New to You

Nick Pinkerton on the 45th New Directors/New Films

Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits, 2015, color, sound, 72 minutes.

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS, jointly cohosted and coprogrammed by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has through its forty-five-year history acted as a slightly chancier analog to the New York Film Festival, willing to roll the dice on properties who are as-yet unproven, at least with NYC audiences.

As I am far from the first person to note, the status of a “New Director” has never been conferred according to a hard-and-fast law. (The criterion has in the past half-jokingly been stated as “New to us.”) To take one example, I first became aware of the film work of multidisciplinary artist Zhao Liang through his documentaries Crime and Punishment (2007) and Petition (2009), embedded studies of endemic corruption in his native People’s Republic of China looking respectively at the operations of the People’s Armed Police on the North Korean border and goings-on at the “Petition Village” spread around the State Bureau of Letters and Calls in the shadow of the Olympic cleanup. Behemoth, Zhao’s latest, is shot in the coal mines and pig iron foundries of Inner Mongolia, framed as the troubled vision of a narrator who describes his Dantean vision of a guided tour into the abyss—a Chinese nightmare to contrast Mr. Xi Jinping’s recently coined Chinese Dream. Zhao alternates between landscapes and worker portraits, both ravaged terrain, his measured horizontal panoramas detailing a total despoliation that has begun gradually to encroach upon the neighboring pastures. Between stygian hellscapes, Zhao revisits the image of a nude sleeper reposing just in view of the pillaged earth, the screen fretted with oblique lines that fracture the image. Through clouds of soot and exhaust Zhao finally arrives at his kicker, one of those immaculate new outer-ring suburbs made up of identical, as-yet-unpopulated high-rises: “the paradise of our desires.”

Behemoth, with its textured high-definition imagery and measured pace, like that of a lumbering land monster, is Zhao’s most polished work—enough to make you worry that the rough-and-ready smuggler of Petition might in the future succumb to arty arthritis. Another Chinese entry at ND/NF, Bi Gan’s mysticism-tinged drama Kaili Blues, is distinctly the work of a young man chockablock with ideas, displaying both a winning willingness to try on and dispense with various storytelling modes and the nuts-and-bolts know-how to pull off most everything that it tries, including a bravura centerpiece, an unbroken sequence shot that carries on well past the boundaries of narrative logic and ergonomic probability. A sometimes poet who studied television production, Bi Gan is in his mid-twenties, like Raam Reddy, director of the Indian entry Thithi, a multigenerational folk-comedy that is also steeped in the rhythms and textures of village life, and also tags its young director as someone to watch. Both films are part of a significant contingent at ND/NF of films which premiered at last summer’s Locarno, which also included the 317-minute Best Actress award winner Happy Hour by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, which I am clearing a significant chunk of my schedule for, and a handful of films whose charms evaded me on first blush, including I Promise You Anarchy, Lost and Beautiful, and Tikkun.

Ted Fendt, Short Stay, 2016, 35 mm, color, sound, 61 minutes.

This year’s American contingent is also nothing to be ashamed of. There is Ted Fendt, a figure known in New York cinephile circles for his work as a projectionist and his feats of inhuman prestidigitation in live soft-titling unsubtitled foreign films at local repertory houses. His compact (sixty-odd minutes) feature Short Stay, which was preceded by a string of comic shorts, is unsurprisingly a work of not-insignificant control, doing precisely what it sets out to do—telling, in a procession of unprettified deadpan vignettes usually not punctuated by more than the simplest of pans, the story of a lumpy schlemiel from suburban New Jersey who sublets a friend’s apartment in Philly, gives halting walking tours of the Old City—used here for antiscenic effect—and profoundly fails to leave a lasting impression on anyone.

A wallflower movie if ever there was one, Short Stay isn’t the sort of thing to set the world on fire—which of course such a wet blanket of a movie isn’t intended to do. (It obliquely reminded me, in its economy if not in its laconic humor, of Marcel Hanoun’s 1959 Une simple histoire, though this might have something to do with the fact that I saw the movie projected by Fendt.) Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, however, seems fairly poised to be a breakout. Produced through the auspices of the Venice Biennale, who previous underwrote Tim Sutton’s inert curio Memphis (2013), Holmer’s film brings the Lincoln Rec Center to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, shot on location and starring the habitués of a community gym in the West End of Cincinnati, Ohio. (The movie deserves credit for portraying inner-city African-American life as not a tragic anomaly but a workaday reality that millions of people find in no way strange or remarkable.)

Royalty Hightower stars as Toni, an introverted adolescent girl who is lured from the boxing gym and the company of the boys by the pull of the competitive drill dance squad recitals in an adjacent gymnasium (the Lionesses, played by Cincinnati’s Q-Kidz). What seems at first to be a tomboy’s gradual initiation into the rites of femininity—pierced ears, nail polish, and girl talk—turns into something slightly more malevolent as an undiagnosed seizure-inducing illness begins to lay the Lionesses low. At certain points one wishes that the movie had just a few more moves in its repertoire, but the finale is a showstopper, a payoff that justifies the overall strategy of withholding, and there are some beautiful bits of observed business spread throughout, like the little dance that Toni’s friend Beezy (scene stealer Alexis Neblett, who will be at the Q&A) does around Toni’s mop as she polishes the basketball courts. It is with such details, as well as with grandiloquent gestures, that the best first impressions are made.

The forty-fifth New Directors/New Films runs March 16th to 27th at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.