Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Films In and Around The 51st New York Film Festival: Afternoon of a Faun, The Age of Innocence, The Immigrant, Nebraska and more

On Monday, September 30th, Nancy Buirski’s Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq had its World Premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, the first of three sold-out screenings at the festival. I started working as an assistant for Ms. Buirski in June, and I have had the honor of assisting with this wonderful film for the past few months, leading up to its premiere at one of the world’s greatest film festivals.

It has been an amazing experience working on this movie, which is my first professional credit out of college (I am credited as a Researcher and a Production Assistant in the end credits), as well as assisting with the New York Film Festival screenings of the film. Additionally, I have helped promote Afternoon of a Faun by running its Facebook and Twitter pages, posting many of the wonderful interviews with Ms. Buirski and the incredible press surrounding the movie, including glowing reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

The official synopsis for the film reads: Of all the great ballerinas, Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been the most transcendent. With a body unlike any before hers, she mesmerized viewers and choreographers alike - her elongated, race-horse physique became the new prototype for the great George Balanchine. Amazingly, she was the muse to not one great artist but two; both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins loved her as a dancer and as a woman. Balanchine married her and Robbins created his famous version of Afternoon of a Faun for Tanny. Tanaquil Le Clercq was the foremost dancer of her day until it suddenly all stopped. At age 27 she was struck down by polio and paralyzed. She never danced again.(Above photograph by Misun Jun.)

The film features interviews with many of Tanny's best friends and luminaries in the dance world, including Jacques d'Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, Randy Bourscheidt and Barbara Horgan, all of whom attended the premiere (I had the opportunity to meet Mr. d'Amboise and Mr. Bourscheidt, which was very exciting). Also in attendance at the premiere were legendary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman, actor Michael Stuhlbarg (who provides the voice of Jerome Robbins in the film) and author Fran Lebowitz. After the screening, Kent Jones conducted a wonderful Q&A with Ms. Buirski that you can watch here on the Film Society of Lincoln Center website

Not only was it very exciting to help organize the screening and the after-party, it was also a wonderful opportunity to see many of the incredible people who work at Sikelia Productions, who have always been so supportive. 

At the film's second sold-out screening at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, I was honored to receive a special thanks from Ms. Buirski in her opening remarks on the film.

The popularity of the film at the festival was amazing – a third screening was added to the final day of screenings by popular demand (in the esteemed company of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, no less). 

I also attended the NYFF51 Live: Spotlight on Documentary Filmmakers event at Lincoln Center, where Ms. Buirski and acclaimed documentary filmmakers Allison Berg and Francois Keraudren (The Dog) and Jehane Noujaim (The Square) spoke about their films.

Moving forward with the film, Afternoon of a Faun will be screening with UNICEF this upcoming Thursday at the United Nations on World Polio Day. There is an upcoming theatrical release planned for the picture, and it will air next year on PBS as part of the American Masters program. (Photograph to the right by Misun Jun.)

The night after the premiere of Afternoon of a Faun at the 51st New York Film Festival, Ms. Buirski won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Programming for her film The Loving Story, an amazing documentary that has won several awards over the past year, including a Peabody Award and a Gabriel Award. 

The New York Film Festival is an amazing event, and I was very lucky to get to attend a few other screenings at the festival. On Thursday, October 10th, I attended the twentieth anniversary screening of one of my favorite films, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, at the Walter Reade Theater, with Scorsese introducing the film beforehand with Kent Jones. It was a beautiful restoration of a heartbreaking and powerful masterpiece. You can watch Scorsese's introduction here (I was in the second row of the theater).

I want to write in depth here about three other masterful films I saw at the festival - James Gray's The Immigrant, Alexander Payne's Nebraska and Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, as well as two extraordinary films I saw outside of the festival - Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

Spoiler warning for all films reviewed below.

“You Are Not Nothing.” – James Gray’s The Immigrant

The first thing that struck me about James Gray’s The Immigrant, which I saw at the Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center, were the faces of the actors in the film - so many haunted, gaunt and pale faces. People looked different in 1920s New York than they do today, and this is one of many important details that lend a great authenticity to this movie. One of the most beautiful-looking films I've seen in some time (photographed by Darius Khondji), the burlesque houses, crowded tenement buildings and spectacular magic shows for Ellis Island immigrants deeply rooted me in a time and place unlike anything I’ve seen since Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002).

