The New York Film Festival 55: Agnes Varda's Toes and Other Cinematic Delights
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Against the backdrop of the figurative Hollywood funeral pyre for Harvey Weinstein, with its acrid stench and its cornea-scorching white-hot magnesium flames, NYFF 55 displayed a very different vision of women in film. There isn't space to comment on all the interesting offerings on the festival Main Slate, but even a small selection is ample to make the point about the freedom and creativity of this years’ films by/or about women. A delightful place to begin is with Faces Places, a road film co-directed by and co-starring Agnes Varda and a young man named JR; after which we will move to The Rider, a deeply felt film about the American rodeo scene, produced, written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Next we will consider Félicité, a lyrical African-French co-production about the quest of an independent woman in a tribal culture directed by Alain Gomis; then Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes inventively told 20th century tale of family love lost and found; and conclude with Mudbound, a passionate film about racism in mid-20th century Mississippi directed by Dee Rees.
In Faces Places (aka Images Villages), Agnes Varda, the 89 year old mother of the French New Wave teams up with JR, a hip 33 year old French graffiti artist and photographer, as they travel through France stopping and starting without a master plan, taking photographs of whatever takes their fancy—people, animals, objects—and developing them in a special truck JR has rigged up. The truck contains a photo lab, which allows Varda and JR to snap and process as they travel, and to expel the developed photos through a large slit on the side of the truck. The pictures are not the usual 8” x 10” color glossies or matte images, but huge black and white photos that measure 8 x 10 feet or more and look more like pen and ink drawings than photographs. Varda and JR make gifts of the pictures to the people that cluster around them on the road by plastering them, with permission, all over the facades of their homes, factories, or barns. To the delight of the bemused and surprised small town farm community populations they visit, the images announce the inhabitants of the structures that dot France to anyone who passes by. The photos are intended to be temporary, and to become part of the landscape, reflecting back for the inhabitants that traverse the small towns their own images. Sometimes Varda and JR place their pictures on manufactured objects; for example when JR photographs Varda's toes, enlarges them to 15 x 12 feet, at a guess, and places them on the side of a railroad car. Sometimes they place their images on rocks or old abandoned buildings. The exhilaration of this duo not only enlivens the present but also illuminates the past in a strange and inspired way when the two attach their images to found artifacts from World War II.
Aside from their mutual delight in chance and spontaneity, however, Varda and JR are an odd couple, opposites in many ways. They are of different generations and genders. She has a name known throughout world cinema; JR, barely known even to cinephiles, has just a pair of initials. Her face is an open book; he will not remove his dark sunglasses, despite Varda's entreaties. They bicker ceaselessly, resolve their differences, and share the pleasure of their creations. Their partnership reaches a delicious distillation of the way their immediate energy meshes with art when, in a rare moment off the road and in a big city, JR pushes Varda in a wheel chair at breakneck speed down a gallery in the otherwise empty Louvre at closing time.
Their adventure could go on forever, but the film does find closure. The denouement of the film comes when Varda and JR arrive at the home of another legend of the New Wave, a man of Varda's generation, she bearing a gift of his favorite brioches, only to confront a locked door. (You will not learn his identity from me.) Varda, believing that he is, perhaps spitefully, hunkering down inside, is hurt and dejected. The jubilant journey appears to be coming to a sad ending, when JR, with real affection and spontaneous invention, removes his previously omnipresent sunglasses and they look into each other's eyes, unimpeded, for the first time. This step toward a closer creative intimacy is not quite what you might expect, but again, you will not find out what it is from me.
The Rider, developed and directed by a woman born in Beijing but educated at Mount Holyoke College and NYU, explores—with a sensitivity, insight, and compassion—a masculinity that would seem to be completely alien to her background, and to the experiences and interests of the audience most likely to see this film. With a brilliant command of the camera, and using only non-professional actors, however, Zhao initiates us into a Neo-realist experience of family and friendship among her western, rural characters; their experience of community and the land; and their astonishingly ferocious but delicate love of horses.
The film begins with a dream-like image of a pale horse at night, and perhaps it is a dream, or perhaps it is a memory, or simply an exterior shot. It resolves to a shot of a young man pulling the staples out of a bandage on his head. This is Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a member of the South Dakota rodeo circuit, who has recently suffered a near fatal injury while riding. We will soon meet the rest of the Blackburn family, his financially hard-pressed father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and his young teen-aged sister Lily (Lily Jandreau). This combination of poetic fantasy and hardscrabble reality is typical of Zhao's film. We are in a landscape of dreams inspired by devotion to the horses and troubled by mechanics of daily living. The Rider was shot on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a terrain both harsh and beautiful.
