By Bob Clark
Has the New York Film Festival really only been around for 50 years? It’s such an institution at this point, it feels like it must’ve existed in some form or another on Manhattan isle since the inception of the medium, if not even further back in the island’s history of forward thinking magic-lantern patrons. Since the Festival’s first debuted at Lincoln Center, it’s been one of the best places to get in touch with the broad sweep of international film and domestic art-house cinema of all shapes and sizes, showcasing everything from groundbreaking experimental and dramatic fare to crowd pleasing instant-classics and controversy-courtesans alike. It’s not as prestigious as the high art awards galas of Cannes or Venice (the fact that there are no awards save acceptance into the schedule is testament to that, a more democratic rather than competitive atmosphere), nor as trendy as relative newcomers like Tribeca, Toronto or Fantastic Fest and its ilk (only a foaming-at-the-mouth fanboy could take a festival with a name like that seriously), but by this point it’s as immovable and essential an institution to New York culture and American consciousness on film in general as anything else, second only in prominence on a national scale to the Oscars and at least ten times more relevant. I’ve been attending each year since 1999, and though this latest experience hasn’t been quite as stunning as what I enjoyed last year, it’s easily been one of the better line-ups in the festival’s history so far, fitting for this auspicious anniversary. So let’s get going with the first four films I’ve enjoyed at the fest so far, with another four to come.
If there’s been a major theme I’ve noticed in the films in this year’s festival, or at least the ones I managed to sit down for, then it’s been the revisiting of major historical figures and episodes with an eye for revising the agreed upon text, and there’s no better place to start that exercise than with David Lean’s seminal epic Lawrence of Arabia, enjoying a startlingly clear 4K digital restoration and scan on par with the same treatment that Ben Hur displayed last year. Like the Wyler film’s restoration, this digital treatment of Lean’s majestic, subtly subversive treatment of the life and achievements of T.E. Lawrence on the Middle Eastern front of World War I provides a near perfect occasion to revel in a film that was absolutely made for the biggest of cinematic canvases, bringing the picture back into the pristine 70mm quality that it was shot in (or thereabouts), and rescuing it from decades of reductive showings on television in widescreen treatments so thin they almost look like viewing a movie through a postage stamp, rather than a mere letterbox. Like Ben Hur, this is one of those movies I’ve watched long, long ago but retained little of, feeling somewhat put off by the ways in which I could tell that the movie’s best assets were being reduced when squeezing a 2.40:1 picture into a 1.33:1 frame– yes, you get all the right compositions and basic visual information on the screen, but it becomes far more removed from you than your average full-frame broadcast, lacking both the intimacy of normal television and the dwarfing, all-encompassing experience of theatrical cinema.
Even the most ordinary of films benefits from being seen on a big-screen with no peripheral distractions in the dark, and for years I’d appreciated the difference you get with modern epics and blockbusters like the Star Wars films or Ridley Scott’s features when seen theatrically, instead of domestically. And considering what those films and plenty more have plainly owed to Lean’s epic (Scott’s Prometheus, from this year, acknowledged the debt in perhaps the bluntest and plainest language possible, having Michael Fassbender’s fastidious android watch and model himself after the film during a years-long solitary space flight), it seemed long overdue to get a chance to see this one on the big-screen, especially after enjoying so many repertoire screenings of other classics in art-house cinemas over the past few years. And just as with my rediscovery of Wyler’s epic at last year’s festival, Lawrence of Arabia absolutely flourishes in a largescale presentation in ways that are almost impossible to articulate without seeing it for yourself. As filmgoers are now rediscovering through recent releases like The Master or even the various IMAX sequences shot for the recent Dark Knight or Mission: Impossible features, 70mm poses an excellent blend of impressiveness for the audience, presenting them with a scale that invites you into the environment yet constrains it enough to provide a genuine perspective onto the action.
