Current Affairs

Tony Pipolo on the Currents section of the Fifty-Eighth New York Film Festival

Ismaïl Bahri, Apparition, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 3 minutes.

UNDETERRED BY THE PRESENT HEALTH CRISIS, the Fifty-Eighth New York Film Festival will premiere its annual selection of world cinema virtually and, in Brooklyn and Queens, in drive-in screenings—the latter a resourceful reprise of the way many families saw movies in the 1950s. It may not be pure coincidence, in light of the circumstances, that the festival also offers a new slate this year, appropriately called Currents. Comprising the same mix that characterized the Projections sidebar, which it has displaced, Currents offers more than a dozen feature-length movies and forty-six shorter works in what may be the strongest blend in years. As its title promises, a fair number of the entries are of up-to-the-minute societal relevance.

Few contributions capture the pandemic era as dynamically as Jay Giampietro’s bracing short The Isolated. We hear desperate messages left on a landline while the screen pulsates with Giampietro’s vivid palette, brisk editing, and discernible optimism as it paints a New York City alive if not well, waiting for life to resume. What’s more, Giampietro finds humor in the situation: Listening amiably to a chatty friend whose loneliness compels him to spend his days outside home, the director remarks that this is why he misses calls from friends. Giampietro has a keen eye, a patient ear, and an intelligence that bodes well for his future as a filmmaker.

John Gianvito’s Her Socialist Smile traces the life of Helen Keller via her lesser-known social and political activism in the early decades of the twentieth century, and manages to strike a number of chords still vibrating in American culture. Gianvito’s film is earnest, invigorating, and well-researched—a must-see, despite his choice to supply many of Keller’s speeches as dense texts on a black screen. If the strategy is intended to bring sighted viewers closer to Keller’s experience, it may also discourage some viewers from sticking with the film.

Ephraim Asili, The Inheritance, 2020, 35 mm, color, sound, 102 minutes.

No new work by Jean-Luc Godard at this year’s NYFF, but his presence is evoked in Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance. Plastered on a wall in the Philadelphia meeting hall of a Black radical collective is a poster of La Chinoise (1967). Asili’s first feature shows two young African Americans strolling back and forth across the frame, as Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemskys did in Godard’s film, reading aloud from politically charged texts. While the call for revolution in La Chinoise was announced in the popular Quotations from Mao—the little red pamphlet piled high like a street barricade in the movie’s poster—the texts in The Inheritance represent a wide range of thinkers and artists who belong to the Black radical tradition. These are invoked in the film’s first few images as if they were the contents of a treasure chest. From Frederick Douglass to James Baldwin, Malcolm X to Toni Morrison, they make up the inheritance that inspires the cast of activists with various beliefs and approaches. In its earnestness, the film draws from a vibrant lineage and fosters the importance of a greater, revolutionary consciousness—and in doing so, it reminds us of art’s crucial role in that endeavor.

Has there ever been a filmmaker quite like Guy Maddin? Who else has plundered the vaults of film history with such nerve and deployed montage with enough verve to make even Eisenstein weep? Maddin’s latest romp, Stump the Guesser, packs more wit and charm in twenty minutes than most filmmakers can in three hours. However off-kilter the angles or fleeting the shots, we remain transfixed by the magic of montage even though it amounts to little more than a game. With his collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson, Maddin seems bent on exploring the underside not just of Soviet silent cinema but of cinema itself, particularly its inimitable ability, too rarely achieved, to turn reality inside out. Maddin is one of several familiar names with worthy offerings this year. But space demands I merely mention Sergei Loznitsa’s A Night at the Opera, Heinz Emigholz’s The Lobby and The Last City, and Valeria Sarmiento and the late Raúl Ruiz’s The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror. I concentrate instead here on welcome new talent.

Obsessed with a different corner of film history, Argentinian filmmaker Nicolás Zukerfeld’s There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse is a wildly edited, unabashed paean to classic Hollywood cinema. After the first fifteen minutes or so—before a viewer has time to realize that the footage of the title action all comes from films by legendary director Raoul Walsh—we are inundated with shots of men entering doorways, also from Walsh films. The switch, we learn, illustrates a misquotation of Walsh’s famous remark that “there are not thirty-six ways to show a man entering a room.” Zukerfeld hashes out this slip in his exhilarating voyage through academia and film scholarship, intriguing if a lot to absorb, as subtitles are fired off like machine-gun rounds. A jolting ride, but no one with Zukerfeld’s feverish cinephilia should be discouraged.

Joe DeNardo and Paul Felten, Slow Machine, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 72 minutes.

While viewers may scratch their heads as to what Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo’s Slow Machine is really up to, the acting and writing talent on display in this tour de force is always engaging. While its “characters” and “scenes” seem tethered to some undisclosed coherent whole, I suspect its creators were aiming for something more playful. The movie is a series of vignettes cleverly constructed and tantalizingly linked. We wonder, for example, where the relationship between the actress (Stephanie Hayes) and the cop (Scott Shepherd) is really going, or whether it’s a “real” relationship in a narrative at all. Their interaction might just as easily be understood as readings or rehearsals at auditions for a final play or a film never quite realized. This is not a criticism. But whether they are in a “real” story or not, the interplay and dialogue between Hayes and Shepherd carry a weight and a wit many lesser movies lack. Perhaps the point is how easy it is to pull us in via conventional acting and writing mechanics. In Slow Machine’s “years later” epilogue, Stephanie, working on a film somewhere, recites a made-up bedtime story on Zoom for her young daughter falling asleep in her father’s arms. As the child drifts off, the father remarks to Stephanie that it’s a good thing the daughter’s asleep because “I didn’t know where you were going with that.” Exactly! But no less charming and haunting for all that.

