First Cousin Once Removed

By Gary M. Kramer.

Celebrating 50 Years, the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center showcased celebrities–from Nicole Kidman for The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012) to Denzel Washington, star of the closing night film Flight (Zemeckis, 2012). An international cast of filmmakers was also on hand–from Chile’s No (Larrain, 2012) to China’s Memories Look at Me (Fang, 2012). There were new prints of Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962), Heaven’s Gate (Cimino, 1980), and Fellini’s Satyricon (Fellini, 1969). And a Gala Tribute to Selection Committee Chair, Richard Peña. But what the New York Film Festival does best is present fascinating World Premieres, exciting avant-garde spectacles, the latest works by established masters as well as new discoveries from up and coming filmmakers. Here is a rundown of reviews of films and notes from a pair of press conferences from this year’s festival.

Alan Berliner introduced his latest film, First Cousin Once Removed (2012), saying “this film changed every assumption I had about memory.” This documentary, which received its World Premiere at the NYFF, provides a sensitive, intimate portrait of the director’s first cousin once removed Edwin Honig, a poet, teacher, translator, mentor. Yet Honig is also “one step removed” from how Berliner sees him, as the elderly relative is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Berliner uses the motif of a typewriter to emphasize every shot, edit, and point he makes, and the technique is highly effective. Scenes show how repeated visits to Honig do not help the elderly man remember who Berliner is.

Early on, Honig’s sister objects to the potentially demeaning portrait of her sibling, a point that asks: Is Berliner exploiting his subject in his effort to teach people what memory means? The filmmaker wants Honig to describe what it means “to be you right now.”

Yet First Cousin Once Removed is a poetic film, with friends and students fondly remembering their teacher. However, Honig is not always so beloved. His two sons adopted during Honig’s second marriage are estranged, and bitter victims of their father’s cruel behavior towards them.

Berliner suggests an episode from Honig’s childhood that may have prompted his first cousin once removed to become a difficult parent. When Honig confesses to “killing” his brother–the three year-old Stanley was hit by a Mack Truck crossing the street behind five year-old Edwin–it unlocks some interesting words. Honig feels “mad” not “love” and his mind keeps playing tricks with the work “truck”. Yet this also explains how Honig thinks a mind is “a thing to play with.” As a wordsmith, he is “a trickster who liked being able to disturb things.” 

Berliner asks Honig to recall “who he was even if he sees someone else” (this phrase is a quote from a translation Honig did of Fernando Pessoa). He was knighted in Portugal and Spain for his work, but it doesn’t ring a bell. And when Honig is asked to name his Alzheimer’s, and he fittingly can’t remember, saying only that, “It begins with a L” The filmmaker asks viewers to remember things as well–he gives them a test, which involves audiences further in this sad, poignant, moving film that shows “you can remember how to forget” and that “you can forget everything.”

The Last Time I Saw Macao

Another film that dealt with memory was The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata, 2012). Described as “a memory piece, abstract film noir and city symphony,” this beautiful, intriguing film has Candy (Cindy Scrash), a transgender singer lip-syncing to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me”–from Macao (Sternberg, 1952)–at a circus, as tigers roam behind her. When a friend of hers is murdered in “war games,” she calls her friend (Guerra de Mata, largely unseen) to return to Macao, which he describes as, “the friendliest and cruelest city.” It is a place he’s not been in 30 years–and a place he says he was when he was happiest. The filmmaker goes, and yet he gets lost in the streets, missing appointments with Candy and her contacts. He finds himself seeing the city anew. Returning to his childhood haunts–his home and school–he sees how they have changed, and how he has.

The dramatic tensions builds as Guerra de Mata gets anonymous threats, but The Last Time I Saw Macao is less interested in its noir story and more an impressionistic look at the city: The playful tiger lanterns that dot the roadways, an ant crawling on a dead rodent in the street, the neon signs and even the caves that are outside the city are the real focus. The filmmakers are addressing the fiction of memory, constructing the film through editing (over plot). When a mysterious birdcage is revealed to turn people into animals it is clear that the film’s realism is in the magical category. Rodrigues’ work often plays with phantoms, offering up a vanishing topless mermaid or a shoe signifying Candy’s disappearance, and even a reference to Jane Russell’s pantyhose–a symbol from Sternberg’s film. The Last Time I Saw Macao is as playful as it is inscrutable. Nevertheless, viewers who give themselves over to the offbeat rhythms of this exotic film will be enchanted.

Night Across the Street

Another magic realist film was the late Raul Ruiz’s last film, Night Across the Street (2012). An elegant elegy, this drama incorporates many of the director’s key themes–time, dreams, storytelling, and truth. Night has Celso (Santiago Figueroa), a young boy who has encounters with Beethoven (Sergio Schmied)–he takes him to the movies in one wondrous sequence–and as an old man, about to retire: “Busy years of doing nothing.” At the elder Celso’s (Sergio Hernández) farewell lunch, there is talk about Celso “working and relaxing simultaneously” and this proves a metaphor for viewers who will let this beautiful, puzzling film wash over them if they don’t want to work too hard putting all the pieces together.

