NYFF 60: Highlights from Week One
Now underway, the New York Film Festival seems more consolidated than in previous years. As usual, the bulky Main Slate (a staggering 32 films) is a mixture of preferential directors and fresh names. However, the documentary and virtual reality sidebars have vanished, and Currents remains a pale shadow of its former self, back when it was called “Views from the Avant-Garde” (1997–2012). Perhaps the shrinkage is a symptom of an anemic cinema at large. But I hesitate in making such a suggestion: there are several best-of-the-year titles in the fest — and it has only just begun.
Showing Up (Kelly Reichardt)
Michelle Williams teams up with Reichardt for a fourth time, making them one of the finest actor-director pairs presently. She plays Lizzy, a sculptor embedded in a local art community in Portland, Oregon, and who works for a school ran by her mother (Maryann Plunkett). Her divorcee father (Judd Hirsch) once was a sculptor himself; her brother (John Magaro) is an eccentric loner who most certainly needs medical attention. Lizzy’s neighbor (Hong Chau) is a frenemy artist and landlord, neglecting to fix her water heater. This cast of players orbit Lizzy as the film moves towards the opening day of her exhibition. But will she be ready on time?
With a gentle touch, Showing Up depicts the process and everydayness of an artist who, negotiating the obstacles of life, simply wants to work. It is both a portrait of a regional artist as well as a feather-light satire on the insular community that the artist is a part of. Whether using graceful lateral tracking to observe artwork in various stages of completion, or the succinct cuts to and inserts of artists amid projects — Reichardt offers snapshots of other perspectives, other worlds. Showing Up is shaping up to be among the director’s best works.
Will-o’-the-Wisp (João Pedro Rodrigues)
Mix master Rodrigues blends genres and styles: presentational, theatrical, science fiction, comedy, and the musical. That such a heterogenous brew flows so effectively is an achievement in and of itself, more so in that the hour-long film spans decades and generations. In a remarkably concise plot, Rodrigues represents episodes in the life of a dying king, Alfredo. After a scene in which a young Alfredo becomes environmentally conscious, he spurns his aristocratic background to become a member of the fire brigade as a young man, developing a romance with a fellow fireman. Playful and puckish, Will-o’-the-Wisp conjures a romantic notion of the future that could be, should be possible.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)
Shooting in various hospitals around Paris, the duo from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab explore the body, inside and out, at all stages of its life. Though it lacks the built-in Aristotelian unities of time and place like Leviathan or Manakamana (directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, produced by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel), De Humani Corporis Fabrica has some of the most astonishing images captured, some that I’ve never seen before. Using special cameras, the filmmakers accompany surgeons performing brain, eye, spinal, and penis operations. There’s no real context as to what is happening; Castaing-Taylor and Paravel just immerse you in the moment. The doc, consisting of sequence shots, never lags; there is always some movement from the camera or from within the shots.
Enys Men (Mark Jenkin)
This feature, my first encounter with Jenkin, shouldn’t work but does. Assembled with the barest material, Enys Men generates a haunting mood using film form and suggestion. The shot-on-16mm film centers on a woman (Mary Woodvine), a volunteer observing and recording the changes of a flower on the remotest of remote Cornish islands. Jenkin repeats shots (a close-up of her face, a stone dropped in a well, a radio, a walk among a stony path) to create a sense of ritual and monotony that alternates between being infuriating and entrancing, which he further accentuates with the movie’s tactile, fragile post-sync sound. Gradually there’s variation as the volunteer witnesses visions — of miners, a lover, boat men, even herself at a younger age — at every turn. This is freak folk horror, a hauntological object crafted for maximum dread and mystery.
Top image: Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men
The 60th New York Film Festival runs from September 30 to October 16.