I am happy to once again be attending the press screenings of the New York Film Festival (NYFF) in 2023. Making my annual pilgrimage, I find a cinematic abundance on offer. Though one of the most selective of festivals, its curatorial choices are admirably wide ranging, from the best of mainstream films, like “Maestro,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” and “Ferrari”; to auteurist “art” films, by directors like Ceylan, Agnieszka Holland, and Todd Haynes; to the occasional really difficult film that can reach only the smallest audience. The great cities alone can sustain this kind of supremely rich film culture, and the NYFF appropriately and thankfully reflects that.
“Maestro,” directed by Bradley Cooper, who also performs the central role of Leonard Bernstein, is the film in this year’s festival that will be of most interest to filmgoers up here, given Bernstein’s long, deep ties to Tanglewood and the Berkshires. Those wise people who decided to re-open the Triplex in November with this film made a terrific choice, because it is also a really wonderful film.
Maestro sees itself primarily as a portrait of a marriage, Lenny’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). The film opens with an elderly Leonard at the piano, being filmed and interviewed—the resemblance to the man himself is extraordinary—and he talks about how he still carries Felicia with him, years after she has died, and how much he misses her. Right after that opening sequence, the film switches from color to black and white, to the 25-year-old Lenny being awakened by a phone call, giving him his first big chance when a scheduled conductor suddenly falls ill. We see him fly from his bed (over the man he was sleeping with) magically, still in pajamas, right to Carnegie Hall itself, accompanied by loud orchestral percussive sound. That is a bold, exciting, high-energy opening, fitting for a film about such an amazingly energetic, even manic figure, a phenomenon in constant motion and activity. His Carnegie performance was, of course, a triumph, though he was only 25, had never conducted before, and was given no rehearsal time, having been called the morning of the concert. But though “Maestro” is filled with the accolades and ovations that followed the irresistibly charismatic, brilliant Bernstein from earliest years to the end of his life, again, this film chooses to be primarily about a marriage, the depth and permanence of the love between Felicia and Lenny.
The two would seem to have been well matched. Both of them were smart, witty, and beautiful, both from Jewish backgrounds without being religious, both performers—she a well known TV and theater actress. From early playful banter and the glamorous parties with famous friends, to the grand, many-room apartment (precisely reproduced) in the Dakota, “Maestro” underlines Lenny’s commitment to his wife and his strong family feelings for his three children. We see Felicia repeatedly watching his concerts from the wings and his racing to embrace her afterward to share his joy of achievement with her.
However, and it is a very big “however,” he is a gay man. And the reality of that becomes poignant and is also at the heart of the film. The moments of his attraction elsewhere multiply, she is increasingly distressed, his own malaise in the marriage is reflected in an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem recalling lips kissed, loves that have come and gone, become ghosts, which Lenny recites: “summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.” Both enter the marriage with that knowledge and the hope that it will work nonetheless. There is just one moment when one thinks maybe marriage for Lenny did also serve as a cover in difficult times for gay men. In the film David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), a clarinetist who shares his musical passion, is Lenny’s deepest gay love, but when they meet years later at Central Park, after grimness thinking of what has been lost, there is a lovingness as David holds Lenny’s face—but Lenny immediately worries about being seen. To be a conductor was very hard if you were American, if you were Jewish, and surely if you were gay.
On Felicia’s side, as she says later, she arrogantly thought she could survive on what he was able to give. One thinks of Vanessa Bell, Virgina Woolf’s artist sister, and her long-in-effect marriage to the very good gay painter Duncan Grant and the suffering and stoicism of her life. Felicia does erupt finally and tells Lenny he sucks all the oxygen from others, drains everyone, is exhausting, that hate and deep anger are what drive him. Pretty damning statements, and you believe her when she says to him that she really knows who he is. But when she is in dire need, he is very touchingly there for her, and the tenderness of that part of the film is very moving. I shouldn’t say more.
There is strenuously fantastic work done in making Cooper look like and sound like Lenny, and the way he ages is remarkable. The clothes he wears also chart his internal changes over time. At the press conference after the screening, which the actors (including Cooper) could not attend because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, it was fascinating to hear the production people detail the immense care, the length of time, the meticulous attention that went into the making of the movie. Cooper, for instance, listened again and again to the John Gruen interviews with Bernstein, and he had a device placed in his nose to give his speech the more nasal quality Bernstein had.
Music was Bernstein’s life, classical music and much more. For me, his musical score for “On the Waterfront” is, in itself, a most dazzling achievement. The film uses Bernstein’s music and parts of great classical work by Beethoven, Mahler, and others effectively and dramatically all throughout—plus dance to vary the pace and keep things lively. And the use of Ely Cathedral in England for a concert was spectacular. With impressive producers—none other than Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg at least lending their names to this project—”Maestro” is tailored for the big leagues. Given the demands of his hyperactive, highly emotional performance as the ever-present central figure, Bradley Cooper’s capacity in the role of director too is impressive, especially in that this is just the second film he has directed. “Maestro” makes for very enjoyable viewing, it does bring spectacular Lenny back to life, and it was a great choice for the extremely important re-opening of the Triplex! May our moviehouse thrive!
A film I hope gets some part of that kind of distribution and recognition is British director Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” and it feels especially appropriate just now as the Hamas assault on Israel brings the Holocaust vividly to mind. Glazer approaches the subject of the Holocaust in a unique, indirect, quiet way. The victims are never visible and barely heard, and yet it creates a haunting evocation of them. The film opens on what seems to be a nice group of family and friends picnicking by a river, splashing, berry-picking. But the house they return to borders on the Auschwitz concentration camp, as we gradually become aware; through the windows we see the familiar watchtower in the distance, the high walls with recognizable barbed-wire curved posts above them, and the distant but ever present, continually active chimneys emitting smoke, ash, fire. We see the complacent Hedvig, lady of the house (Sandra Huller), offer pieces from a pile of clothing to others, appropriating a long fur coat for herself. “Where do these clothes come from?” we ask ourselves. She tells a “funny” story about someone coveting the dress of a little Jewess but unable to get into it. (The judge who recently returned some Schiele artwork seized by the Nazis from a Jewish cabaret performer murdered in Dachau—several now in New York museums or in the collection of Ronald Lauder—said, “your recovery reminds us … that history’s largest mass murder has long concealed history’s greatest mass robbery.”)
The film’s pater familias is modeled on Rudolf Hoss, the longtime commandant and creator of Auschwitz—the monster most responsible for the killing of 3.5 million people, mostly Jews. We watch him read fairy stories to his children at night; he is gleeful about a promotion; he works with other officials on the mechanics of the most efficient, secret methods of vast destruction as if he were talking about products, not human beings; and he proudly plans (and carries out) the killing of Hungarian Jews as late as 1944.
Sound is used inventively in the film. It opens and closes with what feels like a demonic hymn, a disturbing choral expression of pain and vast mourning; and all through are background sounds of dogs barking, muffled shouts and screams, very subtly done. We are alert to the not-visible horrors they suggest, but no one in the film seems or wants to hear. Several times Glazer also uses an inventive visual device—black-and-white thermal imagery, unexplained—of a young girl racing around at night, gathering apples and placing them on the ash heaps where prisoners can find them.
Though not included in “The Zone of Interest,” after the war Commandant Hoss went into hiding and was tracked down (by a German Jew who had escaped to England), brought to trial, and hanged in Poland in 1947. The film is based on Martin Amis’ novel which, with its complex characters, situations, and rich language, is very different. Glazer just takes the basic idea from Amis, and he uses it powerfully. An important film, it is England’s choice for International Oscar, and I should think the likely winner.
A searing and extremely moving film that should be Poland’s choice for the International Oscar, Agnieszka Holland’s superb “Green Border” has instead been predictably reviled by the right-wing nationalist Polish government for its honesty about the appalling brutality with which Belarus and Polish border guards treat refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, who are trying to make their way through Poland to get to Sweden. Holland is a great director with a large body of work, too little known in this country. As a young person, she worked very closely with the great Polish filmmaker Andrei Wajda (e.g., “Man of Marble”); she has made films in this country and in Germany, England, and France; and she has won many awards. She has directed a number of films about horrific historic moments, including three about the Holocaust. The best of those I think is “Angry Harvest.” And her last film shown at the festival, in 2017, “Spoor,” was perhaps her very best, both morally passionate and filled with beautiful images. It centers on hunters’ killing of animals in Poland and an older woman fighting the abuse of sacred nature. It is an eloquent plea for caring for this fragile world. Alas, that film couldn’t even get distribution in this country, despite awards in Europe. But she is a courageous and indomitable truth-teller and a survivor, and her whole fascinating career has prepared her for the making of this new film (in her mid-70s).
“Green Border” is made in very beautiful black and white. From the first images, the camera looks so empathetically at the humanity of each face on a plane of refugees, nothing feeling generic, no virtuosic fancy footwork, just truth-telling. She focuses on a Syrian family, an elder, parents, two children, and an older Afghan woman whom they allow to join them. They have to pay too much, they are pushed into vehicles without knowing to where, a driver is harsh and ugly, then gunshots, barbed wire, horrible Nazi-like yelled commands from the border guards. The film labels locations (Belarus, Poland) on screen, as the migrants are driven back and forth, wanted by no one, increasingly anguished—hunger, thirst, cold, rain, wounds from the frenzied terrified running in the forest—but characterized enough so that we never lose touch with their individuality and humanity. We watch the guards being trained by their leader to treat these people as not human, though there are unexpected acts of kindness and remarkable help from a band of activists. The film follows the story of one of the guards as well as one of the activists. Pretty much all the main actors have themselves been refugees and have also had theater experience, acting, casting. They are all excellent, perhaps not only because of acting talent but from how their own real life experiences connect to their roles. There is a brilliant ending, touched with irony, which I will not spoil by discussing it here. But Holland’s intentions for the film, as she writes, are indeed realized: “The characters must be vivid and real, their journey emotionally fulfilling. We want to be close to them, to follow them, to care and worry about them.” And we do. I thought I would find this film unbearable and oppressive, and I must say that I cried a number of times—rare for me—but it is done so effectively, without revving up the reality in any way, that it is the humanity and the power of the film that stays with you, not the pain.
Holland’s past is complicated, her father was a Jew who survived as a high-up Communist but was pushed out a window to his death, presumably for political reasons, and her mother was a Catholic who worked for the underground during the war. Agniezska got into trouble in Poland when young—a brief time in jail—for speaking out. I interviewed her a number of times, once around when she made “Angry Harvest,” about a Polish farmer who permits a Jewish woman to hide in his house during the war, and I was struck then by her caution, how very careful she was to always speak about Polish non-Jews taking risks to save Jews. This film is a lot more confrontational. And, as in “Spoor,” women are the major forces in courageously acting to oppose the brutal and protect the vulnerable. I do think that her need to speak out now may have to do with the treatment of the refugees on the Polish border resonating for her with the Holocaust (her paternal grandparents died in concentration camps, and her parents tried to protect her by hiding the fact that she was Jewish until her late adolescence). Not to speak of the hatefulness of the current Polish government as motivation to speak out. The world she is facing down feels all too much like what our own country is threatened by. She is 75 now, and every new film she makes is better than the excellent one before it. “Spoor” is available on Amazon Prime, not the best way to see her breathtaking images of nature and animals of course, but Spoor is unlikely to make it to the new Triplex—though, in truth, I think it would be a great addition to a celebratory opening! I hope that “Green Border” in some way gets seen in the Berkshires; it is a brilliantly made and extraordinary film.
A very different film that I was much taken with, unexpectedly, was “The Boy and the Heron,” consisting of exquisitely hand-painted animation by the much-lauded 82-year-old Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of the renowned Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s previous film, “The Wind Rises,” came out a decade ago, at which time he announced his retirement and closed down Ghibli. But he clearly had unfinished business in his heart, and what he has returned to do is magnificent (even though I am not a person much interested in animation in film). Through the eyes of the 11-year-old boy at its center, Mahito, who seems a proxy for the artist looking back, the film starts with and keeps returning to terrifying memories of World War II, the fire bombing of Tokyo and the resultant tragic losses. (Miyuki’s mother is killed in the bombing, and the whole film is his quest to find her, to save her). Fire recurs through the film, and flood, and one thinks of what this director has lived through: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, tsunamis, Fukushima. In his previous film, the hero saves two females from an earthquake, also frequent in Japan.
But this film is also filled throughout with joyful wonder—of the beauties of the world, the starry sky, glowing sun, and vibrant fields of flowers, the grace of birds, textures, traditional Japanese structures, charming layered human activity, the enchanting little shmoo-like wara waras who are the beginnings of life. The images are just rapturous to look at in their beauty, yet do not come across as decorative ends in themselves, but as part of a celebration, as well as a grieving, of our life here. The boy’s solemnity and wonder on his journey are rendered with a few expressive facial lines. He encounters plenty of ugliness, starting with the heron itself, and fascistic marching parakeets, and a group of grotesquely misshapen ancient grannies. But the old crones are seen with humor, and affection, as they protectively watch over the boy. His embrace of the elders is amplified by the old granduncle, beautifully wrinkled, with big spikes of white hair, head and beard, who sees destruction ahead and carefully balances a tower of stone shapes to prevent it from happening, from bringing our whole enterprise to an end. We have one more day, and he hopes Mahito will carry on his dedication to keep that tower standing, that life balance. With its generous humane worry about the future (which certainly resonates with this old person), the film is an amazing, perhaps concluding statement to a great artist’s lifework, and it is deeply moving.
Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days”—the title taken from a Lou Reed song—follows middle-aged Hirayama, played by Koji Yakusho, through his daily routine activities, the commonplace things we all do, but in Wenders’ hands, the mundane ends up being entirely engaging and you wonder how he can make so much out of what could seem next to nothing (and that indeed is the “point” of the film). The actor deservedly won the Cannes Best Actor award for his great, almost wordless performance. He is a lowly cleaner of public toilets in the parks of Tokyo, but there is nothing off-putting as we watch him make his rounds. Indeed, the toilets he cleans are works of architectural art, each one different, with textures of wood, with magical see-through walls. There is a spareness in how he lives; everything he has, he uses and has a place for, in his constricted domestic space. But the subtle, lovely use of color, the wonderful camera work, make even his simple room look rich. His ritualistic set of daily activities are repeated each day but continually filmed differently, with an intimate camera that comes close to his face, and that also keeps showing us the striking dense high-rise buildings of Tokyo, its small shopping streets, its little parklets, and the elevated roadways he drives on while listening to tapes of Patti Smith and Otis Redding. Wenders has always had a fantastic eye. And perhaps it takes a foreigner—and Wenders is German of course—to see this city as the wonder it looks to be. Despite there being so many good Japanese directors, I don’t remember anyone using Tokyo this way.
Hirayama takes pleasure in the beginning of each new day. We read it in his expressive face. The film has no real plot, just a series of encounters and observations; he is always alertly looking at everything. But the viewer is never bored; every minute is engaging. The character has grace and gravitas, he is known—at the public baths where he washes, at the bar where he eats, at the bookstore because he continually reads. The first book is by Faulkner, telling us—as his whole personage does—that this is no ordinary person: He has a story we don’t know, and we only learn some small part of it as the film goes on. Wenders shows us the city’s sense of order and cleanliness, and these echo in Hirayama, for whom everything is under control. But an encounter with the wealthy sister he has been estranged from leaves us with the suggestion of some trauma connected to his relationship to his father. His equanimity is shaken, movingly, and though he regains it, we have been given a glimpse of the pain underlying—or held at bay by—his smiling enjoyment of the quotidien. The man with cancer he overlaps shadows with, the madman doing an odd writhing dance several times through the film, are suggestive. The film’s final image of Hirayama shows him weeping and laughing at once, as he looks directly out at us, while Nina Simone sings that “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, and I’m feeling good.” (Despite the endless bombardment of TV ads using that song, I find it still had strong impact.) With golden dawn light momentarily on Hirayama’s face as he drives toward it, long road ahead, the whole vast city that the camera pans to receives a kind of blessing.
Hirayama loves to take photos of trees, as does Wenders, whose camera is continually looking up at a leafy canopy and the shimmering play of light making shadows through leaves. Wenders includes a final note on the screen, after the credits, telling us the Japanese name for this: “komerebi,” which Google defines as providing “a profound peace and sense of tranquillity,” and as “weaving your passions into your daily life, learning to look for the light while passing through the shadows.” Wenders—who has a distinguished and unusually varied oevre, from “The American Friend” and “Paris, Texas,” to the more recent “Pina,” which honors and preserves Pina Bausch’s great dance oevre—has here, at the advanced age of 77, created yet another terrific film that I must say I loved.
Todd Haynes’ “May December” is this year’s Opening Film, an honor Haynes has well deserved by his productive and always intriguing film output. (I especially liked “Carol” and “Wonderstruck” of his previous films, both shown in former years at the Festival.) His new film centers on two women, one of whom was in a scandal years ago, as a 34-year-old married woman, Gracie, (played by Julianne Moore), who gets involved with a 13-year-old boy, in a reversal of the usual older-man-with-underage-girl trope. She goes to prison for it and has a baby behind bars, as the tabloids all blare (all this taken from a real life story). The other woman, an actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), has come to study Gracie for a film production in which she will play the role of Gracie. And there is Joe (Charles Melton), the boy involved, now a very good looking man, married to Gracie for years, with their children and Gracie’s children from her first marriage. Elizabeth examines how they are able to continue living their lives: For Gracie, not looking at things is a source of survival; for Joe, the most poignant figure in the film, who grew up too soon and in part remains child-like, a reassessment is beginning. But apart from the questions this old scandal raises is the issue of trying to make art out of people’s lives, the ruthlessness often of those who do so, the triumph of getting it more real on the screen. The melodramatic flamboyance of the soundtrack music which jars but adds (Haynes is strongly—happily—influenced by Douglas Sirkian-style melodrama) and the directorial decision to remain non-judgmental make for a really interesting film experience.
Haynes is an independent director, which means that he goes his own wonderful, unpredictable way, but also that he works within difficult budgetary limits. At his press conference this time, his production people talked about shifting the script’s locale from Maine to Georgia for tax credits, having to carefully calculate seasonal leaf changes, shooting the film in a mere 23 days, with no time for rehearsals. This makes the handsomeness and challenge of the films Haynes regularly turns out all the more admirable. He himself talked complexly about the process of making the film. Of particular interest, he alluded to Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona,” from which he took certain two-women ideas, and to the simplicity and austerity with which Ingrid Thulin’s psychologically revelatory letter-reading at the end of Bergman’s “Winter Light” had such an impact on him, and using that for this film. One couldn’t choose better cinematic sources.
When I attend this festival, I feel like I am in a temple of the great art of film. I recognize around me some of the best people writing about film over many years: J. Hoberman; Amy Taubin; Karen Cooper, the founder of the indispensible Film Forum comes to a screening one day; Gary Crowdus, the editor of Cineaste, one of the last surviving serious film magazines, is there every day; the great Ed Lachman, cinematographer for Todd Haynes, also came every day for all the years I have been doing this, though work has unfortunately kept him away this round. I chat casually with someone from Turkey sitting next to me, who writes for a film publication there, or someone from Israel who writes about film for a newspaper there. Many other crucial film people I don’t recognize but I feel are a goodly part of the cinematic infrastructure of the city, which enables it all to happen, show up here at these Press Screenings. Plus those impassioned people in love with great film. And, of course, the festival always includes films about living one’s life in film, like Victor Erice’s “Close Your Eyes,” a quiet, slow film with not-easy-to-follow multiple plot strands having to do with movie-making and disappearing, which comes from an 83-year-old filmmaker (“Spirit of the Beehive”) who himself disappeared from filmmaking for 10 years and has mortality very much on his mind. A poignant film, though not for everybody.
