Cinematic Solitude: A Dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival

The 2020 New York Film Festival rose to the occasion in their completely virtual, socially distanced iteration of the celebrated New York institution.

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Cinematic Solitude: A Dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival

During the first press streaming window for the 58th New York Film Festival, my internet went out—and would remain out for more than 72 hours. During this window of Wi-Fi blackout, I was desperately trying to watch the festival’s opening night film, Steve McQueen’s (12 Years a Slave) Lover’s Rock, the first installation of his Small Axe anthology to stream as part of the festival’s Main Slate. While I was eventually able to catch the film during the last week of the NYFF, this year’s virtual iteration of the storied New York institution posed several more hurdles: buffering videos, puny screens, the seclusion of watching over a dozen films in one room over the course of three weeks. Yet the festival’s unorthodox configuration also broadened its horizons: days-long viewing windows, no endless commute back and forth from the Upper West Side, opportunities to pause, rewind and rewatch films. In fact, many of the titles from NYFF 2020 are perfectly suited for watching alone mid-pandemic—the profound loneliness, deep-seated unfairness and contemplative nature of these films hit much harder in solitude on the living room sofa as opposed to in a fully packed theater.

The two revivals that I caught from this year’s festival, Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985) and Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) embody something special about the thematic throughline of solitude throughout the festival. The moody, misunderstood Connie Wyatt (played by a fresh-faced, 18-year-old Laura Dern) in Smooth Talk resonates potently, as many regress into our highschool homebody selves during this period of collective angst. Based on the iconic Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” inspired by the Tucson murders committed by Charles Schmid, the film gorgeously captures the sense of deep malaise originally conceived by Oates, eventually taking it one step further with a tremendously acted climax involving Dern and a mysterious stranger (Treats Williams) alongside an epilogue to Oates’ original story imagined by Chopra that tandemly offers hope while turning the viewer’s stomach.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Wong Kar-Wai’s enduring tale of missed connections In the Mood for Love is most appropriate for exploring the weight of squandered loves and opportunities—but perhaps not the ideal film for a drive-in screening. I attended a screening at the Queens Drive-In—located right next to the New York Hall of Science—and couldn’t help but feel exasperated that I wasn’t experiencing the film in a dark, quiet theater. While the screen was enormous compared to the Bronx Drive-In screening I experienced the day before, I just couldn’t get sucked into the intimacy that the master director creates in his framing and characters through the windshield of a silver Camry. Hopefully, the 4K retrospective of Wong Kar-Wai’s oeuvre—originally set to hit Lincoln Center back in June—can occur post-pandemic, as I would gladly immerse myself in the rich, melancholy tone of In the Mood for Love in the comfort of a theater. (Plus, the car died just before the ending, effectively ruining the heftiness of the final scene for me.)

Speaking of heft, some of the most entertaining films I experienced during the festival were exactly the opposite. Guy Maddin’s (My Winnipeg, The Green Fog) 19-minute short Stump the Guesser, a postmodern romp about a carnival guesser who desperately wants to marry his long-lost sister, is a much-needed dose of absurdist comedy amid a slate of emotionally complex films. Inspired by silent-era cinema, Stump the Guesser achieves its humor through title cards, hilarious props (“guessing milk” and “real crabs”) and its playfully incestuous premise.

The other short that I caught during the festival, Pedro Almodóvar’s 30-minute English-language debut, The Human Voice, particularly blew me away. Based on the monologue play originally penned by Jean Cocteau, the film follows a woman (played by Tilda Swinton) spiraling after being left by her longtime lover. The majority of the short consists of a one-sided phone call between the woman and her former partner, eventually leading to a defiant act of cathartic destruction for the scorned woman. It also has the unique qualifier as having been shot during the pandemic, making the quarantine mood of isolation and loss all the more profound. In my full review, I write: “While The Human Voice minimizes the presence of the Spanish language and [Madrid], it still flaunts many of Almodóvar’s conventions, easily identifiable through its campy design, vibrant colors and focus on a lovelorn woman with a penchant for melodrama. Yet instead of acting as a short, satisfying jaunt through Almodóvar’s aesthetic, The Human Voice is an exercise in deconstructing the very tenets the filmmaker has propped himself on throughout the entirety of his career.”

As opposed to unraveling past work, prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman distills the essence of his 50-year career to near-perfection in his 46th film to date, the four-hour-and-32-minute City Hall. The 90-year-old filmmaker employs his classic verité approach, which details the holes within systems of government as well as the under-appreciated mechanics of maintaining the city of Boston. “Wiseman’s top-down approach to looking at government is both effective at sketching out the priorities of those in charge as well as demonstrating what they’re actually able to execute,” I write in my full review. “City Hall posits that Boston is a city that is desperately trying to protect and serve its citizens—particularly those that have been purposefully disenfranchised and dismissed throughout the city’s history—but it also demonstrates the power of civilian engagement and organizing.”

