Art Cinema—An Endangered Species?
A rundown of six New York Film Festival films (two of them terrific; the rest—not so much), plus concerns about serious films in the age of TikTok
By George Blecher
Fallen Leaves: A slow-moving romance, complete with deadpan Finnish faces. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
October 26, 2023
This year’s New York Film Festival—the 61st—felt like an opportunity to hang out with old friends: directors who’ve moved me, changed my life a little. It was also a way to find some relief from the overproduced, underwritten schlock that Hollywood grinds out by the bushel. A few of the six films I saw were disappointing, a few pretty solid, two vibrantly original.
But I ended up feeling queasy. There seemed to be something—how to put it delicately?—tired, dated, about this year’s festival. There were plenty of fans, plenty of serious movie types, but except for a few moments where people held their collective breath or were swept away by waves of changing emotions, the audiences seemed distracted. Cell phones glowed ominously in the dark.
Why this restlessness? Hard to say. The world outside the plush coziness of the Lincoln Center theaters is pretty dismal these days. Some films I chose had an elegiac tone about them. But something else started to trouble me: I wondered if the era of the art film had peaked—that in the face of shrinking attention spans, films were losing their freshness, and the algorithm-driven trolls of streaming and TikTok had finally infiltrated the fortress.
The Shadowless Tower: Imagine Woody Allen’s New York transported to Beijing.
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The first film I saw was The Shadowless Tower, by Zhang Lu, a Chinese-born director I wasn’t familiar with, who lives in Korea and makes films about both places. The Tower plot is fairly pedestrian: A moody, ironic 30-something food writer visits several Beijing restaurants, accompanied by a super-hip young photographer who flirts with him and tries to get him to loosen up. He’s haunted by the thought that his father, accused years ago of molesting a woman, has disappeared from the family and hasn’t been seen since. An in-law helps him locate this missing father, who insists that even though he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, his departure was for the best: His drinking was breaking up the family, and he needed to find himself.
Not a terribly original story. A lot of the tropes seemed familiar, borrowed. (One is repeated in the Turkish film About Dry Grasses.)
What felt authentic about Tower was its affection for Beijing. Zhang Lu’s main influences seemed to be Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. The same disaffected writer, the same witty woman with funny hats—and the same nostalgic adoration of urban life.
Beijing turns out to be a lot like Allen’s Manhattan of 40 years ago: hip, cynical, full of itself. Evidently there are cool coffee (or tea?) houses to hang out in; winding Greenwich Village–like streets; intellectuals who talk wittily, and at great length, about trivia like the derivation of names and the differences in local accents. The peripheral scenes work best: a drunken party filled with complaints about failed marriages; a scene in which the protagonist’s family visits his mother’s graveside, where they mumble the most perfunctory prayer possible and then jump back in their car. There’s even a self-congratulatory song that the drunken group sings together, a kind of “If you can make it here/You’ll make it anywhere/Beijing–New York–Beijing!”
It’s nice to know it’s as hard to make it in Beijing as it is in New York, and that Beijingers too pat themselves on the back just for getting through the day.
Fallen Leaves: The abovementioned Finnish lovers, knives out, during an anxiety-filled dinner.
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The next film on my list—the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves—I adored. I wasn’t expecting to. In the past I’ve liked, even been moved by, Kaurismäki films like The Match Factory Girl (1990) and Le Havre (2011)—comedies that are more dour than funny, tragedies more wistful than tragic. While his films are always fiercely his own, there often seemed something too unyielding about his fidelity to his own sensibility—that odd mixture of sarcasm and tenderness.
Fallen Leaves, barely 80 minutes long, is a haiku of a film. In a sense it’s his most personal, certainly his most condensed work. It’s also his most touching.
Two almost nameless working-class figures in early middle age (the director’s favorite time of life, when attractiveness gives way to character) first meet in a Helsinki karaoke bar—a typical Kaurismäki joke, since neither one sings, and both hardly talk. They sit next to each other without touching, barely looking at each other, yet somehow the director suggests their loneliness, attraction, and stoic pride.
There’s an eccentric brilliance in Kaurismäki’s way of telling or not telling a story. The almost frozen action in his films makes everything that does happen seem profoundly important. When the man loses his newfound beloved’s phone number before he even knows her name, the loss is so understated—he hardly blinks—that it feels tragic. Later, when the woman wants to read something to the man as he lies injured in a hospital bed, the fact that all she manages to grab is a sleazy tabloid about a killer eating his victims becomes both touching and hilarious.
The faces of Kaurismäki’s actors are almost always deadpan—not unlike those of Finns in real life. His settings are bleak and plain, his camera almost stationary. No close-ups, no pans: What you see is what you get. Everything is stripped down to an almost timeless personal world—and yet radio news bulletins about the Ukraine war keep interrupting the stillness. In this age of frantic special effects, Kaurismäki’s films may be intolerably slow for some. They hardly move. Yet they evolve. When the lights come up and the lovers finally reconnect, the entire audience gasped. We had been bewitched.
Close Your Eyes: Looming Spanish-style existentialism involving a film within a film.