Gray, one of my favorite filmmakers, participated in a Q&A with the audience after the screening. The film is full of breathtaking, sweeping images of 1920s New York, and yet, like all of Gray's work, this is a very intimate movie. I asked Mr. Gray if, when writing the film, he was thinking about the number of large set pieces compared to the more intimate scenes with only a few actors. Gray answered that The Immigrant is the kind of film United Artists might have released back in 1978, but these days, it is, of course, very difficult to secure funding for a large-scale, dramatic period piece of this nature. So, yes, he did write thinking about the number of expansive scenes versus the intimate ones, and tried to include many of the larger set-pieces in the opening of the movie, allowing the picture to slowly grow more intimate.

As the film opens, sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Belva Cybulski, immigrants from Poland, arrive at Ellis Island. Belva is very ill from tuberculosis, and immigration officials escort her away to an infirmary. When their American aunt and uncle fail to meet them at Ellis Island, Ewa is nearly shipped back to Poland, before she crosses paths with Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a brothel-keeper on the Lower East Side. He offers Ewa a helping hand and a place to stay – provided that she work at his brothel and serve as a prostitute. Desperate to earn enough money to get her sister out of Ellis Island, Ewa agrees.

Ewa is referred to early on in the film as a ‘woman of low morals,’ as her behavior and promiscuity on the boat to America are called into question. Throughout the film, we watch as Ewa battles with her own sense of morality and what she feels she deserves. She tests her morality by continually engaging in behavior she feels certain will send her to hell, but in order to survive in America, she has no other choice. Late in the film, Ewa asks her aunt, “Is it a sin to want to be happy when you know you’ve done so many things wrong?” I felt myself growing an extreme distaste for Bruno, who subjects Ewa to so many awful experiences.

But in the same way that the characters in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) defy our expectations of who will rise to the occasion*, so, perhaps, does The Immigrant subvert our expectations of Bruno. Though both the audience and Ewa may initially revile Bruno, my heart ultimately broke for him by the end of the picture, because he is, I believe, a good man. He is truly and hopelessly in love with Ewa and is trying, in his own flawed way, to earn her love. The jealously, longing and fury in Phoenix’s performance is breathtaking; this is a great companion piece to his extraordinary performance in Gray’s masterpiece Two Lovers.

Jeremy Renner, as Orlando the Magician, enters midway through the movie and changes the dynamic entirely. Imbued with a bit of magical realism, his character shows Ewa that there’s something beyond the dreary life of prostitution. Again, though, our expectations are challenged and a harder truth sets in – while the dashing and charming Orlando appears to have all of the answers and offers Ewa a way out of this life, does he really love Ewa like Bruno loves her? And, ultimately, is he really looking out for Ewa any more than Bruno? 

There are not easy answers to these questions, and as the film goes on, the relationship between Ewa and Bruno grows more and more complex. Is Bruno taking advantage of her, or is he offering the best version of the American Dream of which he knows? Talking about the movie after the screening, Gray described the relationship between Bruno and Ewa as strangely “co-dependent." In the final scene of the movie, there is a forgiveness and understanding between these two that moved me deeply. The beautiful and haunting last shot of the film illustrates their separation and their connectedness. 

I came away from The Immigrant feeling so much for both of these characters. Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno belongs on a list with other recent characters in cinema who, for whatever reason, stay with me and earn such an unexpected amount of empathy (I think of Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, and, further back, Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine). After the screening, I told Mr. Gray that I think his work is incredible - between The Immigrant and Two Lovers, he has made two of the finest movies of the last decade.

*(In her review of Nashville, Pauline Kael wrote, ‘Who watching the pious Haven Hamilton sing the evangelical ‘Keep a’ Goin,’ his eyes flashing with a paranoid gleam as he keeps the audience under surveillance, would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?’)

Alexander Payne's Nebraska

There seems to be a unique and unspoken sadness in the lives of many Midwesterners. Perhaps it’s their taciturnity and the dry wit that covers up any trace of sorrow – they don’t necessarily talk about their problems with each other in great detail or neurotically analyze their anxieties and fears. They make for wonderful film characters because they ask for no pity whatsoever, and yet the sadness buried beneath their eyes endears us to them. How many filmmakers besides Alexander Payne make movies about these kinds of people?

