Depending on your needs, you can evaluate a film festival by the number of deals concluded and Oscar contenders screened, tickets sold and corporate sponsorships secured, red-carpet photos posted and tweets retweeted. To its continuing credit, the New York Film Festival seems to be meeting its performance quotas in all those categories but still demands to be judged by a different set of numbers. How many likely masterpieces were on the program this year? How many subtle illuminations or worthy disappointments, shoulder shrugs or provocations?
In the latter category, the festival deliberately provoked itself during its fifty-first season—the first under the direction of Kent Jones—by inaugurating at its midpoint a complete retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard. You couldn’t avoid hearing about it. Before each regularly scheduled feature, the screen would suddenly emit alarming bursts of text, sound and image: Bardot’s ass! Belmondo’s blue face! The Madison! Le car wreck! This was the trailer for the series, made in loving emulation of the master’s own style; and if it was heavily weighted toward the earlier, best-known films (the New York Herald Tribune!)—that was part of the provocation. These works, which helped set the image of the New York Film Festival in its early years, seem canonical now but were by no means universally enjoyed when first detonated in the faces of a Lincoln Center audience. By jolting the house with them today, the festival was all but forcing its audience to think, “Those turned out to be great. Now what have you got?”
The answers, for me, began with Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Like Godard (except forty years younger and working in entirely different circumstances), Jia has won the loyalty of the festival’s programmers, having opened vast new areas of subject matter in a highly self-aware but bracingly confrontational style. His ambition is only slightly less grand than is implied by the title of his 2004 film, The World. He’ll settle for representing all of China. In A Touch of Sin, he tours the country from north to south—Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei, Guangdong—while telling four linked stories that he’s based on real events. A middle-aged miner goes on a shotgun rampage. A migrant laborer carries out an armed robbery, execution style. The receptionist in a bathhouse-brothel slashes two customers. A young hotel worker takes a dive off a balcony. Everywhere these four characters turn, they encounter entrenched corruption, the arrogance of wealth and the threat of sanctioned violence. They respond with self-righteous vengeance or cold-blooded opportunism, an impulsive lunge to maintain a last shred of respectability or a desperate leap out of this life into the next, which might turn out to be better.
Much has been made of Jia’s shifts, in A Touch of Sin, from social realist observation to neo-realist melodrama to action sequences that might have come from martial arts movies. (Or westerns, for that matter: the rampaging miner stalks through his scenes like Charles Bronson in a duster.) For good measure, Jia gives his stories the cultural resonance of traditional opera—shown in street-plaza performances—and the emblematic presence of animals from the Chinese zodiac, as if the events he shows were part of the eternal round. Some filmmakers (Godard, for instance) might present this abundance in fragments, but not Jia. He seems to believe that the world (or China, at least) is whole; and so, although his film is panoramic in settings and quasi-encyclopedic in styles, it unrolls as a single picture, sweeping, fluid and mesmerizingly clear.
Of the other films I saw this year—my festival-going was necessarily incomplete—the only one to come close to A Touch of Sin was the overwhelming 12 Years a Slave, shown outside the main slate as a presentation of Film Comment magazine.
Based on a book published in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who had been kidnapped and sold, 12 Years a Slave ends on the most startling line of dialogue imaginable: “There is nothing to forgive.” On the contrary. For more than two hours, through John Ridley’s screenplay, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s magnificently passionate and controlled lead performance, and Steve McQueen’s meticulous direction, which gives almost tangible weight and texture to each moment of the story, the film has led you to experience slavery as an unending nightmare so horrific that there is something cruel even in Northup’s liberation from it. At the end, he is released alone, knowing that he leaves millions behind. That’s why he needs to be told at his homecoming that nothing he’s done has to be forgiven—neither his forced absence from children who grew up without him, nor his return to a freedom denied to others. To the audience, though, the words cut deeply. If there is nothing to forgive in what we’ve seen, it’s because no forgiveness can be conceived.
As Natalie Zemon Davis points out in her book Slaves on Screen, films from the 1960s onward depicting slavery have tended to favor narratives of resistance. In 12 Years a Slave, though, resistance is brief, fitful and futile. Even the decision to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” becomes evidence that hope in this world has been abandoned. Enslaved people (Northup included) are ready to run; slaveowners are perpetually on the lookout for signs of uprising; but the purpose of 12 Years a Slave is not to valorize rebellion, but rather to commemorate the suffering of those whose victory was to have abided, for decades and centuries. It is important, then, that when Northup blunders past the lynching of two runaways, or is forced to flog another enslaved person, McQueen’s mobile camera makes the action continuous, so nothing is disguised. You are all but certain that you’ve seen men in nooses actually hoisted off the ground, and the actress Lupita Nyong’o struck by the whip in Ejiofor’s hand. These are the facts, the style tells you. There is no escape.
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