New York Film Festival 2016
SEPTEMBER 30 – OCTOBER 16, 2016
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York
Some Films to See:
Director Natalia Almada achieves a remarkable, rare subtlety in Everything Else. At its core, the film is about a person awakening to the world around her. The film focuses on Dona Flor who works in a government office in Mexico City, methodically processing identification papers, often with little concern for the applicants. This setting suggests that the film is about bureaucracy but Almada doesn’t make this a film about a clerk’s dehumanization. Rather it is about a woman who suddenly emerges from prejudice to recognize others’ experiences and to feel part of them. Flor is introduced as rigorously rule abiding, unable to connect with others’ needs and living a minor but ordinary life. Her walled routines, in which she finds some kind of existence, have their own joys, however small. After work, she comes home to TV watching, radio playing, comfortable clothes and loving chatter with her cat.
Even in these innocuous scenes, Almada hits purposeful notes, revealing a feminist sub-motif. Women can recognize Flor’s daily routines and chores and though Flor doesn’t have friends, it seems, Amada always surrounds her with other women, most noticeably with women pressed together, going to work on the crowded morning subway commute. She hits a more incisive political perspective through the use of TV and radio news, which are rife with reports of crimes against women. Through this, Almada references violence, rape, suicide, hunger, hardships in children’s lives and the young women who have disappeared. These details are heavily apparent and recall a similar device used by Marguerite Duras in Natalie Granger (1972).
The incident which precipitates Flor’s change is her cat’s death. Its occurrence is given little screen time but nevertheless it is starkly apparent as everything in Flor’s life begins to shift afterwards. This way of presenting something minimally but with impact has the spirit of Chantel Ackerman, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and, like these directors, Almada’s use of silence is part of her film’s power. Everything Else’s dialogue is nominal, the score minimal, and the sound almost entirely ambient. The scenes are simple and often repetitive. Adrianna Barraza, who plays Flor, conveys her, brilliantly, in virtual wordlessness. The film’s visuals are saturated and luminous.
Flor is seen, almost entirely, within the wall spaces of her apartment, her office, and the subway, and in a light blue pool where she swims at a local center. Within these simple frames, Almada reveals Flor’s changes, as she comes to recognize people around her and to feel their needs and her own, in infinitesimal ways. Flor shows tiny shifts in a daily routine or in her demeanor - in the midst of behavior that reveals her grief – staring, distraction, and cloudiness. This makes her transformation move slowly as there are no heightened moments. Everything is small and incremental. It’s as if the film were only one long take of Flor beginning to feel, as if this consciousness occurred after some unspecified barrier from the world was removed, like a basting stitch pulled slowly through a piece of fabric, leaving spaces. Everything Else shows the process where Flor, in her grief, has had something pulled out of her, leaving vulnerability, and the film shows how that space makes room for her to feel something she had not felt before.
Everything Else is topical. During this 2016 election, some of the left discourse has argued that Clinton supporters (read as educated people) have to understand (as opposed to scorn) Trump’s supporters (read as uneducated people). Arguably, the word that could define this understanding is the one used by J.D. Vance in discussing his experience of growing up poor in rural Ohio and Kentucky and of going on to Harvard, in his best selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. He encourages empathy as a way to draw the people in these disparate worlds together. Empathy doesn’t level the field. Equality does. If equality exists, empathy can follow. Somehow, Almada reveals this difficult experience in Everything Else. Flor connects to a world she has either never connected with before or withdrawn from. It’s never clear and not important. That isn’t the film’s plot. The plot is that Flor feels and in the subtlest ways Almada creates a projection of what equality is and from which empathy can follow. Flor sees, but without clarity. Everything Else doesn’t depict a woman coming to understand anything, only coming to experience the world equally and out of which and through which she accesses pain, grief and the joy of being part of it.
This reflects, at some level, some of the raised consciousness that is appearing in the public dialogue as voices about civil rights in BlackLivesMatter, gay marriage equality, trans rights, women rights and many other issues become stronger. Some minute barriers to consciousness have been removed and some small, new spaces have opened for people to rethink or think differently, to feel more widely, more sympathetically, or with understanding. This is the complexity of Everything Else.
An exceptional film, Everything Else creates an emotional world as few have done with a brilliant understanding of how people evolve or change. This film is complex, simple and topical. Must see.