Even on its first viewing, Payne's new film Nebraska feels like an old, warm friend. Filmed in beautiful black-and-white by Payne’s cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (the film looked absolutely astonishing on the large screen at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center), Nebraska has many of the qualities that make Payne’s work so distinct and memorable (most notably, it's a road-trip movie, one of my favorite sub-genres and a Payne specialty). We are introduced to many characters who at first seem like slightly satirical Midwestern send-ups, but are revealed, with time, to have “private fortitude and sadness all their own,” as Nick Pinkerton so elegantly wrote in his 2011 Village Voice interview with Payne. 

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) of Billings, Montana believes he has won one million dollars, after receiving a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like company informing him of his fortune. Chided by everyone around him as crazy and senile, Woody insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his money - even if it means walking there by himself. Full aware that the letter is a complete scam, his son David (Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, hoping for Woody to find some kind of happiness in his final years.

It takes some time before we get a full understanding of how Woody’s family and friends marginalize and take advantage of him (although Nebraska certainly acknowledges Woody’s own faults, as well). Bruce Dern’s performance here is amazing because it slowly sneaks up on you. His most moving moments are entirely wordless; he has a kind of quiet understanding about his situation and how people perceive him, even though he is, by all accounts, decidedly deluded in his quest for his million dollars.

It’s these quiet moments – none of which ever come close to looking anything like 'acting' – that we see into Woody’s soul. We come to understand how important this money is for him and how his dignity is invested in collecting this million dollars.

I mention this because I don’t think I became entirely aware of the power of Dern’s performance until the end of the movie – this is a performance that could have simply been a man falling into incoherence and dementia. But in Woody, we see so much more – so much lost time, so many dreams deferred, so many regrets and yet that same Midwestern reticence. During the scenes in which the large pack of men in the Grant family stare at the camera as they all watch television together, even the smallest of small talk seems like a word too many.

Late in the film, when someone who works at the Publisher's Clearing House-like company in Lincoln asks David if his father suffers from dementia, David replies, “No. He just believes what people tell him.” That seems to be Woody’s weakness – he’s willing to take any and every thing at face value, and has allowed himself to be stepped on over the years.

Up until about two-thirds of the way through the film, we’ve only seen Kate (June Squibb), Woody's wife, humorously degrade and belittle her husband, and, like in many of Payne’s films, we think we have her figured out. But then Payne blindsides us. When the time comes, Kate stands up for Woody and defends him passionately to other members of his own family. In that moment, we see that she loves him deeply. The characters in this film are deeply full of love; most of the time, it's just masked and deflected by dry humor and a kind of laconic attitude. I see this in my uncles from East Texas. It makes me want to reach out and hug them tightly.

Roger Ebert once wrote that he does not "cry during sad moments in the movies, only during moments about goodness." During these moments, he experiences what he calls elevation when watching a movie - not exactly crying, but rather "the welling up of a few tears in [his] eyes, certain tightness in [his] throat, and a feeling of uplift: Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing." There’s something to be said for the fact that nearly all of Payne’s movies, particularly About Schmidt, have this kind of effect on me. Nebraska continues the tradition. The end of this film has a moment of such genuine kindness and uplift that I struggled to keep it together. Payne knows how to end a movie. Everything I love about about SidewaysAbout SchmidtThe Descendants and Election is all here.

I want to acknowledge the amazing score by Mark Orton. Rarely is a director’s tone so well-served by such moving and sometimes hauntingly mournful music. It’s never an outright sad score; like Rolfe Kent’s beautiful work on About Schmidt, it just feels honest. Papamichael's work is also amazing - one of the many reasons Nebraska is so powerful is because of the visual poetry and beauty of this part of the country. And the screenplay by Bob Nelson will surely win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Nebraska is my favorite film of the year so far.

Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave

I don't have much to write about Steve McQueen's powerful new film 12 Years A Slave, if only because watching the movie is such a deeply visceral experience. It has four 'long-takes,' as it were, that I thought were truly extraordinary, including two scenes, one with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Adepero Oduye, and the other with Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Sarah Paulson, that are uniquely horrific, brilliantly staged and performed by everyone involved. The other two shots that deeply affected me (both of which are long close-up shots of Ejiofor) further illustrate why McQueen is the perfect filmmaker for this material - as he proved with Shame, he is an unflinching director.

Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips

Of the films I've seen recently, the one that took me by the biggest surprise was Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips of the MV Maersk Alabama, which was attacked by armed Somali pirates in 2009.

Though the entire film is brilliant, the ending of Captain Phillips is as emotionally and politically complex a piece of filmmaking as I’ve seen. There is a sort of doomed inevitability that hangs over the characters in the second half of this film – Phillips knows, and actively tells, his captors that the United States would rather sink their lifeboat and kill all of them than let the Somalis win by reaching the African coast. And so Phillips becomes almost a kind of pawn in the larger game of American foreign policy.

Greengrass has always been a very experiential filmmaker – he’s determined for his audience to experience exactly what something feels like, often using the immediacy of handheld camerawork to achieve that effect (he is also interested in the minutia of how a ship works and how the crew would realistically respond to an attack like this, which lends the proceedings an unnerving authenticity). I have never been more affected by his style of filmmaking than I was here (Captain Phillips rivals 2006's United 93 as Greengrass' finest film). I felt like I was in that lifeboat with Phillips and the Somali pirates, and I felt the complex moral stakes for all of them that most other filmmakers would have ignored. They were are all human beings in that lifeboat. I don’t mean to indicate that I ever sided with the pirates, but I felt an overwhelming sense of despair for them, and for Phillips, as well. They don't ever stand a chance against the American warships following them.

In the last five minutes of this film, Tom Hanks does some of the finest acting of his career. Overcome with shock, Hanks breaks down as the American medical team examines him. But it’s more than just shock. It’s an indescribable kind of sadness that creeps in whenever an experience ends so suddenly – his life had become living in that lifeboat with these four men. And in an instant, the three remaining pirates in the lifeboat are shot dead. Although Phillips is safe, he's covered in the blood of the men with whom he's spent the past few days fighting, obeying and, at some points, understanding. It’s a victory, but it’s also strangely horrifying. I’ve never felt quite like this at the end of a movie.

In those closing, cathartic minutes of the film, I was suddenly able to grasp the horror of what I had just seen over the past two hours - as if the rest of the picture were an old memory, almost too immediate and unnerving in the moment to fully comprehend.

The ending of Captain Phillips embraces all of the moral ambiguities inherent in such a story, and struck me similarly to the ending of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty – it's a triumph for the United States, but at what cost for the film’s protagonist? Captain Phillips is one of the best films of the year. Watch Hanks and Greengrass talk about these moving final five minutes of the film here, and click here to read the amazing story of actor Barkhad Abdi, who gives a great performance.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

Seven years ago, I staggered out of the theater after seeing director Alfonso Cuarón’s breathtaking film Children of Men. With his first movie since Children of Men, the awe-inspiring space opera Gravity, Cuarón has done it again. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, who are stranded in outer space after an accident destroys their shuttle. 

Gravity marks the third consecutive year in which a masterful American filmmaker has used 3D as a storytelling technique and advanced the technology to new heights (Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 2011 and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi last year are, along with Gravity, the finest uses of 3D I’ve encountered). But the technical achievements in this movie go far beyond the outstanding use of 3D.

The very concept of space in Gravity is fascinating, because Cuarón – who is famous for his long takes – essentially stages the film in a small number of unbroken shots, which not only give a fluid sense of what it must feel like to move around in outer space, but also allow for a kind of operatic beauty to every movement in the film (like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are many scenes in which Gravity resembles a kind of ballet). There’s an incredible majesty to nearly everything we see in this film, thanks to the camera movement (the cinematographer is the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot Children of Men and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World) and the exquisite choreography of the actors.

All of this would be impressive as technical achievements alone, but the real brilliance of Gravity is how camera and actor choreography are used so effectively in the service of storytelling. In order to really be immersed in a film, you have to know where you are and understand the physical geography of the space in the movie. This is a particularly tough task for a film that takes place in outer space, and yet I cannot think of a recent film that so fluidly kept me aware of where I was, and therefore connected me so deeply to what our protagonist is experiencing.

The performances here by Bullock and Clooney are amazing. Although the film has its loud moments, Gravity is also a picture that understands the power of silence. Most big-budget Hollywood entertainment is aggressively loud and oftentimes feels like an assault on the audience, but Cuarón holds us captivated as we are confronted with the eerie quiet of space. Gravity is an extraordinary film.

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