'I'm really enjoying myself," a magazine film critic remarked the other day. "At least we're not seeing the same images. I'm so tired of seeing the same Hollywood images over and over again."
He gave voice to what most other people are feeling -- it's not that the movies in the New York Film Festival are all that good (although some are quite good), but at least there are no movies about breakdancers from outer space or mud wrestlers who work for the CIA. None of the stars, apparently, has seen or heard of the Nautilus machine; none of the directors, apparently, has heard of Steven Spielberg. After all that Hollywood has served up in the past year, how refreshing that can be.
Take "Angry Harvest," for example, Agnieszka Holland's film in which a refugee from the Holocaust, played by Elizabeth Trissenaar, is taken in by a Polish Catholic farmer, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. The farmer is, in this way, a kind of saint, but he's also a bully, a prig, a lecher, a drunk -- in short, an ordinary man trying to live a good life, and often failing. Which gives "Angry Harvest" the kind of compelling power that most Holocaust movies -- and certainly most Hollywood movies -- don't have.
Or take Mark Rappaport's "Chain Letters." In this tour of downtown, the psychos aren't dolled up, quaint or cute, as they were in "Desperately Seeking Susan" -- the movie reeks of desperation. And the movie's compositions -- stylized profiles against blank backgrounds -- are not the kind of thing you would see in a Hollywood movie. Similarly, Percy Adlon's West German entry, "Sugarbaby." When's the last Hollywood love story that involved an obese female morgue attendant obsessively pursuing a blond male subway driver a dozen years her junior? That film, too, with its camera reeling drunkenly and candy colors, looks unlike any I've seen all year.
To be sure, all these movies have fairly basic problems, either in the continuity, or the amateurish nature of the acting, or whatever. Instead of polish, they offer the spectacle of a filmmaker actually grappling with the medium, rather than cravenly ceding the field to advertising -- but at this point, that's a bargain I'm willing to make. As a believer in Hollywood movies, it pains me to say this. There's real horror in the notion of ending up as one who only goes to subtitled or "small" movies as a matter of principle. But the experience of the New York Film Festival has been a weeklong reminder, if only indirectly, of what it means to really make movies.
Tuesday afternoon: the press conference for "Bliss," an Australian entry. The director, Ray Lawrence, is defeated from the outset; after being hectored by a well-tailored woman with a German accent, he seems to disappear into his chair. Someone asks a question about the film's reception at Cannes, and Lawrence meekly passes the question to his producer.
"The French walked out in droves," the producer says. "Banging their seats very loudly. You could have confused it for applause, if you weren't there. The next day there were grotesque headlines such as 'Lamentable in Its Pretentiousness, Coarseness and Idiocy.' It's thanks to the New York Film Festival that the director didn't jump off the balcony."
Alas, the consensus here seems to be, the French were right.
Change of Heart Dept.: Last week, I may have been a bit hard on the way the program is weighted toward established filmmakers. While there's nothing like the excitement of seeing a new director in first bloom, the fact is that many of the oldsters who are appearing in the festival program this year were first introduced to U.S. audiences by festivals past.
So it's sort of like welcoming old friends, and in that way, sort of nice. Nice that these directors feel an allegiance to the festival; and nice that the people who program it (particularly, Richard Roud) get to enjoy the fruits of their prescience.
One of the new directors who's inspired a great deal of interest is Emir Kusturica, a 30-year-old Yugoslavian whose film "When Father Was Away on Business" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year.
First, though, a word about translators. One of the frustrations of the festival is that many of the directors are foreigners, and few speak English. Thanks to subtitles, the language barrier hardly interferes with your enjoyment of the film (unless you're sitting behind a woman with a hat, in which case a single kendo thrust with a furled umbrella will do the job), but the formality of interviews, in which what you and the subject say is filtered through a translator, makes it difficult to establish a rapport, and the expression is something besides idiomatic.
One of the small lies of journalism is that it masks such difficulties. When I met with Kusturica, for example, he spoke of his film in terms of "poetic realism," which he described as "showing people in a very soft way, without extremes. Erasing any predispositions you might have."
