PRINT December 1977

The New York Film Festival: A Cultural Landmark?

“THE CULTURAL CRITIC IS NOT happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent,” wrote Theodor W. Adorno in “Cultural Criticism and Society,” conjuring up a punning allusion to Freud’s important text. Adorno refers here to the critic in the role of censor or judge. But even when functioning as censor or judge, the critic can at the same time express an optimism, a hope, for something better and/or more than the situation or event at hand.

The 15th New York Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center (in cooperation with the International Film Importers and Distributors of America and the Motion Picture Association of America), was held at Lincoln Center from September 23rd through October 9th. In bygone days the New York Film Festival was subject to all kinds of criticisms. There were those unsympathetic to film, who thought that it should not be held at that cultural haven for the high arts, Lincoln Center; there were those reviewers who called many of the choices too obscure or esoteric (for instance Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel or Alain Resnais’ Muriel, presented at the First New York Film Festival in 1963), because they felt that film was but a light popular entertainment art and the festival was entirely too serious; and there were still others, including Jonas Mekas, who criticized it for not including enough of the avant-garde, especially the American avant-garde. Those were days past.

Today the New York Film Festival is one of the regular constituents of Lincoln Center, having become culturally institutionalized over these 15 years and bearing as part of its Lincoln Center attire that just-so-proper level of seriousness. And the film choices are often as artistically conservative as, if not more conservative than, the daily reviewers who cover them. Avant-garde work, mostly European, has been shown at various times and is now all but eliminated, and Mekas stopped writing the columns where he used to launch his complaints.

For at least the past two festivals one has been hard pressed to find much published criticism of the organization and structure of the event. In fact all criticism seems to have been metamorphosed into clouds of praise. Last year Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice: “Who would have thought back in 1963 that the festival would turn out to be one of New York’s most enduring cultural landmarks?” And in New York papers this year’s festival was lauded as the best ever, and as the most important and prestigious noncompetitive film showcase in the world. Truly extraordinary claims. One has a sense that New York is being sold up the Hudson about its film festival with such enthusiastic words.

This year the main event consisted of 21 programs including 23 features and featurettes plus some shorts, each screened twice during the festival’s 17 days. All were very recent films except for the retrospective showing of L’Enfant de Paris, made in 1913 by Leonce Perret, the important French contemporary and rival of D.W. Griffith, and the hour-long 1929 Soviet Moya Babushka (My Grandmother) a satire on Russian bureauracy which had been suppressed for nearly 50 years. Two special events augmented the main attraction: an animation festival with a 90-minute program each weekday afternoon of the first week, and, during the second, “Saved,” a presentation of rarely shown American films mostly of the 1920s and 1930s, from the preservation vaults of various archives, with two programs each weekday afternoon.

This year’s festival budget was $300,000, with an anticipated deficit of $140,000. Since 1970, the annual deficit has run to at least $90,000; last year’s was $107,000. At least one-third of the budget goes toward the operation of the hall, according to Joanne Koch, Executive Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Last year’s attendance was 97.5% for the festival’s 18 programs, each screened twice; there were no accompanying side events. This year, over two-thirds of the films in the main event were sold out in advance.

Occasionally there is talk of moving the festival to another location, “say Radio City Music Hall (6,300 seats, compared to Alice Tully’s 1,096),” reported Tom Topor in the New York Post (September 23, 1977). “But,” according to Koch, “it’s not only the festival’s identification with Lincoln Center as a place. Moving it would indicate that it wasn’t worthy of being at this complex. Whatever you think about it, Lincoln Center is the premier complex of the arts, and film belongs here. I think it would be more unfortunate for film, not for the film festival, if we moved.”

