The 36th New York Film Festival, presented September 25 through October 11 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, would have seemed a relatively routine affair were it not for the outre qualities of several entries and the last-minute emergence of some genuinely superior movies. There was no shortage of hot-button issues this year--pedophilia was a notable presence in two of the more high-profile selections, and generous helpings of suicide, misogyny, crossdressing, urban violence, and rape were on hand in the rest. Less plentiful were examples of cinematic brilliance or technical innovation.
For what it was worth, probably the most radical approach to film technology seen at the festival involved an attempt to efface it. Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration is the first work of Denmark's Dogma 95 collective to reach this country, and its avoidance of artificial lighting and sound, constructed sets, or other traditional narrative trappings were mandated by the group's semi-playful "Vow of Chastity," co-drafted by Lars von Trier. Shot in handheld video by Anthony Dod Mantle and transferred to 35mm film, The Celebration matches its harsh look to a raw scenario pivoting on revelations of familial rape.
Todd Solondz's Happiness tackles equally challenging subject matter with a sprawling narrative style and intimate visual approach. Set mostly in suburban New Jersey, Happiness examines the profoundly dysfunctional personal lives of three sisters, and the array of obscene phone callers, pederasts, and other deviants who brighten their days. DP Maryse Alberti applies an observant, close-up camera eye to the denizens of this superficially placid world, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and anonymous apartment building corridors.
Alberti's work on her other festival film, Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, is another universe altogether. This delirious look at the glam rock scene in 1970s London is highlighted by swirling camerawork, shifting frame rates and film stocks, and every color in the era's glitter rainbow. The cinematographer, aided in concert scenes by lighting consultant Susanne Sasic (LD for Sonic Youth, Beck), also brought to life several meticulous Citizen Kane homages.
Gods and Monsters, the story of director James Whale's final days, also dabbles in cinematic homage, as Whale (Ian McKellen) recalls filming Bride of Frankenstein, sometimes mixing elements from his current life into the reveries. Stephen M. Katz, DP on this low-budget Bill Condon film, shot black-and-white recreations of famous scenes from Bride, along with color, though chiaroscuro-toned, renditions of offscreen moments on the set of Whale's classic horror film.
Several movies, including John Boorman's The General, and the opening night entry, Woody Allen's Celebrity, dealt exclusively in black-and-white imagery. On Celebrity, an all-star comic survey of the cultural place of honor accorded to the title quality, Allen retained the services of legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist for the first time in years. The result came off as sometimes shimmering and sometimes flat, just like the film itself.
DP Seamus Deasy's widescreen black-and-white compositions in The General, a biographical treatment of Irish gangster Martin Cahill, were actually shot on color stock. This may have contributed to the movie's smeary, dulled-out look, as if it were drained of differentiation and vitality. An interesting contrast was provided by the retrospective presentation of Boorman's 1967 Point Blank, a widescreen crime picture characterized by bold color, hard light, and sharp angles.
Widescreen was employed to unusual effect in Wes Anderson's Rushmore, a comedy about the adventures of a 15-year-old oddball on scholarship to an exclusive boys' prep school. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman combined the anamorphic format with wide-angle lenses to achieve deep-focus backgrounds and almost cartoonishly vivid foregrounds.
Rushmore, one of the best films in the festival, was also the only one under a major studio banner. (Touchstone Pictures has scheduled an early 1999 release.) But the Film Society of Lincoln Center also cast its net wider, to countries and filmmakers not often given hearings in the US market. From Iran came 18-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple, a bizarre hybrid of documentary and fiction, and from Taiwan came festival favorite Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flowers of Shanghai. Veteran Japanese director Shohei Imamura contributed a World War II-set drama, Dr. Akagi, while from Russia came the film with perhaps the quirkiest title, Alexei Guerman's Khroustaliov, My Car!
Crowd-pleasers from various points on the globe included American director Marc Levin's Slam, which examined the rap-influenced poetry performance style through the context of a Washington, DC, prison; Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, another of the director's surveys of working-class Brits, this time furnished with helpful subtitles; and the Festival Centerpiece, Emir Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat, a raucous tale of Yugoslav Gypsies and their numerous geese.
As in many past festivals, France made one of the strongest showings. Alain Resnais' Same Old Song, shot with appropriate style and grace by Renato Berta, was a Dennis Potter-inspired roundelay of a group of Parisians who express their romantic longings in bursts of dubbed popular song. Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone, focusing on the ragings of a middle-aged ex-con, presented the other end of the social spectrum in corrosive widescreen images photographed by Dominique Colin.
Finally, The Dreamlife of Angels, a debut feature by Erick Zonca, concluded the festival on a sublimely melancholy note. The story of two unmoored young women (Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier) just getting by in the northern French town of Lille, the film is shot by Agnes Godard in a seemingly plain style that nonetheless places The Dreamlife of Angels firmly in the French tradition of poetic realism.