‘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.

‘Moonlight’ And More: Why Coming Of Age Films Are Evolving For a New Age

In this latest dispatch from the NYFF Critics Academy, a look at several recent films that deal with a time-honored storytelling tradition in new ways.

The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. 

There is a moment in “Toni Erdmann” when a man looks at his daughter after she has ignored him during a marathon shopping trip with her boss’s wife. “Are you really human,” he asks? The line’s earnest delivery draws laughs, channeling the film’s successful pitting of a career-obsessed daughter against her prankster father in the most embarrassing situations. But the question strikes an anxious nerve running through several recent films, a number of which were featured in the New York Film Festival this fall. All of them are propelled by questions about the fate of the millennial in a challenging world.

The answer, the films tell us as they grapple with possible futures for the young, is not obvious. The rhythms and rites of passage of growing up have been rocked by economic uncertainty, rapid technological change, and identity crises emanating from tectonic shifts in borders dividing nations, races, and the sexes. As a result, this new coming-of-age cinema is ambivalent in its representations of young adults. While it depicts struggles to build careers, find love, and relate to parents, these new films betray concern for a lost generation.

Coming-of-age narratives saw their last great boom in the late fifties, while riding the New Wave into the cultural revolutions of the next decade. In the United States, “Rebel Without a Cause” forecasted rebellion against the suffocating morality of McCarthy’s America. François Truffaut birthed the rapscallion Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows” in France a few years later. Times were ripe for outsiders fighting outdated traditional values.

Today’s cohort of coming-of-age films errs less on the side of revolt and closer to a general malaise both medicated and sustained by our smartphones. And the narrative spotlight has moved from straight white men to women and people of color. With liberal attitudes generally prevailing in the ongoing culture wars, it is not so much that young upstarts must defy conservative mores as it is that they must find a place for themselves within a social order defined by disruption, precariousness, and novelty.

Ines, from “Toni Erdmann,” is one such protagonist who has tethered herself to her cell phone and her path as an ambitious young management consultant. Maren Ade’s film thrives on the unpredictable antics of Ines’s father, Winfried, which keep the audience on its toes. Winfried interrupts important business meetings for his daughter with jokes, prosthetic teeth, and whoopee cushions. The most impressive feat of his gags, however, is to slowly transform her otherwise banal professional situation into a curious deviation from what makes her human in the eye of the viewer.

"Toni Erdmann"

“Toni Erdmann”

“Toni Erdmann” presents Ines as an aspiring member of the global business elite. Her father is the comedic — yet very serious — foil to its definition of success, its goals of streamlining operations, its sexism, its eccentric sense of style and luxury, and its indecency in downsizing and outsourcing. Sensing a deep unhappiness in his daughter during an uninvited visit, Winfried stages nothing less than a drastic intervention in her affairs. Ines experiences an existential crisis in its wake. “Toni Erdmann” urges us to reconsider the pressures we face in our drive to be successful with heart, honesty, and humor.

Kristen Stewart’s Maureen in “Personal Shopper” strikes a stark contrast with Sandra Hüller’s Ines in both profession and temperament. While Ines invests her energy and hopes in her consulting work, Maureen lives in wait of a sign from her deceased twin brother from beyond the grave. Working as a personal shopper for an insufferable celebrity in Paris, she spends nights at her brother’s house seeking closure. Like in “Toni Erdmann,” Maureen earns a living navigating a globalized professional sphere in a foreign country where she has no roots — only a dead brother and his surviving partner.

And we quickly learn that Maureen is similarly dissatisfied with her job and lifestyle. When harassed by anonymous iMessages, daring her to try on the untouchable clothes of her employer and to assume her identity, she takes the bait. The plot underscores an obsessive relationship with digital media. An unhealthy attachment to the phone, the Instagram photo, and the selfie leads to troubling ends. “Personal Shopper” suggests that the destiny of the young may be to be haunted, if not by the dead themselves, then by the fear of missing out–by the digital reminder of their relative isolation.

Avoiding new technologies all together, Adam Driver plays a stoic poet-bus driver in Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.” Far enough off the grid to refuse a cell phone, let alone a smartphone, he cannot even bring himself to make copies of his handwritten poems. Yet his partner, one of the subjects of his art, spends her days cultivating what seems to be an Instagram personality. She discusses her unique visual style, which the viewer can interpret as an excessive use of black and white. She buys into the sharing economy with a cupcake-making profit scheme, and purchases a guitar and YouTube lessons because it matches her wardrobe and interior decorating–and wouldn’t she make a great country star? “Paterson” finds poetry in the figure of the unconnected young adult.