The landscapes of Lawrence, legendary to film nuts, are given a chance to breathe that they don’t have on television even when pan-and-scan isn’t a possibility. It especially helps the way that Lean films the desert and captures the spirit of the nomadic Arab tribes that his hero tries to unite in the fact of the Turks, and at last one can really appreciate the influence that Ford’s The Searchers had on the director on more than a mere intellectual level. It helps turn Peter O’Toole’s performance of a man hungering for adventure and excitement, intellectual to a fault and driven by a mad, bloodlusted messiah complex that would put Homer’s heroes to shame, into something just a bit more relatable and down to earth, even as his portrayal of ego run amok amidst the sands strains for genuine apotheosis. Like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, O’Toole’s Lawrence represents a man of actions and desires who comes to be haunted by the toll that pursuing those quests takes on him during long years, rendering him broken and alone even after he achieves his goals. Even though so many of the effite mannerisms he and the script litter through the film make him seem something of a dandelion in the desert (Noel Coward said if he were any prettier, he would’ve been “Florence of Arabia“), and made much of this presentation something of an unintended comedy of near Rocky Horror proportions, there’s a wounded center at the heart of all that accidental dated-ness and camp that allows the film to thrive, especially in this era of misbegotten wars. Like The Hurt Locker long after it, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia shines as a soulful portrayal of the toll that soldiering can make on a man, no matter how born he is for it.
At the same time, the theatrical experience for Lawrence sometimes showcases some of the flaws that its treatment of the “great man” theory of history, however subversively guided, and nearly all narrative biographical films of its era have when it comes to appreciating the complexity and veracity of historical accounts. The pathetic make-up used to disguise Alec Guiness and Anthony Quinn into swarthy arabs seem all the more ridiculous in startling 4K, especially when standing next to Omar Sharif, whose soulful performance at times gives the film a romantic lilt that puts pathos behind all the snickering allusions surrounding Lawrence in the film (if we were allowed to see a real love story blossom between them, as might’ve happened with the real Lawrence, it may have been the pinnacle of all Lean’s love stories). More troubling is the way that the film portrays the breakdown of the Arab state that Lawrence helps build in order to make him more of a tragic figure, ignoring the slow erosion that political forces make over time in order to better focus our attention onto the lonely man martyred for a desert empire (or, more charitably, to keep the running time brisk even at over three hours).
It begs a revisionist look on the order offered by Oliver Stone’s latest venture, the Showtime series The Untold History of the United States, which debuted its first three episodes here at the festival, after very nearly being unveiled last year only to be pulled at the last minute and replaced by an anniversary screening of the director’s Salvador. Written by Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, the series aims to tackle the predominant historical narratives and myths of the better part of the 20th century up to today, with a special focus on the repeating patterns in world events shaped by cyclical iterations of wars and social movements. With its first three hours focusing primarily on World War II, with special emphasis on Russia’s long overlooked contributions and heroic sacrifices, Britain’s long-term goals to ensure the stability of its global empire in the face of Nazi aggression and feared Soviet competition, and the tragic circumstances that led to the United States delivering two atomic bombs on the civilian population of Japan, there are already a significant number of stories being told here that will be unfamiliar and certainly unwelcome to much of the viewing audiences. Figures long heralded as sympathetic heroes such as Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman are at times given savage investigations when probing their motives and methods for waging war, while someone as infamous as Stalin winds up with a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal, as Stone makes great strides to unveil the heroic lengths he undertook to fight the Nazi advance, while never overlooking his own offenses against humanity.
Most enlightening, however, are the ways in which Stone details the forgotten history of FDR’s wartime vice-president Henry Wallace, a strident progressive by almost every measure of the times who enjoyed such universal popularity with the electorate that it took fever-pitch backroom negotiations during the 1944 Democratic Primary, where powerful party leaders schemed to replace him with the more conservative political naif of Truman. Though it can be easy to be suspicious of Stone for rallying to turn Wallace into a hero at the expense of Truman, especially during moments where he indulges in imagining the near-utopian state that might’ve resulted in a Wallace presidency with nearly the same alternate-history imagination of Harry Turtledove, the way that he uses his countermyth to stand in contrast with the popular view of history as shaped by more charitable authors like David McCullough is striking, especially when he hones in his focus to expose the lies surrounding Truman’s motivations to drop the Bomb. Furthermore, Stone’s methods as a filmmaker here help make the digestion of all this information and possible hearsay much easier– unlike the usual documentary format of cycling between anonymous narration and talking-head interview subjects, Stone relies entirely on historical footage and his own voice-over narration, reading a script by himself and Kuznick. As such, he avoids attempting to appear objective in his presentation of events, and instead admits his film as his own personal, subjective review. None of us are entitled to our own facts, but we’re all entitled to our own opinions, and in watching as fully formed and informed a set as Stone’s, we are invited to dig deeper and come up with our own.
