate and direct and primitive, as Tlatli’s own style. Tlatli, an experienced film editor back home in Tunisia, seemed genuinely delighted at the effusive reaction her film drew from its audience: after the Q&A, people were reaching up to the stage to hug her.
Strawberry and Chocolate
But the arthouse crowd-pleaser of the fest was Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate, co-directed by Juan Carlos Tabío. Here’s the story: Our man in Havana, a proper young communist, meets a liberated, literate, licentious older man. The young one is irrevocably straight; the older one, defiantly (indeed gloriously) gay. Their charming, funny, thoughtful friendship changes the lives of both forever—but then you knew that already.
Strawberry and Chocolate is bound to be (designated quote here) the whopping runaway feel-good import hit of 1995: it’s a movie made to be Miramaxed. And, truth be told, I sat there and chuckled warmly in all the right spots, and felt delight in the stubbornly stylish central character. After the movie, I walked for ten blocks, or about as much time as it takes, say, to boil water for chocolate, before the thing began to evaporate. By the time I had reached Zabar’s it was gone, replaced by a nagging feeling that a light snack had been passed off as a full meal.
Little sustenance was provided by Park Kwang-su’s To the Starry Island, a banal story of a Korean island’s passage through the 1950s, including the war years. Two French films tested other kinds of emptiness. Jacques Audiard’s See How They Fall examines the buildup to and aftermath of a killing from two points of view: a traveling salesman (Jean Yanne) investigating the case on his own, and a cunning drifter (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and dimwitted sidekick (Mathieu Kassovitz) circling toward the crime. Except for the impeccable professionalism of the two veteran stars, there’s little reason to see how they fall together. Cold Water, from Olivier Assayas, looked at first like a knockoff of Léos Carax—same inarticulate youthful characters in desperate love, same nowhere landscapes, same slashing use of pop songs—but without Carax’s bursts of ecstasy. The more I lived with it, though, the more Cold Water stayed in my mind, and the more Assayas’s long-take method recalled the fearsome authority of Theo Angelopoulos. This director is to be watched, but here’s hoping he’ll have more luck than Carax in getting his movies seen in the U.S.
Zhang Yimou’s new one, To Live, suffers by comparison with two movies from last year’s NYFF, The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine, both of which charted the Chinese mid-century with more sweep and punch. Aside from echoing them, To Live carries with it disturbing hints that Zhang is going through the motions. After an intriguing opening reel, the new film hops from year to year, doling out some of life’s big ironies but never quite settling down and being about something. (Yes, there’s another role for Gong Li, though acting honors go to Ge You as her chastened husband.) It’s a film of handsome backdrops and often complexly comic scenes, but also of stultifying pointlessness.
Back in the English-speaking cinema, Atom Egoyan makes his most conventionally-satisfying film in Exotica. I don’t mean that as a putdown: it’s his best movie, too, though some of his early academic-theory fans may be put off at its accessibility. Another drop-dead ironist, Hal Hartley, checks in with Amateur. This characteristic Hartleyrama brings together an ex-nun (Isabelle Huppert) who now writes pornography (and claims to be a nymphomaniac virgin: “I’m choosy”); a formerly nasty porn producer (Martin Donovan) now gently awash in amnesia; an adult-film star (Elina Löwensohn), a Euro-sex-bomb from a past era; and a frizzy accountant (Damian Young) who, through electrocution, becomes a monster.
Yes, characteristic. I liked it, though it is the first Hartley movie that has seemed more mechanical than organic. Irritatingly, the movie’s Manhattan setting—unlike the Long Island or further-flung environs of previous Hartleys—has encouraged the director’s campy-cute impulses, and for whole scenes the movie is just too preciously Downtown. Amateur has much to enjoy, though, and Isabelle Huppert falls easily into the distracted deadpan of the other uninflected inhabitants of Hartley’s universe (he wrote the part after receiving a fan letter from the actress).
Ken Loach continues his streak of festival conspicuousness with Ladybird, Ladybird, but this movie is of a different feather from Riff-Raff or Raining Stones: same rough-edged naturalism, but without their buoyant humor. Ladybird is a harrowing true story about a London mother (wall-shaking debut performance by Crissy Rock), abused by her partners and negligent of her children, who loses the kids to social services. When she has a new baby with a good man, the child is taken away. And when they have another baby…
This excruciating story is absorbing for much of its running time, even if the sheer hideousness of the situation takes its toll. Credit Loach with a scrupulous gaze, though: this ladybird is always seen dead-on, whether she’s being angry or irresponsible or sympathetic. Even the social workers—most of them—are given traces of humanity and anguish. But the film really makes you want to turn away from the screen.
Other real-life stories took the form of actual (and long) documentaries. Marcel Ophuls brought The Troubles We’ve Seen, 226 minutes’ worth on Bosnia—specifically on the role of journalists covering the fighting. Ophuls’s scattershot approach is consistently engrossing, though I had a difficult time pinpointing the garrulous movie’s focus (maybe you’re not intended to pinpoint anything with 226 minutes to work with). The three-hour Hoop Dreams (interesting and gutsy Closing Night selection) is utterly, heartbreakingly lucid. In following the basketball hopes of two Chicago kids through their high-school careers, it throws a net over American life in the Nineties. The portrait is harsh, but occasionally, as in the struggle of one of the boy’s mothers to become a nurse, inspiring.
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey recalls the development of a lovably marginal musical instrument. It’s that otherworldly noise from the soundtracks of Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still,that cross between violin, mournful Yma Sumac vocals, and outer-space transmission. All produce by waving one’s hands in an electric field emitted through some tubes in a box. Actually, director Steven M. Martin makes a good case for the theremin as granddaddy of all electronic music, through interview with the likes of synthesizer guru Robert Moog and Beach Boy (and, by the way, genius) Brian Wilson, who gives a convoluted—but, god love him, brilliant—explanation of why the theremin was right for “Good Vibrations.”
Martin has a terrific story to tell. Leon Theremin, Russian émigré and wiggy scientist (he spoke for a while of bringing the dead back to life), was the toast of New York for part of the Twenties and Thirties, when the theremin was new. He demonstrated it for Albert Einstein (“He didn’t have a very good ear”), he played it at Carnegie Hall. Then, in 1938, Theremin simply vanished from his Midtown digs. Was he dead? Kidnapped by Stalin’s operatives? Martin solves this puzzle, and even goes to Russia to find the aging professor—who had been laboring behind the Iron Curtain for fifty years.
Strange that virtually no one bothered to look for him all that time. Especially given the tremendous affection everyone seen in Theremin seems to have for the instrument and its creator. The movie has odd lapses; a number of loose ends might’ve been cleared up with an unobtrusive narrator (there’s a tantalizing suggestion, for instance, that Leon Theremin basically invented color television. But what a wonderful piece of detective work, and of reinstating a fascinating character to the world stage. Maybe Theremin should’ve gone into movies himself. It’s still the only medium for bringing the dead back to life.