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The New York Film Festival's opening presentation was "The Walk" by veteran Hollywood master Robert Zemeckis, depicting Phillipe Petit's death-defying stroll between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Part I: New York Film Festival: Notable for vertiginous opener, Highsmith adaptation  

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By Sunday, Oct 4, 2015 Arts & Entertainment

New York — For these past 2 1/2 beautiful autumn weeks in New York, I’ve been attending the press screenings at the 53rd New York Film Festival. Public viewings of the same films are held at Lincoln Center with a little lag time in the scheduling, and then almost all of the films will get distribution. Hopefully, some of the best will be chosen by the programmers for the Triplex and other local Berkshire theatres.

It’s been a great pleasure so far, and happily there’s still more to come. The films at this excellent festival go through a very careful vetting process, which doesn’t mean you are going to agree with all the choices of the 5-person jury that selects the 29 main films, but you know these are all serious thoughtful decisions by very seasoned professionals. Of course, they have their biases and I have mine.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett i Todd Haynes adaption of the Patricia Highsmith novel, 'Carol.'

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’ adaption of the Patricia Highsmith novel, ‘Carol.’

What have I liked best so far? The stunner for me has been “Carol,” a film by director Todd Haynes, from a Patricia Highsmith novel from the 1950s about two women who fall in love. Cate Blanchett with her dazzling good looks, intensely blonde hair, beautiful clothes of breathtaking colors, creates a gloriously striking presence. The young department store sales clerk played by Rooney Mara is riveted by her and so are we. One remembers Hitchcock’s adored blondes, with their big handbags and their propriety — and the scene in “Vertigo” when as Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) watches, the camera slowly moves through a crowded elegant restaurant toward the glowing blonde woman at the center.

The camera work throughout “Carol” — images through a rainy car window, blurry figures moving on the street — the way the camera moves and how it frames, are utterly lovely, thanks to Haynes’ longtime cinematographer, the amazing Ed Lachman. And the terrific ‘50s clothes, hats, cars, rows of delicious familiar large dolls and other witty uses of Christmas in a department store — it’s all delicious and also contributes to character and mood. The mainstream song, “Silver Bells,” playing and tinkling on the soundtrack as the two women set off from the affluent suburbs on their illicit erotic journey wryly invokes the great director Douglas Sirk.

You don’t need to know film history to love this film but it enriches your joy in it. The eroticism too is just right, and the Blanchett character’s refusal to deny anything in the lawyer’s office, despite her concern that she will lose access to her child — choosing instead to be who she is — you inwardly cheer her for. It feels a perfect film for this time and stylized in a perfect way, and just a total sumptuous pleasure. It has to show up at The Triplex and other area movie houses.

Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig filming a scene for 'Maggie's Plan' in Chinatown, New York

Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig filming a scene for ‘Maggie’s Plan’ in Chinatown, New York

Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” is another really good film that I’d strongly recommend. Her fourth feature, this time Miller has made it all work very well, with engaging and intelligent actors who are also really hot right now (at least, in a certain world) — Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, and with a very smart, very funny screenplay. The film takes place in Manhattan around Greenwich Village — Washington Square Park, the great Union Square Farmers Market, the New School (where both the Hawke and Gerwig characters work). Hawke is married to a very high-powered, driven academic played with brilliant humor by Julianne Moore and he confides his marital misery to the Gerwig character, who is single and trying to have a baby by insemination. The ins and outs of the plot are complicated, but a lot of it has to do with not only how hard it is to deal with children when you have a career, but also with how enchanting the presence of a child can be — and on both counts this seems to me the insight of a woman behind the camera.

The characters though engaging may not go deep but the film catches a number of truths about how we live now, in couples and families and singleness. It also does amusing things with the narcissism of “creative people” who take themselves too seriously, and is especially hilarious in sending up academic post-modern pretentiousness. Miller has her links with heavyweights, as the daughter of the late Arthur Miller, and married to Daniel Day Lewis, but she’s chosen lightness here and done very well with it. It’s been clear for a good while that she has an important talent going of her own, and this may be her break-through film.

The sister and brother in Nanni Moretti's 'Mia Madre.'

The sister and brother in Nanni Moretti’s ‘Mia Madre.’

Another feature film I thought very highly of is the wonderful Italian director Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre,” about the dying of an elderly mother. She is a woman of dignity and learning, clearly much beloved by her two children, a middle-aged daughter, Margherita, who is a director currently making a film about job loss; and a son, Giovanni, played very sensitively by Moretti himself, who often acts in his own movies; and also Margherita’s young daughter.

The film opens with workers yelling for “The Right to Work For ALL” — one of the themes that run through several European films in the festival, alluding to current economic hard times and austerity — and there’s comedy introduced by an impossible American actor (played by John Turturro — whom I actually DO find impossible) who is hired to play the new factory owner in Margherita’s film. But what’s most powerful in “Mia Madre,” apart from a hundred subtle moments I can’t begin to describe here, is the depiction of family love, shopping for food for a mother in the hospital so she’ll eat, tenderly feeding her — the son amusingly and quietly outdoing the daughter in his devotion. And the bewilderment and preoccupation caused by this kind of family experience — conveyed not grimly but with humanity and humor, too.

Ingrid Bergman, from 'Ingrid Bergman in her own Words.'

Ingrid Bergman, from ‘Ingrid Bergman in her own Words.’

Three documentaries about three very different artists, all closely related to movie making, are well worth seeing. Stig Bjorkman’s “Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words” does literally build from the actress’s own words — her diaries, letters to friends, interviews — and from the numerous home movies she made. Ingrid Bergman’s parents’ shockingly early deaths, her mother when she was 3, her beloved father when she was 13, are so starkly stated at the start that that would seem to explain what compelled her to live fully and freely at all costs; to explain what seems to have been her total independence, moving on from personal ties as men did in her time, not living with her four children for the most part, their having so little of her, her leaving her longtime doctor husband and her daughter, and the scandal in America of her having children out of wedlock with Roberto Rossellini, the shock of which I can still vividly remember from my early youth. It is astonishing to think of the changes that have occurred in our world since then, toward the kind of behavior that seems acceptable now.

She herself chose the great directors she wanted to work with, not only Rossellini but Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman. It’s intriguing to me that their films seem to show them each regarding her very differently. Hitchcock made the young Ingrid a loose voluptuary in “Notorious.” Ingmar Bergman saw her as a rigid, uptight woman in his great and moving “Autumn Sonata” — about a famous pianist who is a neglectful mother totally given over to her art, a role that painfully reflects the lives and real-life choices of both Ingrid and Ingmar. They have a terrible argument about the role — the director insisting that the character Ingrid plays apologize to her angry and deprived daughter (played poignantly by Liv Ullman), and the actress adamantly refusing to have her character do that. While the film does not probe deeply into the internal life of this iconic figure, I feel I know her better for it. And while watching Bergman work with Bergman in itself is fascinating, this particular dramatic moment is extraordinarily revealing, especially of Ingrid’s seeming total absence of all guilt.

Jacob Bernstein’s film about his mother Nora Ephron, “Everything is Copy,” also works heavily with Ephron’s words (often extremely funny) and footage of her (always interesting and lively), plus the words of many friends and colleagues about her. We learn about Ephron’s Hollywood screenwriter parents, at first glamorous and then descending into alcoholism, her climb through journalism with the aid of Dorothy Schiff, publisher of the New York Post, about whom she later wrote merciless things. Someone notes that Ephron had a luminous smile and marvelous humor but carried a razor. Her sister Delia says that Nora, the eldest of four sisters, got everything and made sure she got what she wanted. When she directed, she was feared. And yet people took great pleasure in her company, in her friendship, they valued her bossy counseling. There’s delicious footage from her films, and tales — some bitter — of how she pillaged her own life and that of her siblings for her work.  Her second husband, Carl Bernstein, expresses outrage, not about his own betrayal of his new marriage with one little child and another 7 months on the way, but about Nora’s going public in “Heartbreak” (book and film) about it.

All of Ephron’s many friends from Meryl Streep to Lena Dunham talk about the odd paradox of her open use of her life publicly and yet how she kept her dying a closely held secret from almost everyone. It’s a complex and entertaining portrait, as is that of Ingrid Bergman. These two documentaries don’t add up to the deepest explorations but you do come away with a sense of the drive and high achievement of each, the sense of enormously strong willed women with the fiercest need to succeed (and in Bergman’s case, to perform), but gratefully neither film is hagiography.

Robert Frank, at work in his studio.

Robert Frank, at work in his studio.

