New York Film Festival 2018: Only Create!
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I have two words for you as prelude to this survey of some of the bold and brilliant selections made by the panel jurying films for the New York Film Festival 2018: gender and genre. There were numerous subtle and heart wrenching depictions of family life, love, and cultural perspectives at NYFF this year, all of which use conventional narrative form to the limits of its power, but the most compelling were the works of reflexive filmmakers meditating on the act of creation and thereby breaking out of conventional limits. Among those directly probing the creative life, there were three which have prompted me, and perhaps will prompt you too, to consider whether and how gender plays a role in the artistic process: Her Smell (Dir. Alexander Ross Perry); The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’ last, unfinished masterpiece, newly edited for distribution; and At Eternity’s Gate (Dir. Julian Schnabel). Among those indirectly summoning thought about the creative act there were more than one about the mysteries of how films use genre, but space requires that I focus on one representative from this group. I have chosen the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a dissection and transfiguration of the Western genre. Last, and very much not least, I offer some thoughts about Mariano Llinás’ striking tour de force, La Flor, a dazzling 14-hour epic. This incomparable table d’hôte of genre delicacies explores the relationship between the artist and storytelling—and it is a savage attack on almost everything we have come to expect from narrative form. “Andiamo!”
Her Smell is about a creative woman. That story, rarely told, is usually larded with sexist cliches. Here we are taken on an atypical journey into the vortex of a human typhoon, Becky Something (Elizabeth Moss), the wildly popular (fictional) front woman of a girl group called Something She. The film progresses not through a linear narrative line, but in terms of the high and low tides of Becky’s life. Through her, Perry confronts us with the troublesome destiny of female creativity in America, though at its most penetrating it reflects on the tumultuous relationship between art and boundaries in general. We begin at high tide as Becky and her back-up singers are preparing to go out onto the stage at a club called Her Smell. The back stage area is less a foyer and more a space devoid of boundaries and limits that will only yield to form once Becky is onstage and performing. Becky, waiting for her encounter with the audience, is the personification of chaos. She is overweight (yes, Moss put on a lot of flesh to play this role), and pumped up on drugs, drink, and nicotine. She is abusively loud, as well as emotionally needy to the point of mania. We are in the Bacchanalian realm of art. But here Bacchus is a woman.
Throughout the rip tide of the first part of the film, as Becky is pregnant with embryonic musical ideas, everyone else exists as material for her performances on stage and in life, and as interchangeable servants expected to fulfill her requirements. It’s a completely untenable arrangement, which overwhelms her bandmates; her ex-husband, Danny (Dan Stevens); her rivals; and the band manager Howard (Eric Stoltz), all of whom are swept up unwillingly by the oceanic power of her talent, as are we. The spatial toxicity of the Becky-created pandemonium is sculpted by the breathtaking cinematography and editing of Sean Price Williams and Robert Greene, respectively, and defined dramatically by the presence among the waves of vulgarity and obscenity of Becky’s sweet, (uncredited) innocent baby daughter, Tama. Tama is extremely important to Becky’s story, since motherhood is very much a part of Becky’s creative life, and crucial to our understanding of an older Becky at low tide in the second part of the film. Tama is another order of creation from another order of pregnancy and defines the “smell” of Becky’s second cycle. Becky’s mother (Virginia Madsen) is on hand too, as a further articulation of Becky’s passages.
Becky’s emphatically present female flesh and sexuality, her daughter, and Elizabeth Moss’s towering, inescapably feminine performance all combine to mark this as a woman-centered story. And yet director Alexander Perry said at a Q & A that the movie was inspired by the career of the tormented and self-destructive Axl Rose, the front man of Guns & Roses. I mention this in the name of full disclosure and because watching the film with that information in mind stimulates all kinds of questions about gender in narrative and about who can tell women’s stories. I leave those questions to you when you see the film, as I hope you will.