One of the charms about Oliver Stone’s latest work is not that it supplies an entirely new reading of history or unprecedented reveals of information, but rather that it assembles and condenses a vast worth of alternate sources into a central format that creates a firmer context for all that information than much of it had on its own. I’d already known about how unnecessary the United States’ decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were and the deeper motivations to shock and awe the Soviets rather than the people of Japan, but those corners of history become far more potent when viewed alongside the growing tendency of Axis and Allied powers alike to bomb heavily civilian populations in campaigns of total warfare and the conflicting conservative and progressive sides of American politics as represented by Truman and Wallace. There’s a lot of history out there that has the reputation for being forgotten that we already know about to some detail, and a whole host of those are present in Roger Michel’s Hyde Park on the Hudson, which has mostly gained attention for the against-type casting of Bill Murray as iconic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s nigh impossible to reconcile the blunt featured actor with the sharp, aristocratic face and voice of that most patrician of political figures, and it’s to Murray’s credit that he doesn’t attempt to affect the same kind of expert impersonation that Edward Herrman has perfected over the years.
Instead he merely tries to use his own natural comic sensibilities to stand in for FDR’s noted charms, and for the most part he succeeds well enough, especially when marrying that to the broken physicality of polio. And were he in a film with a stronger script or more daring a director, those efforts might’ve been worth more than mere curiosity, but there’s little to recommend in this pale little attempt to shine a light on both the president’s negotiations with the King and Queen of England in the midst of European war (at times the film plays like an accidental sequel to The King’s Speech, with all the same stuttering pathos) and his various extra-marital activities. The problem isn’t that we don’t want to see our respected figures and heroes seen in such a revealing light, but rather that nothing new is being revealed. FDR’s affairs and backroom dealings are just about as well known in accepted historical texts as his polio and New Deal politicking– the movie gets more mileage out of the reveal that the King will have to eat a hot-dog at a presidential picnic. As such if one wants to dramatize these things there needs to be more than just mere shock sensationalism. After all, there’s nothing to shock if it’s stuff you already know, even if it’s a story that hasn’t really been told on the big screen. Oliver Stone’s own narrative features are a good example of how to tell revelatory historical narratives while also delivering impressive cinematic experiences– even if you already suspected conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination or knew the ins and outs of Watergate, JFK and Nixon remain impressive examples of movie-making. As such, most of Hyde Park feels like an awful waste of talent, especially in the form of Laura Linney as FDR’s latest mistress or Olivia Williams as a spitfire Eleanor (about time Miss Cross and Herman Blume reconnected).
If Hyde Park is a forgettable film about history well worth remembering, one could say that Heaven’s Gate has for the better part of 30 years already been forgotten, entirely. I’ve already written extensively (perhaps a little too much) about why I consider it to be not only one of the most underrated films of all time, but simply one of the best, and I’m not the only one at this site to do so. However, if David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a film I was able to experience almost anew on the big screen without fresh or vivid memories of seeing it on television to get in the way, then Michael Cimino’s painstakingly rendered vision of class struggle in the Johnson County War is one that I’d come to know almost by heart in the letterboxed format it’s been seen on for decades. In a sense, Heaven’s Gate is a film that has probably been more widely seen in its full version on television, right from the start– pulled from screens and re-edited at the studio’s behest after a disastrous New York premier in 1980, the director’s cut eventually found an audience on LA’s legendary Z-Channel, where Californian film nuts could gobble up the whole of Cimino’s epic reworking of the mythic American West, though without the overpowering presence afforded by a theatrical exhibition. Like all true epics, of course, it deserves to be seen on the big screen, and even with the upcoming release on home-video by Criterion and all the recognition of its greatness that means for future generations of cinephiles, perhaps the sweetest flavor in the film’s long-overdue reappraisal has to be the full throated welcome it received at the New York Film Festival.
After all, this is the “scene of the crime”, as Cimino himself put it during an emotional Q&A segment after the film, which enjoyed a standing-ovation lasting all throughout its end-credits. For the film to be embraced so devotedly by a new audience in the same city which stood for ground zero in its slow demise was obviously an overwhelming validation for the director, who along with star Kris Kristofferson could barely speak. Perhaps what’s so amazing about the experience of seeing it in the festival was the knowledge that this was an audience almost entirely composed of people who had either never seen the film before, or so long ago they effectively couldn’t recall it, the memory drowned out by its decades-long stigma of being the bomb that destroyed the New Hollywood experiment. Being well acquainted with the film after countless viewings on DVD, I was primed not only to experience it for myself on the big screen at all the overwhelming size that it deserved, but also kept my attention glued to the reception it was getting from this virgin crowd. To be sure, Heaven’s Gate doesn’t gain quite as much as Lawrence or Ben Hur do in terms of rediscovery on the big-screen– shot at a more intimate Panavision rather than the expansive 70mm, the film survives the transition from the theater to the television a bit more ably with the definition of its image not too far downgraded, as all anamorphic-35mm films tend to do. One of the reasons that Heaven’s Gate found an early home on Z-Channel is that, like many of the more modern epics from the 70′s and 80′s, is that it was shot in a format that makes the adaptation to television that much easier. It may belong on the big screen, but the small screen does it justice, more or less.
