NYFF: Critics Academy Entries
The below articles were produced as part of the 2014 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, whose participants were invited to contribute writing about the selection.
The Secret Sharer: Seymour: An Introduction
At the height of his fame, Bob Dylan complained of a cult of fans so awestruck that they’d sift through his cigarette butts in search of enlightenment. Fifty years later there remains something attractive about a gifted artist who hates publicity. The phenomenon lies at the center of Ethan Hawke’s documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, though at first it seems to be completely absent. Seymour Bernstein is a brilliant piano teacher and gentle, nurturing mentor, who helped Hawke overcome his stage fright so quickly that the actor has now returned the favor by directing this documentary. He is shy and humble, and has lived much of his life in the same tiny apartment. He genuinely dislikes self-promotion, crafty or otherwise.
For such a talented musician, Seymour’s lack of name recognition might come as a surprise, and indeed, Hawke spends much of his documentary attempting to explain just that. A soldier in the Korean War, then a world-class concert pianist, Seymour abandoned his promising career to teach students full-time. Many of these, like the journalist Michael Kimmelman, were children when they met first him; now fully grown, they still talk with him on the phone and meet up for coffee. When Seymour explains that a patroness from his concert days fell in love with him, we nod: everyone who gets to know Seymour falls in love with him. He makes modesty attractive, seemingly by ridding himself of every possible pretension.
Seymour would balk at the idea of being called a guru, but Ethan Hawke’s film ends up suggesting as much through its the distance created by its reserve about his personal life. Aside from a few sad mentions of an overbearing father, we learn next to nothing about Seymour’s family, nor do we hear more about his romantic life. And while we see plenty of fruitful and entertaining piano lessons, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Seymour when he’s not teaching his eager students. These omissions say a great deal about the limits of our relationship with this man. Hawke doesn’t sift through his hero’s cigarette butts, but it’s ironic that in refusing to do so, he endows his friend with the kind of mystique that Seymour’s career (and, superficially, the film) discourages.
To his credit, Hawke isn’t a conspicuous presence in his film, in the way other famous actors turned documentarians have been. Neither, in a way, is Seymour. Few people realize how many hours of practice it takes to be a great pianist, he tells us, yet he gives no explanation of how those years of practice turned him into a wise old man who could cure stage fright in a day. Part of the reason people obsess over the tiniest details of celebrities’ lives is to provide some link between the banality of their own lives and the mystery of their idols’. In denying us these things, Seymour may be trying, in his sweet, wry way, to discourage his fans—all fans—of relying on other people for the answers.—Jackson Arn
Labor Intensive: Two Days, One Night
Receive a €1,000 bonus, or save a colleague's job. That's the dilemma 16 workers at a solar-panel factory face in the Dardenne Brothers' suspenseful social drama Two Days, One Night. It’s their latest film devoted to the cause of portraying the working class, but the tendency stretches far back for the filmmakers. Since they began in the late Seventies with a number of video documentaries, the Belgian duo has examined the role of labor, solidarity, and moral integrity in a working-class environment.
The Nightingale's Song (78) tells of the Walloon Resistance movement in World War II, partly through syndicalist and communist resisters who struggled to avoid working for the German occupiers. When the Boat of Léon M. Went Down the Meuse River for the First Time (79) and For the War to End, the Walls Should Have Crumbled (80) both look at the 1960 Belgian general strike. Lessons from a University on the Fly (82) is a series of interviews with Polish immigrants about their trades, their journeys to Belgium, and union efforts. And Look at Jonathan (83) follows Jean Louvet, the left-wing playwright and founder of a proletarian theater.
The Dardennes trace similar themes in their fiction films, mostly social realist parables featuring characters who must navigate some ethical dilemma. In La Promesse (96), teenager Igor struggles to extricate himself from his father's practice of exploiting illegal immigrants, eventually siding with the family of an employee who died in a construction accident. In the Dardennes’ first Palme d'Or winner Rosetta (99), the 17-year-old title character violently protests her firing at an ice cream factory. Desperate to support herself and her alcoholic mother, she spends the rest of the film searching for work.
At one point, Rosetta snitches on a friend selling under the table at a waffle stand. She wanted his job, she tells him, but it's more than that. She would never cheat, and, as a hard worker who takes pride in her labor, has nothing but contempt for his theft. Like Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in Two Days, One Night, Rosetta has no desire to revolt. It's not a question of worker against employer—the two women just want do their job and be part of society. “I want a job! I want a normal life, like yours!” Rosetta screams at the boss who fires her.
Money matters, but work is also key to shaping identity and sustaining one's humanity and moral compass. That's evident in The Son (02) and The Child Two Days, One Night is older, less angry, and more nuanced in her outlook on life. Neither she nor the film judges the workers who decline to give up their bonus because they need the money. She understands—she even feels guilty for asking. While Rosetta pushes a fellow worker out of the nest, Sandra refuses to let others suffer for her benefit. She only wishes her co-workers would demonstrate the same solidarity. “Don’t pity me,” she tells them. “Just put yourself in my shoes.”—Freja Dam
By Reputation: Maps to the Stars & The Clouds of Sils Maria
The cult of celebrity has become a beast that feeds upon itself, influencing contemporary media and threatening to overwhelm mainstream culture. Two films at this year’s New York Film Festival pointedly attempt to subvert its authority by scrutinizing the operations and very premise of celebritydom.