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What followed on my list were two rather ponderous films in an “international” style that may have seen better days. Though the directors of Close Your Eyes and About Dry Grasses are Spanish and Turkish, respectively, their films could have originated anywhere. Both are long, slow, meaty, realistic takes on looming existential questions—memory, age, passivity vs. political commitment—that aren’t rooted in a particular place. That may be the problem. Specificity has given way to “universality”; what’s lost is sharpness and spice.
Now in his 80s, director Victor Erice has made only four films, though he’s long been admired for his Spanish Civil War film, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). In a sense, his Close Your Eyes picks up where that film left off. It opens with a scene from a film taking place in 1947, in which a wealthy man charges a Spanish Civil War veteran to search for his long-lost daughter. We learn that this scene is only one of two that the director managed to shoot before his leading man disappeared. The bulk of Close Your Eyes follows the director’s down-at-heel life after his failed film, along with a TV producer’s attempt to find out what happened to the leading man when he disappeared years earlier, and finally the discovery of his lost colleague as a still-handsome but demented handyman working in a nursing home. The director reunites the leading man with his daughter and shows them the last scene in the original movie—in which the wealthy man is reunited with his daughter.
The pieces of Close Your Eyes fit together neatly, perhaps too neatly. The characters, especially the director (played with depth and tenderness by the soulful Spanish actor Manolo Solo), are sympathetically drawn. And yet, and yet…it all felt a little musty. A bit pompous. Too serious. If nothing else, old age deserves some humor, even if it’s the gallows sort. Something—anything!—less ponderous than the sincerity of Close Your Eyes.
About Dry Grasses: Still more existentialism, Turkish-style—complete with brooding ennui at a ruin in Eastern Anatolia.
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Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan is another heavy hitter on the international scene. His three films preceding About Dry Grasses—Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Winter Sleep (2014), The Wild Pear Tree (2018)—were rightly admired. They had the expanse and gravitas that characterize the international school. (In Winter Sleep, for instance, Ceylan had no difficulty adapting a Chekhov short story to the problems of a 21st-century Turkish hotelkeeper.) The protagonist of About Dry Grasses, a teacher exiled to a rural school, has the brooding ennui of a Camus character, and in the film’s central sequence he has an extended argument about the differences between existentialism and social activism with a politically committed woman he’s about to seduce. It’s hardly the subject for a seduction that one would expect in a village in the far-eastern edge of Anatolia.
At its heart, About Dry Grasses is about misunderstandings between urban and rural: A girl in the protagonist’s class falsely accuses him of inappropriate conduct, but on another level the teacher’s over-familiarity with his students, his condescending attitude, and his self-pity about being exiled from urban hipness make him a truculent presence. His choice to have sex with the politically committed woman is based more on bitterness than on attraction—and just as they’re turning off the lights, the actor playing the teacher breaks the fourth wall, walks off the set, heads into a bathroom in the film studio, takes a few pills (Viagra? Xanax?), and returns to the set, picking up right where he left off.
It’s a startling moment, but kind of a gratuitous one. Has the political argument been too heated for the teacher? Is the actor playing the teacher exhausted after their endless debate? Are both actor and character feeling guilty about their duplicity?
This argument isn’t the only one in a film filled with talk. But for all About Dry Grasses’ storytelling and richness of dialogue, there’s a good deal of posturing going on. Maybe it’s just that Ceylan’s protagonist is a bit of a bore. By the end, he’s gotten a transfer to a more “suitable” venue, but we haven’t learned anything new about him. We’re left wondering about that moment when the fourth wall is shattered. Maybe if we’d been let in on the kind of pill he takes—to turn himself on or to calm himself down?—we might have more insight into this somewhat baffling film.
Perfect Days: A contemplative Tokyoite ends his evening—every evening—reading a book (on his futon).
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The biggest disappointment was Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days. I suspect it failed for the same reason that the previous two films were disappointing: It was too international, wasn’t rooted enough in place.
I’ve always loved two of Wenders’s films that were very much rooted in place: the Berlin-centered Wings of Desire (1987) and its sequel, Faraway, So Close (1993). Both contained a gentle mixture of fantasy and realism, and were so pervaded by Wenders’s affection for his central characters—angels who sacrifice their immortality for the pain and passion of being human—that we trusted the twists and turns of the rather complicated plots. The sweetness in the two films—which featured Peter Falk reprising his role as Columbo!—was never cloying; rather it seemed to come out of delight and discovery.
According to the screenwriter Takuma Takasaki and the actor Koji Yakusho in the Q&A held after the screening of Perfect Days, a Japanese-German co-production, Wenders spends a lot of time in Japan and “knows it better than we know ourselves.” Hmm. That cliché sounded like a red flag.
Perfect Days follows the daily routine of a gentle, smiling, contemplative man who cleans public toilets in Tokyo. During what feels like the entire first third of the film, we watch him wake up, greet the day, brush his teeth, drink a can of coffee—then clean toilets, sit in the park for lunch, take pictures of his favorite tree, eat at a friendly little restaurant, read a book, go to sleep—and wake up the next morning to the exact same routine, which Wenders repeats almost shot for shot. Curious. As tender as this depiction is, it’s almost impossible not to become impatient.