Despite the demonic misrule of the first part of the film, the larger structure of Her Smell is beautifully controlled by Perry, who opens for our inspection the fate of family, spirituality, love, and female aspirations, as well as the possibility of redemption amidst the worship of all kinds of excesses in contemporary America. I hope I am not revealing too much when I say that Becky’s life, after a jump forward of seven years, is as quiet and reflective as the early part of the film was filled with pandemonium. Our inundated eyes and ears are now searching for what is invisible. The totality of the high and low tides suggests that there are no easy, reassuring resolutions on tap to Becky’s dilemmas as a diva and a mother. Becky’s development—still in progress at the closing credits—will fill some with hope and some with confusion or rage.
Bedlam is also the order of the day in The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’ magisterial final film, and it reigns from start to finish. Welles’ bitter, reflexive self-portrait is about July 2, the 70th birthday of a scandal-ridden film director, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), on the last day of his life. July 2 is also the day Welles’ friend Ernest Hemingway committed suicide. That allusion is just one more element of Welles’ conflation in his swan song of unstable machismo and creativity. The action of Wind is confined to 24 hours and Hannaford’s birthday party that involves drunken, sometimes treacherous male comraderie and the screening of Hannaford’s latest and last film, which is embedded as a film-within-a-film that reveals the pulsating inner, unspeakable emotional and sexual chaos invisible on the surface of the director’s incessant bombastic, macho posturing. Hannaford’s life is depicted through a jagged juxtaposition of fragments, both color and black and white, set to the strains of “a lot of [musical] elements: orchestra, jazz, big band, a lot of stand-up bass, outrageous percussion, dissonant sounds.” These are the words of Bob Murawski, who completed the editing of the film that Welles did not live to see. The film-within-the-film is in color, virtually silent, and for the most part a smoothly edited erotic cat and mouse game between a man and a woman taunting each other as they wander in a barren landscape á la Michelangelo Antonioni.
The overall effect is that of boxes within boxes so interrelated that Welles’ portrait of the doomed, intensely vital Hannaford achieves a luminous, confessional liminality. Like Welles’ film, Hannaford’s film is also called The Other Side of the Wind. The nameless, predatory woman in the film-within-a-film is played by Hannaford’s nameless lover (Oja Kodar) whom we also see at his party, which makes Oja Kodar, Welles’ last lover, similarly the female focus of his last film. The man who is her prey in Hannaford’s film is a fictional, enigmatic, elusive actor, John Dale (Bob Random), with whom Hannaford and perhaps Welles too was obsessed. The fragments of Hannaford’s life are peppered with actors we have seen Welles use many times. And the young director, Brooks Otterlake, in an Oedipal relationship to Hannaford, as protegée and competitor, who serves as a fulcrum for the composition, is played by Peter Bogdanovitch, who was both of those things to Welles.
The interpenetration of life and fiction can be even more richly appreciated if Wind is viewed in combination with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Dir. Morgan Neville), a documentary about how the film was finally assembled for public consumption, also presented by NYFF. Between the copious production notes about Wind that NYFF made available to the press and the documentary, it is possible to piece together a fascinating meta-text of production history and its fictional echo. Welles began working on Wind in 1970, and until he died in 1985, he struggled to find the money to finish editing it. Hannaford’s film too is embroiled in strife. The history and the film form a pair of reflecting mirrors producing an infinite regression. We learn in They’ll Love Me that the film-within-a-film is the kind of movie that Orson Welles would, in his words, “never make” and yet, as he explosively says, he has made it. The climax of this fraught production history is the moment when Netflix, after many failed attempts by others, pulls together producers Frank Marshall, Filip Jan Rymsza, editor Bob Murawski, and consultant Peter Bogdanovich to complete Welles’ masterwork. The Netflix team used Welles’ partially formed work print, his copious notes, and a hundred hours of rushes as the basis of their recovery project. The phoenix that rises from those ashes is a contradiction in terms, both auteur cinema and a committee collaboration. Nevertheless, it sparkles.