The 13TH AMENDMENT of the American Constitution:
Neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival’s Opening Night film, 13th is an explosive documentary, which exposes the structures underlying the American prison system, once named the “prison industrial complex,” by Angela Davies in the 1960s. 13th attempts to reveal basic racist elements in that “industrial complex.” The title, 13th, refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (quoted above), ratified in 1865, eight months after the end of the Civil War. This law banishing “slavery and involuntary servitude” at the same time legally opened a loophole - “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” - by exempting the incarcerated from this Amendment’s protection. In this way, imprisoned lawbreakers, including disenfranchised or dissenting citizens (groups such as freed slaves, striking workers, and unwanted immigrants) could be controlled beyond prison and its punishment. The film’s perspective on this Amendment by and large follows Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, arguing that this mid 19th century law created its own Jim Crow racism, which continued after Jim Crow officially ended, and continues today. Prisoners were then, and still are, forced to work for no pay or slave wages and, after re-entry, demoted as citizens by loss of crucial civil liberties such as the right to vote or access to subsidized housing.
In order to build the film’s argument, historical complexity has been simplified and the focus is almost entirely on male prisoners despite the fact that women are incarcerated currently at rates 50% higher than men. Beginning with 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film which helped to acutely stoke the racial tensions of the 1910’s, DuVernay tracks how, during this era, African Americans, at times arrested for minor crimes such as vagrancy and unpaid fines, were jailed in high numbers. 13th follows the escalation of these numbers, and circumstances that engendered them, into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Through interviews with activists, politicians and scholars, such as Corey Booker, Khalil Mohammed, Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, 13th exposes systems which underlie the Three Strikes law, and others like it, and the intricate successes of “for-profit” prisons. The film exposes lobbyist powers, such as ALEC, which back and promote these processes. DuVernay has created a vital film. Simple and direct, it can be used as a talking point, either as a whole or in part, to bring these facts into public discussion.
An important documentary on how racism, the courts and the prison system in America interconnect in ways that suppress African American rights.
SOME FURTHER INFORMATION:
FRAMEWORK has a special section on PRISON USA
The director Alain Guiraudie works with a manifesto about gay issues but, as a uniquely inventive director, he portrays these issues in films which swing between the obvious and the unidentifiable. His 2013 Stranger by the Lake had these conflicting tones but it played somewhat straight forwardly as a stalk-and-slash film. Like Stranger by the Lake, Stay Vertical is threatening yet dull, sexy yet remote, ordinary yet disturbing, mundane yet high pitched, puzzling yet simple, and under-your-skin yet plodding. Still, Stay Vertical is in a weird class of its own. Presenting its action often in stagey or perplexing scenes, the story centers on a dour but eager (and slouching) young man who is often homeless. After becoming a single father, he carries his infant son through various travels, meeting men and women, and having sexual liaisons. The film is often nonsensical with impossible narrative leaps yet at its core it is strangely real. Its most graphic text is the birth of the baby. It could be the center of the film as, in stark contrast to its otherwise stagey narrative, the baby’s birth is clear and real. Guiraudie closely filmed the birth in its entirety - from the pale purplish crowning head to the baby’s body fully lifted from the vagina.
Despite Guiraudie’s uncategorizable creativity, the film suggests influences as diverse as films such as Alan Renais’s My American Uncle (1980), 1970s horror films, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007) and François Ozon’s See the Sea (1997) and plays and novels such as Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and Voltaire’s Candide (1759). Of all of the references listed above, perhaps Candide makes the most sense as it follows the man through his many travails. Nevertheless, it’s a Candide story that has no apparent up or downside and its bleak surreal comedy isn’t simply gallows humor. But it’s funny, undermining and oddly satisfying at once.
An inventive, provoking and daring film from Alain Guiraudie.