There is a “murder” plot–Celso is waiting to be killed–but it is loosely told through various surreal, absurd, and amusing vignettes, such as a woman looking for a particular four-letter word. Better are the name games Celso plays–he likes to be called Rhododendron, a word he repeats often–with Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra). Night is filled with sumptuous visuals, from the characters standing in the barrel of a gun, or a series of séances. These latter scenes seem to be a fitting end for the late filmmaker talking to viewers from the beyond.

Opening with the lead actress spewing blood from her neck, Camille Rewinds (Lvovsky, 2012) indicates right away that it mixes fantasy and reality. But this dull French remake of Peggy Sue Got Married  (Coppola, 1986) is surprisingly uninventive and unremarkable. Writer/director/star Noémie Lvovsky wants to speak volumes about the choices one makes in life, and how past mistakes can alter or redirect one’s plan of action, but the film mostly states the obvious. Granted, Lvovsky gives an expressive, committed performance as a 40something who wakes up as a teen, but since her future husband, Éric (Samir Guesmi) is an unappealing character; it’s hard to understand what Camille sees in him. Éric is more foolish than charming (even if he’s 16). Her relationship with a physics teacher, which produces some dramatic interest, is far more credible. Lvovsky gets a few things right: a running gag about her drinking, the camaraderie she has with her girlfriends, recording voices of her parents at her birthday, a wry supporting turn by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and a nifty shot of a flying cat in the opening credits. But what should have been a magical tale of love lost and re-found is actually rather disappointing.

Much more fun was The Savoy King (Jeffrey Kaufman, 2012), a jaunty, affectionate documentary about Chick Webb, the drummer and bandleader who “outswung everything that could be swung.” Featuring lively interviews, photographs and archival clips the film uses celebrity voices ranging from Bill Cosby (as Chick) to a breathy Janet Jackson (as Ella Fitzgerald) to provide quotes by the late great jazz artists. Buoyed by a great swing soundtrack, the film recounts the basic information about the legendary performer who grew up poor in East Baltimore, and developed his hunched back from spinal tuberculosis. But Webb, who spent every nickel he made on arrangements, was a key player in the Harlem music scene. As a performer at the integrated Savoy, Webb started gaining fame. Lindy Hopper Frankie Manning invented the air-step, Webb battled Benny Goodman’s band, and when he added singer Ella Fitzgerald, his career skyrocketed. The Savoy King nimbly recounts these and other important events in Webb’s life, such as combating the racism in the south by raising defense funds for the Scottsboro Boys. This ebullient film is certain to keep swing fans happy and educate those unaware of the “little giant” who produced “big noise.”

At two separate press conferences, filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Abbas Kiarostami discussed their latest films.

New York Film Festival favorite, Olivier Assayas, presented his latest drama, Something in the Air (Apres Mai, 2012), a semiautobiographical account of his life in France in the 1970s. In a post-screening press conference, the filmmaker explained. “A lot of me is in this film, including the worst. Its roots are in actual events.”

He spoke about making such a personal drama, that dovetails with the publication of his memoir, A Post-May Adolescence. He indicated, “I don’t believe in autobiography in film. You start there, but you are led elsewhere. You [capture] incidents, emotions… you pass them on to actors, who transcribe something and adapt [it] to characters. The process of making the film takes you away from autobiography… The book was an essay about the weird context of the 70s–how I became a filmmaker. This is a coming of age movie, but also about the specificity of the 70s. It was a challenging, different, weird time. Everything rejected has to be reinvented and that is scary and fascinating.”

Like Someone in Love

Also attending the New York Film Festival, and looking super-cool in sunglasses he never took off, was Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. His new film Like Someone in Love (2012), was set and shot in Japan, and concerns the relationship that develops between an elderly man (Tadashi Okuno) and a young female student (Rin Takanashi) who works part time as an escort. As with all Kiarostami films, there are long driving scenes and many discussions in cars.

When asked about why he chose to make a film in Japan, Kiarostami answered that he had “No convincing reason why an Iranian goes to make a film in an unknown culture.  The idea was triggered in Japan when I saw a young woman dressed as a bride who was a part time student/escort. The lead actor [Okuno] was an extra who had never uttered a line of dialogue in 50 years of work.”

When a question was raised about the driving in his films, Kiarostami explained, “There is no convincing answer about why I use cars. It has its own set of conditions. Misusing a car was practicing for this one scene [in Like Someone in Love] between the old man and a young man [the escort’s boyfriend]. The intimacy between these strangers–it is impossible elsewhere. This is the scene I’ve been preparing for all these years. A car is the most appropriate setting for a conversation. You don’t have to look at each other. You can’t go away/leave. It’s intimate, private. The idea situation for a serious conversation.”

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.

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