Another documentary, Norwegian director Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda examines the intricacies of a gargantuan system through a more singular focus. The 93-minute, black-and-white film follows Gunda, the titular mother sow, on the Norwegian farm on which she resides with her litter of piglets. Also featured are a stunning one-legged chicken and a majestic herd of cows—all simply existing on a farm, untethered from the weight of human agrarian culture (at least for the majority of the film). Through simply watching these animal’s actions, the viewer eventually becomes familiar with each creature’s unique personality, yet Kossakovsky is reluctant to anthropomorphize them—the film argues that these animals should not have to mimic human behavior in order to be adored and respected. There is no score, no fancy camera work—only the sensation of being in communion with nature.

The standout documentary (and my favorite film from the festival overall) is also a black-and-white meditation on a brutal system that rescinds basic rights to those it holds captive. Garrett Bradley’s Time is an ambitious blend of newly shot footage and a trove of archival home videos which follows Fox Rich, a Louisiana mother whose tireless 21-year campaign to have her husband released from prison takes an enormous toll on her and her family. Bradley’s direction is entrancing, and the incorporation of home movies envelops the viewer in a velvety haze of bittersweet family memories, often in an attempt to capture the moments that Rich’s husband’s incarceration kept from him. Time is bold yet subdued, grandiose yet precise. It is an astounding addition to Bradley’s already impressive catalogue, her raw talent neatly distilled into an impeccable feat of filmmaking. Time is now streaming on Amazon Prime, and I urge everyone to watch it.

Amidst a selection of documentaries which aim to reconfigure the visual language of the form, Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI couldn’t help but fall a bit flat for me. The wealth of archival footage and substantive evidence surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s persecution on the federal level is fascinating, but just doesn’t have enough momentum to keep the viewer enticed. What the film achieves in opening the eyes of those who believe MLK was a virtuous promoter of peace and was thus uniformly respected, it loses in garnering higher-stakes evidence for those who are familiar with the storied history of U.S. law enforcement’s corruption. The film forgoes talking head footage, instead choosing to play the audio of disembodied voices over archival images. While I understand the urge to maximize screen time for fascinating documents from the ’50s and ’60s, the lack of other materials or visual stimuli renders the film somewhat tedious.

Somewhere between documentary and fiction is Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a mosaic of largely older Americans who have abandoned (or been forced out of) homeownership and have thus taken to the road in vans or RVs, traveling cross-country wherever seasonal work leads them (based on the 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by journalist Jessica Bruder). Like Zhao’s previous films Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, Nomadland features a wealth of non-actors, many of whom were featured in Bruder’s reportage, with the exception being the main character, Fern (Frances McDormand), who appears to be a composite character rendered from the subjects of Bruder’s book. The showcasing of an instantly recognizable actor in juxtaposition with the heart-wrenching real-world experiences relayed by the film’s non-actors feels somewhat disjointed. As I elaborate in my full review, Zhao’s film can’t help but feel defanged due to its lack of indictment of the capitalist structures that propel this workforce: “For a film that aims to portray the plight of growing old in a country that offers little respite for aging populations aside from working themselves to death, Nomadland is less interested in confronting this issue as it is painting a beautiful picture of an unlikely way of life.”

Somewhat more personal but also heavily rooted in lived experience is Heidi Ewig’s (Jesus Camp) I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo conmigo). Inspired by the love story shared by two of Ewig’s real-life friends, Iván and Gerardo, the film casts actors to play the couple in their childhood years and during their budding romance, pivoting to the men playing themselves mid-way through the film. The couple originally being from Mexico, Iván eventually chooses to leave his lover and cross the border into the U.S., hoping to find culinary recognition as well as a less homophobic environment. Featuring one of the most harrowing yet realistic border crossing scenes I’ve ever seen, I Carry You With Me excels at conveying the vividness of formative experiences, but feels somewhat stunted when it comes to examining the actions of the protagonists. While it’s clear that Mexico offers little protection for LGBT citizens, the film’s uncritical celebration of the U.S.’s seemingly monolithic acceptance of queer culture is insincere and comes off as somewhat tone-deaf. While the film does critique xenophobia and the devastating hardship within latinx communities residing in the country, it isn’t interested in challenging aspects of queerness or latinidad outside of the main characters’ direct experiences.

Steve McQueen’s Mangrove provides a much more nuanced look at a diverse community and a real-world tribulation. The first of his Small Axe anthology—only three of the five films that make up the anthology screened—it’s not premature to give the series unabashed praise. Taking place in the London neighborhood of Notting Hill during the late ’60s, the titular Mangrove is based on a real London cafe-slash-social hub for the area’s West Indian community. Owned by Frank Crichlow, the Mangrove restaurant was frequently raided by police, eventually spurring a protest from community members and activists denouncing the unwarranted treatment from law enforcement. The demonstration led to the wrongful arrests of several participants who would go on to be known as the Mangrove Nine, many of whom represented themselves in court during their 1970 trial. McQueen’s riveting storytelling and a particularly stellar performance from Letitia Wright as West Indian Black Panther Altheia Jones-LaCointe are major highlights, but there’s much to be gleaned from this court procedural which scathingly indicts lingering anti-Blackness in British culture by simply looking at the recent past.