Perhaps the title that most harkens back to the genre’s roots, “Moonlight” is a lyrical and contemplative consideration of identity’s formation and self-discovery in three acts. Barry Jenkins’s film follows a young gay black man in the projects of Miami from childhood to the age of adult. With his race, his nascent sexuality, and social class all stacked against his odds of flourishing in the contemporary US, Chiron must find surrogate parents and friends, and build himself up for his own survival.

"Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

A24

“Moonlight” is the narrative progeny of the work of Marlon Riggs, and especially his film “Tongues Untied” (1989). It is a long-overdue depiction of the intersecting forces of race, class, and sexuality that act on the process of maturation of a protagonist who has seen few film roles — the young gay black man. Yet in its depth, heart, and artful framing, “Moonlight” transcends the limiting constraints of identity to offer a probing vision of the difficulties of growing up.

From the socioeconomic trap of the ghetto to the instability of the corporate boardroom, films about growing up at the NYFF this year display a generation on the edge of uncertainty, with digital technology as both its weakness and the strong glue holding it together. They arrive during an electoral contest in the U.S. that has been framed as the most significant one in a generation. While its results may be said to define the millennial’s national identity for decades to come, cinema reminds us that who we are is a summation of where we are from, all our experiences, and who we want to strive to be.

Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ And ‘Gimme Danger’: How Two New Films Speak to the Artistic Process — NYFF

In this latest NYFF Critics Academy dispatch, Anthony Dominguez examines two new Jarmusch films and how they reflect his career as a whole.

The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. 

Jim Jarmusch is no stranger to making films about artists or films that reference other works of art: “Dead Man’s” protagonist is named after the English poet William Blake, in “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai,” Jarmusch pays homage to Seijun Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill,” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” has a vampire protagonist who doubles as a famous rock musician. Jarmusch’s latest two films which, played at the New York Film Festival this year—“Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” — continue this pattern of making a film about artists. What ultimately ties all these works together is a nostalgic longing for old art, and this can be seen through references Jarmusch’s films make or in the films’ own subject matter.

“Gimme Danger” and “Paterson,” however, are a bit of a departure, because of how more direct Jarmusch is in dealing with the subject of nostalgia. The role of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) as a rock musician in “Only Lovers Left Alive” functioned as more of a stylish adornment rather than something with which the film engaged. Similarly, while “Dead Man” certainly dealt with William Blake directly, the film wasn’t necessarily nostalgic so much as it was using Blake’s poetry to make a commentary on the then-modern American beliefs of the Old West.

In this regard of how they deal with nostalgia, “Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” have more in common with one another than they do with Jarmusch’s previous work. Consequently, “Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” can be seen as Jarmusch’s stance on the contemporary artist: the contemporary artist as being beholden to the past.

“Gimme Danger” is a documentary about the proto-punk band Iggy Pop and the Stooges, following the band’s start in the early 60s and ending with their reunion or “reunification,” as Iggy puts it, just a couple of years ago. The aspect of nostalgia in “Gimme Danger” is found in both the film’s subject matter, and in Jarmusch’s more formal use of editing. To clarify, while “Gimme Danger” may be a documentary, the film has a semblance of a narrative. That narrative has an aspect of romanticism to it because of how the past is shaped.

"Gimme Danger"

“Gimme Danger”

Jarmusch uses a juxtaposition between the past and present to show how contemporary artists owe their sound to Iggy and The Stooges, further cementing the nostalgia and idea of the artist as being beholden to the past.

The screen is filled with images of album covers from bands whose sound evolved from the one developed by Iggy and The Stooges: Black Flag’s “Damaged,” Sonic Youth’s “Dirty,” and Nirvana’s “Bleach,” and so on. Jarmusch then juxtaposes the crawling image of the albums with archival footage of Iggy and the Stooges performing. The two shots are imposed on one another until they nearly create an almost indecipherable image. Without Iggy and the Stooges, these future bands would not exist the same way we recognize them now.

That nostalgia continues in “Paterson.” Unlike “Gimme Danger,” “Paterson” is a fictional film about a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver), who takes his name from the eponymous town in New Jersey. The narrative of “Paterson” is focused on Paterson’s daily routine for a week: going to work, spending time with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), drinking at the local bar, and writing poetry. It’s this last aspect of Paterson’s daily routine where Jarmusch most directly deals with nostalgia, and the contemporary artist’s relation to the past.

