PRINT December 1980

The 18th New York Film Festival

THE BIASES OF THE New York Film Festival are too well known to need belaboring: an allegiance to key names, a creeping nostalgia for the French cinema of the ’30s coupled with a mounting aversion to the “difficult” films of the Duras-Straub-Jancso nexus, an intermittent interest in Eastern Europe, a nod toward the Third World and social documentary, a nose for rediscovery but none for the more interesting shorts of the international avant-garde, and one off-beat Hollywood entry.

Jean-Luc Godard’s “comeback” aside, the best films of the 18th edition (Handicapped Love, a Swiss documentary on the sex life of paraplegics; Krzysztof Kieślowski’s rambunctious Camera Buff; a 1972 evocation of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova by a martyred Soviet filmmaker) came mainly out of left field, while the most inflated displays were all by Names. Andrzej Wajda’s ramshackle Orchestra Conductor is an unconvincing rehash of Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal metaphor that comes to a boil an hour and a half too late. Flaunting Sir John Gielgud as a venerable maestro whose voice drops two octaves whenever he lapses into Polish, the film’s erratic sledgehammer tempos seem designed to drive the spectator bit by bit into his seat. Even more deadly, Akira Kurosawa’s widely adored Kagemusha is a ponderous, pictorial costume drama that repeats every joke at least three times, inscribing “masterpiece” across the screen with the can’t-miss-it grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille’s credit on The Ten Commandments.

The absolute pits: François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (or “There’s No Business Like Show Business Unless It’s Skim Milk”). Against the backdrop of wartime Paris, Catherine Deneuve wraps herself in the role of a chic, controlled actress, hiding her Jewish husband in the theater basement and her passion for big-faced Gérard Depardieu up on stage. The sort of film that immediately establishes a pecking order of cuteness among its supporting players, it compacts the whole range of Nazi swinishness into the person of one fat drama critic (so un-French that he follows the retreating German army home to Berlin). With its continual drizzle of behavioral cues—each evaporating in time for the next—The Last Metro (Goldwyn-Mayer) is no more than a succession of hooks, not unlike the real estate ads that cajole you to “Live, Love, Play in a Loft.”

Too many festival films leave the viewer with the sense of a hermetic movie lot roped off from gawking throngs: Wajda’s Poland is a gray mass without shops or street life, Kurosawa’s national geographics have the manicured feel of an empty theme park. This ghost-town look is one that Fassbinder uses purposefully and Hollywood often gets reflexively. Melvin and Howard, the likeable studio oddball selected for opening night, is a film that could have gone wrong in a dozen different ways and manages to avoid all but two or three of them. A shaggy dog story put through its paces by Jonathan Demme, it’s a chunky slice out of the life of Melvin Dummar—the Nevada mechanic who claimed to have picked Howard Hughes up hitchhiking in the desert, and a decade later was willed one hundred and fifty million never-received dollars.

Displaying more clutter than energy, Melvin and Howard is a country music version of Christmas in July, without Preston Sturges’ wise-guy radio rhythms. If Paul Le Mat and Mary Steenburgen, as Melvin and the first Mrs. Dummar, come kissing close to Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae, the film embeds itself into a richer-than-Dogpatch specific locale—seducing the viewer with a fluid swirl of sleazy casinos, while-u-wait wedding chapels, tract houses, and parking lots. The Christmas office party (a luau) at a dingy factory seems as hazy and pungent as an opium den; Demme’s set-piece—a TV giveaway show à la Let’s Make a Deal where Steenburgen wins the jackpot with her green sateen bellboy outfit and a slow tap to Satisfaction—would have been a pure hell of condescension in the hands of Robert Altman.

Not since Vernon Zimmerman’s unheralded junk film The Unholy Rollers, 1973, has anyone gotten so sure a handle on the fast-food, pre-fab commodity fetishism of America’s post-suburban, videocentric proletariat. Like Zimmerman, Demme seems immune to the kind of biliousness that afflicts show biz intellectuals when rummaging around between the coasts. This sweet, slightly gaga comedy might well induce a tidal wave of yearning (or perhaps, of disbelief) if shown in the workers’ states of Eastern Europe, the source of every second or third Festival offering.

