New Pollution #2: Boom!, NYFFft, Ssssss

Pandemic Ponderings • New York Film Festival 58: 𝘓𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘙𝘰𝘤𝘬 and 𝘕𝘰𝘮𝘢𝘥𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘥

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

[Also published on The Completist and Letterboxd]

I’ve made as much peace as possible with current likelihoods/inevitables, though I think it’s advisable, in a column about the art of the mo-pic, to acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on filmgoing. A good buddy of mine said during this year of years that there’s no reason to expect anything good to happen, ever. He wasn’t necessarily being pessimistic. And I’d just personally tweak that to say that I prepare for the worst (to a fault, most days) so that I can be pleasantly surprised by the best. Though what I really strive for is a more consistently equable state of being, which meditation has certainly helped nudge me toward in recent months, and which my decades-spanning engagement with audio-visual media has done as far back as I can remember. (Good allusion on which to plug my friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men. Buy his book!)

But yes, the act of watching something on a screen is my ne plus ultra nerve-soother. And it’s rarely mattered what kind of screen, or in what company. Nothing theatrically is ever going to beat opening day of the first X-Files movie at the Ziegfeld in Manhattan. I attended all six shows: 10 a.m. in the morning until 3:18 a.m. the next morning, and the tidal wave crest of reaction to Mulder and Scully’s “almost kiss” is as close as I’ve come to nirvana. Pair that with the sheer hell of traveling to Washington D.C. with food poisoning so that I could watch Mikio Naruse’s 50-minute Hideko, the Bus Conductor while slumped feverishly in a front row seat and, really, the rest of my cinephile life could only ever be gravy, icing, what have you.

There’s a lesson here: It’s easier to adapt when you feel like you’ve already experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. Doesn’t mean you actually have (life and art are always moving the goalposts). But it’s a liberating perspective if you can get there and, then, maintain it. That way you can commit more completely to the doing of the thing that matters most.

For me, the doing is the watching. I love, and I long for, that moment when the projector starts or I hit the “Play” button. That split-second in which sound and image are first conjured. Even if the lights don’t literally go down, they do in my mind’s eye. And whatever the quality of the mo-pic in question, I slip easily into the zone. In that space, my computer screen can become as big and booming as IMAX, and an ideal audience can be whipped up from ether — one not unlike the packed house that held its collective breath during the demolition derby finale of my beloved Kurt Russell vehicle Breakdown the third time I saw it on first release.

I can have movie theaters for real. Or not. And life has dictated that, for the foreseeable future, I and so many others won’t have them. My anxieties, though, aren’t about the loss of the theatrical experience. I absolutely believe it will return because the hunger for that sort of connection is deep-rooted. And if there are a few less multiplex chains when the new normal arrives, I’d consider that a win. Or a good starting point, a foundation on which to build something better, something much more sustainable. (As others have said, if your entire business model collapses because the release date of the next James Bond film gets pushed, something’s off.) My immediate concerns are more practical. For the physical, mental and economic health of the people affected by the pandemic, as well as the stability of those places (the ones not predominantly beholden to corporate interests) in which they work. There will be an end, but there is no end in sight. And what does that mean, exactly?

Live with the question. For now, NYFF, the 58th edition of which, outside of some pricey drive-in screenings, was all virtual. I did actually miss attending press showings at Walter Reade. A great theater that means a lot to me as it’s where I watched, during a particularly formative period, all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky on celluloid prints ranging from pristine to pummeled. Animated post-screening discussions always spill into the theater’s outdoor common space where I’ve seen Daniel Day-Lewis sit contemplatively in the afternoon sun and Clint Eastwood vigorously sashay his way to a Q&A. (It was also here that another friend, so I’m told, was cursed out by Claire Denis and gave back as good as he got.) Now I’m left to my own thoughts and the imagined conversations that go with them. And though the movies this year were more touch-of-a-button accessible, I saw much less than I’d planned because I let that outside world over which I have little control get to me. Doing better now.

For this column, I’m going to focus on the Opening Night and Centerpiece premieres. I’ll write about the rest of NYFF in a subsequent piece. In the past, I’ve recoiled from Steve McQueen’s arty, Catholicism-flecked miserabilism, save for when he tipped into abase-thyself-in-a-gay-bar! campiness with Shame. (Michael Fassbender’s swinging dick has its own sound effect for God’s sake — oh, to be in the Foley room that day!) Opening night selection Lovers Rock, one of the five features in McQueen’s soon-to-be-released Amazon anthology series Small Axe, is by contrast quite inviting, though more because of its cumulative rhythms than its prosaic visuals. Mostly set during an all-night house party in a West Indian neighborhood in London, England circa the 1980s, the film ebbs and flows, pulses, plateaus and dips like many a dusk-to-dawn soirée. It’s also, like much of Small Axe, informed by fact; gatherings of this sort sprung up in response to Britain’s discriminatory, Caucasians-only nightclub culture.

Narratively, Lovers Rock revolves around a budding relationship between strangers Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), though I found myself more invested in side characters such as the Rastafarian bouncer who helps keep the racist white world at bay, or the rowdy latecomer who seems on the verge of starting a brawl, but is placated by a fast-thinking DJ who gives him a toke of ganja and some time on the mic. The initial dance floor sequences are too chaotically captured and cut, but McQueen and the cast find their groove with two tremendous setpieces — one spotlighting the ladies, the other the gents — scored respectively to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” and The Revolutionaries’s “Kunta Kinte,” a ravishing point-counterpoint between gentle harmony and raucous cacophony.

The irritatingly genteel festival centerpiece Nomadland, adapted from a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, appears well on its way to golden statuettes and other year-end plaudits. For writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao this is the last stop before the Marvel Moloch grinds her personal stamp, such as it is, to a pre-viz’d pulp with The Eternals. I didn’t much care for the mannered neo-realism of The Rider, but at least it could fall back on the authenticity of the people and places it portrayed. First shot of Nomadland: Frances McDormand opening up a storage locker in the wintry middle-American nowhere, capital-A Acting as her van-living vagabond character, Fern, wistfully goes through the ephemera of a life upended by hardship. The falsest of notes to start on, and it doesn’t much improve from there.

I was near-totally against the movie when McDormand was shown packing boxes at an actual Amazon distribution center, images that brought to mind some fire my better half lobbed at the sight of Meryl Streep slogging away behind a grocery checkout counter in Ricki and the Flash: “It’s like Princess Grace working at Whole Foods.” Then I was lulled for a bit by all the shallow, heart-plucking mythopoeticism — long drives through open country and even longer stares at “real” people, most of them nonprofessionals riffing on their own socioeconomic difficulties. That is until I recognized the mild approach (complete with a cloying score by Ludovico Einaudi that’s like skim-milk Gustavo Santaolalla) as willfully, obstinately apolitical.

Zhao’s film takes place over 2012-2013, in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. But it might as well be in an alternate universe where no one speaks above a whisper and “America” remains a vaguely benign abstraction, its myriad inequities mitigated by one woman’s superheroic pluck and gumption. Easy to do when you’re a celebrity playing diarrhea-in-a-bucket dress-down. Nomadland is the worst sort of well-meaning grotesquerie.