In 2002, it seemed truer than ever: Just as the New York Film Festival offers the work of some of the world’s best directors, so does it showcase the images of some of the world’s greatest cinematographers. This year’s festival, sponsored as always by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, opened September 27 with Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, and closed October 13 with Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, but its greatest visual riches were to be found in between.
Vying for honors for most beautiful film in the festival were Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, photographed by Run Lola Run camera operator Tilman Büttner, and Claire Denis’ Friday Night, shot by Agnès Godard. Certainly Russian Ark represented a feat like no other. Shot in a single 90-minute take (following two years of rehearsal) in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the film is a sumptuous onrush of 300 years of Russian history, climaxing with a spectacular ball sequence through which the camera swoons. The camera in question was a Sony HDW-5900 Steadicam, providing a swirling high-definition image and giving the historical tableaux a great sense of immediacy.
Rather than centuries and hundreds of characters and extras, Friday Night focuses in on just two people over the course of one rainy Paris night, a good portion of which is spent in a traffic jam. Nevertheless, the City of Lights has rarely appeared more luminous or romantic than it does under the gaze of Godard’s impressionistic camera, which favors fragments and reflections over direct sources.
Friday Night (Vendredi Soir)
The rest of the festival entries ran the gamut from on-the-fly digital video (Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten) to the static, formally composed, and vibrantly colored shooting of Mark Lee Ping-bing in Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town. Other Asian films included Korean director Im Kwon-Taek’s Chihwaeson, shot by Jung Il-Sung; his countryman Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate, photographed by Choi Young-Taek; Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures, shot in digital video by Yu Lik Wai; and Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, photographed by Marc-André Batigne. From the African subcontinent came Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness, strikingly (and colorfully) shot by Jacques Besse.
Springtime in a Small Town
Bright color is in this year, if such movies as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past are any indication. In the latter, DP Timo Salminen’s palette represents a nod to the past glories of Technicolor, and serves as counterpoint to the film’s grim Helsinki setting. Robert Elswit’s wide-screen work for Anderson’s eccentric San Fernando Valley love story sets the stage for the nostalgic musical numbers the characters never quite break into. Fred Murphy’s cinematography for Paul Schrader’s 1960s and 70s-set Auto Focus is also vividly hued.
The Man Without a Past
At the other extreme is Ivan Strasburg’s starkly desaturated work for Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, which reports on the 1972 Northern Ireland massacre in you-are-there style. A tight intimacy also characterizes the look of Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son, an examination of working-class lives photographed by Alain Marcoen with a near-documentary texture. Actual documentaries in the festival included Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, featuring the mesmerizing talking head of same, shot by Othmar Schmiderer in digital video; Jennifer Dworkin’s Love and Diane, shot by Tsuyoshi Kimoto in a variety of formats, from mini-DV to black and white Super 8; and the French To Be and to Have, shot by several DPs entirely on film.
French cinema put in a characteristically major showing this year, with Otar Iosseliani’s Monday Morning, shot by Godard/Truffaut/Rivette vet DP William Lubtchansky, and Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct, a story of filmmaking under the German occupation, photographed by Alain Choquart, also being screened. Scottish actor Peter Mullan contributed his sophomore directorial outing, The Magdalene Sisters, a real-life horror story shot by Nigel Willoughby. From Italy came Marco Bellocchio’s My Mother’s Smile photographed by Pasquale Mari. And from Portugal came 93-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira’s latest, The Uncertainty Principle, shot by Renato Berta, a youngster at 57.
Though it’s a long way from the Hollywood factory, About Schmidt is about as American as a movie can be. Yet like many of the European films in the festival, it’s concerned with ordinary lives--at least as ordinary as anyone played by Jack Nicholson can be. Based like all Payne’s work in Omaha, the film is shot with wide lenses by James Glennon, drawing us in to the circumscribed world of the combed-over central character. But the movie and Schmidt’s gray existence takes on a bit of color and variety once he takes to the road in his oversized Winnebago.
Talk to Her
The inner lives of the male characters in Talk to Her are much flamboyant, Almodóvar-style, even if their strongest relationships are with comatose women. DP Javier Aguirresarobe gives the Spanish director’s latest a typically lush patina, but he pulls out the stops for one sequence: a mock silent movie which juxtaposes a lipsticked leading man with Brobdingnagian-proportioned female genitalia in lovely chiaroscuro. It seems there’s no better place for a delirious and vaguely obscene spin on cinema history than the New York Film Festival.