‘The Rider’ Puts a Female Lens on Toxic Masculinity

In this essay produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy, Caroline Cao looks at how the story of a Lakota cowboy interrogates the American dream.

This article was originally produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. “The Rider” is now playing in limited release.

“You can overcome anything if you work hard enough” is an infectious idea, a brick in the foundation of the American Dream. But that depends on how accessible that dream is in the first place. The titular hero Brady Blackburn of “The Rider” confronts such boundaries as he pines to return to the rodeo pedestal.

Rarely do Native Americans faces command an onscreen presence. While the recent historical romance “A Woman Walks Ahead” empowers Native American voices, it still fits a pattern of regulating Native Americas as supporting players to white-centric narratives. On the other hand, Chloe Zhao’s gentle drama “The Rider” gives the spotlight to the Lakota face of Brady Jandreau, whose real-life head injury inspired the film.

Zhao shot “The Rider” and her first Lakota-centric feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which encompasses a dark history of American oppression, namely the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Zhao commits to the naturalism to illuminate the crass realism of day-to-day lives. Harkening back to “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” where the hero had to choose between homeland loyalty and leaving its dreary borders, Brady is disillusioned in his homeland of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao anchors Brady in a harsh reality where dreams just aren’t feasible, physically, and economically.

Like Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” “The Rider” places a female lens on the toxic masculinity that plagues society. Wracked with a crippling damage in his brain and hand, Brady wants to resurrect his glory days as the masculine “cowboy up” ideal. But his head injury, in which the wounds are exposed in the chilling opening as Brady plucks off blood-tipped surgical staples, imposes considerable inertia as he lugs himself toward reviving his bronco-riding career.

Zhao complicates our reaction to Brady’s pursuit by unfurling the layers of his predicament from economical to spiritual. On one hand, it respects his free-spirited desire to get back up. In his desperate economic station, we feel for Brady as he takes up a menial job as a price-checker to pay off his father’s gambling debts in a sterilized store, a black-hole nightmare for many in the poverty loop. On the other hand, his physical constraints are incurable. His dream could cost him his life, but the “die trying” adage sounds like a consolation should the dream claim his life.

DP Joshua James Richards shooting "The Rider"

DP Joshua James Richards shooting “The Rider”

In every film, we do not want to believe the naysayers. His father Tim (Tim Jandreau) gruffly commands him, “let go,” judging that his son’s delusions of grandeur could lead to fatality. It’s antagonistic and rubs salt in Brady’s wounds. Brady’s fellow friends believe in him, but they don’t buy that Brady’s condition needs gradual recovery time or is incurable. So much for the ideal of “hard work gets you anywhere.” It can’t cure a head and bodily injury. But Brady can hide his wounds underneath his hat so that from the distance, he looks functional in the eyes of his less informed friends. Thus, expectations are projected onto him. Masculine peers insist he’s a failure if he does not get back in the arena. They don’t see his injury as a grim anchor, but as just another hurdle to jump over.

To counterpoint these “supportive” friends’ unrealistic expectations, Brady turns to another acquaintance for empathy: a tetraplegic Lane Scott (playing himself) who bears a bronco-related damage that Brady cannot hide beneath his cowboy hat. With Lane, Brady finds relief from the pushiness of his friends, and they watch their good ole’ days on crude iPhone videos where they were worshipped superstars before their respective injuries. Unlike Brady’s able-bodied friends, Lane first-hand knows that not everything is hunky-dory with Brady’s quest.

Zhao leaves an understated tragedy in the inconclusiveness to Brady’s predicament. Brady nearly crosses the borders of the rodeo ring for his epic career comeback, but he walks away at peace with his vulnerability for better or worse. Lane feeds Brady some encouragement to not give up on his dreams, but Brady is left to meditate on its open-ended meaning. Can Brady choose to try again if he wishes? Or should Brady redefine the dream to find satisfaction?

We trust Brady can survive. He doesn’t need to indulge in grandiose visions; there is satisfaction in hunkering down. Lane’s encouraging lets Brady be open to other avenues. But we’re not shown happier alternatives for Brady’s post-rodeo existence. Nor is the whole of Brady’s underprivileged society resolved. Who is part of the American Dream? Certainly not those excluded from the prosperity of the American Dream. Sometimes the practicalities of life aren’t obstacles, but realities. Sometimes the forces that question that sparked these dreams in the first place are questionable.