The Blackburns are poor, but not hurting for the basics of life. Nevertheless, they, like everyone around them, are constantly faced with making ends meet, and with the perils of lives lived so close to nature. Riding horses, rodeo events, and even teaching and breaking horses means the imminent danger of physical harm and trauma. In addition, young Lily Blackburn is brain damaged. She is high functioning, a young lady who knows her own mind, but there are limitations on the kind of life she can eventually live, although she is full of verve and affection for her brother and father, which they return. This is a home without a mother; however Brady and Wayne are very supportive of Lily and are remarkably involved in helping her on the path to becoming a woman. She is determined not to wear a bra and they find kind concerned ways of trying to persuade her that the time has come for her to adopt this new addition to her wardrobe. Their tenderness is unexpected in men so closely associated with machismo, who spend their leisure time in bars with other men—and it is touching.
If there are inherent limits on Lily, the lives of the men are equally circumscribed by the vicissitudes of ordinary life on the prairie. As the film unfolds in loosely constructed scenes, we see the ecstasy of Brady's sensitive connections with horses threatened by money problems and his recent accident. Every time he takes on an assignment to train a horse, he puts himself in a precarious situation, and when his cherished horse, Gus, has to be sold to keep the family solvent, even their last ride together means that he is taking his life in his hands. Things come to a head when Brady takes the full measure of his predicament, both because of his visits with his close friend, Lane (Lane Scott), who is completely paralyzed as the result of a riding accident, and his increasing sense that working with horses is all that means anything to him. Tormented by the knowledge that if he is to have a future it will require a much more modest and diminished involvement in the rodeo scene, he considers death. Zhao articulates Brady's choice with simplicity and without melodrama, making it cinematically urgent and powerful because of the understatement. You will not walk away unmoved.
Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) is the eponymous heroine of Alain Gomis' film set and shot in Kinshasa, a city that syncretistically exhibits the vitality of the culture of the Congo, the desolation caused by Western exploitation of Africa, and a happy incorporation of European high culture into the life of the city. The streets on which the action unfolds are the roughest part of Kinshasa, paved with concrete and piled with rubbish, sometimes in flames, traversed by old cars and motorcyles, crowded by poor people struggling to survive, and dotted with crudely constructed food stands sometimes festooned with colorful umbrellas for much needed shade. At the same time, there co-exists a thriving cafe scene filled with African singing and dancing and, in juxtaposition, an excellent orchestra that plays major European orchestral and choral music. Synchretism is to be expected from Gomis, Parisian born, but of Guinea-Bissauan and Senegalese extraction. Unsurprisingly, the character Félicité, too, is a dynamic blend of Africa and Europe. She galvanizes her audiences in a Kinshasan nightclub with songs that grow from the culture; she also stands strong as an independent woman who rejects the traditional role assigned to her by a tribal society.
Mputu is a gorgeous, goddess-like actress with energy and animation to spare, who anchors the film with her gravitas, sensuality, and humor. Her Félicité handles the flirtations of the men in the club with aplomb, particularly those of Tabu (Papi Mpaka) a local handyman, a giant who matches her in physical stature, and who, in one of the film's running jokes, cannot figure out how to fix her refrigerator. Félicité is aggressively her own woman. Then the news arrives that her son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), has been hurt badly in a motorcycle accident; he can be treated, but she doesn't have the necessary money.
Félicité undertakes a journey through the city to find the needed cash, a journey of humiliation and self-discovery, dreams and stark encounters, notably with the circle of her tribespeople who patronizingly tolerate her because “she can't help being what she is;” the corrupt strongman of her district; the police; and the parasitic denizens of the street who prey on people like themselves. With the beat of African music and European classical cadences ringing alternately in our ears, we observe her adventures as she discovers a way to forge bonds with others—this includes her somewhat estranged son and the willful Tabu—that will not entail defeat of her proud spirit. At the same time, Tabu begins to understand that women are made of a great deal more than sugar and spice and everything nice. Gomis, through his dexterous and graceful command of cinematic sounds and images, takes us into the heart of Félicité and of Kinshasa, which turns out not to be Conrad's eurocentric nightmare of darkness, but rather an assertion of the human capacity for growth and love.