Speaking now purely of size, New York, even with its two side events, is, in effect, a very very small festival. Compare it to other two-week festivals: London and Chicago each showed about 80 films last year; Los Angeles’ “Film X” screens over 100 separate programs; this year’s Toronto festival exhibited 126 works, and Edinburgh had over 90 programs of films plus a conference. The New York Film Festival prides itself on its quality. It claims that it doesn’t exist primarily for the trade—as does Cannes—that it is not a tourist attraction but a festival for the movie-lovers in and around New York. “We’re one of the few festivals that has an esthetic point of view,” according to its director, Richard Roud (Soho Weekly News, September 22, 1977). But increasingly the mark of the New York Film Festival seems to be a safe esthetic, with low risk and more and more no risk work.

Safe and low risk. This is one of the major problems. Another Francois Truffaut; another Luis Buñuel. At this point it isn’t necessary to show either director’s work at the film festival when there are so few slots for programming, and when both will open commercially anyway. Of the 21 new works, one-third opened in New York theatres immediately after their Film Festival screenings: Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t; Wim Wenders’ The American Friend; Jonathan Demme’s Handle With Care; James Ivory’s Roseland; Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker; Robert M. Young’s Short Eyes; and the late Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 Salò). Several others will open soon.

So much of the film shown blended together into one long extended simple story, though one quite far from Une simple Histoire, the 1958 Marcel Hanoun work shown at the Eighth New York Film Festival in 1970. What drastically distinguishes Hanoun’s Une simple Histoire from those shown at the 15th Festival—from all of the Lacemakers, the Roselands, the One Sings, the Other Doesn’ts, from the Algerian Omar Gatlatos (by Merzak Allouache) and the Italian Padre Padrones (by the Taviani brothers)—is concern with the exploration of radical form and structure. These films run together into a necklace of human interest tales, absorbing, catchy, and conventional narratives, more or less on the level of Readers Digest or Redbook, with little concern for form. In contrast, in the Hanoun a truly simply story is cast into a subtle, complex, rigorous form which appears at first to be as deceptively simple as the story. Coincidentally, among the 25 programs in that Eighth New York Film Festival, there appeared, together with Une simple Histoire, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vent de l’Est, 1969; Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, 1970; Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Othon, 1969; and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Spider’s Stratagem, 1969–70. All shared in common a concern with formal innovation, testing conventions in narrative, essay and other modes of film composition.

And this year? Of the new work screened, the only film that could be spoken of in terms of formal innovation and the questioning of conventions is Marguerite Duras’ The Truck, 1977—an extraordinary film indeed. There are only two players in The Truck, Duras herself and Gérard Depardieu, both seated at a round table. They read from, and discuss, a script—her script—about an older woman who is picked up by a truck driver. As Duras reads one is not certain whether the woman in the story is mad, often hitches rides to tell her tales and have companionship, or whether she is simply in a hurry and thumbs a ride to see her daughter who just had a baby. Duras describes her as declassée, banal but with some noblesse. Long takes of Duras and Depardieu at the table, sometimes with only one in a frame, with the tension of the other being addressed or speaking only off-screen, are intercut with long takes of a five-axle truck proceeding along the highway, frequently accompanied on the soundtrack by Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme by Diabelli. The film is extremely witty. Duras, old, small, thin, yet anything but banal and declassée, has an extraordinary presence and delivery; and Depardieu is her charming, quiet foil. Mostly he listens attentively, but he also asks questions about this strange woman whom he would pick up if he were the truck driver in the film that is to be made. By the end of the festival, regrettably, The Truck still had no American distributor. Nor, for that matter, did Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably. Although Bresson has always been concerned with form, one cannot exactly refer to him in 1977 as a formal innovator; he has been perfecting his rich and yet still ascetic and rigorous style since his first features in the early ’40s.

