NEW YORK — Acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan hits the nail on the head when he assesses what makes the New York Film Festival loom large among festivals, despite its minuscule size.
"It makes no attempt to camouflage its exclusivity," notes Egoyan, whose own intense, hourlong film "Krapp's Last Tape," with John Hurt playing the geriatric Samuel Beckett character, is among the lineup. "It says, 'OK, we are showing these 20 or so films that we've chosen to highlight, and that's it.' "
For this year's 38th edition of the festival, which begins tonight and runs through Oct. 8, that rarefied number is only 28 (compared to 329 for the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival). "This is no offense against Toronto, which is huge and one of whose functions is to launch fall films, but New York has really maintained a kind of integrity. It remains a pure festival."
Films from Asia, a current hot spot for filmmaking, are big at the festival this year. Other trends include the renewed interest and experimentation with musical numbers incorporated into film, the influence of live theater sensibilities and sources, and the vacuum of studio films, supplanted by Toronto and due to a creatively weak period in Hollywood.
(As a thumbnail sketch for the casual filmgoer, film festivals continue to multiply like rabbits, geographically and topically. There are now festivals in every major city, sub-niched by such categories as ethnicity, subject and sexual orientation. Cannes and Toronto are the flagship film festivals for international and domestic showcasing, but New York remains stubbornly, and efficiently, concise.)
Last year's festival opened with a double kick: Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," which later won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, and "Being John Malkovich," from director Spike Jonze, who was nominated for an Oscar for the film that turned into one of the year's biggest indie hits.
This year's festival kicks off with the American debut of Lars von Trier's controversial "Dancer in the Dark," the Palme d'Or winner from this spring's Cannes Film Festival, which won best actress honors for Bjork, its Icelandic pop star-turned-actress. One of the most polarizing films in recent memory--eliciting catcalls and ovations at Cannes--"Dancer in the Dark" nonetheless signals another level of validation for the naturalistic school of Dogma filmmaking, of which Von Trier is the co-founder.
"Dancer in the Dark," which synthesizes Dogma techniques and conventional filmmaking, weaves musical numbers into its story line--and not just contemporary material but the uber-artifice of choreographed numbers in which actors break into song and dance in the middle of everyday life. In this case, the unlikely venue is a tool factory and a story line involving a heroine who is going blind and getting into trouble with the law.
"Dancer in the Dark" is, in a sense, the festival's aesthetic bellwether. It is emblematic of a larger cultural shift underway in film, television and music--the burnout from a generation of corporate, play-it-safe, one-size-fits-all "product." The provocative film, like many others in the festival, is evidence of a hunger for a 1970s spirit pushing toward excess on either end of the spectrum, from hard-core reality to hard-core unreality, a la the movie musical.
Another musical in the festival is "Chunhyang," the first Korean film to compete at Cannes and an adaptation of a famous Korean folk story told through the Pansori tradition, the traditional musical art form from the Choson Dynasty. The love story between two young people of different backgrounds is also the most expensive and epic Korean film ever shot--8,000 extras, 12,000 costumes and a budget, big by Korean standards, of $3 million. And speaking of big numbers, this is the 97th film by director Im Kwon-taek.
The big-ticket almost-studio entry is "House of Mirth," the adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel of manners directed by Terence Davies with an ensemble cast including Dan Aykroyd, Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney and Anthony Lapaglia. But the big buzz is for lead Gillian Anderson, who is the revelation as doomed heroine Lily Bart, and who will surprise many who know her only from "The X-Files."
"My agent didn't know that I was a huge fan of Terence," Anderson explains. "His 'The Long Day Closes' had a profound effect on me. . . . That close-up of a rug in the bedroom, holding for a long time. I started to cry, it was so poignant.' "
"Chunhyang's" use of classic theater as its source material is an example of filmmakers everywhere turning to live theater for inspiration. Once seen as artificial, retrograde and uncinematic, theatricality is having a resurgence--another barometer that millennium artists are mining art forms previously discarded as dated.