Wonderstruck, the centerpiece of this year's NYFF, is also built on a journey, or rather a pair of interlocking voyages through time and space that invoke magic as well as determination, courage, and imagination. The film is based on the book of the same name by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the screenplay and, at the press conference revealed that he might be distantly related to David O. Selznick. If so, he said, charming the assembled critics, David O. was the branch of the family that was successful in movies in Hollywood, and his people were the branch of the family that are successful in dry cleaning in New Jersey. Todd Haynes spoke of how his interest in Selznick's book and his desire to make the film was built on his childhood fascination with Helen Keller in the film The Miracle Worker.
The film adaptation begins with a phantasmic chase, in which a young boy runs frantically through a nighttime, snow-bound winter woodland to escape from pursuing wolves. This is only Ben Wilson's (Oakes Fegley) dream, but it will take on very real significance once he runs away to New York City from his home in Gunflint, Minnesota, looking for his father. Ben, recently orphaned when his mother Elaine Wilson (Michelle Williams) who died in a car accident, has never known his father or anything about him. His mother has left Ben with a now unfulfillable promise to tell him his father's name at the right time, and an intriguing book that might have been owned by his father about a 1927 exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. When Ben is struck deaf in a lightning storm, the trauma becomes more of a catalyst than a handicap, impelling him to take off on an adventure with the book that will lead him not only to his father but also to a female relative of great importance.
That person is Rose Kincaid (Millicent Simmonds), whom we meet when she is about Ben's age in a juxtaposed time leap into 1927, as she runs away, in her case from her prosperous and repressive father in Hoboken, New Jersey. She is also headed for the Museum of Natural History, where her brother is a curator of the exhibition in Ben's book. Rose has been deaf from birth, and her father, Dr. Kincaid (James Urbaniak), has been smotheringly protective of her. Rose, however, is spirited and independent; feeling the gates of a paternal cage closing around her, she escapes out a window. Rose is played by a young actress who has been deaf from birth, and who has a remarkable on-screen presence. Between them, Rose and Ben bring with them a collaborative whiff of yearning childhood in the early 20th century and restless youth at the fin de siécle. Moving between time periods, Todd Haynes takes us on an exhilarating journey into changing America and unchanging personal mystery. What part does Rose Kincaid play in Ben Wilson's life? What part does he play in hers? The counterpointed plots combine human tenacity and the magic of coincidence and serendipity. The children wandering through the Museum of Natural History fifty years apart embody the enmeshing of cultural and individual history. And when Ben and Rose each reach their moments of discovery in 1977, there is still another museum that affords them an even more intense entanglement of the macro and the micro levels of life.
At the same time, Haynes is exploring sound and silence through the lives of deaf protagonists and through the counterpoints between silent films and today's synchronized sound films. Rose's mother, separated from her father, is a famous (fictitious) silent film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and Haynes plays with expressiveness and communication, or the lack of it, by counterpointing Mayhew's eloquent silent performance with conversations in Rose Kincaid's family where no one listens to anyone. Similarly, Ben's struggle to communicate as a person who can't hear but who can speak fluently—as he is not deaf from birth—exist in interesting juxtaposition with the silence between him and his now deceased mother. Oh, yes, and we find those wolves from Ben's dream in New York; they too, a kind of present to Ben and a clue as well, are not a matter of words.
The film ends with the big 1977 New York blackout, just as Ben's life becomes illuminated. The revelations stand in opposition to the failed mechanics of electricity, and in harmony with the brilliant constellations sprinkling the night sky. This resonates with a quotation from Oscar Wilde that mystified Ben at the opening of the film, another puzzle his mother refused to solve for him: “We are all in a gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” In the New York darkness, Ben understands all, in ways that cannot necessarily be articulated verbally.
Finally, there is Mudbound. It begins with two brothers digging a grave for their father in the Mississippi mud. A storm is coming and the younger brother, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), sees no point in challenging the elements, but the older brother, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), is characteristically determined to surmount any obstacle, as they pull a skull and a few yards of chains out of the ground. It's a slave's grave they have inadvertently dug into and and Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), a thorough going racist, if he had been able to make his wishes known, would not have wanted his last remains to be interred there. But, if Henry has anything say about it, that’s how it’s going to be. Not liberal politics, practical exigencies. However, the men, accustomed to hard labor, are having trouble getting the pine box into the ground. And then a wagon carrying a black family employed by the McAllans happens along, and Henry asks the driver, the head of the family, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), for help. The action comes to an ominous dead stop as the two men lock eyes and Florence Jackson, Hap's wife (Mary J. Blige), sits stone faced beside him. The storm is about more than weather.
