Film festival coverage is never easy, especially when for 4 weeks, as is the case for the New York Film Festival, critics and journos meet daily to view films that will be screened to the public as soon as a few days away, as little as a few hours later. The task is, to say the least, daunting. Which is why I have barely covered anything from the fest. Now that I’ve thoroughly digested my viewing (about a dozen films) I can share a few thoughts about them with you. This first batch is for films that fell outside of my normal viewing habits. It’s a cop-out to say these are films I didn’t “get”. It would be more accurate to say they just didn’t jibe with my tastes, but I have an obligation to share with you what I mean by that. So this first group could be called “Stuff you Will Probably Never See, but Wouldn’t Mind Reading About”. Without further ado:
Robinson in Ruins
Cinema’s powers are so diverse that perhaps we forget it can be used in academic discourse outside of the realm of fiction, documentary and industrial work. Robinson in Ruins is an essay film by Patrick Keiller with a simple premise. The footage you are looking at and the long running narration are the work and notes of one Robinson which was found near a trash can. The film is the assumed result of his work in his absence.
The film is a lengthy diatribe on the history of capitalism, it’s reshaping of earthly pleasures and, err, the changing spatial layout of environs. The camera never moves, instead always facing forward at the world it is examining. Analyses and parables are read to us by Vanessa Redgrave whose soothing, disembodied narration makes the placid imagery far more palatable. The words are dense and the ideas are high-minded; I would love to read the entire narration in pamphlet form. Which brings us to the fundamental challenge of a work like this: keeping the viewer visually engaged while the brain is being stimulated in so many other places.
There is a reason why the printed page still exists; there is a reason why we invented the highlighter, for linear and deconstruct-able learning. Which isn’t to say Keiller’s film isn’t a valid way to access and stimulate various receptors. On the contrary, it has the ability to suck you in, aggravate and stir up nearly all of your mental faculties. Younger, more malleable minds, perhaps, would benefit from this method the most. It is a beautiful and endearing use of cinema, even if it is one my solidified mind has trouble letting in. What is the film “about”? I couldn’t tell you if I tried (and I think I just did).
Ah, Jean-Luc Godard, where can I even begin? Challenging is a word that I will use to describe the director’s last few films, and I don’t intend that to mean “incomprehensible”. More a sense of bravado, a line being drawn in the sand, an outright playground after school while your buddies whoop you on kind of challenge; a duel, a battle. Will you take him on, take him down, call him on his bullshit and recognize his artistry? I, for one, will not. It’s a cop-out, I agree.
Film Socialisme centers around characters on a boat who speak various languages, mostly the director’s native French. For the English release of the film, Godard dictated that the subtitles be translated in part, not in full, resulting in what the director calls Navajo subtitles. Words are omitted, most nouns get to stick around, and modifiers smash up against each other. In short, Anglophones and Francophones are seeing two different films. Or are they? I never felt lost on account of the stylized text. My limited French kicked in and noticed the difference between what was said and what was written, and got the point of the dialogue anyway. Perhaps the French speakers are missing out.
Where one can easily get lost is in the film’s content. The ramblings of undeveloped characters, people whose relationships and essence are never explored, are the film’s entire makeup. It can be tough to follow what is happening, where we are and why, but not so hard. You just need to work at it. That is common for post-Dziga-Vertov Godard. Also common in his work, and more of a sticking point for me, is anti-semitism. Godard’s vitriol is mostly reserved for Israel, making his anti-Jewish flourishes more innocuous and socially acceptable (he is an avowed anti-Zionist). Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israel? It depends, and it’s tough tell with Godard. At some point the denial of a Jewish homeland has to be squared with how you feel about the Jewish people, but so long as there is a perceived debate over whether Jews are a people or a religion (we’re a people, there’s no debate) this is a question that will probably go unanswered in the arts community. What is less nebulous is his pointing out of Hollywood, long the creative enemy of his cinema, as a Jewish machination, a Protocols of the Elders of Burbank of sorts. He brings it up briefly, unmotivated enough to barely give us pause. Is Godard anti-Semitic? That discussion will continue for decades.
**If we separate his cinema from his politics, something that undermines his essence and intent, what are we left with? As always, a brilliant exercise in form. The Godard of the 1960s, the one many refuse to let go of, explored form alongside his Nouvelle Vauge colleagues, within the confines of narrative, until eventually he broke off and explored form for it’s own sake. After all these years, he continues to prove that cinema, both visually and aurally, corporeally and plastically, is a space barely excavated. He still possesses a childlike curiosity, digging his fingers in the mud just to see what comes up. It may only be worms, but that he rooted around in the first place is what sets him apart. (That metaphor doesn’t hold so much water, I realize, since Godard knows exactly what he is doing. Still, there is a childlike sense of discovery in his work.)
And finally, a film I not only understood (to the best of my non-Eastern Bloc capabilities) but outright hated. My Joy is the sort of film you expect to see at a cynical, upper crust, hoity-toitety film festival. In other words, it is exactly the kind of film that has given the New York Film Festival its reputation as a pinky-in-the-air, self-ingratiating film education given from on high. (I’d like to note that I don’t agree with this viewpoint, but it’s out there and it’s something the NYFF lives with and, frankly, revels in. Who wouldn’t want to be called “too smart”?) Director Serhiy Loznytsya could have gotten to the point much faster by saying “Russia is an unforgiving, shitty place,” but instead we sit through this film that jumps through time, characters and motivation.
To say that it is a dreary film doesn’t even begin to describe it. Families are murdered, the downtrodden get downtroddener and plot lines come and go at the drop of an ushanka. We follow Georgi, a charismatic truck driver with a few secrets behind his eyes, through the depressed economy of his nation. He picks up a hitchhiker, tries to save prostitute from a life on the street, and gets ambushed by countryside bums. It is not a good couple of days.
It’s no secret that this film has a clear message about where Russia finds itself in the world today, but that is part, if not, all, of the problem. It’s “message, message, message” not “story, story, story”. I don’t care, but not because I am heartless; because I am not made to care. If this is a parable, we should be getting story first. And form? Not impressive enough to overcome the narrative missteps within this film. Perhaps if I were Russian, perhaps if I had a horse in this race, I would think it a brilliant deconstruction of a culture. But I’m not, and so I’ve got nothing.