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New York filmfest hosts healthy mix of commercial, art fare

SOME jokesters dubbed this year's New York Film Festival the first annual Miramax Filmfest, referring to the prominence of Miramax Films - a major distributor of overseas and independent productions - in the Lincoln Center lineup.

The implication of this jest is that too much of the program was filled with commercial pictures already poised for widespread release by a profit-minded outfit that knows a marketable commodity when it sees one.

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It's true that Miramax is slated to distribute at least six of the festival's 28 attractions, which means the company's logo appeared on more than one-fifth of the features shown. Besides attesting the current vigor of Miramax, however, this statistic means very little.

The proper business of the highly selective New York Film Festival, which closed Oct. 9, is to show a healthy mix of ``audience pictures,'' which are naturally attractive to distributors seeking popular fare, and ``festival pictures,'' more challenging films that may never appear in local multiplexes.

To its credit, New York had plenty of offerings in both categories this year. And to their credit, a number of companies other than Miramax have picked up major attractions for release after the festival.

The program started with its most flamboyant Miramax flourish: the United States premiere of Pulp Fiction, one of this season's most keenly anticipated pictures.

It's slightly surprising that a high-toned company like Miramax is mixed up with an extravagantly lowbrow production like this. But then, it's very surprising that sleazemaster Quentin Tarantino has managed to position himself as a maestro of the art-film scene - winning the Cannes festival's grand prize with ``Pulp Fiction'' last spring, and then grabbing the coveted opening-night slot at Lincoln Center, where his earlier ``Reservoir Dogs'' was turned down just a few years ago. What's the movie world coming to, anyway?

As things turned out, the appropriately titled ``Pulp Fiction'' got the New York festival off to a lively start. Like other folks, many art-movie fans like a dose of over-the-top sensationalism once in a while, especially if it's packaged in an impressively long (2-1/2 hours) and complicated (four interwoven stories) package that gives it an Important Cinema veneer. Tarantino's opus was cheered by some, reviled by others, and eagerly discussed by all. Now it's headed for commercial theaters where much of the same will happen.

Miramax is also releasing Woody Allen's new Bullets Over Broadway, another festival offering with sure-fire prospects for theatrical success. What makes Miramax a valuable company as well as a powerful one, however, is its willingness to gamble on more provocative films. One such is Krzysztof Kieslowski's visually stunning Red, concluding the Polish filmmaker's ambitious ``Three Colors'' trilogy.

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Another is the remarkable Cuban feature Strawberry and Chocolate, in which acquaintance with a gay man leads an ardent Castro supporter to put human compassion over political dogma for the first time in his life. Delicately directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, it has a message of empathy and tolerance that deserves to be heard far beyond the festival circuit.

Some other attractions on the New York program have no distributors to put them in theaters, but may show up on video and in nontheatrical venues like museums, libraries, and cinema clubs.

The most imposing is Satantango, a Hungarian film by Bela Tarr that occupied a full day's screening time with its whopping seven-hour length. It chronicles the mostly sad adventures of a rural community after the death of communism, blending kitchen-sink realism with a visionary style that meshes performance and camera movement into a superbly choreographed whole. It may not be commercial, but it provides the sort of grand experience that film festivals were invented for.

The same can be said for Whispering Pages, by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov, and The Cloud Door, by Indian director Mani Kaul, shown together on an ``Avant-Garde Visions'' program that made up in dreamlike resonance what it lacked in common-sense convention.

Other standout attractions included: A Confucian Confusion by Edward Yang, who uses elements of drama, comedy, and romance to portray the response of Taiwanese yuppies to the increasingly Westernized and materialistic tone of their society; and Cold Water by Olivier Assayas, a French filmmaker's look at alienation and anxiety among contemporary youths.

Cool yet compassionate, Assayas's drama joins a number of recent French productions - including ``Young Werther'' by Jacques Doillon and ``Little Arrangements With the Dead'' by Pascale Ferran - that examine young characters with intellectual and emotional rigor.

Returning to films due for theatrical release soon, Hal Hartley's robotic Amateur was the biggest disappointment, using a man with no memory as the focus of a pointless exercise in self-conscious posturing.

By contrast, the documentary Hoop Dreams paints a revealing portrait of African-American sports, education, and youth culture, following three aspiring basketball players through five years of their promising but troubled lives. ``Amateur'' is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, and ``Hoop Dreams'' is coming from Fine Line Features.

Additional film-festival offerings now headed for theaters include: Miramax's offbeat Exotica, a complex study of family and sexual relations by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, and Through the Olive Trees by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who contributed the sensitive ``And Life Goes On'' two years ago; and the Samuel Goldwyn Company's ambitious To Live, a sweeping historical drama by the brilliant Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and Ladybird, Ladybird by British director Ken Loach, long respected for his dramas on social issues.

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