As a poet, Paterson is shown to be extremely well read; within his basement which houses a private writing room, Jarmusch litters Paterson’s work table with other books, and the camera is made to linger so as to make these books visible. Among the works seen are David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” as well his collection of essays, “Consider the Lobster.” There’s also a photo of Jorge Luis Borges and a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, whose work plays a somewhat significant role in the film.

What these collection of books show is similar to the role of Jarmusch juxtaposing Iggy and the Stooges with the artists that came after them, and that is, the influence of past art on the contemporary artist. Being that “Paterson” is a fictional film, there is more wiggle room to work with when discussing the film’s themes. Jarmusch develops the idea of the relationship between the contemporary artist and the past a bit more than he does in “Gimme Danger.” “Paterson” is not just simply being about the contemporary artist’s relation to the past, but the contemporary artist as attempting to live in the past, and the alienation which results from attempting to do so.

Paterson as a poet not only directly recalls the artists who came before him through his collection of literature but also in his developmental process of writing; he is always seen in the act of writing sitting on a bench, watching a waterfall. There’s a connection made between Paterson and nature which brings to mind other poets, such as Walt Whitman. Where Paterson’s alienation comes from is when that developmental process of writing spills into his social life.

Later on in the film, it is revealed that Paterson doesn’t have a phone or computer, because he believes they are too distracting; he maintains a somewhat abhorrence and distance from technology and Jarmusch shows this in a variety of ways. At one point while working, the bus breaks down because it was an electric bus and something had gone haywire. Immediately after, Paterson attempts to use a payphone which is torn off the hook and also doesn’t work. The bar Paterson regularly attends has no television, because its owner is against it. Finally, throughout the film, Laura urges Paterson to make Xerox copies of his poetry in order to share it with the world, something he never gets around to doing. Then, towards the end, Paterson faces a sudden tragedy involving the survival of his work.

"Paterson"

“Paterson”

Amazon/Bleecker Street

It’s this last act of having Paterson’s writing destroyed where Jarmusch seems to be making the case that the contemporary artist must be someone who is modern, which would thereby sever their connection to the past, less they become alienated. And yet, that’s not true due to a saving grace in the film’s last act. Paterson returns to the waterfall and while there, he meets another poet, an older gentleman visiting from Japan.

The two bond over William Carlos Williams, and Paterson denies being a poet, but the acquaintance sees through the lie. Before leaving, he inspires Paterson to continue his creative pursuit. There’s a significance in the age difference between Paterson, and the Japanese man, because what the latter represents is that old guard that Paterson looks up to, i.e., the nostalgic past.

Both “Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” differ from Jarmusch’s previous work because of how they deal with nostalgia. Specifically, the relationship between contemporary artists and the past. In “Gimme Danger” that nostalgia takes the perspective of the past in the form of Iggy and the Stooges, where Jarmusch shows how modern bands wouldn’t have their sound without the influence of the former. In “Paterson,” that perspective is flipped to the contemporary artist, and there, Jarmusch not only shows how the contemporary artist is shaped by the nostalgic past but more so than “Gimme Danger” how that past is fundamental to the existence of the present. The key difference is that the Ramones, Sonic Youth, and so on, may have existed without Iggy and the Stooges. Without the intervention of the older poet—the nostalgic past of the old guard—Paterson would have ceased to be an artist.

Women Directors Are Everywhere, But Film Festivals Are Still Catching Up — NYFF

In this latest dispatch from the NYFF Critics Academy, a look at the women directors at the big fall festival.

The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. 

From the very first night, this year’s New York Film Festival put women front and center.  Ava DuVernay became the first woman of color in the festival’s 54-year history to direct an opening night film (“13TH”).  Titles like Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” and Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women” punctuated the festival’s Main Slate, offering portraits of emotionally complex (albeit mostly white) modern women.  Actresses over 60, like Sonia Braga and Isabelle Huppert, turned in dazzling, sexy performances, beating back the standards of an industry that often prefers to throw its aging women away, as Huppert’s character Nathalie ironically remarks in Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come.”

