David Edelstein

New York Film Festival Diary

The 37th New York Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious, opened last Friday with the premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. In the next two weeks, the Lincoln Center-based festival will screen more than 30 features from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Finland, Belgium, Egypt, and Australia, along with three programs of avant-garde works and more than a dozen shorts. Following many of the screenings, directors, producers, and actors will answer questions from audiences of movie lovers, some of whom will have come to behold the jewels of world cinema from as far away as … Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Unlike other prominent festivals–those in Cannes and Berlin, say–there is no concurrent market for films without distributors. Nor is there an “unofficial” market, as there is at the Toronto and “Sundance” festivals, where hordes of cell-phone-clutching studio scouts and acquisitions people slip in and out of screenings in search of the next sex, lies, and videotape or Blair Witch Project. The volume of movies is so low because that’s the point: This isn’t one of those free-for-alls with scores of venues and “fringe” activities and audience prizes and studio-sponsored galas. A committee of five–critics, academics, and administrators–has sifted through hundreds, perhaps thousands of films in search of a precious few deemed worthy of this august setting. Which I guess is why the shit seems to smell so much higher to heaven.

Oh, here we go again. This is the first NYFF in a decade I’m determined to sit through from beginning to end. It’s not friendly territory. When I began covering the festival for the Village Voice in 1984, I took an irreverent, sometimes mocking approach that mightily pissed off the Powers That Were (and in some cases Still Are). And why not? When you see an ambitious but torturous movie, you don’t necessarily want to beat up on the director, because artists do what they do and have the right–perhaps even the duty–occasionally to fail. You might, on the other hand, want to shoot spitballs at the people who chose that work over hundreds of others for a place on a Lincoln Center pedestal. It’s not as if they’re humble in their labors. If you’re a young director and the festival accepts your film, they’ll have you know it is a momentous event in your career and your life. If they reject it, they’ll have you know that your film might fool some people but not them–they’ve seen it done and done better by people who also didn’t get into the festival.

And yet … and yet … A world without the NYFF would be unimaginably poorer. There are always two or three films–which you’d never have heard of otherwise–that restore your faith in the cinema’s ability to thrive in even the most repressively market-driven cultures. And you have to credit the committee–for the last dozen years presided over by Richard Peña–for challenging the moneyed Upper West Siders who profess disdain for middlebrow culture but have little patience for the longeurs of non-narrative filmmaking. It’s a maddeningly thin line to have to walk.

In the next five days, I’ll be sending postcards from the press screenings–not so you can hop a plane and buy tickets (most showings sell out before the festival even begins), but to remind you that there’s life beyond the multiplex. As an appetizer, here’s the opener.

All About My Mother: This year’s festival is sponsored by Grand Marnier, whose French representative–“I am delighted to be wiz you today … honored to be associated wiz such a prestigiouz feelm festival”–opens the screening by handing out cash prizes to talented students. She adds that Grand Marnier should be savored and enjoyed “just like a good feelm.” Fortunately, the opening feelm is indeed one to savor–Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. It’s the director’s most sober work, maybe because his alter ego–an 18-year-old boy and devoted son, aspiring writer, and worshipper of actresses often termed “fag hags”–gets run over by a car while chasing a star (who’d just played Blanche Dubois) for her autograph. This shocking act of self-effacement paves the way for a film suffused by his loss. The boy’s mother (Celia Roth) goes off in search of the father he’d never met–now an AIDS-ridden transvestite in Barcelona–and ends up at the center of a benign matriarchal society in which she cares for other transvestites, unstable actresses, and pregnant nuns. The movie is funny, but the gags hover always on the edge of the abyss: This is a world in which lurid colors and extravagantly campy gestures are a means of filling the void.

Almodóvar’s press conference is more engaging than most, partly because the director is such a teddy bear but also because he has brought some gorgeous women–well, three gorgeous women, Celia Roth, Penelope Cruz, and Marisa Paredes, and one dishy transvestite, Antonia San Juan. This is, Almodóvar’s announces, the 11th anniversary of his marriage to Richard Peña, who stuck by him through some mighty uncommercial movies. Someone asks about making matriarchal films in a macho culture, and the director sets us straight: “Fortunately, those macho-oriented people of our culture are not the ones who are writing the films. … It is the women who have the power, the real power. Not the power that is shown but the power that is held. [In Spain] when the husbands die the wives survive for 20 years, but when the wives die the men die a month afterwards.”

Anyone who believes that artists are right-brained and instinctual creatures who get all tongue-tied when they have to analyze their “process” should listen to Almodóvar, who speaks about his film and his actresses with lucid rapture. The women on stage with him seem normal, he says, but in Spain they are huge stars. Asked how her life has changed since making the movie, San Juan says, “I’m now a star.” Afterward, the stars and their director make their way out through the lobby–past the bar where all the drinks reek of Grand Marnier–and into the sunshine, where the stunningly tousled Roth (in red leather trousers) poses for pictures while pert little Juilliard actresses walk past … and stop … and think, “Maybe someday …”

I follow the actresses and their director down the stairs to their limo, then pass up the chance to drink Grand Marnier with other journalists. The room is so much dimmer without that starshine.

Tomorrow: Claude Lanzmann’s startling Shoah outtake, the impotent movie critic of Rien Sur Robert, the animated Japanese cartoon epic Princess Mononoke, 90-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, plus input from Richard Peña and J. Hoberman.