David Edelstein

David Edelstein

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 1 1999 9:00 PM

David Edelstein

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There's more than a week to go at the New York Film Festival, but my Diary must end today, with no significant (or insignificant) discussion of, among many other works, the "Views From the Avant Garde" programs; Time Regained, Raul Ruiz's intricate adaptation of the final book of A Remembrance of Things Past; or Aki Kaurismaki's dialogue-free Juha. Films yet to be screened include Jane Campion's dark-humored HolySmoke, which charts the struggle between a hired American deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) and an unexpectantly willful Australian cult member (Kate Winslet); Thierry Michel's Mobutu Sese Seko documentary; Atom Egoyan's "modern horror story" Felicia's Journey; and Robinson Devor's The Woman Chaser, an American independent noir spoof that Richard Peña says came in over the transom and could be the hit of the festival. (Go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Web site at for information about the movies and their distributors.)

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Kevin Smith's Dogma--a comic parable about two renegade angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) that has already caused near-apoplexy among Catholic groups--will screen today (Friday); I'll write about it later in Slate's "Culturebox." A few days ago, I heard John Pierson, the director's commercial mentor, thank the Village Voice's J. Hoberman for calling Dogma "one of the most devoutly Catholic movies this side of paradise--and one of the funniest" but add that he's expecting 5,000 protesters at the first screening who don't share Hoberman's view.

Although I've blown my share of raspberries, I'm going to emerge from my three weeks at the New York Film Festival with a more skeptical attitude toward Hollywood storytelling and the gurus who make millions telling eager would-be screenwriters that if you want to get your movie financed, you have to adhere to standard outlines. Several years ago, I put it to Robert McKee, the most prominent of those gurus, that a lot of great artists work from the inside out. They don't spend months scribbling plot points on index cards; they begin with an image or a character's voice or even a set of loose improvisations and let the material find its own structure. McKee, a smart man in spite of his blowhard posturing, conceded that some of his own favorite films evolved that way, but that he was preaching the gospel of the mainstream. Nowadays, he said, you can't hold the interest of an audience--let alone a studio executive--without obeying "the rules."

At NYFF press conferences, no one refers to any standard rules of storytelling. They talk, instead, about inventing their own syntax for the stories they want to tell. It could be argued that a little bourgeois structure would do wonders for Claire Denis' gorgeous but diffuse Beau Travail. And don't get me started again on Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy. But maybe it's good that both films are in the festival, because they show how far a filmmaker can go before a narrative begins to feel arbitrary. Which brings me to Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan opus Topsy-Turvy, from which a couple of my respected colleagues fled after an hour. I know what bothered them--I was tempted to leave, too. But around the 75-minute mark my internal time clock adjusted and the pacing of the movie came to seem blessed. For another hour and a half (the running time is 160 minutes), Gilbert and Sullivan create and then stage The Mikado, fine-tuning the actors' costumes and inflections and diction. Where else can you encounter a film that finds so much meaning in processes rather than triumphant ends? Not coming out of Hollywood.

As I put the finishing touches on a Slate review of David O. Russell's Three Kings, I can't help but bring the NYFF to bear. Russell's movie is one of the year's most audacious, and technically, it's an original: It creates its own, unique visual syntax for conveying the madness of Iraq in the days following the Gulf War. It's terrific. But it might have been even better--a masterpiece on the order of the Taviani's Night of the Shooting Stars--if it had been more free-form and less bound by formula (in the case the "conversion narrative" in which an amoral, Bogartish hero can't ignore injustice and becomes a freedom fighter). Russell is working at such a high level of inspiration--and outrage--that the structure he has employed can't fully contain all the emotions he kicks up. But without that structure he'd probably never have gotten a major studio to bankroll him.

There's little chance that the majors will start holding Claire Denis or even Mike Leigh marathons. Nor will they show much interest in the NYFF. Three Kings wasn't offered. Nor was American Beauty, which could be the sequel to two recent festival hits, The Ice Storm and Happiness. Peña says that Hollywood regards the festival as a harbinger of box-office poison, and an outlet only for films that might otherwise go straight to video. Last year, Wes Anderson took the initiative to screen Rushmore for the committee while its studio was scratching its head over what to do with it. (The picture's warm critical reception led to a "dignified"--albeit commercially unsuccessful--general release.) Milos Forman couldn't get Warner Bros. to submit his upcoming Andy Kaufman biopic The Man in the Moon to the festival. "The people at Warner's say, 'It's a Jim Carrey movie,' " says Peña. "It's as if they're saying if you show it at the New York Film Festival it will be tainted as an art film and those millions of Jim Carrey fans will stay away."

Those of us who'd like to see an enlightened middle ground between Harmony Korine and Jim Carrey have some cause for hope. The New York Film Festival--and the Film Society's year-round repertory house, the Walter Reade Theater--is halfway between two of the East's best film schools, Columbia and New York University. Peña says he's thrilled when, say, a program of Danish pictures at the Walter Reade sells out because students hear it's cool and pack the house. The NYFF, he says, introduced Lars von Trier and his countrymen to Americans in the mid '90s, when no one had heard of them, and now they've become the rage. The festival's impact can't be measured in one year, he says, but several, as movements like Dogma (von Trier's new "school" of filmmaking) enter the discourse and then trickle down to the moviegoing public and--who knows?--the mainstream. So look for that Jim Carrey/Harmony Korine collaboration in 2003 at a multiplex near you.