Written by Bruce Wagner, David Cronenberg’s caustic comedy-drama Maps to the Stars revolves around an ensemble of dysfunctional caricatures who eagerly feed off their toxic, vacuous environment. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) returns unannounced to Los Angeles in an attempt to reconcile with her estranged family: high-flying quack therapist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), stage mom Christina (Olivia Williams), and post-rehab child star Benjie (Evan Bird). She lands a personal assistant job with Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a past-her-prime actress and epitome of narcissism, troubled by memories of childhood abuse that may or may not be imaginary. Along the way, Agatha becomes infatuated with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limousine driver and struggling writer/actor.
These are familiar characters whose qualities have been heightened: the self-medicating actress clinging onto her crumbling career, the celebrity doctor with his own reality show, the heinously oblivious child actor with pre-teen appeal, the desperate hangers-on who never quite make it big. The emptiness of their actions and conversations, which feature constant spewing of industry names, is distasteful but yields a morbid delight. They are less people than grotesque manifestations of depravity and vapidity, haunted by both literal and figurative ghosts of the past. Now that’s entertainment!
Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria examines the subject of fame and celebrity culture from a different angle, as it is encountered by characters within its narrative. Actor Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) was made famous by her role in Maloja Snake, a play about a tumultuous relationship between a seductive young woman and her older counterpart, and now finds herself at a crossroads. Upon the death of the respected author of Maloja Snake, Maria this time takes the role of the older woman in a new production of the play, but she struggles to surrender to the role, which entails reckoning with the passage of time in painful ways. With her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) by her side, she retreats into the mountains to prepare.
As the two women share a growing intimacy, their experiences and dynamic mimic those of the characters in the play. Maria begins to gather information about the actress playing the role she originated—the self-destructive Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). But poring over pictures, videos on the Internet, and gossip (which Valentine delights in sharing), only gives Maria a sense of her as a celebrity. Even when they meet, the young star seems to accept her outlandish persona and even thrive on it. The choice to cast Kristen Stewart as Maria’s assistant adds an effective layer of reflexivity. At the film’s New York Film Festival press conference, Stewart herself remarked on the irony: “I had to make sure my cheeks weren’t turning red when I said some of the lines in the movie.”—Amanda Yam
Modernist Love: Hiroshima mon amour & Life of Riley
At the 52nd New York Film Festival, Alain Resnais’s 1959 debut feature, Hiroshima mon amour, shared the stage with his last, Life of Riley. It was a pairing that represented two halves of a career: Hiroshima, the film that prompted Eric Rohmer to label Resnais “the first modern filmmaker of the sound era,” the film that might have been to cinema what Picasso’s Guernica was to painting; and Riley, a vibrant comedy of manners about (in)fidelity and aging love, an endearing balancing act of frivolity, solemnity, and slapstick, brimming with a swirling play of cheeky British humor imported into the French idiom.
Resnais’s style between Hiroshima and Riley varied with his source material, from the literary modernism that guided his output of the Fifties and Sixties, to the often whimsical, somewhat mannerist theater-pieces that anchor much of his later work. For Hiroshima, Resnais was tasked with finding a formal language commensurate to Marguerite Duras’s formidable screenplay, a devastating sketch of the interpenetration of private desire and world-historical trauma. The story follows a love affair between a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) and a French woman (magnificently played by Emmanuelle Riva) that unhinges in place and time, transcending the present tense of its action—Hiroshima, 1959—and implicating not only the faded shadow of the atomic blast, but the repressed wartime experiences of Riva’s character as well. The fractured linearity of time and place, image and sound, resembles and enacts the cracks in memory, the blank spots where a past has been repressed beyond recall—a past that flares up in the shock of one image intercut against another.
Life of Riley begins with a tracking shot of a country road (in England, we soon learn) that moves in a way partially reminiscent of the gliding, sweeping movements from Hiroshima. But the now whirling and clanging, now somber and elegiac modernist score that drives the older film is swapped out for X-Files composer Mark Price’s ebullient, goofball musical accompaniment of buzzing horns, flutes, and harpsichord. Almost all of the action in Riley unfolds on soundstages—chiefly on three, each corresponding to the courtyard of a different couple, two of whom are preparing for a play. All three pairs go through the alternately farcical and sincere motions of dealing with news that the eponymous George Riley has cancer and only months to live. Riley, who never quite shows up, is a playful, vivacious, half-cherished, half-abhorred man, we learn, who has embedded himself, long before the action of the film, into the lives of all its six principal characters—as one-time lover, jilted husband, jovial best-friend, hospital patient, and instigator of panging jealousy. These roles play themselves out across the film with a dramatic flare probably reserved for the theater, but with a quality—secured by Resnais’ technical virtuosity, dexterously balancing stage-framing master shots, medium shots, and close ups—that translates to the screen with emphatic success.—Michael Blum