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Against ‘Festivalism': Final Thoughts on NYFF

If the audience for the New York Film Festival is defined as a standard American bunch, there are a number of entries this year to which one could apply the dubious label of "obscure": The African melodrama "Min Yè…," a document of sheep herding called "Sweetgrass," and Filipino director Raya Martin’s stylish colonialist indictment "Independencia" […]

If the audience for the New York Film Festival is defined as a standard American bunch, there are a number of entries this year to which one could apply the dubious label of "obscure": The African melodrama "Min Yè…," a document of sheep herding called "Sweetgrass," and Filipino director Raya Martin’s stylish colonialist indictment "Independencia" all fit in there.

There are short films that might seem more "accessible" to casual arthouse audiences, such as Ramin Bahrani’s Werner Herzog-narrated "Plastic Bag" and Albert Maysles’ Rolling Stone portrait "Get Your YaYa’s Out!"

But to see the latter film, you need to be the sort of person willing to engage with 100-year-old director Manoel Oliveira’s thoughtful-but-prosaic romance "Eccentricities of a Blonde Hair Girl," which the short precedes.

So the program is heavy with transnational ingredients that practically force viewers to expand their boundaries and learn a thing or two about the farther reaches of international cinema.

This regular observation has been labeled, perhaps unfairly, as a "critique" of the festival, when it ought to be seen as a description of its qualifying characteristic.

Anyone miffed by the challenges of grappling with NYFF’s stranger titles can easily focus on the movies that are more accessible to critically engaged moviegoers with less hardcore cinephilic inclinations: Todd Solondz’s "Life During Wartime" (which still has no U.S. distributor, but will get one eventually) deals with memory, redemption and sexual discontent in a quietly experimental fashion that’s still very funny. Bong Joon-ho’s "Mother" (soon to be released by Magnolia Pictures) puts a matriarchal spin on the classic detective story. Michael Haneke’s "The White Ribbon" (coming to you soon courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics) feels like "Children of the Corn" if it were directed by Carl Dreyer.

There’s no doubt that these movies deliver on several levels. They bear the stamp of intelligent auteurs whose careers deserve notice. But so do the directors of "Min Yè…" and "Independencia," and most American audiences won’t get an easy opportunity to check them out.

That’s why NYFF remains valuable. Aside from a special anniversary screening of "The Wizard of Oz" and a glitzy New York premiere for "Precious," the festival celebrates — or, rather, deflates — the notion of "obscurity" by placing conventionally "obscure" cinema on even footing with the standard artsy stuff.

I’m an unequivocal fan of "A Serious Man," but don’t mind its exclusion since you can find it pretty much everywhere else. There’s enough praise going around for the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen that another festival showcase wouldn’t matter, anyway.

The idea that the critics on the selection committee are out of touch with popular taste — an argument that has circulated lately — doesn’t quite add up. J. Hoberman has an affinity for Tim Burton (http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-12-11/film/prime-cut/). Dennis Lim recently expounded on the virtues of Mike Judge (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/movies/30lim.html). Scott Foundas once wrote an extensive argument for the positive qualities of Brett Ratner’s oeuvre (http://www.laweekly.com/2007-08-02/news/brett-ratner-the-popcorn-king/).

So the exclusion of mainstream works at NYFF feels more like a push for expanded awareness of cinema’s current state than an overarching thesis about the best of the best. Instead, it’s a chance to poke around.

At the Woodstock Film Festival this weekend, I participate in a panel discussion about the state of film criticism today. During the conversation, I pushed for a move away from market-driven criticism that tends to focus on whatever the public happens to gravitate toward at any given moment.

This should not implicitly reject public consensus (although sometimes it does); rather, we should look around to avoid the ever-present threat of isolation.

I suggested that the American movie industry worked a single hierarchy, and used the metaphor of a tower. If all domestic theatrical releases exist in that tower, then there’s a huge world outside of it that we need to seek out. "Life During Wartime" is in the backyard, "Mother" lies down the road, and "To Die Like a Man" exists in an entirely different town. We have to travel the distance to find these movies and bring back word of their existence.

Perhaps because the multiple layers of film culture easily give way to architectural metaphors, A.O. Scott provides a related perspective in his piece for the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/07/movies/07festival.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hpw) on NYFF’s remote selection, which he defines as symptomatic of "festivalism." He uses this dubious term to refer to the film festival world’s rampant narrow-mindedness, concluding that "festivalism lives in a high castle, surrounded by a moat not entirely of its own construction."

If that’s true, then I suggest audiences take a day trip from my tower to visit Scott’s castle.

The festival shouldn’t serve up the big picture, nor its essential ingredients. More like a navigation device than some unwieldy edifice, it fills in the gaps and connects the dots of modern cinema. As a result, NYFF is just another tool — but a vital tool, for those willing to use it.