The New York Film Festival ended yesterday, so the obvious question: Was it a success? By my count, the record stood at 7-8-3 (which doesn't include the three revived films). Of the five I missed, the general impression seemed to fit the same proportion. So what you have, roughly, is something less than a 50-50 proposition.
Treating films in the way usually reserved for boxers, though, doesn't tell the whole story. Of the seven, none made you think that greatness had suddenly exploded on the scene (except, perhaps, for "Hail Mary," because Godard, although a veteran, always makes you think a great new talent has exploded on the scene). Kurosawa, in "Ran," was going over familiar territory for him, however expertly; there's no felicitous shock in a fine Krzysztof Zanussi movie, "A Year of the Quiet Sun" (although the fact that he shot no film he didn't print -- what's called a 1:1 shooting ratio -- is pretty impressive), or in Istva'n Szabo''s "Colonel Redl," which, whatever its virtues, simply recapitulated the themes of his earlier "Mephisto."
The good films, in other words, weren't good in an exciting way. And the bad films were intolerable. As one critic remarked, the festival in the last three years has developed an unhealthy taste in what he calls "ennui, nothing to do, noplace to go, oh, maybe Canada" kinds of movies, movies with visual virtuosity that is presented very slowly, and that isn't attached to anything. The festival is skewed toward French and Swiss filmmakers, at the expense of Latin Americans, and toward the old warhorses of the French no-longer-New Wave.
A perfect example of the wrong kind of festival movie is Leos Carax's "Boy Meets Girl," which makes Jim Jarmusch's "Permanent Vacation" seem like "Star Wars." Ugly, aimless, relentlessly derivative, "Boy Meets Girl" may have been the worst film of the festival -- although maybe it only seemed that way, because it was next to last.
After the screening, "Boy Meets Girl" was greeted with precisely three claps, until Mark Rappaport (who makes some pretty slow, aimless movies himself) began violently applauding, and embarrassed some others into joining him. Bill Starr, who has become a fixture at festival press conferences -- no matter how dumbfounded everyone else is, he always has a question -- asked Carax how autobiographical the film was.
Carax responded not very much.
"But it says in the press materials that it's autobiographical," Starr persisted. Festival chairman Richard Roud, already piqued, it seemed, by the film's reception, snapped:
"THE FILMMAKER DOESN'T WRITE THE PRESS MATERIALS, THE FESTIVAL COMMITTEE WRITES THE PRESS MATERIALS."
He showed him.
Every year, the O'Neals throw a party for the festival at their restaurant, The Ginger Man, and look! there's John Lithgow, telling tales out of school about Peter Hyams, whom he worked with on "2010."
That's director/writer/producer/director of photography Peter Hyams.
Lithgow mimics him beautifully, as a man always peering over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed with a paranoid gleam.
"I would say to him, 'Peter, you think maybe I shouldn't wear this hat in this scene?' And he'd say, 'WHADDAYA THINK, I'M STUPID?'
"I brought this friend of mine, a director at AFI, onto the set, and introduced him. I said, 'This is Peter Hyams, the man responsible for all this.' And he said, 'YOU MAKE IT SOUND LIKE WATERGATE OR SOMETHING.' "
"That's not the best one," says Newsweek critic David Ansen, who was, incidentally, Lithgow's college roommate. "Hyams brought someone on the set, and he said, 'This is John Lithgow.' John said, 'It's Lith-GO.' And Hyams said, 'NO IT'S NOT!' "
"I remember I had a dream," Lithgow says. "Besides being writer, director, producer and director of photography, Hyams had a part in the movie. He was an elevator operator, and he had one line. He had to say, 'I don't know, you'll have to ask him.' And in my dream, he said, 'I don't know, you'll have to ask PETER HYAMS.' "
"Freedom is something that has to be very precisely defined," says Polish director Krysztof Zanussi. "I deal with censorship, but other people deal with censorship of the market and of the producers, who often have no imagination and no courage. They always want to repeat the success of yesterday instead of looking for something new. There is a tremendous pressure of conformism all over the world, so in order to be profitable, people lose their integrity -- they become somebody else, which is a tremendous loss of freedom. So my American colleagues have more potential freedom, more freedom of movement, but they have great difficulty in making use of it.
"I wouldn't say there is a paradise for artists somewhere else. Nowhere."
Zanussi, whose "Year of the Quiet Sun" brought an enthusiastic response from festival audiences, has had his ups and downs with the regime in his native land. He made his movie -- a love story about an American GI and a Polish refugee that takes place in 1946 -- after martial law was imposed there. It was financed in part in America.