The conspicuous presence of women at a major fall festival with strict curatorial standards is worth celebrating, especially as the film industry’s egregious gender disparities continue to make headlines. Yet while women directors like DuVernay, Reichardt, and Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”) helmed some of the festival’s most exciting films, female-directed films remain in the minority. Only five of the 25 directors (20 percent) featured in the festival’s Main Slate are women: DuVernay, Reichardt, Hansen-Løve, Ade, and Alison Maclean (“The Rehearsal”).  Of the 58 feature-length films screened at the festival, only 12 were directed by women.  This tally does not include the festival’s Revivals program, where only one out of 10 films (Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA”) was directed by a woman.  That figure also omits the festival’s Bertrand Tavernier-centered Retrospective, which featured 19 films, all with male directors.

Lesli Klainberg, Executive Director of Film Society of Lincoln Center, said that the festival has no quotas when it comes to the gender of its filmmakers, nor does it prescribe the number of films it selects from certain countries.

"Toni Erdmann"

“Toni Erdmann”

“The committee’s selection of the Main Slate is based on their own opinion about the films that are the most significant of the year,” Klainberg said.  “We didn’t choose Ava’s movie for the opening night because we wanted to make a statement about documentary film, or about people of color, or about women. We chose that film because we thought it was the best to open the festival with for many reasons, top of the list was that it was a fine movie and something that we thought our audience would feel was an important film for them to see.”

Klainberg emphasized that the number of female directors in the festival’s Main Slate does not accurately represent the presence of female directors at NYFF.  When the calculation expands beyond the Main Slate to include certain programs such as Shorts, Convergence, Projections, Explorations, and Spotlight on Documentary, the percentage of women directors increases to around 30 percent, she said.

She noted that women directors were particularly prevalent in Convergences – the program of immersive experiences including virtual reality, video installations, and audience-driven cinema – where six out of 10 directors were women. She also pointed out the prominence of women in Projections, the festival’s experimental program, where 13 out of 44 films have female directors.

Although NYFF is still far from attaining gender parity among its directors, the number of female directors represented in this year’s Main Slate is up from 2015, when only three of festival’s 26 Main Slate films were directed by women.  “I’m pleased to see that we have five of 25 of our films in the Main Slate directed by women,” Klainberg said.  “That’s certainly a reflection of where female filmmakers are in our industry in a certain respect. We are gaining and it’s getting better.”

The percentage of female film directors at NYFF also outpaces Hollywood.  A recent study by USC Annenberg’s Center for Media, Diversity, and Social Change revealed that, of the top 100 grossing films of 2015, only 7.5 percent were directed by women. When the sample widened to include the 800 of the most popular films, the percentage of women directors dropped to 4.1 percent.  As The Guardian reported in April, two of the industry’s largest studios, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, have no women-directed films on deck through 2018.

What role do festivals like NYFF play in repairing broader, systemic inequalities in the film industry, such as gender disparity among directors?  “I don’t know if that’s our role,” said Klainberg.  “We are not a film organization that funds movies.” Klainberg pointed to the Sundance Institute and IFP as examples of organizations that help support independent artists at the development stage.  She also highlighted NYFF’s Artists Academy, Critics Academy, Industry Academy, and filmmaker-in-residence programs as examples of the festival’s efforts to support women artists.  “Those programs are our way of trying to open the doors a little wider, create more inclusivity through the industry.”

Herself a director, Klainberg’s 2004 IFC documentary “In the Company of Women” examined the role of women in independent film.  She noted that while some things had changed for independent women filmmakers in the past 12 years, much remains just as difficult.

“I think that women filmmakers have a difficult time getting films made because they are interested in doing films that are often much more character-driven,” Klainberg said.  “They are not necessarily drawn to making mainstream films in the way that Hollywood makes mainstream films. And Hollywood decides that the films that they are going to put out are largely targeted towards males of a certain age, and they don’t really spend the money on movies that are smaller films as they say. When I say smaller, by the way, I’m not saying in smaller in a sense of value of but in terms of budgets.”

From where she sits, the main problem facing with independent female filmmakers is the same problem facing independent filmmakers in general — the studio system and its orientation towards big-budget blockbusters.

“When you have all the major studios spending hundreds of millions of dollars on one movie, it’s really hard to for anyone – male or female – to make a smaller film in that system,” said Klainberg.  “Are you a female director having a hard time getting your drama made?  Yes, but so is that guy who is also trying to make that small idiosyncratic film. It’s hard for everyone who’s trying to make something that’s not like Star Wars or X-Men.”

‘The Girl On the Train’ Isn’t the Best Adaptation This Fall, But Here Are Some Alternatives — NYFF

NYFF Critics Academy participant Lee Purvey examines a series of well-honed adaptations in this year’s New York Film Festival.

