By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2004 (II)  Send This Review to a Friend

In addition to films mentioned in Part I of the take on the 2004 New York Film Festival, one of the thrilling opportunities was seeing “Saraband,” the work written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. We keep hearing that the master is through making films, and presto, here is yet another achievement of his, a follow-up on his brilliant 1973 “Scenes from a Marriage.”

Time jumps forward and Marianne, exquisitely played by Liv Ullmann once again, decides to see how her former husband Johan (Erland Josephson) is doing. She visits him at his retreat, and the fireworks begin all over again. This time Johan is nursing a tense relationship with his son Henrik and a controlling one with his daughter Karin, whom he is hoping will become a concert artist. Marianne has stumbled into an emotional cauldron.

But there is also some remaining tenderness between her and Johan, perhaps the fear of growing old, perhaps their former bond. The basic explosion, however, is between Henrik, played wonderfully by Börje Ahlstedt, and his father, which brings to mind the conflicts Bergman has written about concerning his own father. Julia Dufvenius is excellent as Karin and has a very effective confrontation scene when she asserts herself.

“Saraband” demonstrates anew how powerful a filmmaker Bergman is. In no time he plunges us into a totally engrossing story, and his technique of having a character talk directly into a camera still packs a wallop. Within 107 minutes he tells so much about the human condition and the emotions that can drive us.

Argentina has been the source of some good films lately and “Rolling Family” turned out to be a most enjoyable saga of a large family piling into a too small van and heading for a wedding. Their adventures along the way are funny and sometimes charming. Written and directed by Pablo Trapero, this Argentina/Spain production gives us a portrait of family life that is reminiscent of earthy French and Italian films. Well cast, it turned out to be a worthy festival choice.

Another Argentina/Spain import selected, “The Holy Girl,” written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, is nuanced drama involving a doctor, attending a medical convention, who molests a teenager. She in turn, a student in a parochial school, is turned on by the erotic experience and pursues him. Meanwhile, he is attracted to the girl’s mother, who operates the hotel where the gathering is taking place.

The story becomes fraught with sexual tension and the potential for an explosion that can ruin the doctor’s reputation. Martel keeps firm control over her material, and ends the film with the audience having to surmise what happens next rather than having everything explained.

“Palindromes” by writer-director Todd Solondz (“Happinnes” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) is an oddity, a film that satirizes family life and anti-abortion activists while trying to make some serious points wrapped in outrageous situations. His work is at once interesting and off-putting. The jabs are too diffuse and weird to engage beyond superficial levels.

Solondz tries the ploy of having different actresses play the young woman in trouble with a pregnancy. The effect is confusing rather than clever, as there seems to be no reason other than being different. Yes, it could be to show the extent to which the problem is one not confined to a particular type family. But the device is clumsy here, unlike its brilliant use by Luis Buñuel, who cast two women playing the same role in “That Obscure Object of Desire.” The cast for “Palindromes” includes Ellen Barkin, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Masur and Debra Monk.

High among my favorites at the New York Festival was Ken Burn’s massive documentary (three and one-half hours) “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” I have seen other works that recalled the life of the great boxer, including his portrayal by James Earl Jones in “The Great White Hope.” Jones fittingly is interviewed for this film. What Burns has achieved is a panorama of the role racism has played in the history of 20th century America.

Johnson was determined to be his own man and he would not genuflect before the white world. He was the greatest boxer of his time and he flaunted a lavish lifestyle in dress, choice of car and having white women as his companions. It drove the white establishment so crazy that there was a frenzied search for “a great white hope” who could defeat the champ.

As any good biography should, the film tells us so much about the United States during Johnson’s life. The film has power and sweep, plus some rare fight footage. Keith David narrates and Samuel L. Jackson stands in for the voice of Johnson. The film pulsates with a jazz score provided by Wynton Marsalis.

One of the most innovative films was the intensely personal “Tarnation.” Writer-director-editor Jonathan Caouette’s startling work may spur a new genre of self-therapy home movies. The family at its center is so dysfunctional as to make viewing emotionally off-putting, yet Caouette is so candid and creative. Caouette began making home movies of himself and his family when he was 11 and a weird kid. Through the years—he’s now in his 30’s—he chronicled the life of his mother Renee Leblanc, his grandparents and life with his lover. Caouette takes all of these elements and, with home equipment and minimal cost, fuses them into a pastiche of documentary clips, special effects and surrealist montage, interspersed with inter-titles of the sort used in silent movies. (See Film for full review.)

From France came an interesting documentary, “The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial,” in which director Raymond Depardon focuses on court room cases that reflect various strata of life in France. The judge, a no-nonsense woman on the bench, handles a series of cases involving defendants accused of minor legal infractions. Watching is fascinating.

One major feature of the festival was presentation of Richard Schickel’s reconstructed and expanded “The Big Red One” of Samuel Fuller. It has been cut sharply when released in 1980, and the saga of an infantry unit in World War II, starring Lee Marvin, among others, has never been seen by the public in the way it was intended. Schickel, in collaboration with Brian Jamieson, has performed a major service, as has the New York Film Festival by showing it.

Another special presentation was “Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue,” produced and directed by Murray Lerner. It’s a study of Miles Davis, with interviews from other musicians and as the centerpiece, his concert in 1970 before 600,000 spectators at the Isle of Wight Festival.

The festival also offered a tribute to the Shaw Brothers Studios titled “Elegance, Passion and Cold Hard Steel.” Viewers could see a series of films made by the Shaw Brothers, all presented at the Walter Reade Theater. Another attraction harked back to the post World War II period—“Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan, 1947-1953.” These were movies made as propaganda and meant for European audiences, not for American consumption.


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