This Year’s NYFF Theme: Divisiveness

Both “Precious” and “Trash Humpers” bring on the dissent

The intriguing thing about this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival isn’t merely the program’s whimsical nature (a given), the broad range of international selections (also a given) or that many of the movies lack U.S. distribution.

Instead, I have been struck by how nearly every film at the festival seems to divide people. Both the
comic zaniness of Alain Resnais’ surrealist comedy "Wild Grass" and the explicit madness of Lars Von Trier’s "Antichrist" were met with mixed responses. A similar situation arose with documentaries, including the Chinese village portrait "Ghost Town" (endlessly fascinating or overlong?) and "The Art of the Steal" (valiant
chronicle of art world conspiracy or activist propaganda?).

That the NYFF program inspires more debate than consensus may or may have been intentional on the part of the selection committee, but the outcome is mainly positive. Disagreements spawn dialogue, and subjective reactions are integral to a passionate moviegoing experience.

While there are plenty of worthwhile below-the-radar entries in the program (several of which I hope to single out in my next dispatch), I would like to highlight two divisive NYFF movies with somewhat bigger profiles: Harmony Korine’s "Trash Humpers" and Lee Daniels’ "Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire."

Korine inspires plenty of hatred from moody critics perturbed by his supposed "bad boy" persona, which was something of an illusion even back when he wrote "Kids" at age 19. His latest movie, however, works precisely because it cautiously dismantles that perception.

"Trash Humpers" undoubtedly doesn’t work for everyone: It’s shot on low grade VHS and follows a group of aimless psychopaths as they engage in the titular activity and other related craziness throughout Korine’s native Nashville setting.

But just because the director shot the thing four months ago and injects it with autobiographical flourishes does not mean it should be dismissed as sloppy or stupid, as some have claimed. Korine appears in "Trash Humpers" as one of the demented characters, rambling as he drives through suburbia about how his madness frees him from the boundaries of a settled life. "I can smell how all these people are trapped in their lives," he seethes.

The filmmaker has an agenda, and it permeates nearly every scene. Those willing to engage with "Trash Humpers" on this level will find that it is precisely the meditation on creative isolation that he intends. Which means you’re either with him or you’re not — but even as I noticed plenty of frustrated faces at the "Trash Humpers" press screening on Tuesday, a scattered bunch seemed to fully appreciate it.

When Korine showed up at the end for a brief press conference, one questioner compared the movie to Fernando Arrabal and the theater of the absurd; another brought up performance artist Paul McCarthy. Korine admitted he wasn’t thinking of either man, but seemed to relate to the immediacy of their creative techniques. "It takes too long to make movies, which is an opposition to experimentation," he said. "I wanted to make a film as quickly as I could."

There’s no doubt that "Trash Humpers" was destined for reckless hatred. But then there’s the NYFF centerpiece, "Precious," a movie made with hefty productions values, a handful of stars and oversized buzz that began back at Sundance, putting it directly in the crosshairs of critical backlash.

I understand this movie’s flaws like anyone else with two eyes: Director Lee Daniels’ flashy story follows an overweight Harlem teen (Gabourey Sidibe) coping with her negligent mother (Mo’Nique, in a frightening — but overly histrionic — turn) and multiple pregnancies inflicted on her by a now-absent father.

Precious dreams of becoming a star and waltzing across the red carpet. The artifice invades every scene, but her reality is much bleaker than the plot’s abrasive qualities imply. The character has a sharp mind and gradually overcomes the familial boundaries holding her back.

On this basic level, "Precious" feels like a classical Hollywood drama and an urban rumination on the American dream. There’s genuine emotion and charm in this simplistic drive that’s only dismissible if you try to outsmart it with cynicism (not hard, but useless).

Still, "Precious" is undeniably a slight accomplishment. I would easily exchange its popularity for the distribution of several of NYFF’s top-of-the-line foreign films, including Claire Denis’ "White Materials" and the moving Portuguese drama "To Die Like a Man."

But my own critical snobbery notwithstanding, "Precious" deserves just as much attention as "Trash Humpers" and vica versa, even from those who hate both movies. There’s far more value in intelligent dissent than ignorance.