Friday night: the opening of the New York Film Festival. A limousine pulls up in the driveway outside Avery Fisher Hall, and two sweat-shirted girls stop to gawk. But it is only an elderly Japanese man who is, among other things, clearly not Madonna.
"Who's that?" one of the girls says, as if she had just discovered, in the trap beneath the kitchen sink, what once was a mouse.
"It's Kurosawa," someone says.
"Giggle," the girls say.
Now, far be it for me to say these girls had the right attitude, but things have been getting a bit thick in the hosanna department, and the festival hasn't even STARTED yet. The night before, at a ceremony at the Japan Society, director Arthur Penn simply halted in his speech, beamed straight into the front row, and intoned, "You're a brilliant man, Mr. Kurosawa."
Thanks, Arthur -- I'd heard that before, but never put so well.
So everyone sits down inside, and Richard Roud, the festival's director, is so bollixed by Kurosawa's mere presence that he fumbles through his speech like a second-grader doing his Miles Standish. He introduces Serge Silberman, the producer of "Ran," who, standing four feet from the microphone, launches into three minutes of choleric, unintelligible muttering.
Then Kurosawa gets up there with Audie Bock, his faithful translator, inspires a standing ovation, tells a weak joke that inspires gales of laughter, and struts off the stage, looking a great deal more spry than all the funereal adoration would lead you to believe.
It's as if everyone's crawling over everyone else to deliver his eulogy for a man who appears to have every intention of continuing on. What's lost in this effusive lather is not just a sense of the details of Kurosawa's craft, but a memory of the daring that makes the work so valuable. The finest tribute of the week came in a quoted remark of the late John Ford, who reportedly told Kurosawa, "You really like rain."
Wednesday: The press screening of "Oriane," the Venezuelan entry. Reaction: Numb. How could a country so rich in the two basic materials of celluloid -- petroleum and cocaine -- make such a movie?
The press conference opens, but nobody raises a hand. Loud "HARRUMPH" from festival director Roud, who looks like Herschel Bernardi but is tanned like George Hamilton.
Finally: "Who are your influences?" to "Oriane" director Fina Torres.
"Bergman, Fassbinder, early Antonioni."
Friday night: The party after "Ran" is held at the Tavern on the Green, which, with its exposed beams and Tiffany lamps and elaborate chandeliers, presents a kitschy combination of a fin de sie cle ballroom and a hunting lodge. It's short on celebrities. Martin Scorsese, for example, is not there, though he was at the dinner for Kurosawa at the Japan Society the night before. Susan Sontag isn't there, though she braved an alleged hurricane that morning to see Agniezsca Holland's "Angry Harvest." William Hurt isn't there, either, though almost everyone has heard that someone saw him there.
There is, however, a film director (at least that's what he said he was), trying awfully hard to look like Salvador Dali, in whom the mere sight of a pair of ears inspires the adhesiveness of a barnacle.
He is accompanied by a pale, attenuated, wide-eyed actress with a skimmer as big as a pizza pan, who seems to have spent her life auditioning for "Camille." They are making a movie called "Curfew USA."
"I want to bring psychosis to America!" he says passionately. "I want to introduce psychosis to America!"
The story of "Curfew USA," apparently, involves filling 1,000 pigeons with explosives. "All the military might of the U.S. is useless against the pigeons," Camille says.
"Do you acknowledge that America is beleaguered?" the director asks. "Do you acknowledge that America is terminally beleaguered?"
"I'm SERIOUS!" the director says, a plea that, unfortunately, no one takes seriously.
While "Ran" is quite an impressive achievement, for the battle scenes alone, the fawning over Kurosawa represents what's wrong with this year's festival. Kurosawa doesn't need the imprimatur of the festival -- he's already established, as are Jean Luc-Godard, Alain Tanner, Paulo and Vittorio Taviani and the others who dominate the schedule.
Directors tend to come upon the scene with the suddenness of tennis stars; the great ones announce their greatness in their first or second film, and the excitement of a film festival lies in seeing that greatness in first bloom. Last year it was Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "Blood Simple." But this year there is no Boris Becker -- it's more like watching the comeback of Arthur Ashe.
Still, if there's little excitement, there have already been a number of good, interesting films: "Ran;" "Angry Harvest," Agniezcka Holland's holocaust film; "Sugarbaby," which one wag called " 'Desperately Seeking Susan' for fatties"; a documentary called "Huey Long" by Ken Burns; and an indefinable gem called "When Father Was Away on Business" by a young Yugoslavian director named Emir Kusturica.
"History is, for the most part, very inaccessible," says Ken Burns, who looks like one of the Brady Bunch and whose prize-winning documentaries on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Shakers and the Statue of Liberty have led to his latest success, "Huey Long." "Or it's delivered in such shorthand as to be essentially worthless. Textbooks, whatever. Film is the best form to bring it out -- you're able to give a texture of the times, to hear the words, to hear the stories. History is essentially the accumulation of memories and stories and things that are told, and we too often focus on wars and generals and presidents, and forget that it's about people and events and kind of HAPPENINGS. You have men and women who were affected by Huey Long, and they'll tell you that.
"When I first got interested in film, I wanted to be John Ford. He was my hero. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, went to the Cinema Guild, saw everything that John Ford made. Then I went to Hampshire College, and they had still documentary photographers teaching film. And I ran into this wonderful buzzsaw, and got very enamored of the real stuff. Evidence. I can't believe it's dead to people. Because when you hear the story of how the Roeblings built the Brooklyn Bridge, or hear some of the humor of the Statue of Liberty's almost not making it, or get Huey under your skin -- I mean, that's IT.
"I look for stories that are perfect, organic. The Brooklyn Bridge had it, and Huey has it, too. This is a Shakespearean tragedy. Here is a man who starts off good, gets bad, and gets killed for it. He's there, he's real, and he kind of has all the evil and all the good that's in all of us, but he has it in such gigantic and histrionic proportions that he's wonderful -- you HAVE to move towards Huey, and anybody who wants to dismiss him as an outright bad guy is blind to their own bad side, too. You have to love him and you have to hate him.
"Huey would go make a speech and he'd lie through his teeth, and he'd quote the Bible -- passages that did not exist. To get votes in the Catholic South, he'd say, "Six a.m., I hitched up a team of horses, and took my Catholic grandparents to mass. And then I'd go home, rehitch the horse and take my Protestant grandparents.' And he'd walk off the stage and one of his aides would run up to him and say, 'Huey, I didn't know you had Catholic grandparents.' And he'd say, 'Don't be a damn fool -- we didn't even have a horse.' Then he'd tell THAT story at the next stop. And they loved it -- they'd eat it up.
"In Louisiana, it's there up to this day. You've got a governor who's under indictment, on trial right now, who got elected to a third term, nonconsecutive. He told the reporters that the only way he was not going to get elected -- that this other guy was so dull, he had committed the unpardonable sin in Louisiana of being dull in politics -- he said, 'The only way I'm not going to be elected is if I'm found with a dead woman or a live boy in bed.' This is the governor of the state of Louisiana! And people love that.
"The follow-up story to all of this is that 50 years to the day that Huey was shot, the LSU band was out in front of the Louisiana State library to welcome Russell, and they played 'Every Man a King,' Huey's theme song, and the second they finished, this beautiful bright day, this thunderbolt went krrrrrrzzzzh!, the sky opened up, and it poured for two hours . . .
"And, uh, that was Huey, you know."