Film Scouts Diaries

1997 New York Film Festival Diaries
A Pundit's View

by Karen Jaehne

This does not constitute press coverage, because I do not qualify as press. Because I merely write and lecture about film - as opposed to that precarious position of reporting that separates folks like us from the real press - I am a pundit.

Be warned: you are in the hands of someone without the allegiances of the true press.

I paid for my tickets to these movies - let that serve as the caveat of this pundit.

The quality of the films was down - something which can't be blamed on the festival. After all, there are years when the pickins are slim.

"Orphans of the Storm" was dragged from the vaults - kicking and screaming, I suspect - and tarted up for the occasion as a restored classic. The music (under Gillian Anderson's excellent direction) was better than the movie. Why is reactionary content somehow justified by the name of D.W. Griffith? Probably because Lillian Gish spent the last two decades of her life as his personal cheerleader. This film has been shown, in my own experience, in London and Washington, D.C. with Miss Gish as its ambassador and explicator. But really: two sisters separated by the frenetic chaos of the French Revolution? Give me Marat/Sade.

Jim Jarmusch's "Year of the Horse" is about why Neil Young plays better with Crazy Horse than with anybody else. The musicians, who can barely tolerate the curious Jarmusch, blame it on 25 years of working together. Sounds reasonable. Next?

Lars von Trier is a matter of taste. I've never liked his pseudo-video esthetic or the hysteria of his characters. The latest installment of "The Kingdom" is more of the same - stay home and watch E.R. for free.

They say "The Ice Storm" is by Ang Lee. C'mon, guys - it's as perfect a rendering of the Rick Moody novel as the same director's "Sense and Sensibility" was of Jane Austin. Per the hype, Ang Lee's an auteur. This is not what makes an auteur; this is called a director for hire.

"Taste of Cherry", on the other hand, spends 90 of its 95 minutes reinforcing the auteur-status attributed to Abbas Kiarostami after one film. The ending of this film is a cheat. He takes us down a road to suicide - to death - then he wants to pull back at the end and say, oh no, only a movie, I'm only Fellini - see my cameras, see my hero still alive, not dead - fooled you. Kiarostami's participation at the Q & A following the screening I saw was impervious and arrogant. It's just not enough to be persecuted in a benighted country. One must also reach out to those who might rescue you - if only from your own ego.

"Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" was the best film of the festival and is a great documentary by the estimable Errol Morris. After his last film about physics a la Stephen Hawking ("A Brief History of Time"), Morris has taken on nothing less than the evolution of human consciousness. Moreover, it's the story of four very amiable eccentrics who are so good at what they do, they represent one of the great laws of evolution: human satisfaction in excelling at something to the point of making it obsolete. These men are so human, they will soon be obsolete - and give way to the insect robots tottering around in the film with increasing confidence.

Canadian Atom Egoyan is another potentially great director. At least, he's a fine human being whom many people like even more than his movies. This year's is called "The Sweet Hereafter", and it's as off-center as ever. A small town experiences the tragic consequences of a school bus plunging into an icy river. The greatest tragedy is occasioned by an ambulance-chasing lawyer intent on getting these people something for their suffering. The teenage girl who survives the crash is the only reliable witness - but what she says on the witness-stand is not credibly set-up. Or so I think. The ending of "The Sweet Hereafter" is not O. Henry; it's deus ex-machina - the creaky machinery of an old Greek God flying in for the fix.

The most intriguing stuff in the festival was a high dosage of Polish cinema, which was alternately absurd and sublime. The "Saragossa Manuscript" (1965) is high camp; or maybe just high, since it's advertised as Jerry Garcia's favorite movie.

The breathtaking films of Wojciech Jerzy are, ultimately, the reason for festivals to exist! One can only hope they will, like Sam, play again, because one is not enough. Not even two. The more you see, the more you want to see, and there wasn't time to see all ten. Pre-1989, they remind us that some of the most grandiose, luxurious historical epics were made in Eastern Europe. Communism was good for art direction.

Write to Richard Pena at the Lincoln Center Film Society to request more Polish films. It will be good for everybody. For sheer surprise value, they're worth the price of admission. And that's more than you can say for a lot of 1997 films, not just the ones selected by the NYFF.

Back to New York Film Festival Diaries

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.