But there is a sure benefit to witnessing the full scope of the film at its natural scale, especially in a film that seeks to showcase and subvert the massively orchestrated spectacles of the epic genre in showstopping set-piece after set-piece– from the waltzing college greens of Harvard to the jubilant frontier Wyoming roller-skating hall that gives the film its name (a detail I hadn’t noticed until seeing it on the big screen), and especially to the harrowing series of gunfights and full-scale battles that dominate its end, Heaven’s Gate is a film about times and places in American history and personal lives that utterly drown out and dominate all notion of memory. There’s a pageantry here that matches and comments on the decadence throughout the epic genre as far back as Cecile B. DeMille or even Griffith, only Cimino “writes lightning with fire” to pose a countermyth to the prevailing attitudes of his time rather than prop up hatemongering propaganda. Manifest destiny is portrayed here not merely as the hard-won sacrifices of valiant pioneers, but as the unstoppable march of greedy capitalists seeking to murder and steal whatever they can from the immigrant underclass taming the wild country for them. It’s not so much How the West Was Won, but the latest iteration of how it was stolen, and whom it was stolen from. All the grand spectacles throughout the film impress greatly, and it’s easy to tell Cimino’s affection in the pristine attention to detail with which he renders the period (if nothing else, seeing the film on the big screen shows just how much of his notorious perfectionism paid off in the final film, details that can get lost when reduced for television) and its over-the-top attractions like a three-ring circus, but those spectacles impress deeper when seen theatrically as expressions and parodies of the larger-than-life mythologizing that American history aspires to at its best and worst alike. Spectacle is presented as a way to celebrate triumphs, and to cover up its shames as well, distracting from the truth with cannonball shock and awe.
And as such, it’s the little intimate elements throughout the film that impress most cuttingly in the theatrical setting, as evidenced by the audiences’ reaction throughout. So much of the film’s humor plays off much better on the big screen, where the bold archetypes feel more natural and less strained than on television. Christopher Walken especially practically steals the show as the flamboyant Nathan Champion, rivaled only perhaps by John Hurt’s clownish drunk or Sam Waterston’s scenery-chewing mustache twirler. The playful sensuality also benefits greatly, with Isabelle Huppert’s Ella and her love triangle feeling much more weighted thanks to the extra import the big-screen performances afford than when squeezed into the television frame– we see more of why she’d want to stay with Kristofferson’s close-to-the-vest Averill or Walken’s grandstanding Champion, making all their fates seem all the heavier, rather than preordained. Most of all, however, the film’s violence and bleak denouement affect far more when witnessed at their full size and definition, and perhaps it’s here that the experience of seeing it with an audience impressed me the most. I’ve enjoyed attending films theatrically over the past several years, especially ones that I’ve already seen and come to love on my own, particularly for the experience of hearing the crowd react to it for the first time. When an audience is fully engaged enough to laugh or gasp along with a film unprimed by memory, it validates the experience in a way far more meaningful than any critical evaluation or box-office success.
As such, it meant all the more to hear the air sucked in from the theater en masse when characters were savagely gunned down, or even listening to the sobbing moans of protest from filmgoers who clearly didn’t know what to expect, who didn’t know already that Heaven’s Gate was a tragedy. I did, of course, and to hear my first experience with the film echoed in the voice of the crowd as they witnessed it in full glory was an astonishment that underlines the importance of the theatrical experience for more than just the proportional gains a film maintains, but the communal atmosphere, as well. We seldom know that we’re seeing a classic the first time it unfolds for us, but to see and hear others experience one with a fresh and open mind is as close as we can manage. Now as the film begins to ascend to its rightful place in the canon of cinema, and it finally takes a place to be recognized by Johnny Come Lately critics and reappraisers, at least I can count myself as one of its relative early adopters, and pick up that otherwise insufferable mantra of the hipster generation and proudly claim, “I loved Heaven’s Gate before it was cool”.
Next week: Something in the Air (Apres-Mai), Holy Motors, No and Tabu