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‘Lady Bird’ Was Snubbed By the Oscars, But It’s a Historic Coming of Age Movie

Along with “The Florida Project,” Greta Gerwig’s movie represents a new era of “forced coming-of-age stories” that speak to our troubled times.

This article was originally produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy.

Lady Bird always said she lived on the wrong side of the tracks, I didn’t know there were actual tracks.” So says Danny (Lucas Hedges) almost flippantly in “Lady Bird.” In the film, class plays a large role in how the titular character interacts with everyone she comes in contact with. The movie is seemingly a coming of age story about a girl who’s simply trying to make her social ends meet as she transitions from high school to college, but that would almost be too superficial of a reading. “Lady Bird” and “The Florida Project” didn’t win any of the Oscars they were nominated for on Sunday, but their legacies are secure as part of a growing trend to break the mold of the old coming-of age model. In doing so, have become more authentic in regards to how the characters view family, class, and themselves.

Socially conscious, class-based movies are not new to cinema. After the end of World War II, Italy stripped its filmic style down to its bare bones through the nation’s “neo-realist” movement. Movies like “Rome, Open City”, “Bicycle Thieves,” and “Umberto D” allowed for audiences to enter the spaces and lives of social classes that they had previously never experienced before. Now 70 years later, American cinema has joined the tradition of emphasizing social and racial class divides.

Much like the rich tradition of socially conscious pictures, the coming of age movie can be traced back to the ‘50s, with Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” in which James Dean played an aimless, melodramatic teenager who repetitiously claims that no one understands him.

At the end of the decade, Francois Truffaut shook the cinematic world with “The 400 Blows,” a semi-autobiographical depiction of his life as a child growing up on the streets of Paris. Fast forward to the ‘80s, and the genre is in full swing with John Hughes’ industrial additions to the canon — “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Sixteen Candles.” In comparison with more recent coming-of-age stories in cinema, these stories seem too fluid with picture-perfect endings and conflict that isn’t really conflict at all.

Most conflict is internal in these films as characters must deal with their own inner feelings before reacting to what is going on around them. Ferris Bueller’s only real conflict is to make sure he gets home on time; his buddy Cameron’s real conflict is with a straw-man father figure.

Such vanilla suburban struggles are out of sync with modern times. In a new era for the coming-of-age story, characters are forced to grow up due to the situations that they find themselves in, class struggles chief among them.

One of the films that showcases this idea of the “forced coming-of-age” story is Sean Baker’s latest humanist feature, “The Florida Project.” The story centers on six-year-old Moonee, a girl bouncing from motel to motel on the outskirts of Orlando with her mom who also bounces from job to job with no luck of finding a steady income. Moonee is enlisted by her mom to help sell cheap, wholesale fragrances to wealthy patrons of nearby resorts in hopes of making a few bucks to make rent and eat food that month. Moonee shouldn’t have to work with her mom to make rent, but due to her mother’s poor,, short-sighted decisions, alongside the latent results of the 2008 financial crisis, the grunt of the work falls on Moonee. When she’s not helping her mom, Baker’s camera playfully follows Moonee and other “hidden homeless” kids who grow up in motels. They walk down the block for ice cream, go swimming in the public pool, and occasionally get into the mischief of typical kids.

“The Florida Project”

But unlike Ferris Bueller, Moonee’s immediate future is not in her own hands. Halley, Moonee’s mother, has the terribly difficult task of trying to control her own life while attempting to raise Moonee in a stable environment. Halley eventually falls down a slippery slope of unemployment alongside poor financial decisions, which ultimately leads to her involvement in prostitution. While Moonee has no say in this, she suffers the worst of it. As class mandates these stories, sometimes the outcomes aren’t as cozy as John Hughes imagined.

