My first dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, Cristi Puiu’s Malmrkrog, Ephriam Askili’s The Inheritance, David Dufresne’s The Monopoly Of Violence and Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
dir. Steve McQueen, Main Slate, 2020, UK, 68 mins.
Of all the words I’ve used to describe the formally rigorous work of 12 Years A Slave and Shame director Steve McQueen, “joyful” has never once come to mind. Until now. The Opening Night attraction at the 58th New York Film Festival – coming to you virtually and via selected outer borough drive-ins this year thanks to COVID-19 – is an ecstatic, thrillingly tactile piece of filmmaking, immersing us in the swoony sights and sounds of an all-night house party on a sweaty Saturday in 1980. Inspired by the teenage misadventures of the filmmaker’s aunt, who used to sneak out the window to go dancing after her parents went to bed, Lovers Rock is part of a five-film cycle called Small Axe that McQueen has directed for Amazon Studios and the BBC about West Indian life in London during the 1970s. (Two more installments are slated to play later in the festival.) The slender story follows Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn’s Martha as she mixes and mingles on the dance floor and off with Michael Ward’s charming stranger, but that’s just a pretext to bask in the peacocking fashions, intoxicating sense memories and stunning musical sequences both exuberant and erotic. You can practically smell the weed and Red Stripe. A dance scene set to Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” is an instant classic, ditto the bumping-and-grinding a capella extension of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” dragged out by revelers into an epic, orgiastic plea. You wish the party never had to end.
dir. Cristi Puiu, Main Slate, 2020, Romania, 200 mins.
Over the years I’ve developed a soft spot for these kind of impenetrable capital-A Art films, and there’s something almost charmingly self-parodic about a harshly stentorian, three-and-a-half-hour Romanian movie in which turn-of-the-century aristocrats spend Christmas Eve moping around a massive Transylvanian mansion, discussing the natures of Good and Evil, War and Peace, and other heady subjects. (Lotta title-case Topics and very little small talk in this film.) There’s a level of art-punk provocation at play here, occasionally. An early dialogue scene is covered in one shot that lasts nearly an hour, reaching its zenith when a character steps out of frame to read a lengthy, multi-page letter aloud. A movie-shattering eruption of violence in the midsection is abruptly forgotten and never mentioned again – almost as if designed to taunt anyone in the audience who’d fallen asleep. Alas, this sort of film festival event picture suffers horribly from home viewing, missing the camaraderie of a screening room full of hearty adventurers eager to have their attention spans distended and leaving me longing for those post-movie discussions where everybody stands around wondering what the fuck it was we just watched.
dir. Ephriam Asili, Currents, 2020, USA, 100 mins.
I’m thinking to myself, “Geez, this kinda feels like a Black version of Godard’s La Chinoise,” then a few minutes later somebody’s standing in front of a La Chinoise poster in the kitchen. So I guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Writer-director Ephriam Asili calls the movie a “speculative re-enactment” of his time living in a West Philadelphia socialist collective. Our protagonist (Eric Lockley) inherited the house from his grandma, along with a big wooden chest full of African-American literature and Ebony magazine back issues. But like a lot of young, male radicals his ardent political stances are at least partially inspired by his desire to impress a pretty girl (Nozipho Mclean, she’s worth it) and before long their living room is doubling as the Revolutionary People’s Reading Room. Asili breaks the fourth wall with lessons about Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign and has surviving members of the MOVE organization stop by to drop some knowledge directly into the lens. Shot in crisp 16mm against vibrant, primary-color backgrounds, the movie is always engaging but never moreso than when observing how even the most devoted socialists can get pretty prickly about sharing a bathroom sometimes.
dir. David Dufresne, Main Slate, 2020, France, 86 mins.
I won’t say it’s a relief to spend an hour-and-a-half watching cellphone footage of French cops savagely beating the shit out of peaceful protestors, but I did get a feeling like when you’d find out one of your smarter friends flunked the same test you did. I know that “at least we’re not the only ones” is cold comfort but these are chilly times, and David Dufresne’s deeply upsetting documentary plays and replays dozens of acts of brutality caught on camera to a cross-section of interview subjects, stimulating a provocative discussion as to when the state has the right to inflict harm upon its citizenry. It’s arguable that submission to police violence has always been part of the social contract, but what happens when that contract is broken? Dufresne doesn’t identify his talking heads until the closing credits, allowing us to hear their insights unfiltered by any preconceived notions we might have regarding profession or social status. Still, it’s not hard to pick out the guy from the police union, adamantly refusing to accept what’s on the video playing directly in front of his face, so politically entrenched he denies his own eyes. And ours.
dir. Ivan Dixon, Revivals, 1973, USA, 102 mins.
A pandering public relations attempt to integrate the CIA finds smiling, polite Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) trained to be the Black 007 and then unceremoniously placed in charge of the photocopy machine. He bides his time for a while before heading out to Chicago, where he uses his espionage expertise to create paramilitary inner-city armies in this savagely satirical vision of White America’s chickens coming home to roost. Based on the 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee, the movie’s maybe even more incendiary than it was half-a-century ago. You think you have an idea of how hard it’s gonna go, then it keeps going. And going. (The original theatrical release was allegedly sabotaged by FBI COINTELPRO goons who confiscated and destroyed the prints. They say it only survived because director Dixon was wise enough to archive the negative under a different title.) The occasionally clunky blaxploitation production values and stilted acting oddly add to the film’s disconcerting spell: it’s got a level, steady gaze that seethes with furious anger. A friend and colleague summed it up in six words: “That movie does not fuck around.”