Well, not really. Actually, it went something like this:
Interviewer: You mentioned "poetic realism." What do you mean by that?
Translator: Krazhny krazhny krazhny poetski realismy . . .
Waiter: You ordered a quiche? No omelet?
Kusturica: Krazhny krazhny krazhny . . .
Translator: Poetic realism is an approach of describing people and showing people in a very . . . soft way, without bringing them to either extreme. Talking about people without any predispositions we might have.
And so forth.
Anyway, Kusturica, a long fellow in a green cardigan and jeans, with hollow, soulful eyes and tousled hair he likes to play with -- a sort of Slavic James Dean -- seems to know his way around a camera.
He grew up in Sarajevo. "I was a lousy student in school," he said. "My father's friend is a director, and when I was in high school, when I started making friends out of all those hard guys, tough guys, they diverted me towards film, in order to get me away from all that bad company."
One of the most interesting things about "When Father Was Away on Business" are the subtle, easy shifts in mood, from comedy to drama to political satire to childlike wonder.
"I think life is that way," he said. "Those variations between hot and cold allowed people to go and live through the tragic moments, because only people who are capable of finding some kind of a contrast, who can go through an easier period in a tragic moment, are those that make it through. In such a situation people really need those funny moments in their life. Otherwise they wouldn't have any reason for living really. I don't think we should make only comedies, but we have to find those brighter moments and incorporate them in film.
"On the quiche, what salad are you having?" said the waiter.
The "tragic moment" of "When Father was Away on Business" comes during the reconstruction of Yugoslavia after the war, when the father of a family is taken off to a prison camp because of an offhand remark he once made to his mistress. The title is ironic -- the children are told that father is "away on business."
"I am not really an historical expert," Kusturica said. "I was only trying to make a film that was capable of showing the way history creates pressure on people. The historical process is best described from the perspective of someone who is not involved in the creation of history -- someone who is just affected by it. Because a person like that is capable of suffering from historical circumstances.
"I think this present time has really become alienated, distanced from people's hands. I don't think the times and the media really serve the people; I think the people serve the times and the media and everyone else. I'm trying to find other points in time where people experience emotional closeness, so I can pull them out from that alienation."
"Now, you wanted the quiche -- did you want the omelet, or did you want the quiche?" said the waiter.
Then I complained about the waiter. And Kusturica said it was just as bad in Yugoslavia. Then we both laughed.
So maybe there is a universal language, after all.
Wednesday: The press conference for "Chain Letters."
Someone asks the Inevitable Budget Question.
"The Inevitable Budget Question," says director Mark Rappaport. "Let's just say it's smaller than the coffee and danish budget on the average Hollywood movie, and much smaller than the cocaine budget."
"Chain Letters" is about paranoia, particularly toward the U.S. government. Someone asks about that, and Rappaport starts talking about how paranoia toward the government is justified -- how the behavior of the CIA, the plot to debeard Castro, the LSD experiments, the nerve gas experiments, and so forth, actually outstripped any fantasy a filmmaker might dream up. About halfway through his spiel, someone in the fourth row began shouting, "Apocryphal! Apocryphal!"
"Why do fiction?" bellowed the Interrupter. "Why do it at all, if all these absurdities are true? Why do it at all?"
"I would love to do the life of G. Gordon Liddy," Rappaport responded.
The night before, I played hooky, traveling downtown to a promotional screening of "Better Off Dead," a new teen sex comedy. I got to see a high school kid lose his girlfriend to the captain of the ski team, an imperial blond. I got to see a disgustingly fat kid with glasses. I got to see green bacon. I got to hear an audience of teen-agers go hog-wild simply at the mention of the word "booger."
And I would have gotten to see the hero find true love with a curly-haired French exchange student if it hadn't been for an obliging rat that scurried through the theater five rows ahead of me, causing a near riot and providing my cue to leave.
And then I knew what the New York Film Festival was all about.