Remembering 50 Years of the New York Film Festival
Posted by Robert Hawk on 9.26.2013
Poster for the 1st and 51st New York Film Festivals, designed by Larry Rivers and Tacita Dean.
Editor's Note: Robert Hawk is a long-time figure on the New York film scene and has had a unique perspective as an attendee of the New York Film Festival throughout its five decades. FilmLinc Daily asked "Bob" to share his thoughts and recollections of NYFF. He gives a breakdown of the '60s NYC art house scene, his early favorites from the then-fledgling festival and his personal highlights from the '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s. Hawk is a consultant to filmmakers and festivals as well as a producer.
I was 25 years old when the first New York Film Festival opened. I was thrilled, as Lincoln Center was thought of, at least by some of us, as the panacea for the future of New York’s cultural life. (Today, I am deeply thankful that we still have Carnegie Hall and the New York City Center.)
That hope was paralleled by my total belief in the Kennedy/Camelot ethos, envisioning a Golden Age for America. I assumed there would be a 24-year Kennedy-run White House (two terms each for Jack, Bobby and Ted). That, of course, was shattered only two months after the first NYFF, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
As a culture vulture New Jersey boy, I started coming into Manhattan at the age of 12 (with adults), 14 (with peers) and by 16 was allowed to come in alone. By my mid-teens I had already begun educating myself in both theater and film. Not the kind of movies I could see in my hometown, but foreign films, art films, avant garde/experimental films, and underground films. (The term "independent film" did not yet exist.)
One of my earliest memories was seeing Teinosuke Kinugasa’s all-but-forgotten Gate of Hell (1954), which had already won the Grand Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. It had moved over from the posh Guild Theater (tucked under and behind Radio City Music Hall) to the World, a seedier, "eclectic" venue just off Times Square, the future home of Deep Throat.
In those days there were some well kempt "boutique" art houses that showcased first run engagements. They included the still existent Paris and the long gone Festival, Little Carnegie, Normandie, et al. But to be steeped in the history of film there were the essential Bleecker St. Cinema, the New Yorker and the Thalia on the Upper West Side, the 8th St. Playhouse, the Elgin (now the Joyce), and the programming of the Film Deptartment at MoMA.
These venues were varying degrees of dank and dark (when the lights came up for intermission it was difficult to read anything, except at MoMA) but they were heaven -- projecting real film on a real screen. They were where I was introduced to the earlier films of everyone from Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu and the French New Wave to Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges.
Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard. Image courtesy of TOHO / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
I was also receiving further education at clandestine, invitation-only late night screenings, usually after hours in an Off-Broadway theater, sometimes on a roll-down screen, or just a (sometimes wrinkly) white sheet, or even a less-than-pristine white wall. There I first encountered the early works of George and Mike Kuchar, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, and Andy Warhol’s Blow Job.
So, the advent of the New York Film Festival was a big deal, and offered a certain degree of legitimization of what was previously available only in small and/or seedy venues.
The First 50 Years
The first years of the festival were in the first Lincoln Center edifice to be completed in 1962, then called Philharmonic Hall, which is now the Avery Fisher. Not the ideal space for film (acoustically or spatially), but oh was it glorious and glamorous! I cannot overstate the thrill I felt watching these films on such a large screen; Toshiro Mifune's face had never loomed so large before Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard in 1965.
A side note: although the Walter Reade continues to be one of the best places to see a film in New York City, the festival’s ideal "main house" did not come into being until the superb renovation of Alice Tully Hall was completed in 2009.
Fifty years provides an overwhelming welter of memories, too daunting to even try to encapsulate or encompass—so I won’t even try. But after the following general thought about the festival’s legacy I’ll mention a few of the most powerful and personal highlights for me.
Marcel Olphus' The Sorrow and the Pity. Image courtesy of NORDDEUTSCHER RUNDFUNK / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
Possibly the defining hallmark of the New York Film Festival has been a well-placed loyalty to a wide swath of filmmakers, and the exhibition of the majority of their body of work. The list is way too long, so I’ll just mention some: Pedro Almodóvar, Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Robert Bresson, the Coens, the Dardennes, Claire Denis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach, Chris Marker, Jonas Mekas, Errol Morris, Manoel de Oliveira, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Raoul Ruiz, Todd Solondz, Bertrand Tavernier, the Tavianis, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda and Frederick Wiseman. In many cases it spans all five decades of their oeuvres, as well as retrospective screenings of even earlier works. In all instances, these "favorites" have kept company with an exceedingly eclectic array of everything from mainstream films soon opening in a theater near you to the arcane and esoteric, including the long running Views From the Avant-Garde section under the venerable stewardship of Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith.