Class provides a very different sort of backdrop to “Lady Bird.” The film opens up with Christine (Saoirse Ronan, whose character has self-dubbed herself “Lady Bird”), and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) emotionally experiencing the end of an audiobook recording of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” Immediately following this tender moment, mother-daughter tension sets in as Lady Bird throws herself out of the moving car. It’s a jolt of an opening that establishes Lady Bird’s contempt for her family; the rest of the movie elaborates on it. As the opening quote makes clear, Lady Bird must try to reconcile the idea that she and her family are poor but that she also attends a Catholic high school with the upper-echelon of Sacramento. After a while, Lady Bird stops telling people that she lives on the “wrong side of the tracks” and just starts lying about where she lives. While Lady Bird experiences the normal coming-of-age issues like teenage sexuality and preparing for college, her working class status is where her real growing pains lie.

As Lady Bird applies for colleges on the East Coast, her mother wants her to stay close to home for financial reasons, but her father secretly fills out her financial aid forms for her just asking that she doesn’t tell her mom. After finding out about this, her mother becomes infuriated, even refusing to speak to Lady Bird for the foreseeable future. While some coming-of-age stories are centered on simply just getting into a college (Cameron Sawyer’s “Tim Timmerman” comes to mind), director Greta Gerwig’s film deals with the actual issues that arise when families must reconcile the growing higher education costs and the rifts that come with that. While Molly Ringwald’s stereotypical character in the “The Breakfast Club” must wrestle with her own insecurities, Lady Bird must deal not only with her own insecurities as a high school girl, but also those of her parents as they wrestle with their own realizations of their place in society.

However, it’s also important to note just how much we need these types of representational stories in contemporary cinema. As Viktor Shklovsky says in his essay “Art as Technique”: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” The movies have always been a space where the audience can become immersed in a life other than their own and empathize. We desperately need Moonee and Lady Bird’s stories now in such a dichotomized time in American culture (much in the same way we needed the neo-realism movement after WWII). It’s through these artistic measures that we can start to understand and empathize with everyone from every side of the train tracks.

“Lady Bird” and “The Florida Project” are not the first to start this trend (2017’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight” is another great example) but they solidify the idea of a “forced” coming-of-age story, one uniquely attuned to modern times. As America wrestles with its generational divide — issues of race, class and gender confront past and present eras’ standards — it’s hard to imagine this trope will go away anytime soon.

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Lessons For Hollywood From Foreign Films — NYFF Critics Academy

In this dispatch from the NYFF Critics Academy, a look at how recent foreign language films draw a striking contrast with Hollywood product.

The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.

In today’s intense political climate, the battle between nationalism and globalism is a widespread conflict, one that emerges in part from being alienated by a system that is unsympathetic and uncaring. Hollywood reflects this alienation by what it chooses to ignore: The industry continually avoids touchy film subjects, such as the lives of working-class Americans. The studio’s largest, mass-produced films play it safe by focusing on the all-inclusive entertainment value of superheroes and furry animals.

One might argue that the onus lies on American audiences, who may not be interested in realism, and perhaps it’s just a business decision on part of the studios. However, within the past seven years, American independent cinema has produced successful, highly profitable films such as “Frozen River,” “Winter’s Bone,” and “Tangerine.” These titles and a few others — such as “Amreeka,” “Drunktown’s Finest,” and “American Honey” — show a willingness for American filmmakers and audiences to support proletariat driven films, but they still can’t compete with the visibility of Hollywood product.

Hollywood’s lack of engagement with such a large part of its audience becomes more jarringly clear when compared to international cinema—evidenced in this year’s New York Film Festival. Take, for example, Agnès Varda and JR’s new collaborative documentary, “Faces Places,” in which the two artists drive around France in a large van with a built-in photo booth compartment, stopping by various towns and plastering giant, printed posters (a beautiful call back to Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”) of locals on the sides of buildings and houses. Some of these locals include dockworkers (their wives are photographed as a triptych), farmers, energy plant workers, and coal miners. This conceit could have been about upper-class travelers spending time with the lower class and we, as viewers, would pay witness to the rich’s self-transformation via their own class consciousness. Thankfully, “Faces Places” does not exploit. It glimpses into the everyday lives of its subjects and catches precious moments in time.

Agnes Varda Faces Places

“Faces Places”

Consider the sequence in which the photograph of a farmer is plastered on the side of his 30-foot barn. The camera lingers on the man’s face for a few seconds as he looks up at the poster, taking in the grandness of the work. He does not flinch or budge. He smiles. It’s a poignant moment, an accumulation of overseeing thousands of acres of land for several years and finally feeling appreciated for it. It’s within such restrained moments that “Faces Places” feels most political. With the nimble sparseness of its aesthetic, a byproduct of Varda’s neorealist-influenced, thrift-shop brand of filmmaking—recalling her own “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnès” —the film is an enriching experience, one in which the working class is tenderly embraced.

