Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I attend the Cannes Film Festival.
I always say the same thing: “No, and here’s why: Anything that’s good at Cannes will open in theaters. And anything that’s bad will be in the New York Film Festival.”
I actually wrote that about 20 years ago in a newspaper column – but my assessment remains unchallenged by the lineup of the 47th annual New York Film Festival, currently hoodwinking ticket buyers at New York’s Lincoln Center for another week. While there are a couple of films in this year’s festival that I’d actually pay money to see (Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”), the lineup firmly follows a formula to which the NYFF has become addicted for decades.
That formula relies heavily on two kinds of films: the deliberately provocative and offensive (hence, its inclusion of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” and Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers,” among others) or films that are supposed to be good for you. Which is why I think of the NYFF as the oat bran of film festivals, full of fiber and boasting little real flavor.
NYFF obviously has no interest in matching Toronto or even Sundance for the number or scope of films it offers. Film program director Richard Pena has often referred to New York as a boutique festival, designed to showcase handpicked examples of what amounts to the best of contemporary cinema worldwide.
Once upon a time, that meant films that, having been discovered by the NYFF, would find their place in the contemporary canon. But no longer: With its contrarian, over-intellectualized approach, the NYFF has become the “we know best” festival, full of films that no one – except the selection committee and the people who actually made the movies – will ever care about.
The films get their brief moment of glory at Lincoln Center, never to be seen again – or else to show up oh-so-briefly in one of New York’s arthouses, where they will prove all over again that no one wants to see them. (And, finally, on the annual 10-best lists of critics for the Village Voice and Film Comment.)
I’m not saying that the NYFF should only be searching for popular hits. But accessibility does matter. Showing films that make you want to keep watching them should be a criteria.
But the NYFF has a distrust of any film that can’t be explained by a theory, instead of a gut reaction, it seems. It’s not just that the NYFF chooses films that challenge audiences. It chooses films that challenge audiences to stay in their seats.
I’d love to do man-on-the-street interviews, for example, stopping people who ponied up the $40 to see a documentary in this year’s festival called “Ne Change Rien,” for which I attended a press screening this week.
I mean, here was a movie that couldn’t even draw 100 press people, even with the added attraction of free coffee and bagels. Shot in shadowy black-and-white, its first 20 minutes feature French actress-singer Jeanne Balibar: first, singing a song on stage (portentously called “Torture,” which fairly described what it was like to listen to her); then rehearsing in a recording studio, again in a kind of half-light that suggested filming by campfire. The next scene featured voices reciting what sounded like lines from a play, while the camera showed a half-lit, empty room.
I only knew that it was Balibar because it said so in the press notes, which told me that this was, ostensibly, a documentary about her. I wouldn’t know because, at that point, 20 minutes in, with no dialogue and nothing else to identify who we were watching – or why – I invoked the “life is too short for this shit” clause in my contract and walked out. I wasn’t the first to bolt from that screening, by any means.
This isn’t the first time I’ve expressed these sentiments about the NYFF, which may explain why I’ve never been asked to be part of the festival’s selection committee. Apparently I’m too much of a populist. I want my movies to mean something to someone other than the director. I want them to make me feel something – other than that my time is being wasted. I want them to tell me a story or otherwise captivate me.
But those are seldom the movies you’ll find at the New York Film Festival, where only the tedious and pedantic need apply.