The name strangely missing from the production notes, They’ll Love Me, and the newspaper reviews of Wind is Federico Fellini. Wind screams for comparison with 8 ½, also the story of a director whose cinematic career and life are so inextricably fused that time, space, and narrative structure are massively reshaped. In fact, the final phase of Welles’ career cries out to be discussed in the context of his clear approach toward a Fellini-esque art and what that means for the aesthetic undercurrents that were sweeping American filmmaking away from the German expressionism, from Hitchcock, and from the early Welles toward the template exploding art of David Lynch.
At Eternity’s Gate, not about a filmmaker, but rather Vincent Van Gogh, is the inheritor of that undercurrent and the result is exhilarating. Lacking the magisterial scope of a Welles, a Fellini, and a Lynch, Julian Schnabel nevertheless avails himself of the artistic freedom those giants model, to offer his audience an experience unlike any previous attempt to bring an audience into the world of the creative genius of the tormented post-impressionist. The focus of the creative experience in Schnabel’s film is visionary ecstasy as a desexualized, childlike state of helplessness (perhaps as a boundless tension of what Freudians call the latency period).
Fresh from Loving Vincent (Dirs. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, 2017), I did not want to see yet another movie about Van Gogh, and as Schnabel told us at his press conference, he didn’t want to make a movie about him. He was catapulted into the project because of an epiphany, not even his own, in the Musée Dorsay. Schnabel was there with the grand old man of surreal cinema, Jean-Claude Carrière, author of the scripts for many of Luis Bunuel’s masterpieces, and more recently the author of the screenplay for Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel, 2017). Carrière, standing before a Van Gogh, which he didn’t identity for us, was suddenly struck anew by the contradictions, ironies, and intersections of movement and stasis in painting and cinema, and particularly in Schnabel’s paintings and films and prodded Schnabel into making what turned out to be Eternity’s Gate. Knowledge of the origin of Schnabel’s film is an excellent bridge into experiencing the way it meditates on stasis and motion in Van Gogh’s paintings and how his art is connected with his alienation from ordinary life.
“I just want to be one of them,” Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) intones in voiceover, the first words of the film. Perhaps in his fantasy, but in reality he doesn’t. “They” are dull, plodding, oblivious, sometimes warm hearted, but often mean-spirited villagers, and unable to comprehend the painter’s surges of aesthetic passion, which are often eroticized by the villagers as sexual attacks. And, on his part, Van Gogh too experiences their responses to him as dangerous onslaughts. Schnabel does not romanticize the frequent miscommunications. Van Gogh’s alienation is not that of a victim beset by Philistines, but rather a mutual violence that is both frightening and inevitable on both sides because the artist’s obsession with his work blinds him to all kinds of ordinary considerations. The unrestrained energy of a group of school children leads them to prod at a still wet canvas and the painter breaks into a hysterical rage that lands him in an asylum, suspected of child molestation. He is later forced back into psychiatric care when his sudden desire to paint a bewildered shepherdess he meets on the road leads to an encounter that begins with her confused compliance with his desire to position her body in a certain way. Her puzzled malleability turns into terror as he manhandles her, as if she were clay and not a sentient being, and is mistaken for attempted rape. These are depicted as the fraught meetings of two kinds of tunnel vision for which there can be no mediation.
In conversation with his friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh actively eschews evolving into a person who can temper his outbursts. When, as the two stroll around a hillside, Gauguin patronizes Van Gogh as a wild child, urging him to be more controlled, and to paint, not the external world as it strikes him but rather conceptually, Van Gogh pushes back furiously. He emphatically wants to be out of control. This dialogue is materialized as Gaugin reflectively observes his setting while Van Gogh drifts off into a stand of water weeds, immersing himself among them, his arms stretched out on either side of him at ninety degree angles to his body. Is he being crucified or absorbed by the landscape? It should be noted that while Dafoe has just the right amount of visceral power to portray Van Gogh, Isaac, as Gauguin, lacks heft. Without the water weeds this scene would have made no mark. As it is photographed and edited, the world, spectacularly, is both moving and absolutely silent and still as Van Gogh luxuriates in its corporeality. Van Gogh’s polymorphous sexuality, which responds in a non-binary fashion to the world, not only offers an unusual insight into the particularity of this artist, but also explodes the usual definition of masculinity that we find in the bio-pic genre.