As for some of my utterly subjective highlights—visceral, emotional or situational—the following will never be forgotten:
1963 – As a young gay man, I had never watched two films with such a homo-erotic charge for me—Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Losey’s The Servant—in such a large venue with a big audience.
1965 – The growing wave of enormous affection spread by the audience at the end of Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street.
1966 – Although Peter Watkins’ The War Game was mistakenly awarded an Oscar as Best Documentary, it was actually imaginative fiction stunningly depicting nuclear war and its aftermath. I cannot think of any film as searing and intense.
1967 – Long before Coppola grandly presented a restored print of Abel Gance’s Napoleon with a live orchestra at Radio City Music Hall, the festival screened a three-projector version, and I’ll never forget the huge gasp from the audience when the film in the middle projector froze and burned. It may have only lost a few frames, but some (including me) thought it was the only existing print and that those frames were lost forever. This year also ran the gamut from Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers to Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, both of which impacted me in very different ways.
1968 – The promise of John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) was realized in Faces, his corrosive dissection of a middle-aged couple headed for divorce, and their long night’s journey of pain with friends and strangers, cinema-vérité style. It marked his first onscreen collaboration with wife Gena Rowlands. The prolific Jean-Luc Godard was represented by three films this year, but for me nothing topped Weekend, his outrageous, subversive black comedy with one of the most memorable tracking shots in cinema history.
Most of 1969-70, I was a stage manager on tour.
Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple. Image courtesy of RIVER ROAD PRODS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
1971 – Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity. ‘Nuff said.
By the end of 1971, I began a nomadic journey and was not again in New York at festival time until...
1979 – The experience of watching Ariane Mnouchkine’s sweeping yet intimate 260 minute epic, Moliere, will forever be a highlight of my moviegoing life. Would someone please restore (if needed) and revive this masterpiece?
1982 – Say Amen, Somebody. Again, and again, and again. The best gospel doc ever, by George T. Nierenberg.
1984 – My first screen credit was as print media researcher and archivist for The Times of Harvey Milk. Pre-Oscar, we were already very proud of being part of what I consider one of the great documentaries. Its first screening at the NYFF, and its tumultuous reception, was a joyous grace note to the years of struggle it took to get it made. Director Rob Epstein and producer Richard Schmiechen, from the stage afterward, took the time to acknowledge each person who worked on the film individually, asking us to stand. Thus, an extra treat was to be reunited with old friends, some not seen in years, who otherwise might not have known of our presence. This was not only one of my favorite moments in the life of the film but one of the highlights of my life. During this festival I was also transported by Bertrand Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country, a sublime take on the creative artist, family ties and mortality. (Would someone please do a Tavernier retrospective?) Finally, the first (and still my favorite) feature by the Coen brothers, Blood Simple.
Again, a hiatus as I continued to work in San Francisco, both at the restored movie palace, the Castro Theatre, and the Film Arts Foundation. I returned to the East Coast (for good) in late 1995.
1996 – An erotic, exquisitely rendered amalgamation of theater and film, John Greyson’s Lilies will always be on my top shelf. (Free John, and Terak Loubani, on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison as I write this.)
Leos Carax's Pola X. Image courtesy of ARENAFILM/POLA PROD / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
1997 – My first Aleksandr Sokurov was, Mother and Son, a visual poem of ineffable beauty and a simple but profound meditation on the purest of loves, made me a fan for life.
1998 – Two mindblowers: Uncredited-due-to-Dogme95-rules Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and never-one-to-disappoint Todd Solondz’s Happiness—as well as a sentimental favorite, Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters, with one of my all-time favorite closing shots.
1999 – The indelible sights and sounds of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail and Leos Carax’s Pola X, and the courageous toughness of Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. And my favorite of all the View From the Avant-Garde programs: the opportunity to see three major works by the redoubtable, impeccable Robert Beavers (From the Notebook of..., Work Done and The Painting).
2000 – A feast of shock and beauty: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s Amores Perros, Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, Lars Van Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
2001 – The wild, erotic exhilaration and ultimately intense poignancy of Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También.
2002 – An especially good year, I’ll go for Peter Mullan’s stringently harrowing The Magdalene Sisters and Aleksandr Sokurov’s breathtaking, unedited/single-take tour de force, Russian Ark.
Lars von Trier's Dancer In the Dark. Image courtesy of ARTE FRANCE/BLIND SPOT/DINOVI / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
2003 – Peter Mullan is this time an actor in David Mackenzie’s grimly graphic Young Adam, but it is the unfettered commitment of lead actors Tilda Swinton and Ewan MacGregor that will forever haunt. Festival favorite Errol Morris’ unadorned examination of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War, is also haunting, steeped in the reality of its subject.
