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.