Another dramatization of Black British cultural figures, McQueen’s Red, White and Blue is exhilarating even when it stumbles. Leroy Logan (spectacularly captured by John Boyega) aspires to become a police officer in 1980s London, only to be scrutinized by his father (a recent victim of police brutality) and tormented by his white peers on the force. Hoping to become a liaison between law enforcement and over-policed Black communities, Logan never quite reaches his utopian vision of community outreach, instead only benefiting on a personal level from the little power he gains through assuming a role of authority. Yet McQueen’s direction and Boyega’s command of the role are never dull, making this an equally powerful installation of Small Axe.

Undoubtedly the most joyous film that I saw at the festival, Lover’s Rock incorporates luscious elements of ’80s song, dance and style which come together elegantly. Taking place over one night at a London house party, Lovers Rock is unique among the other Small Axe films in that the role of British racism takes a back seat, instead prioritizing the jubilance inherent in London’s West Indian community—and the reggae music that scores their get downs. Although ’80s nightclubs at the time barred Black partygoers from entering, Lover’s Rock argues that the Black Dancehall spaces that cropped up in response are, in themselves, a larger cultural feat than those London clubs ever were. Young lovers Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her mysterious new crush (Michael Ward) ethereally move the plot forward, but I would argue that the real star of Lover’s Rock is Janet Kaye’s 1979 single “Silly Games.”

Equally invested in the language of song is Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple. Following an aspiring singer of Indian classical music, the film is one of the most astute and compassionate depictions of artistic struggle and stagnation I’ve ever seen. Featuring gorgeous performances of Hindustani traditional music—particularly from first-time actor Aditya Modak as the eponymous disciple Sharad—The Disciple investigates the validity of tradition in the face of commercial modernity, wavering somewhere between ardent purism and complacent acceptance. Executive produced by Alfonso Cuarón, The Disciple and Tamhane will certainly pique the interest of cinephiles interested in what it means to preserve seemingly archaic artforms in a world of faltering attention spans and self-discipline.

Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings (La Nuit des Rois) is similarly interested in the power of tradition, specifically the act of oration. Inside the Maca correctional facility located in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan, a young man (Koné Bakary) jailed for pickpocketing has the misfortune of being selected as the prison’s storyteller (otherwise known as Roman) on the night of the ominous red moon. What the film lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in heady insights about prison, freedom and community—and a small role played by the incomparable Denis Lavant.

Mexican director Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle (Selva Trágica) takes this foreboding air of mysticism one step further in her fifth feature film to date. Set in the 1920s in the verdant borderland along the Rio Hondo which separates British Honduras (modern-day Belize) and Mexico, the film is essentially a retelling of the Mayan myth of La Xtabay, a woman of unparalleled beauty who lures men to their demise in the thick of the forest. The film follows Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who flees a wealthy British landowner intent on marrying her by swimming the river and escaping to the Mexican border, where she meets a group of chicleros, or gum tree workers, who help her navigate the expansive jungle—but not without a price. The film’s anti-colonial framework alongside its Western influences reminded me of a film from last year’s festival, the Brazilian Bacarau, but feels distinctly less exciting and arresting in comparison.

Finally, the last film I streamed during the festival was the uniquely underwhelming French Exit. Based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt, director Azazel Jacobs employed DeWitt as the film’s screenwriter, which gives it a jarring, overly literary presence that ultimately does not translate to film. Without spoiling too much, I just have to say: if your movie is going to have a talking cat in it and you can’t commit to Thackery Binx in Hocus Pocus levels of mouth-moving ridiculousness, I’m going to be disappointed. While the film feels confined in its literary parameters, Michelle Pfeifer makes the film worth watching for her performance alone. Her take on widowed New York socialite Frances is perhaps the only thing saving French Exit from Sex and the City levels of shoe-horned dialogue about sex and money. Lucas Hedges gives a measured performance as her ambivalent son, Malcolm, but there is nothing else particularly outstanding or memorable here. Honestly, it was a somewhat sour note to leave the festival on, but they can’t all be winners!

Whether expressed through the tepid problems afflicting the ultra-wealthy, the punitive nature of the prison system or the unique loneliness following a break-up, the 58th New York Film Festival exquisitely delivered a slate of films that oscillated between devastatingly and hilariously relatable during this period of pandemic and protest. Among the films that I’m disappointed I missed are Hong Sangsoo’s The Woman Who Ran, Joe DeNardo and Paul Felten’s Slow Machine, a revival of Béla Tarr’s 1989 Damnation, and Song Fang’s The Calming. However, I must appreciate the unique privilege of seeing 17 films over the course of three weeks, despite the obvious setbacks inherent with a virtual festival. Sure, there were egregiously huge watermarks, missteps in drive-in execution and a slight undercurrent of panic throughout, but compromising the theater-going experience meant gaining the time, flexibility and comfort of attending from home. While I’m excited for what next year brings, I can’t say I’m fully prepared to give up the ease and privacy of watching these films all by my lonesome.

Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.