The third documentary, that I thought was just terrific, was “Don’t Blink — Robert Frank,” about the great Swiss-born photographer, beautifully made by Laura Israel, who has done music videos for Patti Smith, Lou Reed and many others. Frank came to New York as a young man, hung out with the Beats, made the wonderful wild film of them called “Pull My Daisy,” and then traveled cross-country taking vast numbers of photos that went into the making of his book “The Americans,” that made him famous — seeing this country both from inside and through an outsider’s eyes. A man who lived for art, a rarity these days but very much part of the zeitgeist of the New York I was shaped by, and that I honored deeply, even though I myself lived out a far more bourgeois, far safer life.

Frank still lives and works in a downtown loft with his wife, artist June Leaf. They have a beloved place in Nova Scotia that figures in a lot of the foootage here — but mostly we get footage, in its own way gorgeous footage, of an older New York, seedy but immensely vital. Frank talks about always being attracted to the edge, not the middle of the road. He invokes the Living Theatre and the young Mick Jagger, and he seems to never stop making art, with a remarkable life force and spirit though grizzled with age and much suffering. The images and the rhythms of the film are joyful, as free and lively as its subject, though Robert Frank is 90 now, the last of something very precious to me.

Arabian Nights

Miguel Gomes’ ‘Arabian Nights.’

There were several European feature films that deserve mention here. A Portuguese one, Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights,” imaginative, with great moments, was extremely long — shown in three separate parts — seeming to wander without plan, pinning apparently unconnected stories together. The director sets himself a huge project and in a joke at the beginning, he himself runs away from his daunting task, with his film crew running after him to bring him back to work. What globalization and austerity measures have done to Portugal, the decline of shipbuilding, unemployment — dark matter, in short, but handled through tales and fables, with bawdy funny political satire, exquisite imagery of rocky coast and sea everywhere, metaphors of bees and finches, stories opening into other stories with a wonderfully fluid narrative, the feeling of something fresh and large. And on the soundtrack throughout, the old pop song “Perfidia” (“To you, my heart cries out ‘perfidia’/…the love of my life/ In somebody else’s arms”), a perfect love song perhaps for a beloved country betrayed, placed in dire straits by the world’s powers.

Two French films, Michel Gondrey’s “Microbe and Gasoline” and Philippe Garrel’s “In the Shadow of Women,” had their charms. The first, about two boys who become friends on the cusp of adolescence, is full of sensitive observations about the confusions and embarrassments of that coming of age. The Garrel film, with its handsome (or pretentious) black and white, fine camera work, voice-over recalling Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim,” felt like a film made decades earlier, and a joke on the so-French to-do about love, his adultery, her adultery, his discovery, her etc. etc. And a more pointed joke about a great Resistance fighter who turns out to be something else. Enjoyable enough.

Scene from Michel Gondrey's 'Microbe and Gasoline.'

Scene from Michel Gondrey’s ‘Microbe and Gasoline.’

The film which had the honor of being chosen the festival’s Opening Night film of the public screenings was “The Walk” by veteran Hollywood master Robert Zemeckis, widely known for “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “Back to the Future,” “Who Killed Roger Rabbit,” and a long list of other vastly successful mass-audience films. The actual event — the incredible walk taken by Philippe Petit along a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 — was stunning beyond words, an act of pure poetry; and the extraordinarily detailed planning and stealthy setting up for it were equally fascinating. The excellent black and white documentary “Man on Wire,” made by James Marsh in 2008, made this beautifully clear in an enthralling but understated way, with a total absence of grandiosity. However, “The Walk’s” version of Petit’s story is both grandiose and overstated. Zemeckis turns it all into hi-tech 3D Hollywood studio glory, thrills and chills of near falls, a hundred glowing vast views of New York City, topped by a patriotic toast to the city and the towers, and with a star — Joseph Gordon-Levitt — who does catch something of Petite’s neat French charm, but who fulsomely thanks his collaborators at the end as if he were already accepting his Oscar. Claims being made for Zemeckis just now are quite grand, and such films of his as “Cast Away” seem to me  admirable. And you could regard the spectacular way he’s done the Petit story as marvelous, as many will — if you don’t suffer from the vertiginous (you’re meant to feel like you’re up there with Petit), and if you want to be dazzled by this kind of Hollywood studio “magic.” Of all these films, “The Walk” is surest to open at the Triplex, and everywhere else. But I must say that a number of the other films I’ve seen so far meant much more to me — films with less high-tech virtuosity and manipulation, and with subtler entry into the hearts and souls of human beings.


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