This humanistic approach toward depicting the proletariat as film subject is not unlike the method employed by Aki Kaurismäki in his new film, “The Other Side of Hope,” a deadpan dark comedy about a Syrian refugee, Khaled, trying to obtain political asylum in Finland. Juxtaposing Khaled is the charmingly quiet Wikström, whose marriage problems and gambling luck will lead him to buy a restaurant, for which Khaled will work.

“The Other Side of Hope” is filled with Kaurismäki’s signature modest modus operandi, with still camera shots that capture the sparse movement of characters, and a minimalistic visual palette that results in plainly filmed events. The comedy that lives beneath Kaurismäki’s placid, retro music-stylized tableaux, along with the director’s clear compassion for Khaled, is reminiscent of another European filmmaker who also had an eye for the proletariat and a feel for “the cool”: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German director’s influence is felt most readily when we first see Khaled walking away from the docks of Helsinki—a heap of coal dust covers his skin.

It is an unreal moment, the subject is Chaplinesque, but the shot is static, removed, placed several feet from Khaled, as we watch him. Later in the film, during comedic sequences in the restaurant involving Khaled and the quirky Finnish restaurant crew, Kaurismäki’s humor doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the film; it deepens the experience of viewing it. As he has done numerous times (most famously in “The Man Without a Past”), Kaurismäki uses humor to connect people to political ideas, being informative, but revealing. In one the scene, Khaled hides from government authorities in the restaurant bathroom with a playful pup (it wouldn’t be a Kaurismäki film without a canine). The scene works as a double-edged sword; it shows the hardships of a targeted individual, living in a society alien to him, but its humor reflects the absurdity of events that come with those perils.

“The Other Side of Hope”

What is key in both films is the empathy displayed. Wikström, like Varda and JR, does not condescend. Despite a less than ideal life, the business owner chooses to make the lives of people around him better, listening to his new employees’ concerns and making sure Khaled’s sister can come to Finland comfortably. These films give credence to the possibility of hope, despite the world seemingly giving up on it. And by showing the hopeful side of humanity, the films are a refreshing antidote to the cynicism of the Hollywood blockbuster machine and today’s politics.

For all their anti-Trump posturing, Hollywood executives should take inspiration from their foreign counterparts and be more apt to take a chance on films about the working classes who are most affected by political realities. Art should be a way to liberate the proletariat, not imprison it. And film should be a space that challenges, not reinforces, oppressive societal structures.

Hip Hop Redefined: How Arnaud Desplechin Uses Rap Music to Tell Fragile Stories — NYFF

In this latest dispatch from the NYFF Critics Academy, how rap music takes on a unique dimension in one of France’s greatest living filmmakers.

The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.

Arnaud Desplechin may be the only filmmaker with a literary sensibility who understands the storytelling power of rap. His dialogue resembles a specific brand of French intellectualism that manifests in maladroit humor, and he maintains a general focus on epic, convoluted structures and literary motifs — soliloquies that break the fourth wall, omniscient narration, and strongly developed characters (which tie directly with his consistent lengthiness). His characters, while gauche, are irrevocably more privileged — they are artists and filmmakers, occupying large houses and indulgent with their resources.

This is why rap becomes a key contrasting factor in several of his films: Hip hop is not for the bourgeoise. The social issues that the lyrics of the rap songs often tackle have no relevance to the issues of the characters’ listening to them. There is an inherent disharmony between visuals depicting opulence and solitude, and lyrics lamenting poverty and promoting community through love and dance.

In mainstream cinema, hip-hop represents escapism: One immediately thinks of films that defined the genre like “8 Mile” or “Straight Outta Compton,” in which hip-hop amplifies lofty ambitions and offers a route to fame and success. Desplechin, who reacts to genre conventions by otherwise utilizing grandiose music compositions that evoke the cinematic, instead turns hip hop into a means of plainly representing reality.