The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. 

With its promotional campaign reaching a fever pitch, “The Girl on the Train” careened into theaters like some crazed locomotive manned by Jon Voight in a knit beanie, promising yet another affirmation of pop literature’s power in the box office. While sardonic vigilantes and humanist marine life remain the most reliable earmarks of successful commercial cinema, recent years have seen an increasing number of literary adaptations achieve blockbuster status.

Whether major franchises (“Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games”) or more critically competitive one-offs (“Gone Girl,” “American Sniper”), studios are growing increasingly adept at shuttling extant fan bases into theaters to watch beloved fictions and nonfictions translated to the big screen. Complete with readymade press points tied to everything from casting to the never-ending debate over adaptive fidelity, these films offer studios a jumpstart on the promotional groundwork that yields box office returns. Yet the very same scrutiny that generates media buzz around projects that are still years out of theaters might serve to bridle the creativity of the filmmakers ultimately responsible for their delivery—indeed, nothing shouts louder than a fan base betrayed.

Whether by over-investing in the visual effects necessary to translate magical realms to the screen or by catering to the flash point politics that make something like Chris Kyle’s memoir a runaway bestseller, big-budget adaptations are all too frequently doomed by their risk-averse nature.

Full of films that either adapt or thematically integrate works of literature in audacious ways, the Main Slate at this year’s New York Film Festival offers something of an antidote. Films like “Moonlight,” “Paterson,” and “Neruda”—among several others—explore the ways in which cinema can uniquely accent a story that was created for the page. While these three films meet with varying degrees of success, their shared spirit of experimentation speaks to an interesting direction within contemporary independent film: rather than trying to disappear behind the source material, they take a critical approach to the process of adaptation, introducing unfamiliar tropes to the screen, while teasing out the tensions between cinematic and literary mediums.

Certainly one of the most talked about films of the festival, “Moonlight” deploys a singular visual strategy to its source material, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The story of a young black man struggling to come to terms with his gay identity within impoverished and crime-ridden confines in Miami and Atlanta, “Moonlight” spans three distinct time periods, each featuring a different actor in the lead role of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). Surrounded by a ruthless subculture of illegal drugs—Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict, his surrogate father figure (Mahershala Ali) her supplier—and tormented by homophobic bullies, Chiron’s story is one of environmental oppression and stifled identity.

To convey this claustrophobic world, “Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton shoot in striking shallow focus, the faces of their characters floating in a blurry sea that does little more than suggest the world that surrounds them in the same way as a theatrical backdrop.

"Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

A24

The physically staged gestalt of “Moonlight”‘s source material is equally evident in Jenkins’ approach to setting. The playwright and director’s biographies share striking parallels: they grew up mere blocks from each other in the same Miami neighborhood and attended some of the same schools, while both of their mothers struggled with crack addiction. Yet the world of “Moonlight” is surprisingly abstract, oddly devoid of detail or any real sense of community. The film’s scenes of dialogue are confined to dyads and triads dropped into settings stripped of any nonessential indicators of place: project apartments interchangeable in their shabbiness and desolate beaches containing nothing other than sand, sea, and sky—the imagined space of the theater translated to the screen with unimaginative fidelity.

Whereas that film’s dramaturgical staging and visual style might feel like incidental artifacts of its source material, the formal innovation of Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, “Paterson,” can only be read as a direct response to its literary inspiration. Taking place in the long shadow of the 20th century American poet William Carlos Williams, Jarmusch’s film follows eight days in the life of a contemporary poet living in Williams’ beloved hometown of Paterson: a bus driver whose name is also Paterson (Adam Driver). Featuring poems by Ron Padgett, “Paterson” not only inserts poetic language into its cinematic world, but borrows from the tropes of the genre in building its rhythmic narrative structure.

Each of the story’s eight chapters, save for the last, begins with the same image: an overhead shot of Paterson and, usually, his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) waking up in their bed, soft morning sunlight streaming in through their bedroom window. This shot serves as the opening refrain of episodes that bear the shape of a stanza, each of the five work days that begin the film following a rhythmic structure built around Paterson’s daily routine. Rhyming images and vignettes dot these clusters of cinematic verse: the roll-call lamentations of Paterson’s gloom-and-doom co-worker Donny (Rizwan Manji), the poet’s battle each evening to straighten a mailbox that manages to return to its cockeyed position during his absence each day.