Various things finally happen: A colleague borrows money from the toilet cleaner to woo his girlfriend, and doesn’t pay it back; the toilet cleaner’s niece shows up and asks for refuge, which is when we learn that he comes from a wealthy family with a domineering father; and he is briefly swept up in the lives of a divorced couple who have temporarily reconciled because the ex-husband is dying of cancer.
Oddly, none of this affects this guy’s Zen-like calm. That is disturbing and somewhat arch. If Wenders questioned the calm instead of idealizing it, there might have been a more interesting film under the surface about the need to keep the pain of the world at bay. Koji Yakusho’s performance (which won the Best Actor award at Cannes) doesn’t help. He’s simply too sweet, too smiling, too gentle, too handsome. Perfect Days feels sentimental and thin. Tired. Uninspired.
Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World. A hairdo check, with a lurking onlooker, in a WC mirror in Romania. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But then—finally—relief and hope came with the Romanian film Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World!
What is going on in that country? How is it that film after interesting film gets produced there? During the past 15 to 20 years, scores of terrific movies have been made by directors with exotic names—Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mongui. The variety of films is astounding—satirical comedies like 12:08 from Bucharest (2006) and The Treasure (2015); brooding dramas like Child’s Pose (2013) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); experimental films like Puiu’s Aurora (2010), which contains about a page of dialogue; and Malmkrog (2020), an almost word-for-word transcription of a Russian novel. One thing is common to all these films: Each addresses a moral dilemma—personal, political, social—that lends itself to artistic scrutiny. Whatever the switch from Ceausescu’s dictatorship to “democratic capitalism” might have meant to the Romanian populace, it unleashed a flood of creative energy unique in all the world. Somehow these films get financed and made. A few even find their way to the U.S.
Radu Jude seems to be the bad boy of the bunch. From his hilarious Happiest Girl in the World (2012), in which a girl wins a chance to appear in a TV commercial—and then fights with her parents over her fee, to Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn (2021), a wildly daring collage of a film about a teacher whose videoed conjugal lovemaking turns up on the internet, Jude zeroes in on absurd, troubling situations, and explores them to rock bottom, managing to be very funny in the process.
Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World may be his best film, and the only one on my list that captured a bit of our troubling zeitgeist. Everything in this movie is a little outrageous, yet everything fits.
The central character—a foulmouthed, overworked, utterly direct movie production assistant—grows on you till you fall in love with her, bubble gum and all. Jude tries technical experiments—among them a single shot that’s held for a full half hour—that shouldn’t work. But they do. None of the Romanian actors seem like they’re acting, so when the German film star Nina Hoss shows up in a small role near the end, she seems to come from a different planet.
The structure of Do Not Expect, hard to describe, goes something like this: The PA drives around Bucharest filming safety testimonials of injured company employees. That activity is juxtaposed with a Ceausescu-era film about the trials and tribulations of a female taxi driver. It’s hard to say which era is worse—Communism, with its casual male sadism, or late-stage capitalism, with its backbreaking work pressures, to which our protagonist responds by cursing out the whole world through a bearded avatar she’s created for social media. (The Romanian language seems to be rich in colorful phraseology.)
In the last half-hour sequence (that single, stationary camera shot), a disabled man, with his confused family gathered around him (the mother may be the taxi driver in the Ceausescu-era film), repeatedly tells the story of his injury, only to have company reps dilute it by taking out any parts that might incriminate the company. Finally they have him do “a Bob Dylan” and simply hold up “green screen” placards on which they can replace his story with their own sanitized version. This is one of the most quietly shocking sequences I’ve ever seen: Laughter turns to revulsion as we witness the degradation this family is put through.
Recently The New York Times Magazine ran a couple of long cultural articles about the “stuckness” of contemporary art and scarcity of fresh, provocative films. Jason Farago in “Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill” and A. O. Scott in “Is It Still Worth Going to the Movies?” say basically the same thing: For a variety of reasons—mainly to do with money and its demands—we’ve arrived at an artistic wasteland where the repetitiveness of “media” and “content” has replaced originality.
The other day, however, I heard on BBC radio a young Macedonian-Australian filmmaker, Goran Stolevski, take a different position. He maintained that movies aren’t being replaced by small-screen series; they are simply two different languages. A Godard film would be a film no matter where it is watched, while Breaking Bad will always be identifiable as a “series,” no matter the venue. The two languages can coexist.
Stolevski’s language metaphor was elegant, but the films I saw at the festival had me wondering. Only Fallen Leaves and Do Not Expect were truly original. To one degree or another, all the other films looked backward, not forward. If films are a language, they may be an endangered language understood by a shrinking few. It could be my pessimism—as Scott says in his essay, “it’s easy enough to mistake the fluctuations of your own mood for the tectonic rumblings of cultural history”—but I’m not willing to give up my anomie just yet.
George Blecher writes for The New York Times and for a number of European publications about American politics and culture. See NYCITYWOMAN.COM