The genre mashups with which I will conclude are not direct confrontations with the act of creation, but rather present us with the simultaneous absence and presence of an artist in dialogue with traditional genre conventions. In Buster Scruggs the Coen brothers are physically absent, but their marks as filmmakers are all over this composite of six stories, which begins with a darkly wacky (extremely funny) ironic conflation of the iconic affable singing cowboy with the icon of the murderous gunfighter (Tim Blake Nelson). It is an opening gambit that tramples the generic realism of the Western, and prepares us for a film that will also not only confound the established line between white and black hats, but also dissipates the genre’s conventional affirmations about human nature, the place of human beings in material nature, and the legibility of the world. It’s true that we have already seen genre mixing of sci-fi and westerns in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens (2011); an inversion of generic western affirmations in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and a challenge to John Wayne’s iconic, western machismo in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962 ) and The Searchers (1956). But Favreau, Peckinpah, and Ford present iconic landscapes securely inhabited by their characters and recognizable moral systems, as well as clearly delineated realities. The Coens give us a natural terrain on which human beings are intruders; relativist morality; and rampant, boundless liminality that blurs the line between life and death.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that we humans figure especially as intruders in the story of a prospector (Tom Waits) that reminds us of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) but twists it into a new shape. Relativist morality is disturbingly present in the story of a wagon train that shows us how old hatreds and fears blight the new beginnings we have seen through rose colored glasses in innumerable “westward ho” movie sagas. And the film builds ominously toward its final story about a stagecoach that rewrites Ford’s ur-western (1939). Unlike Ford, the Coens do not convey us away from the negativity of the towns toward the natural goodness and positivity of the frontier, but into the dark night of eerie liminality.
Finally, La Flor. This 14-hour endurance test grows out of an Argentinian group called El Pampero Cine, of which Mariano Llinás is a member. Founded in 2002 in Buenos Aires, El Pampero Cine, in the words of its press kit, “rejects industrial film ideas and embraces radical independence from conventional sources of funding, allowing a constant and fertile production.” La Flor, their most recent film, beggars description, not only because of its prodigious length, but because of its subtle and massive repudiation of industrial film ideas.
La Flor includes pieces of a mummy horror film, a fragment of a story set in an insane asylum, chunks of a spy film, a story about a doomed love affair between two assassins, a strange reflexive interlude about making La Flor, a silent fragment about a day in the country, and some sepia scraps about lost explorers. The same four actresses are featured in each of these segments, but always as different characters. Llinás begins the film on camera, speaking directly to the audience, supposedly explaining La Flor. He tells us that most of the segments of the film are either beginnings and middles with no conclusion, or middles and ends with no beginning. Only one—the story of the love affair between the assassins—has a beginning, middle, and end.
Llinás then draws a diagram of his film, an abstract figure of a flower on a long stem. (La Flor!) The petals are arranged in a circle, and each petal is a curved arrow pointing toward what would be the center of the flower.
Unsurprisingly, this is, as an abstraction, ironically useless as an introduction to a film that is a totally visceral experience. La Flor subjects our nervous systems to beginnings and middles that go nowhere, the subsequent familiar narrative gratifications of the complete story of the assassin love affair, and finally the experience of emerging from that satisfaction to a new cacophony of stories that originate nowhere. It is a shockingly physiological experience of what shattering narrative expectations may mean to an audience. At the 14th hour, I was ready to do grievous harm to anyone who crossed my path, but you will be relieved to know that no people or animals were injured as a result of the violence La Flor did to my system.
Much to ponder cinematically until we meet again, same time next year.
Martha P. Nochimson teaches at the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts, having previously taught at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and developed and chaired a film studies program for Mercy College. She is the author of seven books, including The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty From Lost Highway to Inland Empire, and the editor of A Companion to Wong Kar-Wai. Her latest book, Television Rewired: The Rise of the Auteur Series, will be published by the University of Texas Press in July 2019. She has been covering the New York Film Festival for 18 years and has also covered the Montreal Film Festival and the Istanbul International Film Festival.