My second dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, Song Fang’s The Calming, Nicolás Pereda’s Fauna, John Gianvito’s Her Socialist Smile and Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk.
dir. Sam Pollard, Main Slate, 2020, USA, 104 mins.
Working from recently declassified documents detailing J. Edgar Hoover’s war on the Civil Rights movement, Sam Pollard’s incendiary exposé is at its most fascinating when delving into the warped psychology of paranoid, postwar American ideology and its manifestation/exploitation via the FBI director’s fetishes. A secret police force created in a fantasy image of strapping, snazzily dressed white guys fighting Commie insurrectionists, Hoover’s army spent most of its time and taxpayer dollars harassing Black people, none more thoroughly than the Nobel Peace Prize-winning minister from Georgia. The meat of the movie is Hoover’s sick obsession with King’s extramarital affairs, and the still-pertinent question as to whether America is ready to accept such imperfections in our idols. A film editing legend who cut most of Spike Lee’s ‘90s work as well as countless hours of historical documentaries, Pollard eschews the usual talking heads and shoves us right in the thick of contemporaneous, street-level footage. He jostles you around a little bit, with no trace of the PBS piety that can make these films feel like homework. It’s urgent and electric. Especially now.
dir. Song Fang, Main Slate, 2020, China, 93 mins.
The most aptly titled film at the festival, Song’s entrancingly still sophomore feature follows a filmmaker (well-played by the beatific Qi Xi) recovering from a barely mentioned breakup while touring Japan and China with her latest work. Another entry ill-served by home viewing, it’s predominantly a series of breathtaking vistas and long, silent shots of the star staring out of hotel and train windows while she psychologically resets herself to resume writing again. Song all but gives the game away during a film school Q&A sequence when an upstart student wonders if Qi’s plotless work might be more suited to a museum installation than a cinema. I don’t want to side with the snotnosed punk but I did find myself sitting up in my chair during the scene because it was the closest we’d come in an hour to any overt conflict. The visuals are soothing, restorative even, if you’re in the right frame of mind. I can appreciate what she’s going for here while still wishing the movie offered a little more to hang onto.
dir. Nicolás Pereda, Currents, 2020, Mexico/Canada, 70 mins.
There’s some deliciously deadpan cringe comedy in the early scenes of Pereda’s widescreen whatzit, luxuriating in the discomfort as aspiring actress Luisa (Luisa Pardo) brings an almost-famous boyfriend (Francisco Barreiro of Netflix’s Narcos) home to meet her unimpressed parents and oddball, degenerate brother (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez, who has the most fascinating face — he’s like a Latino Michael Berryman). Pereda plunks the camera down and lets the characters stew in a few amazingly awkward silences, the early high point arriving when the family bullies the boyfriend into re-enacting a dialogue-free scene from his TV show. About halfway through the script gets flipped and the cast scrambles around in different roles for a meta-movie inside this movie, sending up the Narcos phenomenon to considerably diminishing returns. But the 70-minute running time means the picture runs out before our goodwill, and I’m still tickled by how far backwards Pereda is willing to bend over for the sake of silly jokes like having two sisters named Flora and Fauna.
dir. John Gianvito, Currents, 2020, USA, 93 mins.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Helen Keller’s five decades of socialist activism on behalf of American workers, women’s suffrage, racial justice and the antiwar movement somehow never made it into my schoolbooks. I guess we didn’t get very far past W-A-T-E-R out of fear that we’d become radicalized, too. This disarming documentary attempts to correct the record with Keller’s own words: feisty, fiery speeches and essays that would make any Fox News viewer’s blood boil. Working around the lack of available footage, Gianvito alternates big blocks of onscreen text with eye-popping nature photography, toggling between sound and silence, using film form to keep us constantly aware of the senses his subject was without. Some of the best material arrives in an empty WPA theater, as Keller’s quippy responses to audience questions reveal a sharp sense of humor. Even the little girl born blind and deaf can clearly see that our economic system is engineered to crush the poor. So what’s your excuse?
dir. Joyce Chopra, Revivals, 1985, USA, 92 mins.
Director Chopra’s eerie adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” muddies up the source material to mysterious, unforgettable ends. The uneasiness burrows into the back of your brain like a tick, and it stays there. (I caught this thing on cable thirty years ago and it’s haunted me ever since.) Restored for an upcoming Criterion edition, the film features a stunning performance from Laura Dern as a teenage mallrat on the cusp of womanhood, stalked by an insinuating older boy (Treat Williams) in a long, cryptic conversation that transforms her front porch into the Rubicon between innocence and experience. Dern has a way of looking 11 years old in one shot and 25 in the next, lending an increasingly discomfiting energy to the seduction. The music in this movie is dreadful and some of the supporting performances suspect, yet none of that matters given the power of the central pas de deux. As Springsteen sang, “the door’s open but the ride, it ain’t free.”