This metered structure soon starts to blend with the poet’s creative routine, lines emerging in voiceover and textual insert during his morning walks past the monochrome rectangles of Paterson’s downtown warehouses, which resemble the blank pages upon which he delivers his verse. When the weekend arrives, throwing this easy rhythm into metric flux, so too do Jarmusch’s modest stabs at dramatic stake-raising: the culmination of a romantic dispute at the local bar and a domestic disaster—involving a misbehaving Marvin—in Paterson’s own life.

Jarmusch’s ear for conversational naturalism seems to have dulled over the years, replaced by a lazy aesthetic fetishism that reached its ugly apex with 2013’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and “Paterson” features some of the same problems as his last feature. Both Paterson and Laura emerge, finally, as basically one-note creations, despite the best efforts of the actors who play them; though some of the inevitable vignettes that have come to characterize Jarmusch’s work land successfully (it’s fun to watch Method Man do just about anything), most feel stilted and underwritten. Yet even as Jarmusch’s writing may have grown stale, his sense of tone and pacing in “Paterson” is exquisite, resulting in a film that is formally innovative and inarguably beautiful, even as its narrative elements wilt under isolated scrutiny. Translated back to the page, “Paterson” might be an elegant and moving poem that nevertheless fails to stick with you.

Among the best and most inventive films in this year’s Main Slate, Pablo Larraín’s “Neruda” represents the most distant point on a trajectory shared by Jenkins and Jarmusch’s films. Focusing on an approximately yearlong period during the late 1940’s in which the Chilean poet spent in flight of arrest for his involvement in the Communist Party, “Neruda” may seem like fertile ground for trenchant ideology, but the director and his screenwriter Guillermo Calderón’s concerns are as much artistic as political.

Neruda

“Neruda”

“I’m not going to hide under a bed,” states Neruda, in acquiescing to Party leaders’ request that he go underground. “This has to become a wild hunt.” Towards this end, the film’s Neruda—a charmingly hammy fictionalization of the historical figure—invents Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), the handsome and moronic police detective charged with tracking him down. The son of prostitute who imagines his absent father as the founder Santiago’s detective force, Peluchonneau delivers deadpan perversions of right-wing party lines (“The poet is a public menace and an unforgettable lover”) while dreaming of the status the successful completion of his mission would afford. It isn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the film that Peluchonneau realizes he doesn’t exist.

This isn’t entirely untrodden ground. Many artists—in film notably Charlie Kaufman, who pulled back the curtain on his own writing and production processes in films like “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York”—have made a point of breaking from the reality of a fictional world, drawing deliberate attention to its fabricated nature. But Larraín’s new film rises above the self-aware, characteristically postmodern quality of much of this work.

The metafictional hijinks of “Neruda” stem not from a deconstructionist impulse per say, but rather an ambitious desire to serve the legacy of the man himself—political radical, flamboyant hedonist, poet. Rather than aiming to create a definitive character study, “Neruda” approaches the task of biography (or “anti-bio,” as he has called it in the press) with the same romantic energy and poetic license with which Neruda might have tackled his own work.

This doesn’t preclude criticism of Neruda’s armchair marxism (“When communism arrives, will we all be equal to him or equal to me?” asks one member of the Communist rank and file), nor does it caricature a man whose words were the voice of a people, quoted “every time history tramples them.” Rather, it gives Neruda the chance to write his own legacy, inserting the very process of creation into the story of the creator. The result is so vividly realized that the fact that this isn’t Neruda’s vision at all, but the filmmakers’, when remembered, seems largely irrelevant. Historically reckless and transcendently original, “Neruda” is a poetic vision of a poet’s life. A wild hunt indeed.

Boring Movies Can Be Great: A Defense of ‘Paterson’ and ‘Everything Else’ — NYFF

NYFF Critics Academy participant Emma Casley explores two new movies where not much happens, and why that’s not such a bad thing.

The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. 

On paper, “Everything Else” and “Paterson,” both of which recently screened at the New York Film Festival, are kind of boring. Doña Flor is a government clerk in Mexico City. Paterson is a bus driver and poet in Paterson, New Jersey. Nothing particularly exciting happens to either of them. The two films follow a very similar structure: the characters get up, get ready for work, go to work, work, go home, sleep—and then do the whole thing all over again the next day. Their lives are decidedly unexceptional. So why bother to make films about the repetition of daily life? Isn’t it kind of boring to watch movies about people being bored?