Kieślowski’s Camera Buff, the Rosetta stone of the current East European renaissance, concerns Melvin’s counterpart, an over-enthusiastic young worker, played by Jerzy Stuhr, who blows two months salary on an 8mm camera to make movies of baby. Encouraged by the bosses, he films his factory jubilee, wins third prize in an industrial film competition that the judges virtually sleep through, and embarks on a second, perilous career. As the new-minted documentarian, Stuhr is so wired that he can make an avid, anxious spectacle of himself just by chugging a Pepsi—he gives the film the breathless stumble of a man with one eye shut and other glued to the viewfinder.

There are times when Kieślowski’s mainly comic saga turns so sharply melodramatic as to evoke Stan Brakhage’s dark warning to the would-be artist: “Your mother will never recognize you, your father will disown you, your friends betray you, your loved one live in terror of you.” Stuhr’s compulsive cinemania is touching in its sincerity, but the red meat of the film is its rondo of cynical TV producers, film school hippies, Party apparatchiks, self-righteous critics—its offhanded depiction of the 87 degrees of bargaining, censorship, and celebrity that go into the making of any East European film.

Playing himself in one of Camera Buff’s cameos, Krzysztof Zanussi suggests an ostrich of integrity on an endless, grubby beach. He carries this one-honest-man theme over into his own film, The Constant Factor, the crispest 94 minutes of the Festival, right through to its O. Henry ending. A spartan, half out-of-it electrician can’t sanction the constant back-scratching that comes along with his privileged job; his holier-than-thou attitude drives co-workers crazy and gets him demoted to window-washer. Zanussi’s bracing, if overdetermined, construction has a chess-like precision. Closer to a Bresson or a Rohmer than to the rough-and ready pragmatism of his Polish compatriots, Zanussi has a similar spiritual bent: the electrician’s disgusted response to worldly corruption—amplified by his fascination with the purity of mountain peaks and mathematics—is coolly elevated to a metaphysical horror of death.

It’s expected by now that any East European film will include a critique of local government (or Government, anyway). The Yugoslav Special Treatment, directed by Goran Paskaljević, is a Czech-style comic allegory in which a dourly overbearing doctor sets out to cure a half dozen sullen alcoholics: exploitive, hypocritical authority versus the drunken, feckless masses. A better, more site-specific example of the East European problem film is the Hungarian Sunday Daughters, set in a home for delinquent girls. János Rózsa’s style is a sometimes ill-matched amalgam of the documentary and the hyperbolic (occasioned perhaps by his largely nonprofessional cast) but the film buttresses its critique of an unfair social system with a score of stay-in-the-mind touches: a room full of glue-zonked teenagers in a new and already decrepit housing project, a gypsy family driving a flower-bedecked ’58 Impala. The most mordant irony is having the institution screen The 400 Blows—you can run a critical film and it won’t make any difference.

In an authentic coup, the Festival got hold of a print of Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates), the last film by Sergei Paradjanov, the Soviet director who made the boisterous, erratic Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, ran afoul of the authorities in 1974, and spent the next four years in the Gulag. The one great film shown at Lincoln Center this year, Sayat Nova presents 18th-century Armenia as the backwoods crossroads of Eurasia. Any one of its orchestrated tableaux is a startling combination of Byzantine flatness, Quattrocento beatifics, and mosquelike decor.

It’s remarkable how Paradjanov coaxes this mix of Fra Angelico and barnyard surrealism out of the most economical use imaginable of weatherbeaten churches, casually tethered animals, and peasant grandmothers—punctuating his static compositions with a deft, concentrated use of jump-cuts and more-primitive-than-Melies movie magic. The film has perhaps three lines of dialogue in an ebb-and-flow soundtrack that alternates wailing folk dances and choral chanting. And no one has ever used the faded olive and orange colors of Soviet film stock to greater effect—with its whitewashed backgrounds, Sayat Nova looks 200 years old already.

