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NYFF 09: Triumph of the Micro-Features

Above:  This land is ours: Revolutionary war re-enactors in Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land.

Time is precious these days, and audiences are busy and cynical. Who has time for the two and a half hour movie? Truth be told, plenty; the surprisingly vibrant Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, among other 2009 summer tent poles, topped its runtime out at a number usually reserved for historical epics, Stanley Kubrick movies, and long-take black and white Eastern European films heir to Miklós Jancsó. In a film festival setting, shorter is better. Subtract CGI robots and who wants to watch anything over 70 minutes? One may say “the hardcore,” but the correct response to that quip is that the hardcore would rather watch two 70 minute movies that one twice as long. Tiring of the latest Oscar-bait, white elephant, prestige film, or wanting to dabble in a festival feast without spending your entire afternoon at the movies? Than this year’s New York Film Festival is for you.

The programming mix in 2009, replete with micro-features, is indicative of the festival’s refreshingly varied lineup of young and old, long and short, gray and resplendently colored. Got little time but want to see a master at work? 100 year old Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (64m) makes no allusions to a pretension outside its neat, evocative old-world fable inspired by girl-next-door love stories and the chivalric gestures that carry so much weight and meaning when courtship is following old forms. (If this lovely little film is too short for your tastes, Catherine Breillat adds 14 more minutes to Oliveria’s runtime for the remarkably similar, though far less exquisite and far more sinister childhood fable, Bluebeard.)

Those inexperienced in the lustrous restraint of Oliveira’s cinema may think the filmmaker too stodgy, though one look at the centerpiece image of Eccentricities, to be found in the review linked above, should tell all of the strange splendor of that film. For those unbelievers, the festival offers you Raya Martin, a young Filipino filmmaker so rapidly up-and-coming that New York hasn’t even had time to show any of the half-dozen films he’s made in the last couple of years until the festival added Independencia (77m) to the lineup, perhaps the youngest and certainly one of the most exciting talents the NYFF has introduced to the city. Ironically, like Olveira, Martin’s film is a pointed reference to the old, in this case the lushly artificial studio cinema of 1930s Hollywood, used to help indict and contextualize the American occupation of the Philippines.

Though some may think that a brief runtime might mean a brevity of inspiration or a intrinsically lightweight photo play, one should applaud the courage of these filmmakers for making films in an area that is notoriously difficult to show theatrically, both in film festivals and in regular theatres, that magic spot of films that are longer than 25 minutes and shorter than 75. Mosey over to the NYFF’s always exciting but also always sidebar’d and thereby ghettoized experimental program, View from the Avant-Garde, and you’ll find filmmakers less interested in traditional distribution and more embracing of the micro-feature.

Last year Views had trains, and this year one of the best films is about an equally regimented and methodical, but no less exciting, subject: bricks! Harun Farocki’s survey of global brick laying, In Comparison (61m), ranging from African handmade to Swiss super-productions, in its seemingly minute focus and brief runtime says more about the world we live in and the extreme variety of ways we do live in it—live, work, exploit; pattern, plan, touch, use—than all of the year’s bloated globalization docs put together. New York is badly in need of a Farocki retrospective, and hopefully the Tate Modern’s upcoming exhibit (to be covered in The Notebook late this fall) will encourage the city’s theatres and institutions to mount something similar.

Also interested in the material of the world we live in is another Views film, Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land (52m), a remarkable assembly of elemental properties—earth, fire, water, air—across America. The oblique and evocative survey connects a pointed collection of American-style land claims—from Revolutionary War re-enactors to Mexican border patrols, football games, RV lots, and gun ranges—before climaxing with a brilliant centerpiece narration of a airman’s remarkable 45-minute descent through a storm after ejecting from his plane at high altitude, all accompanied by a simple montage of darkening clouds. There’s nothing quite like seeing a film seeking an answer, a cohesion, and a thrust find something so poignant to unite its thoughts, and this brilliant airborn center questions in a more poetic and philosophic manner than the grounded footage of the land our need and attraction to the ground beneath our feet.

Talk about efficient: these five micro-features, all must-sees of the festival, total the average length of a film by Jacques Rivette. But wait! What’s this? Yes, that’s right, Jacques Rivette has not only finally made a movie under 90m, but it has been programmed in New York! (His last, Don’t Touch the Axe, was overlooked for a new Chabrol and Rohmer.) It wouldn’t be fair to discuss the film here, since at 85m Around a Small Mountain no longer qualifies as a micro-feature, but suffice to say it’s about a circus, it stars Jane Birkin, and what on earth Rivette does with such a brief run-time is anyone’s guess.  After all, time is relative.

***

The New York Film Festival runs September 25 - October 11, 2009.

Great piece, Daniel. The film world (both art and commercial) is so stodgy about length — does anyone really care if an album is sub-40 minutes or if a work of literature is <200 pages? I mean, the Mona Lisa is the size of a lunch tray. Many are bemoaning the death of indie/arthouse theatrical distribution, but while the theater experience should never die, I think it’ll help eliminate some arbitrary conventions imposed on films. If you’re watching on a nice big TV/computer screen in the comfort of your own home, who cares how long the film is or if its characters are “likeable” or if you can take the kids/a date to see it. As we’ve seen on YouTube/Hulu/Netflix, if it’s free/cheap and easily accessible, they’ll be far more likely to give less conventional content a shot.

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