I HAD NOWHERE TO GO
This is a fascinating film that is almost wholly screen focused and sound constructed, as 3/4ths of the film has no images. This makes the screen oddly palpable and Gordon creates a lush, organic presence through the purely visual grey surface, making the film theater experience, an experience, as if you could enter this soft, pointillist space, as if entering into a James Turrell light installation. Out of this space, speak filmmaker Jonas Mekas’s spoken words about his escape from Nazi occupied Lithuania and his first years in 1950s New York with his brother. His memories of his poverty, pain, hunger and excitement are accompanied at times with images of life – such as dirty bare feet walking in the snow or hands cutting beets. This experience builds an evocative and specific history out of the giant historical World War II story. With the structure of the speaking voice with its various rhythms, paces, and emphases and the almost tangible screen, Gordon materializes what “film” is and how it feels to watch it as much as he honors Mekas who founded the Anthology Film Archives in New York and who has supported avant-garde cinema for decades. Gordon’s film is both true to film as a medium and film as a loved experience as well as reflecting Peter Gidal’s theoretical comments when Gidal wrote that “a film is materialist if it does not cover its apparatus of illusionism. Thus it is not a transmitter of anti-illusionism pure and simple, uncovered truth, but rather, a constant procedural work against the attempts at producing an illusionist continuum’s hegemony."
A compelling and delightful journey into film as a watched experience and film as a record of experience. Must see.
THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV
France / Portugal / Spain
In Albert Serra’s film, Jean-Pierre Léaud, with an intense sense of implosion, plays the dying French king, Louis XIV in his room, over his last few weeks in 1715, ending one of the longest and most politically powerful reigns in history. There is a virulent brilliance in Leaud’s acting, which Léaud himself felt was a feat, saying that the effort was so difficult that he couldn’t “imagine another actor going to such depths” and that he felt his “own death was being filmed.” Louis XIV, a man with considerable health and phenomenal stamina, died in agony from septic gangrene in his leg, not helped by the doctoring skills of his famous surgeon, Guy-Crescent Fagon, who is the film’s only other major character and whom Nancy Mitford, in her biography of Louis XIV, noted as something of a patient killer. The two hour film, entirely focused on Louis’s dying, is filmed as a mirror of the incremental, suffering dying process by concentrating on a series of small vignettes in which time is depicted as physically present, physically passing. Serra tried to affect this by making sequential time what he called “fuzzy.” Rather than building an over-arching narrative, he focuses on tiny episodes in which, for example, a person visits for a few minutes or the doctors have a mumbled short conversation or the camera closes in on a silent facial expression or the king is seen sunk deeper into his bed. That the film is very captivating is due largely to the ingenious fusion of Léaud’s talent and Serra’s structural simplicity.
A strong, unusual film, which is both universal in its exposure of the process of dying as well as specific in its snapshot of the complex relations of the early 18th century French court.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
USA / France / Belgium / Switzerland
Powerful and elegant, this is a hard-striking, intelligent film about the great writer James Baldwin and his place in the black civil rights movement. Director Ron Peck feels that “in any book by James Baldwin - you are reading about today. His work is universal, strong, and stronger by the day. That’s rare.” This fervent opinion drives I Am Not Your Negro. Militantly outspoken on black civil rights as well as eloquently articulate, on the page and in conversation, and a brilliant novelist and essayist, Baldwin dominated the literary scene in the mid to late 20th century. Peck regards Baldwin’s intellectual and creative voice as virtually the central voice in American thought as well as an omphalos of black consciousness. That centrality is in Peck’s answer to a question from the audience, to which he responded – “go back to Baldwin.”
Peck’s absorbing and styled documentary is structured around an unfinished and unpublished Baldwin manuscript, entitled Remember this House, about three key black activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, who all died through assassination. Through this manuscript the film looks at the civil rights movement, using footage from the lives of Evers, Malcolm X, and King, and that of Baldwin, who died in 1987.
Striking, stylish film about the writer James Baldwin and the civil rights movement.
Moonlight has a kind of liquid presence. Its narrative douses with feeling rather than reveals through story. Structured in three parts, Moonlight focuses, in each section, on a short but intense period of days in the life of an African American gay man from the Miami projects. He is first seen as a boy of eleven, second, as a young teenager, and lastly as a young man. The film culminates in part three, where the young man meets a friend from adolescence whom he contacts after years apart. Their sequence takes place in a single evening and, with spare dialogue and remarkably delicate acting, is drenched in emotions and the amorphous feelings of selfhood and the consuming needs of attraction and connection. Jenkins, his writer, Tarrell McCraney, cinematographer, James Laxton, and actors, especially Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, have pulled off a unique film.
A deep and delicate film. Must see.