It doesn’t have to be. In fact, when many other films compete to be bigger, louder and save-the-world-ier, there might be more than ever be a need for stories like “Everything Else” and “Paterson.” The stakes might be lower, but each film, in its own way, provides a valuable and insightful look into what it means to be a seemingly unremarkable person.

“Everything Else” can be excruciating to watch at times, for more ways than one. Director Natalia Almada spares the viewer none of the gory details of trying to get anything done in a government office. The camera holds on a man as he shifts and fidgets uncomfortably, waiting for his passport application documents to be reviewed—only to ultimately be rejected because he used both blue and black ink pens.

The rejection is a frustrating everyday occurrence, and the film forces the audience to watch it happen over and over again: person after person comes up with a passport application, then promptly gets rejected on a small technicality. And it is excruciating. By holding steady on the faces of all those involved, the camera encourages viewers to feel for the disappointed and angry applicants, for Doña who has no choice but to be a cog in this governmental machine, even for the janitor who quietly mops in the background, observing the whole ordeal with no power to change any of it.

Everything Else

“Everything Else”

Altamura Films

However, the true painfulness of “Everything Else” does not come from being forced to watch the most tedious moments of everyday life. It comes from the way in which the film exposes the quiet pain and suffering that often accompanies those moments. Doña’s only companion, her cat, dies on her bed one evening and she must carry it out in a blanket, searching for a trash can to dispose of the body—then she must go to work the next day, same as always. “Everything Else” demonstrates how grief and pain must bend to fit within the confines of a life structured by unforgiving bureaucracy.

But all is not lost. “Everything Else” might be decidedly grim, but not hopeless. In the final scene, Doña sits alone in the pool showers when unexpectedly a woman comes over and washes Doña’s back. This small, unexpected act of compassion moves Doña to tears. Pain and suffering might exist inside the unforgiving boundaries of a boring life, but so does the possibility of kindness and human connection, even in the strangest of circumstances. Sometimes all someone needs is a woman in a public shower to come over and wash their back with a loofa.

And sometimes all a person needs is a Japanese poet to hand them a blank notebook. While “Everything Else” focuses on the cruel effects of an everyday life, with the briefest flashes of hope and compassion, “Paterson” takes the opposite approach: the film is a meditation on the beauty of the mundane, with the small painful moments mixed in between. To an outside observer, Paterson’s life does not seem particularly exciting either: he divides his time between his home, his bus, walking his dog, and his regular bar, with little variation in his routine. Adam Driver’s performance gives little in the way of expressive emotion, yet the film shows how the character finds a certain kind of beauty and poetry in everything around him. He listens to people as they talk on his bus: about anarchism, attempted romantic connections, and everything in between, and smiles ever so slightly at the rider’s insights and absurdities. Then he sits in front of a waterfall to eat his lunch and write his poems.

Even in more traditionally dramatic moments the film remains decidedly subdued: a drawn gun turns out to be fake, the broken bus does not explode into a “fireball,” the relationship between Paterson and his wife Laura does not experience any turmoil, just the every day ups and downs of a romantic partnership. In a less restrained film, this would all be building up to Paterson finally losing his cool at the climax when Marvin the dog destroys Pateron’s poetry notebook—instead of an outburst, Paterson simply stares at the dog and says “I don’t like you.” Cut to Marvin’s (literal) puppy-dog face.

"Paterson"

“Paterson”

Every day life does not often contain big moments or big reactions, and by adopting a quieter tone, “Paterson” showcases the beauty in the everyday; just as “Everything Else” examines how those same moments can be heartbreaking. Paterson might not have the best life, but the film shows its beauty. Doña might not face the most agonizing of challenges, but “Everything Else” un-dismissively shows her real pain.

So yes, on paper, “Everything Else” and “Paterson” are boring films. But that’s not the whole story. In the way that the films showcase the typically un-showcased, they break away from what audiences might expect from a film, and therefore resist the negative implications of “boringness.” Both give viewers an in-depth, personal look at people often either ignored (bus drivers) or actively hated (government bureaucrats) and in doing so, they make a heartfelt argument for empathy towards others. Day-to-day life might be boring, but the complexities of human experiences, no matter how “unremarkable,” are not. And those complexities are worth considering.

Ava Duvernary Meets Raoul Peck: How Black Narratives Collide In Two New Documentaries — NYFF

NYFF Critics Academy participant Aramide Tinubu looks at two new documentaries that examine modern African American identity.