The opening scene is either a flash forward or the introduction to a film-length flashback about the complex, contentious history of the relationship between the Jackson family and the McAllan family that then unfolds; it functions structurally, whichever way you read it. But if there is a slight modernism in the indeterminate nature of the time frame, Rees, as she told us at the press conference, is interested in a traditional, strong narrative. This is not a film that asks us to entertain complex, enigmatic and liminal motivations and relationships. It is hewn out of the rock of outrage against the history of American racism and sexism. It anchors us in a palpable, well-drawn pre-and post-World War II context in which men know what's good for women, their families and all other men too; women find satisfaction in being the domestic partner of a man who decides the family destiny; and communities become murderous if anyone leaves his or her assigned place. As such, the film draws us along a narrative track toward disturbing and horrific events that we know must take place—Hitchcock's definition of suspense?—and which interests us in the journey through judicious decisions about a tangle of deeply rooted conflicts that are initially withheld. In the case of the expository opening, the missing element is Henry's wife, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the fulcrum between both Jamie and Henry as brothers and between the McAllans and the Jacksons, as plantation owners and sharecroppers, respectively. Laura arrives, however, in a timely fashion when we jump back in time to before the McAllan plantation, and before her Laura’s marriage to Henry, and certainly before the interment of the awful Pappy.
If you are saying to yourself, this sounds like a story I already know, please ponder this: none of the movie studios would finance Rees’ project, and not because they thought it was imitative; rather it was too attentive to its black characters. Only Netflix would support and distribute it. In response to a direct question I asked about the matter, Rees said Netflix was indeed nurturing in every way and that Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer for Netflix—did you know there was such a job anywhere?—is a visionary. With respect to that, he may be. If the bones of the plot are neither surprising nor enigmatic, there is nothing old or stale about a black woman telling a story in an American movie about black families or about old Mississippi, and Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, and Jason Mitchell dedicated their performances and the movie itself to the memories of all their voiceless ancestors to whom they felt they were giving a voice.
In fact, one of Rees' more structural innovations concerns voice: her use of multiple voice-overs. She invites us into the interior lives of not only Jamie McAllan, whose non-diegetic commentary accompanies the opening scene, and his sister-in-law Laura, who gives her perspective on how she became a member of the McAllan family, but also those of Florence and Hap Jackson and their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), whose horizons are enlarged by his time fighting in Europe as a tank commander. Thus, we see many of the main characters as they see themselves and their surroundings, with all the contradictions that entails. There is little chance for even the most determined worshipper of clichés to objectify them. Pappy comes quite close to fulfilling the stereotype of the most repugnant racist and sexist you can imagine, but Jonathan Banks plays him with such finesse that even he is dimensional.
The ensemble work is exceptional, an aspect of the production on which Rees spent a great deal of time, throwing the actors into small spaces in small groupings, not to rehearse scenes but to improvise. She especially wanted them to feel, as second nature, the racist ethos of the time and place, and gave them exercises for which they would repeat the word “nigger” over and over to each other in different improvised situations. This was uncomfortable but productive, especially for the British members of the cast, Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, to whom the Mississippi experience was alien.
Equally accomplished is Rees' evocation of the home front and post-war mid-Century America. Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson, the only two who went to fight, stand out for their difference as men who yearned for more than local living before the war, and who returned with souls too expansive for local limitations. Florence and Laura reflect the growing sisterhood of women looking with new eyes at the roles they have been socially assigned and the gender definitions they have inherited. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the human spirit; but it does pose disturbing questions about American history. Can the old traditions embedded into the soil, blood, and ethos of our country support a future for men and women of good faith? This is a question that will resonate with many who are asking the same with increased urgency these days.
POSTSCRIPT: When Zama, directed by Lucretia Martel (Argentina) and featuring a bravura performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho, comes to a theater near you, rush to see it. Martel has created an extraordinary portrait of imperialism that forces you to experience its impact on the bodies of both exploiters and exploited. And Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel is a stunning, tragic variation on his usual darkly comic exploration of his persistent theme that the world was not created to support human happiness. His use of color and Kate Winslet are magical. You won't be able to imagine either unless you see them with your own eyes.
Martha P. Nochimson has reviewed film festivals from New York to Montreal to Istanbul. She is the author of eight books, including David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire; World on Film: An Introduction; and The Companion to Wong Kar-wai. For over 15 years, she has been an associate of the Seminar on Film and Interdisciplinary Interpretations at Columbia University, and she was the director of the film studies program at Mercy College. She has written for five network soap operas, taught screenwriting at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and served as an editor for Cineaste magazine. Currently, she is writing a book on the rise of non-formulaic television for the University of Texas Press and teaching for the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts.