Two Weeks in Manhattan
A veteran critic turns rookie programmer for the 45th New York Film Festival
By Scott Foundas
From The Reeler
On Monday, July 30, as I arrived in New York for my first tour of duty on the New York Film Festival selection committee, I received an e-mail announcing the death of Ingmar Bergman -- one of two devastating blows that would be suffered by the world film community before the week was out (or even half-over). A fortnight -- and some 60 or 70 movies vying for a coveted NYFF slot -- later, I felt assured that, despite the doomsday tone of many Bergman and Antonioni obits, cinema itself was still very much alive and well, and that anyone claiming otherwise simply wasn't looking very hard.
Indeed, for two weeks in Manhattan, I did little else but watch movies, staggering the seven blocks from Lincoln Center back to my hotel most nights in a kind of euphoric daze, my thoughts abuzz with the movies and pieces of movies I had seen in the hours prior, my brain feeling as though it needed a rub down. Looking back on it now, I can say without hesitation that it was the tougher (if also the most rewarding) of the two jobs I have worked in the thick of a sweltering East Coast summer -- and if I tell you that the first was putting roofs on houses underneath the Florida sun over the three months between my freshman and sophomore years of college, that should help put things into perspective. There are, of course, people out there who believe that watching movies for a living fails to qualify as "real" work. To which I say: Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
Now, I've long considered myself something of a moviegoing marathon man. On any given day, in the course of my work as film editor and chief critic at L.A. Weekly, I see at least one (and more often two) new films, while at film festivals I start to feel guilty if I see less than five in a 24-hour period. But the festival selection process is a something else entirely: It is, for starters, a collaborative endeavor, which means not just seeing movies and forming opinions about them, but then sharing those thoughts in the company of four passionate, opinionated colleagues (in this case, The Village Voice's J. Hoberman, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Kent Jones, and our fearless leader, Film Society programming director Richard Peña). It is about the Goldilocks-like act of balancing one's personal taste against the considerations that go into organizing a festival program -- in other words, not too much of one thing (French costume dramas, say) or too little of another (documentaries, for example), but a program that feels just right. And it is, above all, about choosing 30 films (28 new works plus two revivals) that will entertain, enlighten, challenge and otherwise stimulate the NYFF audience come September.
That's a weighty responsibility, especially when the festival in question has 44 years of storied tradition behind it: Herzog, Jancso, Renoir, Sembene, Straub, Truffaut, Visconti, Welles -- and that was just 1975! I myself first attended the NYFF in 2000, purely as a spectator, returning for a few years after that in a journalistic capacity, and the memories of the movies I saw in those years remain especially vivid: A screening of Jia Zhangke's Platform, at which I spied an empty orchestra seat from my perch in the mezzanine and, 10 minutes or so into the film, moved down to grab it and to bring myself closer to Jia's radiant images; the projection of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., during which my perfectly good watch of several years suddenly stopped working, as if I too had been pulled into some Lynchian void. Which is not to mention the general air of formality, the reserved seating, the unfailingly punctual start times, the spotlight that shines on the filmmakers' box seats at the conclusion of each screening.