Another terrific film which carries a sense of personal darkness is “About Dry Grasses,” from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a Turkish director I very much admire. He makes demands on the viewer, his films are long, full of serious talk and ideas, little action, beautifully composed images. His latest has a very intelligent, initially attractive protagonist, Samet, an art teacher in a school in a remote Anatolian region of Turkey. The opening image shows him arriving back from holidays, a tiny dark figure against immense whiteness of sky and vast snowy expanse. He rages at his entrapment in this provincial place in the middle of nowhere and is scornful of what he sees as the ignorance around him. But he is a lively teacher and an intellectual, and we sympathize, until he becomes increasingly problematic and finally despicable: too close to his favorite young girl student, Sevim, which leads to charges against him and resultant autocratic rage that he turns on his class and on his roommate, destructively inflicting damage on the vulnerable roommate’s serious relationship with a disabled and remarkable fellow teacher, Nuray, a gorgeous woman. But though both females are misused and abused by him in different ways, each shows strength and dignity and a refusal to allow him to harm their strong selfhoods. And he takes photos of the rural landscape and the people he so scorns, photos that look like real photographic art. The intricacy of the characterizations and the twists and turns of interactions are riveting, and though you are still left with the sense that Samet is one nasty piece of work, Celan here as always excitingly displays the workings of a complex sensibility and intelligence.
A director whose stance is not problematic at all is Aki Kaurismaki, a Finnish filmmaker whose films I always run out to see as soon as they appear. He’s the poet of the marginal. Never sentimental. Deadpan humor and tender humanity. In “Fallen Leaves,” a title which you could say describes the film’s characters, he gives us two middle-aged working-class people in dreary jobs, who hold onto their humaneness even though life has badly mistreated them. In their shy loneliness, they stumble upon each other but keep losing one another, until they don’t. The last film Kaurismaki had in the Festival was a strong political one, with people helping an illegal refugee. This one is simply a love story: He and she keep turning on their respective radios and getting different horrifying reports from Ukraine, which they turn off immediately, while the wonderful soundtrack songs have lyrics about romance. And, as always, there are surprising images of beauty (a perfect combination of colors here, a unique framing there) that momentarily leap out at you. Whatever their content, I can’t help but feel happy to see his films.
There were other films that deserve a mention, despite their limits and the unlikeliness of anyone up here getting a chance to see them. Hamaguchi’s “Evil Does Not Exist” does not seem to benefit from its slow pace, its long lingering shots of trees, its perplexing ending. But I loved the way it dealt with a slick Tokyo company moving in on a pristine mountain village with dubious plans for a “glamping” (glamorous camping) site, ignoring the various ways it would damage the community (poisoning some wells, etc).
And there is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Opus,” which I fell into without knowing anything about it. It consists entirely of a recording artist and composer, the renowned and wonderful looking elderly Ryuichi Sakamoto, widely famous for—among other work—the music for such films as “The Last Emperor,” sitting alone in a dark room playing slow piano note by note of his own pieces. He is filmed starkly in black and white. One learns later by Googling that he soon after died of cancer. Watching him play for over an hour and a half is not easy, but finally heartbreaking. With barely a word spoken, even knowing nothing, one sees human creativity, intense elegant effort, in the face of the void, and the power of cinema to show it.
“La Practica,” an Argentinian film by Martin Rejtman, is a pleasurable film that grows on you as you watch it, at first seemingly aimless and pointless, about a Yoga instructor for whom everything goes wrong, his life falling apart, with an odd collection of people in his classes and on a Yoga retreat in the countryside. But, by the end of the film, the meandering haplessness feels endearing, and you somehow feel affection for the fragile community singing songs around a fire.
Part Two of “Reflections on the 61st New York Film Festival” will appear shortly and will mostly address films directed by women.