2004 – Above and beyond anything else this year, I was never (and never will be) the same after experiencing Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mesmerizingly confounding Tropical Malady.
2005 – Another very good year. All I know is that I could not tear my eyes away from even one frame of Michael Haneke’s psychologically complex thriller, Cache. And the Dardenne brothers’ L’enfant might well be my favorite of their estimable ouvre.
2006 – I doubt that I’ll ever recover from David Lynch’s Inland Empire, and I hope I never do. A long quaalude-like journey without having to take the ‘ludes. Kudos as well to Little Children, Todd Field’s incisively tactile and disturbing observation of suburban angst.
2007 – Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a Romanian film concerning the attempt by a university student to obtain an illegal abortion during the waning years of the Ceausescu regime, was so compelling that it induced that rare silence in an audience which is overwhelmingly palpable. In stark contrast was I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ provocative conceit of using six actors of different genders, ages and ethnicities to evoke various aspects of Bob Dylan’s public persona and his music—but not Dylan himself.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. Image courtesy of DOWNTOWN PICTURES/TIFA / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
2008 – Director Steve McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, a grueling portrayal of Bobby Sands’ leading a hunger strike in a Northern Ireland Prison, not only put him on the map but also established Michael Fassbender as one of the finest actors of his generation. Animation took a giant leap forward when eloquently utilized in Ari Folman’s devastating feature documentary, Waltz with Bashir, in which he tries to remember his experiences as a soldier in the Lebanon War of 1982.
2009 – The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s starkly meticulous black-and-white depiction of the cruelly repressive life in a pre-World War I German village was the polar opposite of Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castgaing-Taylor’s muted color pallet in Sweetgrass, their enchantingly lyrical, minimalist (sans music or narration) look at Montana sheepherders leading their flock up into the mountains for summer pasture. Both films are deeply etched in my memory bank.
2010 – From sheep to goats. I would never have guessed that for me the most profoundly affecting and memorable film of this year’s festival would be Le Quattro Volte, set in a small mountain village in Southern Italy, and prominently featuring a young goat and an old goatherd. Michelangelo Frammortino’s limpid journey through the cycles of life, with touches of humor and quirky twists, left me both exultant and in awe of the sheer wonder of earthly existence. This in a year that featured the latest works from Godard, Kiarostami, Ruiz, Weerasethakul, Manoel de Oliveira and Kelly Reichardt—let alone Olivier Assayas’ epic Carlos. It is a tribute to the vast wealth of world cinema as we were moving into the second decade of the 21st Century.
2011 – Jafar Panahi, under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for twenty years, collaborated with Mojtaba Mirtahmsab’s in making a video diary, This is Not a Film, smuggled out of Iran in a birthday cake. This serious yet witty hybrid blurring the line between fact and fiction, stands as a brave act of creativity. Also from Iran, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, adroitly examines one middle class family’s complex relations while reflecting the larger complexities of Iranian society. Ostensibly Bela Tarr’s final film (with Agnes Hranitzky), The Turin Horse, hauntingly shot in black-and-white in 30 long takes, obliquely considers the meaning of life while observing the mundane details of the daily life of a farmer and his dying horse. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender solidify their earlier promise with Shame, an intensely intimate and unashamed exploration of sexual addiction. And then there’s Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike, Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and Wim Wender’s Pina. Loved them all, and will watch them all again, and again.
Michael Haneke's Amour. Image courtesy of WEGA FILM / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
2012 – Michael Haneke’s much celebrated Amour needs no further explication from me. It was good to welcome back Leos Carax after more than ten years with his Holy Motors. But I would like to call special attention to Lucien Castgaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, an experimental documentary about the North American fishing industry which is so much more than any conventional take on that industry’s affect on its workers and the environment. Its crafting of near overwhelming sights and sounds renders it a masterful work of art.
If nothing else, I hope that the films I’ve mentioned will pique the reader’s interest enough to pursue some of them. It’s become more and more apparent that there is an increasing abundance of worthy works from which film festivals can choose. The New York Film Festival, in only requiring a New York premiere, can benefit in being able to select the crème de la crème from all over the world.
The creation of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, with three extra screens, has enabled the festival to expand and enrich its programming. After 50 years, I’m not only still excited but more excited about what extra delights might be in store. Bring it on!
Robert Hawk is a consultant to independent filmmakers and an advisor to film festivals. He has also produced such films as Ballets Russes, Prodigal Sons, Paul Goodman Changed My Life and Trick.blog comments powered by Disqus