RETURNING TO the New York Film Festival after a considerable absence, I was reminded again of what a peculiarly unfestive showcase it can be.
Now 17 years old, the New York festival seems to be gradually fading and shrinking. A decade ago the main program of new international films aimed at the theatrical market was supplemented by special retrospective or independent series. Budget cutbacks have virtually eliminated these sideshows -- often the most rewarding aspects. And the 24 feature screenings at the festival, which runs through Oct. 14, mix modest triumps with major disappointments.
Chief among the latter was Bernardo Bertolucci's "Luna." According to a colleague, Bertolucci was overheard at one point declaring that "Luna" was "the first picture of the 1980s." If there were any truth to this boast, you could padlock the theaters, art-houses included, on New Year's Eve, and count on spending the decade catching up on your reading.
Bertolucci, like Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, has become an almost venerable festival favorite. According to legend, "Last Tango in Paris" electrified the audience when it closed the 1972 festival; and before it was shown, "Luna" -- the opening night attraction feted by 20th Century-Fox -- inspired anticipation that it would get the festival started with a controversial flourish. The press screening failed to strain the 1,000-seat capacity of Alice Tully Hall, where most of the festival showings and all the advance screenings are held. But a healthy crowd turned out to witness what is at best a prolonged cinematic doodle by a gifted, incorrigibly abstracted filmmaker.
Bertolucci has devised a circuitous, indecisive soap opera scenario about the conflict between an American diva, played by Jill Clayburgh, and her teen-age son, played by newcomer Matthew Barry. He accompanies his mother on her summer engagement with the Rome Opera, following the sudden death of the man of the house, Fred Gwynne. The shaky continuity is sustained by a series of scandalous revelations, or teases. Although Matthew Barry seems like a perfectly healthy, spunky juvenile, his character is supposed to be in appalling condition -- a teen-age junkie suffering from an agonizing identity crisis.
The mother's response to her son's alleged drug problem is nothing if not eccentric. When the desperate boy jabs a fork into his veins for want of a useable needle, she grabs his arm and avidly sucks the wound, a moment of spontaneous vampirism far more sensational than anything that occurs in Herzog's lugubrious remake of "Nosferatu," another festival selection (and 20th Century-Fox beau geste ). Topping his topper, Bertolucci has mom calm sonny's bizarrely erotic withdrawal symptoms by simultaneously suckling and massaging him.
Like virtually every other episode in the film, there's less to this incestuous exchange than meets the bewildered eye. It looks luridly incredible and has no particular aftermath. In its inexplicable way "Luna" makes it abundantly clear that Bertolucci is governed by an arbitrary sense of drama. The scenes are frequently calculated to reach melodramatic high notes, at which point they tend to end abruptly. Without any ultimate dramatic logic, they might be a compilation entitled "Bertolucci's Favorite Arias."
Bertolucci flatters himself that he's evolving a new form of movie drama shaped not by storytelling conventions but by permitting the unconscious of the actors to discover overpowering Magic Moments from take to take. Since only his intuition determines what is an authentic Magic Moment on the set, this method theoretically disarms criticism.
As a matter of fact, Bertolucci's unconscious seems to be growing dreadfully predictable, orchestrating emotional explosions in accordance with preconceived notions of Freudian conflict. "Luna" exploits the hoariest "problem-play" motifs -- drug addiction, incest, illegitimacy. But without concretely elaborating on his random images of the moon and mother-infant bonding, Bertolucci fails to dramatize his abstract filmmaking inspirations.
Fortunately, the most rewarding films shown in the opening days of the festival, John Huston's movie version of the Flannery O'Connor novel "Wise Blood" and the Hungarian feature "Angi Vera," put Bertolucci's nonsense in perspective. They reaffirmed the abiding strength of intelligible dramatic material grounded in realistic social and psychological conflict.
"Wise Blood," shot on location in Macon, Ga., for less than $2 million, is an independent American production that still hasn't been acquired by an American distributor. The festival will have justified itself this year if it draws some attention to this admirable film, which boasts wonderful performances by Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton and Daniel Shor -- all vivid embodiments of Miss O'Connor's original gallery of small-town Southern eccentrics, united by peculiar bonds of evangelical fervor or opportunism.
Almost all the major distributors are conspicuously short of Christmas product. After withdrawing Robert Altman's "Health," Fox doesn't have a Christmas release at all. Intelligently promoted and released, "Wise Blood" could probably fill this gap by becoming a modest, prestige success, particularly in the South and discriminating metropolitan markets. The film might enlarge its audience by making a showing in the annual critics' awards and Oscar nominations.
"Angi Vera," adapted and directed by Pal Gabor from a novel by Endre Veszi, is a devastating "success story" about a tragically misguided young woman who earns a niche for herself in the Communist Party bureaucracy by betraying her lover. The story is set at an indoctrination school for prospective party functionaries in 1948. Looking for fresh starts and opportunities under the new regime, the students sooner or later discover what the course of study is really meant to inspire: fear, obedience and a willingness to inform on themselves and fellow comrades. Vera, played by a beautiful, dark-eyed 18-year-old actress named Veronika Papp, learns the lesson far too well, destroying her future even as she believes she's securing it.
Acquired for American release by New York Films, "Angi Vera" is an incisive, somber account of moral cowardice and romantic tragedy in a repressive political milieu. The material packs a salutary wallop.
The early attraction at the festival that promised the greatest pleasure, "The Bugs Bunny/Road-Runner Movie," turned out to be a little worrisome. It is a feature-length compilation of animated cartoons, some complete and others excerpted, directed by Chuck Jones during his long, distinguished career at Warner Bros. The film is full of wonderful material, but the compilation format tends to wear out its welcome and wear one down. Good as the vintage Warner cartoons are, they are better one at a time. (MGM's "That's Entertainment" compilations induced a similar sense of overindulgence and fatigue.) Although success for the Jones compilation might encourage a partial restoration of the old Warners animation unit, I'd rather see all animated shorts, new or old, abstract or cartoon, programmed on an individual basis on regular theater programs.
Despite the title, Daffy Duck emerges with the greatest luster from the Jones compilation, thanks to the enduring charm and ingeniousness of "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century" (the cartoon briefly seen in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and "Duck Amuck," the animated equivalent of Buster Keaton at his most surrealistic.
Along with the major screenings, a so-called "American Independents" series was held for five days at the Paramount Theatre, located in the basement of the Gulf & Western Building, under the sponsorship of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which also organizes the film festival. However, the 15 features on the program included nine oldies, ranging from Kubrick's "Killer's Kiss" of 1955 to Malick's "Badlands" of 1973, so it scarcely served as a showcase for new independent features.
The main selections still seem to reflect the taste of festival director Richard Roud more or less exclusively. It wasn't the tangiest of tastes in 1963, and it hasn't gotten fresher. Once the kick-off festival of the autumn, the New York affair now finds itself hemmed in between new, expanding festivals in Montreal and Toronto and the old established programs in Chicago and San Francisco. Perhaps it is time to act on the occasional rumors of an international festival being organized in Washington, offering the public a lot to see from a wide range of cultures and traditions. If you're thinking festival, there's no percentage in thinking dinky. Just look at New York.