Some of Paradjanov’s devices—dancelike gestures; impassive performers; angels with wooden wings; a pasteboard cloud descending as a vision; the constant repetition of key props (books, silver balls, Persian-style rugs) in new situations—have the homemade gravity of Richard Foreman’s pre-precious Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Paradjanov appears to be illustrating Sayat Nova’s verses literally but, as a director, he’s so deep into Armenian folk culture he can work with a throwaway modesty that’s a quantum leap beyond professional symbol-mongers of the Jodorowsky-Terayama-Blood of a Poet mold. Paradjanov’s hieroglyphics derive from Eisenstein, if anyone: Sayat Nova has Ivan the Terrible’s moldy grandeur without its weightiness, the Paradise Lost exotica of Que Viva Mexico minus the underlying hysteria.

The Paradjanov film is at once more “other” than Kagemusha and more affectingly povera than either of the Third World entries, Bye Bye Brazil or the Bengali-language One Day Like Another. The former, a backlands Bronco Billy with a tatty, obsolete carnival pitching tent in every town on the map, is a combination of tourist-poster color, cartoon characters (Salome the Rumba Queen, “former mistress to the President of the United States”), and flaccid roguishness. The director Carlos Diegues rotates his flat tires just often enough to keep the show on the road. Scratch most Brazilian films and you find would-be national epics, but Bye Bye Brazil repackages the fiery discordances of the old Cinema Novo in easy-to-read paradoxes—Indians walking around with loincloths and transistors, a Belem disco where a band sings the last song from Grease in phonetic English.

Mrinal Sen’s One Day Like Another is a didactic, sometimes awful film that grabs you with its missing-person plot line, pushing across a feminist polemic as insistently as the dripping water soundtrack. Sen gets India’s devastating mixture of exquisite tact and ordinary brutality. His film looks like a welt: a barely controlled riot of ruddy browns and muddy purples, the light resembles the inside of a microwave oven, while a hunt-and-peck camera mauls a Calcutta tenement out of any recognizable proportion.

Documentary, one step below Third World at the bottom of the glamor scale, was actually better represented this year. Connie Fields’ The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, a compact portrait of women factory workers during World War II, is a tougher-minded and miles more professional piece of left consciousness-raising than the treacly sing-alongs with ex-Wobblies offered by the last Festival. Given its position as a latecomer in an established, usually disappointing genre, Fields’ film is uncharacteristically selective in its interviews and particularly judicious in its use of ’40s government agitprop. Questioned by some mellifluous voice of God, a welder looks up from her work and, lifting her visor to reveal a face that’s a dead ringer for Veronica Lake’s, cracks, “Why did I take this job? We’re in a jam, aren’t we!”

Marlies Graf’s deceptively artless Handicapped Love opens with a scene as shocking as anything in Freaks—hot jazz, a legless-armless woman being held aloft, another “living torso” writhing on a table, five wheelchair-bound spastics spinning in ecstasy. After this abrupt initiation she settles down to direct interviews that are interspersed with images of the bucolic Swiss countryside and long takes detailing the minutiae of getting the handicapped in and out of beds and cars. The effect is compellingly unsentimental. When one paraplegic tells his group “the fact that someone had once seen me ejaculate was a wonderful experience for me,” you think this Job-like humility might get us into heaven yet.

Taking sex to its bottom line, Handicapped Love puts a key Festival genre (at least since the 1972 appearance of The Last Tango in Paris and Rivette’s L’Amour Fou) into perspective. The cutting edge of the European entertainment film has been a claustro-sexual saga of an obsessional couple, usually closeted together in some anonymous hotel room without Past or Future. This year saw three middle-range variations on the theme: the French Loulou, the Hungarian Confidence, and the Italian Masoch.

In Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, Isabelle Huppert (a Sissy Spacek chameleon whose figure and bone-structure seem to reconstitute themselves from film to film) combines a complacent, sexy blankness with a capacity for sudden, snaggle-toothed merriment. She leaves her petulant husband for Gérard Depardieu, who plays a working-class sex-machine. Although one critic called these automatons “the sexiest couple in the history of cinema” (they do break the bed during their initial tryst), Pialat’s camera gets a good deal more overwrought than either of the lovers—he has a better-than-Cassavetes gift for maneuvering a bickering ensemble through long, crowded scenes in uncomfortable spaces. Like a drowning man, Huppert’s smarmy husband repeatedly breaks the surface of the plot, wondering what she and Depardieu talk about and trying to drag her off to “see the Rembrandts.”

István Szabós Confidence reverses Pialat’s pleasure-principle premise: the exigencies of political terror throw together a pair of attractive strangers obliged to pose as man and wife while hiding out in a rented room for the last six months of World War II. It’s a tense, glossy film—the outside apocalypse giving their guilt-ridden love affair the frantic sensuality of the sex-under-the-table scene in Kafka’s The Castle—but it dissipates itself with a deluge of stream-of-consciousness voice-overs and one too many stormy quarrels. The underlying paranoia of the Szabó film makes it an even crazier spectacle of wish-fulfillment that Pialat’s, but then, in the fantasy department, nothing quite approached Franco Brogi Taviani’s Masoch, a semidetached docudrama based on the memoirs of Wanda Sacher Masoch. A comedy that oscillates between the drawing and bedrooms, Masoch is so vague on nonerotic detail that you barely know what century you’re in. The wittiest thing about this composition in two dimensions and one joke (there’s no sadist like a masochist) is its Dagwood and Blondie banality: Masoch paces around cooking up new humiliations for himself, while Wanda complains about how hot the fur coat he makes her wear to bed is, or swears she’s only playing along for the sake of the children.

Masoch’s ingenuity notwithstanding, the Festival’s most baroque sexual scene occurs three-quarters of the way through Godard’s Every Man For Himself. An officious tiger of the business world engineers a Rube Goldberg daisy-chain-complete with sound effects—involving himself, two bored prostitutes (one of them, Huppert) and an eager-to-please junior executive. Godard drags out the erotic cause-and-effect for a full 20 minutes, the minimum time required to achieve its flat outrageousness.

This Swiss-set film, Godard’s first Lincoln Center appearance since 1972, is an elusive but not unlinear (and never boring) concoction that pivots on a series of oblique confrontations between a disgruntled TV producer named Paul Godard, his ex-wife, 12-year-old daughter, and ex-girlfriend. Godard divides the movie into portentous sections (“The Imaginary,” “Fear,” “Trade,” “Music”) livening it with crude sexual references that flash through the film the way they would through your mind. For good measure he revives the prostitution-as-life-under-capitalism metaphor of My Life to Live and Two or Three Things I Know About Her, with a seasoned degree of abstract bluntness. Every Man has a heavy dollop of ostentatious slow-motion (less striking, on the whole, than that found in Jean Vigo’s Taris, Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, or Brian De Palma’s The Fury), but the real formal arabesques are occurring on the soundtrack. With its disembodied voices, background music gags and disconnected conversations—as well as Godard’s standard subliminal static of aphorisms and references—the sound mix here is busier than Christmas at Macy’s.

More open-ended and self-effacing than his previous models of the industrial world, Every Man has its share of moments that are pure Jean-Luc: the TV producer pursued by a uniformed parking-lot attendant yelling “I love you Mr. Godard!”; some guy running out of a movie theater; a small boy riding on his shoulders, ranting “They’ve cut the sound! It’s unbelievable, they’ve cut the sound!” while everyone lined up outside ignores him. The thing of it is, Every Man For Himself is one of the few films of the year where cutting the sound would even matter.

J. Hoberman writes film criticism for the Village Voice.