David Edelstein

Press screenings for the New York Film Festival happen every morning and afternoon at either Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater or Alice Tully Hull. I grab a muffin from a table of goodies, pop open a can of Tab (the only thing I drink in the mornings–it eats the plaque right off my teeth), and find a seat, usually alone. (I’m both extraordinarily shy and exceedingly disdainful of most of my colleagues–a winning combination, don’t you think?) Sometimes I sit with that fun redheaded Salon couple Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek. Being Internet critics, we have the same fruit-fly attention spans (Charlie slunk out after after half an hour of Julien Donkey-Boy muttering, “I have better ways of being punished”–coward!) and a sense of solidarity in the face of ignorant and/or cyberphobic publicists. Being challenged on my credentials by a snooty NYFF flunkie is one of the things that made me want to share my impressions of this year’s festival with Slate’s million or so readers. Click on this, motherf—er.

Yesterday, I kicked around both a 90-year-old Portuguese director and a twentysomething American pseud, just to show I play no cultural or generational favorites. Today I’d like to buck tradition and affirm the New York Film Festival’s fabulousness.

Really: At a certain point, this jumble of cinematic vocabularies and aesthetics produces in a critic lucky enough to see them a chemical high–a heightened awareness of all the unexplored possibilities. Even the meandering yet in-your-face Julien Donkey-Boy–as arrogant in its awfulness as any Sylvester Stallone flick–points to new ways of shaping experience. Richard Peña is right when he says that the festival, at its best, re-creates the thrill of going to movies 20 or 30 years ago, when the censors lost their hold, Americans began lining up to see foreign films, and the only rule of storytelling was that there was no rule. My only serious quibble is with the Lincoln Center setting, which is too stiff and imposing to accommodate debate. Peña should raise funds for a huge adjacent cafe where people could smoke clove cigarettes and scream at one another over cups of espresso and bottles of armagnac.

I can’t wait to write at length in Slate about Boys Don’t Cry and Being John Malkovich, which open commercially on Oct. 8th and 29th respectively. Screened at the festival on the same day, these marvelous American independent works make a fascinating contrast: Both explore the impulse to be someone or something that you aren’t. Boys Don’t Cry–closely based on the true story of Teena Brandon (a k a Brandon Teena), a woman who cut her hair, bound her breasts, and started dating girls until, her gender of origin discovered, she was raped and murdered–shows a person compelled to reject her culturally prescribed role, feeling more herself with one hand on a brewski and the other around a babe. (That she finds happiness in another setting in which gender roles are culturally prescribed is the key to her tragic fate.) The press conference after the screening is amazing, both because the director, Kim Peirce, is so crystalline in her explanations (maybe too crystalline?), and because Hilary Swank, whose Brandon Teena conjures up thoughts of both James Dean and Falconetti in The Passion Joan of Arc–it’s a great, great, great-to-the-nth-power performance–turns out to be such a gracious and manicured femme.

Being John Malkovich is about the yearning to be somebody, anybody, other than who you are. It’s the story of an unsuccessful puppeteer (John Cusack) forced to work as a file clerk on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of an office building (you have to stoop to go to work) who discovers a secret passageway that turns out to be a portal into the head of the actor John Malkovich. It all bogs down in the last half hour, as the psychological stakes are raised and a few too many loose ends are tied up. (Ever notice how closure has a way of killing crazy comedy?) But the film, directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Charley Kaufman, achieves a level of madcap lucidity unglimpsed in American movies: It’s daft, wacky, surreal, impossible, and yet, on a psychological level, ruthlessly real.

There I go again: I still haven’t got to Claude Lanzmann’s great Shoah outtake (a Holocaust historian’s equivalent of finding the Missing Link) or the charming Belgian hate letter to American culture, The Carriers Are Waiting. Tomorrow. Gotta go see the Kusturica, then the Mike Leigh, then …