In both the Duras and the Bresson there is that concern with form which one had also hoped would be present in Bertolucci’s 1900 and Pasolini’s Salò: 120 Days of Sodom but which was missing from both. Pasolini certainly worked to test limits in Salò) but they were not precisely formal ones. He adapted the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, with its 18th-century setting, to 1944, where the Fascist leaders for a short time took Salò, a town in northern Italy, creating there a haven for themselves where only the sexually perverse—with every form of sadism, sodomy and coprophilia—was permitted, until finally mortal torture was practiced on their victims. Called “the last important work of one of Italy’s major intellects of this century,” the film was seized, censored, tied up in courts in Italy and France, defended by European intellectuals, and, finally, is now free to be shown in Italy and France. Pasolini was a poet, novelist, critic and translator, as well as script writer turned filmmaker, and a leading Marxist intellectual who saw this film as a metaphor for political power. At the time of his murder in Rome in 1975—before the release of his film—he had been planning to write about it and travel with it in order publicly to engage in the political and other issues it raises. To have read and heard Pasolini on the political issues might have caused one to respond differently to the film. As is, it isn’t as strong a work as one would have assumed, with all of the anticipations set up about it.

So too with Bertolucci’s 1900. After querulous delays of a year with the American distributor, Paramount, over the length of the film, the original 5-hour-and-20-minute version, having been cut in several other versions for this market, is now settled at 4 hours and 5 minutes, and Bertolucci is delighted with it. His earlier Partner, 1968, and Spider’s Stratagem, 1969–70, are formally and politically complex. The Conformist, 1969, assumed a more popular form, as did Last Tango in Paris, 1973. His latest, 1900, is a mass-audience, popular political film whose leftist goals and aspirations one may truly share, but whose political and filmic oversimplifications one can’t help but question.

The Truck and The Devil Probably were the exceptions in the 15th New York Film Festival, while 1900 was much more to the rule, But even more to the rule were The Lacemaker, Roseland, Padre Padrone, and the William Miles documentary Men of Bronze: crowd pleasers, melodramas, family romances. The problem with the New York Film Festival is not merely that it shows safe humanitarian tales but that it specializes in them. This festival prides itself on its small and select programming and on its Lincoln Center image. But it is these two aspects, taken together, that militate against it and spell its mediocrity. With few exceptions, most film festivals cater to tourism and are marketplaces for distributors—and often for future production deals. If the New York Film Festival doesn’t cater to tourism and is less a marketplace, that is only because it is so small. It is still consumer-oriented, toward packaging and marketing its wares at Lincoln Center, and the wares it packages are basically homogeneous.

When there are discussions of relocating the film festival, it seems telling that Radio City Music Hall should be mentioned. But the festival organizers are quick to add that they believe that they could take their Lincoln Center audiences with them. Radio City Music Hall would mean an acknowledgment of film as exclusively a popular mass entertainment medium rather than as a developing art that has always had a popular dimension. Instead of recognizing the diversity of film-making directions and practices, the New York Film Festival today generally only ignores them. Besides the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which now has a precedent for exhibiting avant-garde and independent work and indeed takes the lead in this, Berlin, “Film X” and other festivals are beginning to show and acknowledge the avant-garde. New York, however, showed works of the European avant-garde in the past, including the already mentioned Straubs and Godards, although little of the American avant-garde appeared, particularly within its main events. Mekas, Frampton, Landow, Nelson, were shown but never a Michael Snow or an Yvonne Rainer. Now New York seems virtually to have eliminated the avant-garde, growing increasingly conservative. In 1977—one Duras. (Instead of Radio City Music Hall, why not several smaller theatres and more films?) By providing little formally radical and innovative work and by keeping to a small number of films on a homogeneous level, with safe and low-risk work, the film festival enforces a status quo and cliché assumptions about film, and it creates a non-intellectual, often an anti-intellectual, image.

Considering the cultural importance of New York, it is appalling to look at what the film festival offers. Instead of reinforcing old attitudes it ought to be creating an atmosphere to challenge and change them, educating viewers as readers in new forms of film. As a matter of fact, in its early years the organizers wrote in their program introductions of their high aspirations: the festival was to fill gaps, take risks, show work which might otherwise not be seen in New York because it might be difficult and not necessarily commercially viable. The organizers also spoke of an educational function for the festival, and from 1964 through 1970 there were various special events with panels, and sometimes lectures, and with historical or thematic screenings of films. For instance there was “The Independent Cinema” in 1966 with screenings and panel discussions, an Abel Gance tribute in 1967 and one to Jean Renoir in 1969, and special screenings of the Western genre and a program on the color film, all held in a smaller auditorium and free of charge. These served an educational function and also augmented the festival’s over-all program. Special events did return this year on a small scale with the animation festival and “Saved,” but they were safe programs—unchallenging additions which did nothing to improve the intellectual level of the festival.