Nuria Giménez, My Mexican Bretzel, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 72 minutes.

Conflating fact and fiction to altogether winning effect, Nuria Giménez’s first feature, My Mexican Bretzel, tells the story of Vivian and Léon Barrett, a devoted couple in the 1940s who eventually fell out of love, as words from Vivian’s diary are set silently against footage of two entirely different people whom we assume, mistakenly, are the people being described. One could say Giménez has made two films in one, but her movie is so beautifully and deftly assembled that it unfolds seamlessly as one absorbing narrative. No small part of its impact is the magnificent found color footage of the “other” couple’s home life and travels abroad, a compelling postwar document in its own right. When we learn in the closing credits that the “real” Vivian and the “real” Léon died apart, in 1969 and 2018, respectfully, we may find ourselves inexplicably moved, unable to grasp these final words without linking them to the flesh-and-blood individuals who fuse in our minds, just as they fascinated and deceived us from the start.

As both Maddin’s and Giampietro’s works indicate, this is a strong year for short works with an arresting range of approaches. Ute Aurand’s Glimpses From a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 is a characteristically affecting, lyrical portrait of filmmaker Margaret Tait as she turned eighty, while Jacqueline Lentzou’s The End of Suffering (A Proposal) contemplates an imaginary solution to the problems of life on Earth with affecting humor. Unidentified voices in the galaxy inform Lentzou that her anxieties seem insurmountable because she fails to realize that she, like many of us, is an alien, cut off from the healthier, happier climate of life on Mars, the planet from which we came, and which sci-fi writers have given a bad rap. Lentzou pitches this silent “dialogue” against images of an immense cosmos—a contrast both dreamlike and seductive.

Kevin Jerome Everson, Sanfield, 2020, DCP, black-and-white, sound, 20 minutes.

As always, and with the barest of means, Kevin Jerome Everson carves out a unique and convincing take on one facet of Black experience. In Sanfield, shot in black and white at the Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, he focuses directly and simply on training exercises for technicians and pilots. The tireless gaze of his camera—particularly when it is focused on one young Black American undergoing an unexplained test—matches the discipline, commitment, and unwavering attention of the trainees themselves, providing an unadorned portrait of Black lives working flawlessly and often invisibly in the culture at large.

In a completely different vein, Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Point and Line to Plane is a soft, imaginatively rendered elegy in which the narrator dwells on the death of a close friend, possibly her lover. While his premature loss goes unexplained, the tone and words of her reminiscences suggest she failed to grasp what she meant to him and is left contemplating the art and music they shared as the only avenues of connection. This is captured in the last things we see: a painting by Kandinsky, the colors and forms of which transfix while remaining unfathomable.

A number of young filmmakers are consumed with trying to understand their past. Melisa Liebenthal’s short Aqui y alla (Here and There) is a breathtaking fusion of technical virtuosity, cultural heritage, and broader migratory history. The filmmaker traces her roots to the Jewish family in Berlin who fled to pre-Revolutionary China, and eventually to Buenos Aires, where she was born—the granddaughter of a German Jewish grandfather and a Chinese grandmother. The account is fascinating and moving, and the use of computer maps and graphics is brilliant as it facilitates both the filmmaker’s search and her ability to share its results with the viewer, but it also betrays a capacity for cybernetic destruction.

Melisa Liebenthal, Aquí y allá (Here and There), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 21 minutes.

Two stunning Spanish films—one short and one feature—testify to a familiar pattern across all film festivals: that the least pretentious works of carefully observed social life are more authentically political than movies that flaunt undigested political clichés. At nearly three and a half hours, Luis López Carrasco’s The Year of the Discovery is among Currents’ longest offerings and one of the best films of this year’s festival overall. Shot entirely on videotape in a busy tapas bar in Cartagena, in southern Spain, the documentary breathes new life into the “talking head” trope. On split screens or on one, the faces and voices of Cartageneros—men and women, young and old, reckless and wise—expostulate at length about their working conditions, upbringings, inner convictions, political beliefs, and disillusions, often confessing a loss of faith in Spain’s future and therefore their own. The split screen, far from just a way to multiply stories, creates a vital dynamic that embodies differences as well as affinities, shared hopes and disappointments, and unarticulated links between the past and the present, as well as a sense of fading traditions in the wake of cultural upheaval.

In her far more tightly constructed A Revolt Without Images, Pilar Monsell briefly narrates a long-forgotten account of a women-led uprising in Cordoba in the seventeenth century. But when she moves to shoot inside a museum where female visitors of all ages come to gaze at portraits of women in historical and genre paintings, we hear neither narration nor the voices of visitors. The silence of these images is eloquent and profound, as the faces of women in the present resonate over and over with those on the canvases, their connectedness haunting and unspoken.

The New York Film Festival’s Currents sidebar runs from September 18 to October 11.