Both his directorial debut “La Vie Des Morts” and 2004’s “Kings & Queen” include sequences of family crises being resolved with rap tunes (and the latter contains an unforgettable spontaneous Mathieu Amalric b-boy dance showcase). Such moments support the universality of the musical genre while calling into question the generational divide it usually invokes.

In his his latest effort, the multilayered narrative “Ismael’s Ghosts,” a syncopated orchestral score suggests the thriller genre with a film-within-a-film written by the movie’s frustrated filmmaker star. This musical composition is enough to formulate a sense of intrigue, bolstered by images of dimly lit corridors leading into trapdoors, and government officials sitting around fancy dinner tables discussing folklore as if they were mob bosses.

It climaxes with an interview for a secret government position that manages to be both intensely dramatic, and humorously aloof, before Desplechin attempts a conventional mic-drop edit: “I was tired,” the exalted Dedalus (Louis Garrel) whines, as he fumbles for the door; the music ramps up and the narrative fizzles out, revealed to be a part of the script being written by director Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), who sits forlornly in front of a stack of papers, scotch in hand. He’s listening to rap music — an unreleased song by French DJs that could be any rap song from the ‘80s — which grounds the film in reality even as the constructed imaginary of this meta-film adopts a traditional music score.

Ismael's Ghosts Marion Cotillard

“Ismael’s Ghosts”

The next instance of rap is even more evocative of this emotional sensationalism: Sylvie has suddenly left Ismael; in the dead of a rainy night in a phone booth outside of a gas station, the orchestral score climaxes as he weeps to her voicemail. This triggers a flashback — a brief scene of him drunkenly confessing his love one night to Sylvie before a quick cut triggers a remix of “Peace, Love and Having Fun” by Afrika Bambaataa, and the sound of Ismael directing, screaming viciously at members of his set harshly interrupt. The characters as a whole, who wear their hearts on their sleeves and are very prone to spontaneous outbursts have their unhinged mindsets reflected not so much through the music they listen to, but rather through constant antithetical shifts in the music used and the stylistic disproportion that such shifts impose.

Rap becomes appropriate theme music for Ismael, who embodies both the outwardly masculine stereotype that has come to be associated with the genre, as well as the innate insecurity implicated by hyper-masculinity. Here is an outwardly successful filmmaker with a manic temperament about him, defined immediately by his fondness for a type of music that is both liberated and iconoclastic. He thinks highly of himself, as do the other men in the film, but this cocksuredness is transparent, so accentuated that it becomes an evocation for extreme sensitivity, fragility.

He is occasionally tamed by his emotions. In following orchestrally-scored scenes that evoke the starkest of dramatics with naturalistic hip-hop sequences, lives become grounded in reality, yet retain the heightened romance of the movies. In both cases, the scenes that follow are genuinely tender, underscored by soft violins and more nuanced because of the spectrum of music leading up to them.

Through these scenes and Desplechin’s general adoration of the genre, the filmmaker channels rap’s objective as a catalyst for personal catharsis. It’s the perfect supplement to his form of expressionist cinema, which exudes energy and emotion on many levels at once. Desplechin’s films are like mixtapes, embodying various moods and digging into characters’ psyches with dizzying fervor and freneticism. Rap is its own language, taking part in a dialect with the rest of the film’s soundscape: sound cues, dialogue, and music of other genres — folk, jazz, classical.

But, in the spirit of his bohemian characters, disposable pop music is nowhere to be found. They’re too deep for that.

Westerns, Redefined: How Two New Movies Provide Fresh Meaning to a Dated Genre — NYFF

In this dispatch from the NYFF Critics Academy, two new westerns that shake up the conventions of the genre with non-professional actors.

The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.

The western is an iconic genre tied to the very genesis of cinema itself, but it doesn’t have the currency it held decades ago. That’s why it’s such a thrill to see Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and Valeski Grisebach’s “Western” — two highlights from this year’s New York Film Festival — reshape the genre from the ground up.

It’s only possible to appreciate that if you consider how far the genre has come. The western reigned Hollywood for decades—particularly from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. The genre’s appeal was that its unequivocal good vs. evil narrative could translate to any cultural zeitgeist. It wasn’t until Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Sam Peckinpagh’s “The Wild Bunch” that the genre began to shed its pat moralism and embrace the nihilistic recalcitrance of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Post-Vietnam westerns became sites of gritty ambiguity and the heroic cowboy’s metamorphosis into an anti-hero with obscure ethics. Since these films questioned and subverted the western genre’s ideologies, they became known as “revisionist westerns.”