"I'm still working in Poland. I'm not very loved -- I'm tolerated. In fact, that's all that I want. I don't aspire to be loved -- I don't want to be an artist of the court. I don't exist in the media. I don't do any interviews and I'm not asked to give interviews, either. I insist on the evolution toward some sort of pluralism, and the fact that I'm tolerated is a victory of pluralism, because I openly do not endorse a big part of the official policy, and I'm outspoken about it. I said it to you and I know it may be printed and I'll face the music, as the expression goes.
"After martial law, we were totally isolated, and isolation is not good, by no means, at any time -- it applies to South Africa now. I remember I was in the Philippines -- every country having troubles, it doesn't help, any sort of boycott. And the idea of making a coproduction with America in a most unfortunate moment was consciously chosen. I wanted it very badly. I thought, once there are no other links -- we don't even have ambassadors at the moment -- there should be some act, created by artists, of dialogue, of trying to break out. And I managed -- I think it's a miracle. I'm very happy about it. I did a lot of purely diplomatic work to make it possible.
"This is inspired by a real story. Traveling, going to very small places, meeting very awkward audiences, it's a great lesson to me. In one of the meetings, I met someone, chatting after the public meeting, who told me the story of a woman whose mother made the sacrifice of her life to liberate her daughter, to get her out of the country. So I had this in mind, and once martial law was imposed in Poland, I thought there was some similarity with the gloomy postwar time, and with the rather gloomy horizons we have seen recently.
"This film was heavily criticized in Poland," Zanussi says. "I suffered particularly painful damage because the film was withdrawn by the Polish goverment from the Academy Awards. It was submitted and immediately withdrawn -- it was meant to be the Polish entry, but foreign films must be submitted by national committees. Of course, last year I thought things were rather favorable for me -- I could have expected maybe a nomination. I lost this great chance.
"There was a whole campaign of anger against me and against the film, maybe because the international situation didn't improve. The official arguments were so silly that I am embarrassed to quote them. That the film was libelous and defamatory toward my country -- that kind of nonsense. The argument was that I am depicting the postwar period as sad and gloomy, while the official iconography shows it as the beautiful spring of the socialist system, received with great joy and hope and expectation. I show the postwar period as similar to the situation now, where the horizons are full of clouds, and people have no great expectations. My major interest -- my life interest -- is: What can one do if one has bad luck? How to be happy in spite of that, because luck is something beyond our influence, and some people will be winners and some will be losers, some nations are in a way losers, not out of their own guilt -- we don't feel any more guilty than any of our neighbors -- why does it happen to us? There will be no explanation in history -- it just happens. Life is like that.
"I don't complain, I think our life is somehow richer, because it is so real. We cannot lead a plastic life, we cannot live effortlessly. We are poor, we are oppressed, we feel miserable, and we try to find sense in our lives. Trying to find a perspective and inner peace even when you've admitted defeat is something that intrigues me.
"It would be much better for my distributor to have a happy ending, but it would be senseless for me to bring such a message, because I'm not talking about people who, in spite of all difficulties, manage to achieve their goals. I'm talking about people who will not manage to achieve their goals, and it's not their fault. But their love has survived. Twenty years later, she regrets it. It's unrealistic that she would ever reach him, but she wants to. She pulls herself together, she makes the effort.
"One of the great problems of filmmaking nowadays is that I want to make films for adults, and everybody thinks about pornography. We make films for children all the time, but kids are not the only audience. In fact, children don't want to be children all the time. People are showing an image of the world which is childish, and which is deceiving. People will be unhappy if they start to believe in this image. It may be inspiring for a moment, but eventually, facing their own destiny, facing their own death, they must feel deceived, because this image is false, it's silly. But what can you do? That's what has sold best. People want to buy illusions instead of buying consolation."
Zanussi, a tall, elegant man with a close-cropped beard, came to filmmaking through the back door. "I was a physicist, which is, for a filmmaker, rather unusual. Then I was studying philosophy and I applied to the film academy, which is very selective, and you have to pass a very tough examination. And I did it without being convinced whether I wanted to be a filmmaker or not. It was sort of a bet with a friend of mine, who was desperate. And I said, I will stay along with you, and we'll see what will happen. Being less motivated, I was arrogant enough to impress the professors, and they thought I was good.
"It took me two years to dispel the illusion. They wanted me to be another Polanski. I respect Roman very much, but I didn't want ever to make similar films, and I didn't want to be like him. The board of professors, who are also the people who run the film industry, had seen my shorts, and they said, 'He's good for nothing. He makes no progress.' So first they wanted to kick me out, then they showed some clemency and they said, 'All right.' They gave me the right to repeat one course, but they said, 'Now you have to prove that you're making progress.'
"I was very proud and felt terribly humiliated. Up till today, 20 years later, I'm still polemic when I talk about it -- I try to prove to them that they were wrong. Some of them are dead, some of them are my colleagues, and none of them is my master, but I'm still fighting to prove that I'm right, that there is room for people like me to make films."