No. The New York Film Festival is not representative of directions in filmmaking, or of the intellectual preoccupations of film today. In the past it made attempts; now it is a very safe and conservative festival evoking something of the general anti-intellectualism that surrounds film in this country and that must continually be fought against. Were the film festival’s main event larger and more truly diverse, that quantity would carry with it something of the range of film and also the quality of various efforts. There could be, for instance, not just one or two Hollywood films like Handle with Care, but a cross-section; not one Children of Labor, the 1977 documentary by Noel Buckner, Mary Dore, Richard Broadman and Al Gedicks, but more documentaries which research and reveal something of the little-known leftist political past, along with others which analyze current social and political problems; more work like Brazilian Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ 1977 Tent of Miracles; more Trucks and other European work such as recent Godards; the three features of Belgian Chantal Akerman now working in Paris, Jeanne Dielman, 1975, Je, Tu, Il, Elle, 1974, and _News from Home, 1977; Straub-Huillet’s last film, and other work of formal, political and critical interest creating debate in Europe; plus avant-garde and independent work from this country, including that of Yvonne Rainer, George Landow, Jon Jost, even Brakhage.

As I have already commented (Artforum, November 1977), only Edinburgh incorporates serious conferences with formal presentations of papers and workshops and accompanying screenings on topics of contemporary concern—Brecht, psychoanalysis, the avant-garde, history and the cinema—as part of its yearly festival program. Nothing that the New York Film Festival has done in its past has been on that level. But why not now? Why not acknowledge an intellectual seriousness? Surely the presence of Bertolucci in New York for the showing of 1900, within a week of the screening of Salò, would have provided an occasion for dialogue. Bertolucci, who is extremely articulate, was a friend of Pasolini’s, had worked as assistant director on Pasolini’s Accatone, 1961, and had used one of Pasolini’s stories for his own first film, The Grim Reaper, 1962. At the press conference following 1900 Bertolucci spoke gently and sympathetically in answer to a question about Salò. Salò, having precipitated so much debate in Europe, could certainly have been the subject of at least one session of critical dialogue with Mr. Bertolucci and a group of critics. But also 1900, Tent of Miracles, and Children of Labor—with or without Salò—could have easily provided the occasion for serious discourse on political film, on radical and popular forms of the political film, and on the popular imagination. That might have been a beginning of significant discourse on many issues in which the New York Film Festival could have joined the vanguard, and could even have taken the lead, in this country: for a new kind of film festival no longer concerned with auras of glamour and stars and mystifications, but with art, ideas and new directions in theory and practice.

Perhaps that can never happen at Lincoln Center. But if not at Lincoln Center, then certainly not at Radio City Music Hall. If the film festival is for Andrew Sarris a New York cultural landmark as it exists today, it can’t be one for those of us who care about serious critical dialogue, about the availability for viewing of important works, old and new, from various quarters. But with optimism one hopes that the New York Film Festival will change, that it will begin by examining its responsibility in providing more than a hall for entertainment in New York for 17 days each fall.

P.S. At least one was able to see in New York in October and November Jon Jost’s new Angel City at the Whitney Museum, new Brakhages at Anthology Film Archives and at the Whitney Museum, Yvonne Rainer’s 1976 Kristina Talking Pictures at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Cineprobe,” and, at the Bleecker Street Cinema, Godard’s 1976 Ici et Ailleurs and Comment Ça Va, Chantal Akerman’s most recent film, and the Straub-Huillet Fortini-Cani. All these works one would have hoped to see at the New York Film Festival.

Regina Cornwell writes film criticism and teaches film in New York.