This label has since developed into an umbrella term that encompasses the many guises of contemporary western cinema. These films either imbue the western’s generic tropes within the modern era (“No Country for Old Men,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), focus on the genre’s marginalized characters, particularly women (“The Homesman,” “Jane Got a Gun”), or are a pastiche (“In a Valley of Violence,” “Slow West”). Even though contemporary westerns have splintered off into a wide range of defining narrative and formal qualities, “The Rider” and “Western” still manage to reinvigorate the genre.

Both movies employ a unique docu-fiction style, both Chloe Zhao and Valeski Grisebach cast actors to play versions of themselves and constructed narratives loosely based on their lives — and neither movie relied on a traditional screenplay. These inventive techniques provide a sense of candid verisimilitude rarely seen in the scrupulously-constructed western genre.

It is rare to see female directors behind the camera of male-centric westerns, and it is Zhao and Grisebach’s feminine perspective that attests to their fine critique of the gender structures reinforced by western cinema. These women dismantle the mythological masculinity of the iconic cowboy figure, fracturing the impetus of the “strong, silent type” through a sensitive examination of his vulnerabilities and rejection of masculine expectations. The directors also recodify other formal and narrative elements of the western, particularly the civilization versus wilderness conflict.

western

“Western”

As a rodeo prodigy, Brady (Brady Jandreau) cannot stave off his zealous desire for life on the frontier—so much so that he’s willing to endanger his well-being. Despite a painful and traumatic head injury, he continues to pursue what he believes is his God-given vocation. “Once a cowboy, always a cowboy,” Brady reminds himself, and nothing will stand in the way of his indefatigable commitment to riding horses.

Zhao pictures this pious act with an exquisite cinematic beauty and poetic reverence; shot in slow motion, the viewer reveres each muscular ripple of the regal galloping creature’s back and lingers on Brady in a gentle repose as the breeze rustles his hair. Zhao also conveys Brady’s idolatry of the frontier through stunning Fordian landscapes of pastel-purple skies and golden sunsets that are so expansive they seem to swallow up his tiny figure. When juxtaposed against the harsh fluorescents of his monotonous dollar store job, the exteriors of his Midwestern home seem positively mythical.

Being a cowboy is the very fabric of Brady’s identity. His stalwart father (Tim Jandreau) encourages him to “be a man” in the model of western genre heroes past, a paragon of immutable strength, and continue riding. With his monk-like taciturnity and obdurate gaze, Brady certainly embodies the “strong, silent type,” but when his injury worsens and hands frequently freeze up in a fist, Brady fights the urge to speak up. His cowboy friends—who have all endured their fair share of rodeo wounds— insist that he must “ride through the pain.” But what happens when the pain is truly too great? Does admitting that make him any less of a man? His best friend and ex-rodeo star (Lane Scott) left paralyzed after a riding accident should serve as a cautionary tale, but somehow he motivates Brady to persevere.

Brady is just as devoted to his family as he is horses. Left without a mother, he cares tremendously for his sister with developmental disabilities. On the other hand, Meinhard of “Western” (Meinhard Neumann), the “strong silent type,” embodies the preeminent shot in “The Searchers”; like John Wayne’s character, he has no familial ties and is caught between a proverbial doorway that either leads into the embrace of community or enables him to retreat back into the darkness of his nomadism.

“There’s nothing to keep me at home,” is one of the few autobiographical facts he admits, along with his past as a Foreign Legion soldier. Despite his pacifism—“violence isn’t my thing”—he’s ready to defend his friends when needed, as demonstrated in one scene when he swiftly threatens an interloper with a gun after he dares to cross his new friend. The reformed fighter and outlaw, or a man who has buried the violent sins of his past, is a common western archetype.

Disgusted by his cruel boss, a brute who teases women and steals the community’s water supply, Meinhard rejects the herd mentality of his savage and hyper-masculine construction crew who infiltrate the Bulgarian countryside. Eventually, Meinard discovers a white horse, its color symbolic of a peace offering for the suspicious but congenial inhabitants of the nearby village. His conflict diverges from Brady of “The Rider” because he wishes to abandon the frontier and find solace in others, leading him to construct a makeshift family of his own out of the villagers. Griesbach also displaces the western’s American setting for Bulgaria and reconfigures the xenophobic cowboy vs. Indians narrative through the tense German and Bulgarian relations.

