My fifth dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Orson Welles, Filip Jan Rymsza and Bob Murawski’s Hopper/Welles, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue, Philippe Garrel’s The Salt Of Tears and Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love.
dirs. Orson Welles, Filip Jan Rymsza, Bob Murawski, Spotlight, 2020, USA, 130 minutes.
I’m not about to pretend there’s an especially large audience for this, which is basically two hours of an increasingly drunk and anxious Dennis Hopper being interrogated by an offscreen Orson Welles, but for a self-selecting few of us it’s the movie event of the year. Shot in 1970, this extended improv was originally intended as a scene in The Other Side Of The Wind, with Welles frequently lapsing into the blustery, Hemingway-esque character of film director Jake Hannaford as he wears down the Easy Rider, who at that time was on top of the world after his debut picture radically changed American cinema the same way Kane had some 28 years before. It’s not so much a clash of the titans as two geniuses eyeing one another slyly across a vast generational divide, and it makes a marvelous addendum to Wind, with Welles again using the Hannaford character as a self-protecting cudgel against the New Hollywood hotshots who revered and threatened him so. All credit to Orson for sussing out thirty years ahead of schedule that Hopper would one day end up voting for George W. Bush.
dir. Chaitanya Tamhane, Main Slate, 2020, India, 128 minutes.
You don’t need to know anything about Indian classical music to understand the plight of Sharad, played here by Hindustani singer and first-time actor Aditya Modak. A student of the Khayal tradition, Sharad’s such a rigorous perfectionist he rides his bike around late at night listening to old tapes of lectures by a legendary scholar. But he’s obsessed with an increasingly unpopular art, performing for crowds that get older and smaller while sneering at his young pupils who don’t take their studies seriously enough and staring daggers at junky pop music competition shows on TV. You’re probably thinking “I don’t see a lot of money here,” and indeed he is very much like an Indian Llewyn Davis, albeit without the Coens’ clockwork misfortunes or wry, comic detachment. The movie just plods along. I do get why it’s catnip for critics, though. I mean, who among us doesn’t self-identify to some extent as a torchbearer for a vanishing art corrupted by vulgarians? But really, I get enough of this at home feeling sorry for myself after a few beers. Also people seem to forget that Llewyn Davis was an enormous asshole.
dir. Jia Zhangke, Main Slate, 2020, China, 111 minutes.
A documentary literalization of the pet themes running through Jia’s dramatic features, his latest meditation on the slippery sands of time finds four successive generations of authors from the director’s native Shanxi province reflecting on the changes in their lives as China shifted from rural to city living. The writers have a tendency to ramble and so does the film, divided into eighteen chapters when it could probably have made do with a dozen. But if you can get into the movie’s mellow, melancholic groove it starts to feel like an afternoon spent listening to meandering stories from relatives at a holiday gathering – a sensation hammered home when writer Jia Pingwa prattles on at a kitchen table while his family bustles around, ignoring him. The funniest of the bunch is Yu Hua, describing how he narrowly escaped a career in dentistry to become a novelist. For a poorly paced movie the editing is quite lively, with interstitial montages of folks in fields and on the street finding the filmmaker at his most gently evocative. There’s nobody who can shoot a train full of people staring at their smartphones quite like Jia.
dir. Philippe Garrel, Main Slate, 2020, France, 100 minutes.
My favorite thing about French cinema is that “this guy gets laid a lot” is still considered a viable premise for a movie. The unabashedly old-school Phillipe Garrel’s latest sallies forth as if the New Wave never ended, shot in sumptuous black-and-white Cinemascope with an omniscient narrator drolly delivering the thoughts of our protagonist, which aren’t particularly deep. He’s a handsome, slightly loutish fellow in his early twenties, studying cabinetry and chasing girls he does not treat particularly well. In typical bildungsroman fashion he eventually earns his comeuppance and finds the world a bit colder and more complicated than once imagined. It’s all very familiar material but I found it fit the director’s retro stylizations quite cozily. Scrolling around for reactions afterwards I happened upon a thread of two well-respected professional critics live-tweeting their festival screeners. What confounded me even more than this gauche dereliction of duty was their shared idea that Garrel was somehow celebrating the protagonist’s bad behavior, a boneheaded misreading of the movie that frankly beggars belief. But then I considered how difficult it must be to intelligently interpret a film while you’re playing with your goddamn phone.
dir. Wong Kar-Wai, Revivals, 2000, Hong Kong, 98 minutes.
Is there anything left to be said about the most exquisite unrequited love story of our time? I could watch it again at the drop of a hat, and often do – falling over and over into the swoony, smoky atmosphere and molasses-thick memories of our aching almost-lovers. (When my college roommate went to see this movie during its initial release, as soon as the closing credits were over he walked outside and got in line again for the next show.) For the umpteenth time I marveled anew at all the ways Wong and his genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle cramp these characters into hallways, alleyways and behind foreground objects. They’re stuffed into the sets the same way she’s bundled into those cheongsams and he in his tightly knotted ties. It’s a repression as physical as it is emotional, the only release whispered at the edge of the world where nobody will ever hear. Not even us. It’s seriously aggravating to think about how we could all be enjoying this beautiful 4K restoration together on a big screen somewhere if only we weren’t stuck living in the dumbest country on the fucking planet.