The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. 

We exist in a world of cycles. Perhaps nowhere else in society are these cycles as prevalent as they are in the entertainment industry. When I grew up in the ‘90s, there were a plethora of black faces on the big and small screens. From Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince” to  “Living Single” (aka the original “Sex and the City”), I could turn to any network television station to see myself, or the people closest to me, represented in some way on screen.

Though diverse programming was rich and plentiful in that first decade of my life, the second decade ushered in a near complete erasure of brown faces. While megastars like Will Smith and Denzel Washington were able to garner leads in films, other black actors were relegated to sidekick positions or “magical negro” roles. This new age of entertainment extended to the small screen as well. As shows like “Moesha” and “Girlfriends” aired their final episodes, black actors were pushed into the background, appearing only as guest stars or rarely seen at all. In the past few years, the regulation of black bodies to particular spaces has shifted once again. It appears that we have returned to a moment where black lives are more interesting than ever; and from the perspective of an insider looking out, this “sudden shift” comes as no surprise at all.

Depending on the climate of the country, the studios decide if black lives and stories are marketable; if they are worthy of being shown on screen. At a time when Black people are once again on the streets picketing and shouting for our lives, there are also a nearly unprecedented number of black faces in film and on television.

Kerry Washington’s 2011 history-making role in ABC’s “Scandal” seemed to reopen the gates for black actors on screen. Olivia Pope helped usher in a resurgence of the complex black identity and experience on screen. From the massive success of Fox’s “Empire” to Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Marvel’s upcoming “Black Panther” helmed by director Ryan Coogler, black people are once again publicly at the forefront of telling our own stories, but the journey has not been without its challenges.

"13TH"

13TH

Netflix

Ava DuVernay’s sensational Netflix documentary “13th” peels back the political and historical layers that have long-since engaged in policing black bodies to certain spaces. The narrative placed upon us has often been one of a monstrous black figure or “superpredator” whose lack of control and humanity encourages him to lash out in his own community and at white people — especially when it comes to sexual violence against white women. In her rapidly-paced film; DuVernay eviscerates that narrative.

“13th” understands this story as one placed upon black people to continue classifying them as second-class citizens. Instead of the shackles that enslaved African-Americans in the 19th century, slavery has evolved into mass incarceration, police brutality and policies that have continually disenfranchised people of color. It’s a never-ending sequence of events, one as old and raw and black pain. It’s the same pain and narrative that visionaries like writer James Baldwin spent their lives writing and lecturing about.

Like our journey here in America, the path for black people in the entertainment industry has been rife with difficulties and barriers. This month, Academy Award nominee and “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson released her memoir “Around the Way Girl.”  In the book, Henson recalls her time spent filming the critically acclaimed film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Shockingly, the actress remembers footing her own three-month long hotel bill for the role. She was also paid less than two-percent of what leading star Brad Pitt was paid for her work.  Like many other black talents, Henson’s decades-long rise to the spotlight has been well-earned and hard won.

"I Am Not Your Negro"

“I Am Not Your Negro”

Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” masterfully encompasses what it means to break through cycles of isolation and invisibility. In the film, Peck examines James Baldwin’s words and his legacy through the lens of some of the most traumatic moments of his life. Reeling for the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, Baldwin set out to remember these towering men through what became an unfinished final manuscript entitled, “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s experiences and “I Am Not Your Negro” remind us once again that what black people and black entertainers are experiencing now are not new.

Peck uses Baldwin’s words (voiced eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson), to not only outline the writer’s personal journey as a Black man in 20th century America but to also examine the Black image as it has been dispersed throughout the media. At the beginning of cinema history, films like D.W. Griffith’s much acclaimed “The Birth Of A Nation” as well as Stepin Fetchit’s 1930’s performances as “the Laziest Man in the World” were seen as the sole and true depiction of African-American life.

Baldwin sought to shatter that image, while insisting on how harmful those depictions were not just to society as a whole, but particularly to black people in particular. Over the years, there has been a continued battle to hold on to our own narrative, to tell our truths and to strip away the stereotypes that have clung to us since we were first brought to this country. We are now in a period of reclamation.

These films work in conversation with one another.  They force us to reassess our own views about blackness and black life while pushing back at the narratives that continually circle us. I do hope that one day soon we will truly break that cycle, because erasure is not just a bitter pill to swallow; it’s inherently damaging and demeaning. After all, representation matters more than anything else.

Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog here or tweet her @midnightrami