Both “Western” and “The Rider” are distinct portraits that revitalize the contemporary western. While the definition of a western today is multifarious—no singular aspect emblematic of its makeup— “The Rider” and “Western” stand apart from all others through the combination of their feminine perspective, rejection of the cowboy figure’s masculinity, and docu-drama styles. If they provide us a window into the modern state of the genre, it looks a lot brighter than it did a few years ago.

Joan Didion and Arthur Miller Get the Documentary Treatment From Family Members, And That Makes All the Difference — NYFF

“Arthur Miller: Writer” and “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” both grapple with the relationships their makers have with their subjects off-camera.

The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.

Documentaries often get personal with their subjects, sometimes in ways that are essential to the powerful filmmaking on display. But what does it look like when family, so often the subject, mingles with the forces behind the camera?

Two new documentary films, “Arthur Miller: Writer” and “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” position their eponymous 20th century literary figures beneath their progeny’s gazes. Plenty ambitious, often neutral, and never too critical, these filmmakers seek a delicate, ethical balance between titillating an audience with the private life behind a public persona and executing a squeaky-clean legacy. Writer and director Rebecca Miller is tasked with her father Arthur, the man who used theater to confront the fallacies of the postwar era; actor and director Griffin Dunne tackles his aunt, Joan Didion, who rejuvenated the modern essay and offered readers alternative ways of navigating grief.

“Arthur Miller: Writer” begins with a formal montage of its subject’s accomplishments, shifting to grainy, intimate footage of Miller’s final decades in interview, the bulk of which was filmed before and during the younger Miller’s own pursuit of a screenwriting and directorial career.

Those familiar with Rebecca Miller’s previous features (“Personal Velocity,” “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” “Maggie’s Plan”) will take pleasure in finding possible seeds of inspiration for her female characters — fiercely clever and negotiating with the shadow of some esteemed man or another — within the Millers’ own biography. As her footage becomes voiceover for other archival material, we see that the Millers share a closeness, one that occurs so rarely (particularly between fathers and daughters). The playwright opens up about the arc of his career, from finding his way from fiction at the University of Michigan to theater in New York City, and from there to the House Un-American Activities Committee and a frustrating slump when his plays turned unpalatable to audiences hellbent on countercultural innovations. Miller’s triumvirate of marriages are freely explored: editor Mary Slattery, actor Marilyn Monroe, and the late photographer Inge Morath (who is the also director’s mother and worthy of her own documentary) served varied, background roles to the writer.

While an aging Miller waffles over whether his relationship with Monroe began as an affair, the audience is permitted breathing room to judge him accordingly, perhaps going so far as citing Don Corleone’s proclamation about “real men.” The movie, despite being wonderfully unpolished, is not without its familial blind spots. Some are readily declared as being off-limits by the younger Miller; others, quietly ignored in the hope that they’ll be dismissed as decade-old tabloid fodder.

Author Joan Didion at home in Hollywood.

“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold”

Julian Wasser

But as the subject of Dunne’s documentary once wrote in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”: “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. […] We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is,” if nothing else, a portrait of a writer who has basked in both the relative anonymity of the analog and the carefully-curated adoration of the digital. Both Griffin Dunne and his aunt are image-conscious.

Witnessing an 80 year-old Didion — careful in her choice of words, if not slack — in contemporary interviews and b-roll, is a startling and much-needed departure from the Céline ad and infamous photo of Didion in a Stingray that have been virtually shared into ubiquity. In lieu of Miller’s home movies, her father puttering with woodwork tools as he chats about his writing process, we have high-definition. Griffin’s portrait of his aunt is no less of a carefully crafted image than those earlier photos, but at least we have the luxury of Didion in motion: through the streets of New York in winter boots, through a rant about people judging her weight, through a mausoleum, through bi-coastal existence, and through her 15 books and six screenplays.

Particular attention is given to the author’s past 15 years, most notably the back-to-back deaths of Didion’s partner in life and art, John Dunne, their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, and the two acclaimed works of nonfiction that she penned in response: “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights.”

