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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—25 September 2009

In Defense Of The New York Film Festival Lineup: A lot of grumbling this year that not only is the New York Film Festival's lineup too goddamn esoteric, but that it's opening night film is another goddamn Frenchie picture, fer Christ's sake! Among those leading the charge on this front is our pal Jeffrey Wells, who launched a typically dyspeptic broadside against the NYFF's selection committee, which in his view "has become a gathering of Trappist monks who've been slurping too much goat's milk with their granola."  (This gave me an idea for a video where I'd shoot various film bloggers declaring solidarity, in the montage style of one of those PSAs or campaign commercials, you know: "I am" cut "I am" cut "I am" cut "I am...a granola-eating" cut "I am...a goat's milk drinking" cut "I am a granola-eating, goat's milk drinking dweeb..." etc.) The thread that follows has its highs and lows, but the more resentful commenters sometimes carry a faint echo of Tom O'Neil's old complaints about "film Nazis," which in turn seem to pre-echo the current Tea Partier hysteria over Obama's "otherness." Am I taking the simile farther than it was meant to go? Well, that's been kind of my function at this column, hasn't it.

I myself have very few complaints about this year's lineup. Yes, I am an admirer of the Coens' latest, A Serious Man, and yes, in theory I do believe that it mightn't have killed the selection committee to give it a slot somewhere in the fest, if not opening night. But I understand that the committee didn't like the film, themselves, and while this may say something about the committee's taste, or chauvinism, or whatever you're going to call it depending on your point of view of the matters at hand, you can't fault Richard Peña, J. Hoberman, Scott Foundas, Melissa Anderson and Dennis Lim for not booking a film they didn't care for. Know what I mean? You can, on the other hand, huff and puff and fulminate until they put Tom O'Neil, or maybe Ben Lyons, on the committee. And then see how you like the way that turns out. Hmmm.

As for myself, the New York Film Festival first entered my consciousness in the halcyon '60s, when conditions were such that French film was considered to be a vital part of New York City's cultural life. Two Godards were shown in one year. That sort of thing. Hence, I don't really mind at all that we have a Dumont, a Denis, a Rivette, and a Resnais this year. I don't feel that having the festival opening with Resnais'Wild Grass constitutes force-feeding the reluctant masses some unwarranted Frenchiness; it's a genuinely great film that's earned its place. I don't mind that there is more esoteric fare at this year's festival. I do mind that the more the festival stands up for art, the more supposedly hip and well-informed observers demand that it roll over for commerce. (Was it Malcolm Gladwell who once said in an interview, "I like advertising. I think it's cool."?) Such are my impressions and attitudes. And you?

Why People Dislike Film Critics, Part 256,749: In an attempt to preempt a potential plague of pearl-clutching and collapses on the fainting couch, L.A. Times' critic Scott Foundas issues one of the more perplexingly patronizing pronouncements of the season: "Like Samuel Maoz'sLebanon,  Dumont's film [Hadewijch] seems almost certain to be misconstrued by viewers who can't parcel out a movie's politics from their own." While one might sympathize with the point, one is, I think, obliged to regret the let-me-tell-you way it's expressed. Then Foundas cites an example that's a real straw man, or rather woman: "In Venice -- a festival, along with Cannes, that reportedly passed on presenting Dumont's film -- one French critic who hasn't yet seen Hadewijch herself told me she had heard it was deplorable in its one-sided depiction of Arabs as radicalizing terror-mongers. But to read the film through such a narrow prism would be to..." Explain to me if I've missed something, but when was it decided that we're supposed to care about the opinions of people who haven't seen the film? You can read the whole thing, in any case. To this viewer, what makes Hadewijch Dumont's ultimate grandstand play despite its relative lack of "extreme" content is its rather sympathetic depiction of both "radicalizing terror mongers" and jihad as a form of religious expression. But that could just be me, not parceling out.

Armond White-ism Of The Week: "It’s the combination of 'smart' (Soderbergh’s anti-hero rattles off interior monologues full of factoids and facetious observations) with 'cynical' (Moore relates plant closures with private home foreclosures) that limits the insights either movie could offer." From his dual review of The Informant! and Capitalism: A Love Story. I almost feel like making a bet, à la The Man From The South: The day Armond White publishes a positive review of a Steven Soderbergh film, I'll let someone chop off my pinkie. It's just that nano-nano-nano percentage of possibility that inhibits me from making it official. (I have such belief in White's, ahem, integrity, by the way, that I don't even entertain the possibility that he would do such a thing only to spite me.) "Relates with?"

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Great piece.
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As far as anyone complaining about the inaccessibility of the NYFF slate this year, I think the fact that KANIKOSEN, which has received almost zero press, has sold out its one screening is a pretty big indicator. Does NYFF really need to show off the Coens a week before A SERIOUS MAN opens in theaters across the country? No thanks. Plus, I’ll take ten defensively patronizing Scott Foundas’s before I take one Jeffrey Wells, thanks. Further, as soon as a small festival starts letting in films just to play to their specific crowds, it will quickly lose any kind of identity it may have. Amid the chatter of changes at Film Society this year, the lineup and films are a great sign that, maybe, not SO much is changing…at least, not behind the scenes. Kudos to the selection committee, if you ask me.
@ James Hansen: That’s an interesting bit of information that of the sort that naysayers tend to ignore—that people actually go to see these “obscure” and/or “difficult” movies. As for Wells versus Foundas, I think there’s a place for both in our universe. One of the points of this column is to be kind of tetchy, and it’s a balancing act (which I sometimes fail to pull off) to do so without coming off overly ad hominem or whatnot. I hope my articulated disagreement with S.F. this week doesn’t come off as some kind of larger dismissal, because that’s not my point at all. As for Jeff, I like to see him and I in a kind of Fred Allen/Edgar Bergen kind of matrix…
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@ Glenn: You always pull off the balancing act well. I certainly didn’t think of this as a larger Foundas dismissal. Wells on the other hand… :-) When I got the new Cinema Scope and read the Foundas piece, I had similar feelings to the ones you articulated, so I was pleased to see someone call him on it. My label of Foundas as “defensively patronizing” isn’t a larger argument against him in general either; nor is it something I thought you were implying as a larger issue with SF. Its just related to the HADEWIJCH piece that I think can be largely dismissed as such. Still, I’d take Foundas at his worst than, say, some of the others who have issued complains about the selection committee.
When I volunteer at the IFFB (International Film Festival of Boston), it’s interesting to see what sells out and what doesn’t. Usually even the weirdest, most esoteric film has a packed house; that’s really kind of the purpose of festivals, after all!

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