The Benefits of Doubt: The 12th New York Film Festival


Cassavete's A Woman Under the Influence. Photo: FACES INTERNATIONAL / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / SHAW, SAM.

The 12th New York Film Festival caught international cinema at a moment of terrible insecurity: established auteurs reflecting back on their legacy, continuing to search, often desperately, for the purest distillation of their style, flanked by a wave of up-and-coming iconoclasts intent on creating new expressive techniques altogether. The year's patron saint was Luis Buñuel, who, in addition to seeing his new film close the Main Slate, was the subject of a four-film retrospective. Buñuel's influence must have been in the air at Alice Tully Hall around that time, and not just because most of the year's selections carried on his rabid distrust for convention. This year the festival itself seemed to have inherited the structure of one of the Spanish master's cruel farces: it began modestly, and ended in chaos.

It all started innocuously enough. Opening Night was Pascal Thomas' breezy French pastoral Don't Cry with Your Mouth Full, probably the only film in the lineup that would've prompted Vincent Canby's gentle criticism "somewhat too sunny." It seems almost mean-spirited, opening one of the festival's most aesthetically and formally radical incarnations with a film so pleasant and unobtrusive. Maybe it was intended as a moment of rest, a calm before the storm.

What a storm it was! John Cassavetes presenting what, in retrospect, looks like the most searing, exhausting expression of self-doubt in his whole body of work. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, at this point an NYFF staple, debuting what many would come to consider his masterpiece. Robert Bresson reaching, late in his impossibly storied career, the very pinnacle of his rigorous style. Jack Hazan's A Bigger Splash breaking boundaries both in its seamless blending of fiction and reality and in its matter-of-fact depiction of gay life. Buñuel continuing to howl, at ever higher pitches, in the face of filmmaking convention. New German Cinema heroes Alexander Kluge and Daniel Schmid each contributing loopy, tangled formal experiments. And Jacques Rivette, casually reinventing cinematic time over two films and seven-plus hours, grinning all the way.


Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating. Photo: LES FILMS DU LOSANGE / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

Looking back, it's Rivette and Cassavetes who came closest to freeing international cinema from its mid-70s identity crisis. Buñuel looked almost retrograde in comparison, content to point out, eyebrows firmly arched, all the ways in which bourgeois society performs for itself. His successors went further: they turned their attention to whatever was intrinsic to the act of performance itself, without exempting their own performances from study. The resulting films—Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence and Rivette's astounding double bill of Celine and Julie Go Boating and Out 1: Spectre—feel like big, elaborate constructs slowly picking themselves apart, piece-by-piece—albeit to radically different ends. Rivette treated filmmaking like a game, creating works that keep goading us towards their center while sneakily suggesting that we might never get there. Cassavetes' films have an all-too-vivid center: their attention to the nuances of performance, conscious and unconscious, exists strictly in the name of emotional realism. We enjoy Rivette films because they baffle us. We flinch at Cassavetes because he makes what was once baffling suddenly seem terribly clear.

Other selections captured the tenor of the year from different angles: Fassbinder, who in life and art had earned a reputation both as an unconscious product of his age and as its spokesman-prophet in one, gave us Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. It, too, toed the line between sentiment and self-awareness, a bitterly ironic social statement wrapped up in a humanist call for compassion—or vice-versa. Still other filmmakers stepped out of the zeitgeist altogether: Bresson went so far as to retreat back to the Middle Ages. Only by ridding himself entirely of cultural signifiers could Bresson reach that absolute purity of style he'd so long searched for: the result, Lancelot du Lac, is one of his finest films.


Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Image courtesy of TANGO FILM / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

It was probably inevitable that NYFF '74 should come close to collapsing in on itself, but few would have thought to blame the price of seats. On the last day of the festival, projectionists waited anxiously. The Closing Night screening of Buñuel's new film, The Phantom of Liberty, was fast approaching, and the film's producer Serge Silberman had yet to deliver the film. Unhappy with his seats in the director's box, which were cheaper than those in the orchestra, Serge locked the print in his hotel room and refused, until the very last minute, to hand it over. The palpable sense of relief that flooded Alice Tully Hall as the film started to roll probably undermined more than a few of Buñuel's scathing social critiques, but he probably would've chuckled at the crisis itself—a pitch-perfect example of petty bourgeois pretention.

Buñuel's acerbic vision was, itself, likely something of a comfort: after a festival-full of doubt, insecurity, and desperate uncertainty, what a relief it would've been to see all that self-awareness resolved into the stuff of farce, to watch an elegant family have dinner seated on toilet bowls and laugh at one's own pretension, free of risk or ambiguity!


Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty. Photo: GREENWICH / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

Jonathan Rosenbaum on Lancelot du Lac

Lancelot du Lac embodies the perfection of a language that has been in the process of development and refinement for over thirty years. If it stuns and overwhelms one's sense of the possibilities of that language- in a way, perhaps, that no predecessor has done, at least since Au Hasard Balthazar—this is not because it represents a significant departure or deviation from the path Robert Bresson has consistently followed. The source of amazement lies in the film's clarity and simplicity, a precise and irreducible arrangement of sounds and images that is so wholly functional that nothing is permitted to detract from the overall narrative complex, and everything present is used . It is a film where the rattle of armor and the neighing of horses are as essential as the faces and bodies of the characters, where indeed each of these elements serves to isolate and define the importance and impact of the others. 

[Sight and Sound, Summer 1974]

…and on Celine and Julie and Out 1: Spectre:

All Rivette's features might be regarded as different kinds of horror films; Celine et Julie vont en Bateau is his first horror-comedy. The anxiety and despair of Paris Nous Appartient and La Religieuse, L'Amour Fou and Spectre seem relatively absent, yet they perpetually hover just beyond the edges of the frames. We still have no privileged base of "reality" to set against the fictions, each of which is as outrageous as the other; and along with Borges, we can't really say whether it's a man dreaming he's a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he's a man—although we may feel, in either case, that he and we are just on the verge of waking. It's a sham, of course -- as a spectator complains of Celine's magic act, before being forcibly evicted from the cabaret—but a sublimely delicious one. As long as the separate fictions interpenetrate, we can stay balanced on Rivette's precarious tightrope, and don't have to worry about a net not being there to catch us if we fall. Improvising along with the actors, we look straight ahead and join in the crazy fun, trying to forget that beneath us lies the frightening knowledge of Spectre—that terrible certainty of a long drop that knows no bottom at all.

[Sight and Sound, Autumn 1974]

Gary Indiana on Daniel Schmid's La Paloma:

La Paloma is a story every human person lives at least once. If I return again and again to this early film of Daniel Schmid, it's because I have lived this story a few times, irrationally, against my better judgment. I recognize the delirium of the process this film describes as identical from person to person. The warp of an obsession, the way it grabs its victims out of current, so that any conversation becomes a pretext to discuss the Loved One, is boring. Only the details are intriguing: the small scar below his right ear, for example. For the lover it's a question not of interest but necessity.

Romance involves us in abjection and absurdity. Beyond a point we have no choice about it. We do violence to ourselves by pursuing it and equal violence by squashing our feelings. It's a souvenir of the last century, and not the worst one. The protagonist of La Paloma is a dull man who becomes interesting through his infatuation. For one moment in his life he is truly alive. I can't answer the question of whether his fixation is "worth it," and because I can't answer it, La Paloma continues to haunt me as the paradigm of certain disappointments.

[Artforum, September 1993]

Kent Jones on A Woman Under the Influence:

What is A Woman Under the Influence? If you look at it from one end of the telescope, it's a hyper-realistic portrait of a woman going mad, a bravura performance in a vaguely working-class setting, a sort of déclassé Americanization of Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face (1976), without Bergman. From the other end, it's a richly detailed experience, alternately soaring and gut-wrenching, composed in two long, mighty, almost-but-not-quite unwieldy movements. And it's about...what? Men and women? Family life? The difficulty of distinguishing between your real and ideal selves? Male embarrassment? All of the above, none of the above. Tagging a movie like Woman with something as neat as a "subject" is a fairly useless activity. "John had antennae like Proust," Peter Falk once wrote. A Woman Under the Influence and Faces, probably his two greatest films, are both ultimately as impossible to pin down as In Search of Lost Time. Like Proust before him, Cassavetes rode the whims, upsets, vagaries, and mysterious impulses of humanity like a champion surfer.

[The Criterion Collection, September 2004]

Chris Wisniewski on Ali: Fear Eats the Soul:

Perhaps Godard and Fassbinder were both right: the cinema tells us 24 lies and 24 truths every second. In Ali, Fassbinder found a way to express this contradiction-to make a film that, like the best of Sirk, could make us feel, even as it made us think, that could lull us into a position of uncritical sympathy even as it shocked us with its scathing critique.

It all coalesces, for me at least, in one single shot: Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) are sitting alone in the middle of an outdoor café while the café workers stare at them stoically, mercilessly, from a corner; Emmi and Ali declare their love for one another as Emmi hopes, against all odds, that if they leave on vacation and then return, the unforgiving society that condemns their interracial and intergenerational love will bring them back into its fold.

We can watch Emmi and Ali in that café and "get it"—we can understand the implications of Fassbinder's Brechtian aspirations and political commitments, the layers upon layers of social criticism and incisive commentary loaded into a simple move of the camera—but somehow it's not desperate at all. Ali finds Fassbinder's art at its most engaged and transcendent. Even as we stare at Emmi and Ali, even as we see past the lie, still, in spite of all of that, we need to believe that their love is possible. We need to believe the lie. And so we let ourselves feel it, and for the briefest of moments, their ill-fated love seems like the most beautiful thing in the world.

[Reverse Shot, Late Summer 2006]

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