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Issue 01, Volume 02

David Beal Picks Up the Crumbs from the 50th New York Film Festival

by David Beal

It's a blast just to describe Tabu, the third long-player from Miguel Gomes: a fullscreen, black-and-white, half-hushed, doomed love story that takes place in colonial Africa and involves the drummer for a Portuguese Phil Spector cover band. But those descriptive tags mean little next to the matter-of-fact elegance of the film's surface. In Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production technique, the lead singer recedes to reveal lush arrangements of glimmering guitars, confident strings, and reverberant vocals; often we hear a complete alternative melody peering through the cracks of the song. In Tabu (where the romantic hero’s band constantly pays homage to the Spector-produced Ronettes), the lead narrative similarly recedes into a dusty layer of memory with complicated, lively gestures that pop out -- the comfortable, masculine way our hero drives his motorcycle, his lover’s vulnerable jaunt away from the camera after her final hunting excursion, an African boy sweeping the floor in front of a bright window, or thousands of rustling leaves in dozens of creaking trees.

The Main Slate at this year’s New York Film Festival comprised 32 movies, including Tabu. But while the Main Slate selection was cohesive, expertly curated, and downright life-affirming, some of the real gems were from years and festivals past. Nothing But A Man, which screened in the festival’s Masterworks series, is the great American independent film -- lucid, human, and very sad. Ivan Dixon and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln embody a struggling couple with phenomenal detail and sympathy, and each one of Robert M. Young’s complex and kinetic images sticks to you like a protein binding to DNA. Directed by Michael Roemer in 1964, Nothing But A Man is showing from Nov. 9 through Nov. 15 at Film Forum in a Library of Congress restoration; it’s a necessary picture, and you’d be doing yourself a serious disservice if you skipped it.

The 1951 film version of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (also in Masterworks) is clunkier than Nothing But A Man, but just as admirable. Most of the players in Wright’s story treat each other as everything but men, and the movie turns the novel’s racially charged, inevitable manhunt into a clear-cut yarn: the characters usually seem like they’re talking to us more than they’re talking to each other. Unable to secure funding in the United States, Wright and director Pierre Chenal shot mostly in Argentina, and only a severely cut version of the film premiered stateside. Still, it’s an odd marvel the film exists at all, and it’s both reassuring and suspicious that the lead role is played by none other than Wright himself.

The first movie I saw in the Main Slate was Christian Petzold’s sixth feature Barbara, the steadfast and beautifully structured story of a woman searching for independence. An extraordinary Nina Hoss, all pursed lips and piercing glances, plays a physician trying to escape from East Germany in 1980 and caught between two male admirers. The scenario, written by Petzold and Harun Farocki, is tight and infinitely suggestive, and cinematographer Hans Fromm gives the whole affair a specific, subtle sense of period. Alternatively, Our Children (from Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse), is the story of suffocating domestic dependence. Mostly a compact vehicle for Émilie Dequenne (playing Murielle, a mother-in-trouble), the movie starts with its final clincher and gracefully retraces the years leading up to it. The story is more than a little calculated, but Murielle is Dequenne’s most demanding and open role since her emergence 13 years ago in the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, and the movie has an unflinching, procedural sincerity that can really get under your skin.

With little context or knowledge of his other films, I thought Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air was a bunch of beautiful beads without a string through them. Marginally better was David Chase’s directorial debut Not Fade Away, whose scrappy teenage rockers aren’t necessarily more alive than the idealistic youths in Something in the Air -- just more fun. More agile but less hyped than either of them was Pablo Larraín’s No. This time Gael García Bernal plays idealistic young blood as René, the executive of a fresh ad campaign against Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. René tries to create a peppy, starry-eyed tone for an inherently negative campaign against the dictator, all while navigating disgruntled colleagues, a partner on the other side of the fight, and a son who needs raising. Shot on outmoded U-matic tape so that it would mesh with the format and look of archival footage, No is a glowing and clear-eyed exercise in historical immersion, and it features one of Gael García Bernal’s most poignant performances.

Flight closed the festival, and it’s Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film in years. It’s no more alive for it. Zemeckis swiftly executes an opening plane crash, but the sequence is still only designed to give some artificial stakes to the extended moral treacle that follows. The movie explains itself so neatly that it practically writes itself on the screen. Denzel Washington can carry nearly any movie, but we already know that -- even casting him as an alcoholic pilot doesn’t seem to challenge him in any kind of new way. John Goodman, on the other hand, seems to have wandered onto the wrong soundstage, and his few scenes as the pilot’s wacky enabler give everything some needed lift.

Outrage Beyond seems to have wandered into the wrong film festival, and I’m all the more happy for it. This movie is pure business -- not that that distinguishes it from previous yakuza flicks by the Japanese pop-culture polymath and bravura filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. He relishes the flavor of male voices making and breaking deals, the furrowing of dark eyebrows, the contortion of bodies that seem built to die (if a character has even made it onscreen, he probably doesn’t have long). The gangster plot is more decorative than sensical, but it believes enough in its own logic so that you don’t really have to. In the heat of the movie, you start to think that the rest of the output in this entire festival is too damn precious.

The festival’s real crown jewel, however, was Leviathan. Filmed on various commercial fishing trips and assembled at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Leviathan was shot with relatively cheap extreme-sports rigs extended on long poles into the sky and ocean. Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) and Verena Paravel (Foreign Parts) break down most shots to essential elements of nature: the camera is submerged in water with fish; it emerges to soar with low-flying birds; it dives in again; it leaps out again -- all seemingly from its own convulsive life force. Deep swatches of jet-black fight against glimmers of frantic light, and the action of every shot (except for one important, static shot that floats near the end of the movie) uses almost every plane of motion conceivable. The fishing boat itself becomes an angular, living beast, and Leviathan’s 87 minutes come off less like a movie than like a dedicated sculpture. It’s a spooky and strangely satisfying demonstration of the movies’ potential to spark, animate, and sustain.


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