The movie is most courageous when exploring Didion’s relationship to Dunne, which Didion frankly acknowledges as being more practical and intellectual than romantic. Similarly, the film is its most tentative when exploring that same interpersonal relationship, and the moments when separation seemed an inevitability, or Dunne’s drinking and anger veered into abusive territory. Because of his importance to Didion, John Dunne becomes frustratingly inextricable from not only Didion’s biography, but her bibliography. Griffin Dunne, when interviewing his aunt, isn’t inclined to push. He employs a similar discipline when deciding what to omit.

It is surprising, for example, that his sister Dominique Dunne’s murder was not extensively mentioned to allude to a curse on the Dunnes; all of Didion’s greatest pleasures, successes, and terrors seem to have originated from her connection to the family. The extended depiction of Didion and Dunne’s years together in California in the 1970s, intended to highlight the delightful dangers of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll era, comes across as gauche nostalgia in the current moment. Paradoxically, it is the film’s breathers from family that give the author’s work the credit it’s due. While “Joan Didion” deploys a small arsenal of esteemed literary critics, writers, and publishers to pontificate on the cultural significance of her work, it’s an eager outsider, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, who gives her work context by stating the obvious: It’s something any Didion fan would tell you, but nevertheless a point that her family members risk overlooking: “When I first read her, I felt like I was reading what I was waiting to be written.

Race, Religion, Immigration: 5 New Documentaries That Capture Our Divided Times — NYFF

In this report from the NYFF Critics Academy, several new documentaries wrestle with the biggest problems facing the world today.

The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.

Tragedy begets tragedy. And in 2017, the global infrastructure’s threshold for human suffering seems to be testing its limits: environmental catastrophes are ravaging the Global South, refugees are fleeing war and persecution only to be met with xenophobic policies. Yet, in the shadow of the 24/7 news cycle, keeping up with current events can prove challenging. As the landscape for film exhibition follows technology’s rapid adaptation, offering new ways to watch movies outside of the traditional theater experience, the role of a film festival continues its evolution: extending its cinematic influence over the industry and the audience, and if lucky, offering a platform that can push the culture forward.

There’s no other place one can better witness that maturation than the documentary category of this year’s New York Film Festival. The dynamism behind NYFF begins with the programmers’ awareness of its intelligent audiences, who make the annual pilgrimage to Lincoln Center.

NYFF offers a selection of politically-charged nonfiction films that match a now politically-agitated populace. One half of the documentary lineup consists of biopics of iconic figures such as the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, novelist Joan Didion, and Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg, but the other half of the program bypasses the individualism ripe in these visual autobiographies to confront massive contemporary humanitarian issues. If the media as a whole can be wielded as a tool of social power, then within the context of visual storytelling, documentaries can offer the most direct form of social commentary and political change.

Curating a selection that indicts the manifestations of white supremacy and religious extremism on a local, national, and global level, this year’s documentary selection offers insight to some of society’s most long ignored ills: A sampling: the rise Ashin Wirathu in “The Venerable W,” the religious zealot responsible for inciting the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims; the forgotten case of a young African American woman’s demand for justice after her vicious sexual assault by a gang of white men in “The Rape of Recy Taylor”; a filmmaker’s own overtly racist familial underbelly in “Did You Know Who Fired the Gun?”; and creating portraits of the migration crisis along the U.S and Mexican border in “El Mar la Mar” and the E.U refugee crisis in “Sea Sorrow.”

Despite the immense diversity in subject matter and style, these documentaries are united in their efforts to uncover truths. Yet, in the face of this unequivocal commitment to progressive films, it’s crucial to note that all of the filmmakers mentioned are white. That stands in stark contrast to 2016’s historic NYFF opening night with Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th,” and a festival program that included Raoul Peck’s brilliant “I Am Not Your Negro,” “The Cinema Travellers” by Indian duo Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, and “Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy” by African auteur Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.

So what happened this year? Was it the fault of programmers, a shallow pool of people of color submitting documentaries into the festival, a lack of funding to complete these projects, or a combination of all three? We might not find a solid answer yet, but in the meantime, it’s vital to support voices of people making films about their own communities while engaging with documentaries that give visual shape to contemporary humanitarian disasters. Five NYFF documentary highlights follow on the next page.