What Are Movies Good For?

What Are Movies Good For?

Awakening a sense of wonder and flooding a cinema with crucial realities.


Any film festival worth your while ought to revive a chronically unsettled debate—what are movies good for?—and provide, if not new arguments about the subject, then at least fresh ways to restate the old ones. We all know that movies make a lot of money for a few people, provide a living for many, and help most of us pass the time—which is fine, as far as it goes. But beyond that, why should anyone care?

Toward its conclusion, this year’s New York Film Festival gave such an overpowering answer to that question, with the world premiere of Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, that it almost undid every other case the NYFF had been making. Faced with the urgency of this documentary about Edward Snowden, it was easy to forget, or dismiss, the apologetics for cinema that had been implicit in the festival’s other selections: appeals to joy, curiosity, fellow feeling, support for young artists and personal loyalty to older ones. I’ll get to those reasons for moviegoing and the examples that supported them this year. First, though, let me deal with the pressing issue of Poitras’s film, which is more than the record of a historic event. It is, in itself, one of the instruments of that history.

The bulk of Citizenfour consists of substantial excerpts from videos that Poitras shot in a room in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong over the course of eight days in June 2013, when Snowden brought his evidence of pervasive surveillance by the National Security Agency to her, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and decided, with their help, when and how to reveal his identity. For explanatory purposes, Citizenfour augments these scenes with a variety of other footage that Poitras has shot or assembled over the course of several years: hearings in Washington and Brasília, conferences in New York City, a courtroom scene in San Francisco, the construction site for the NSA’s new data center in Utah. These contextual materials serve what I might call, without prejudice, the film’s muckraking agenda. But then, a thousand newspaper articles and cable-news reports have already raked up most of the factual muck you find in Citizenfour. What more can a movie give you?

It can give you the experience, at once deeply serious and nervously exhilarating, of being locked in hiding with Snowden, from the moment before he takes his irrevocable step to the day he flees the hotel as an asylum-seeker. At its core, Citizenfour is a highly charged chamber drama (with plenty of gallows humor) combined with an intensive character study, which enables you to judge for yourself the clarity of purpose in Snowden’s bearing, the concern for the people closest to him, the respect for his own abilities and steady disregard for his own future, the progressive darkening of the circles around his eyes.

The character study (which has been Poitras’s basic genre to date, in My Country, My Country and The Oath) is necessary—the film is necessary—because the effort to distract people from the substance of Snowden’s revelations has consistently, and predictably, entailed an effort to disparage him as a person. Part of the drama you see in the hotel room concerns just that: Snowden’s coming to terms with the inevitability of his becoming a story in himself. And so, in effect, Citizenfour also falls into the category of the making-of documentary, taking you behind the scenes of the video that Poitras posted on The Guardian’s website on June 9, 2013, showing Snowden to the world.

When Citizenfour screened at the festival, it flooded Alice Tully Hall with crucial realities in a way that few other selections attempted, and with a force that none could match. But I would argue that it did so as cinema, demonstrating one of the things that movies are good for.

To remain for a moment with film as a revelation of character and an intervention in troubled reality: the festival distinguished itself this year by showing Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a companion documentary to The Act of Killing. Though more straightforward than the earlier film in investigating the continuing effects of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s—this time there are no mini-musicals or westerns scripted and acted by mass murderers—The Look of Silence is no less compelling as it follows, and abets, the efforts of one extraordinarily brave man to confront the people who hacked his older brother to pieces. In a different register, in which morally outraged, up-to-the-minute documentation moves into fiction, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu presents an ever-darkening vision—at once folkloric, satiric, imaginative and brutal—of the reign of foreign jihadists over the people of the title city.

Pedro Costa, who works in nobody’s artistic register but his own, continues his utterly uncompromising evocation of the lives of Portugal’s poorest, darkest-skinned, most long-suffering laborers in Horse Money, a visit to what the festival’s programmers aptly describe as the “soul-space” of the nonprofessional performer Ventura. The setting is a spooky, nocturnal, mostly deserted building—part hospital, part prison, part abandoned factory—where the trembling old man you see before you is also a 19-year-old, and the 1974 coup continues to rage in the steel cage of an elevator.

These films are all considerable achievements. I will confess, though, that my favorite selections this year are good for something else: inspiring fellow feeling, and awakening a sense of wonder about everyday experience. One of these, Alice Rohrwacher’s semiautobiographical family drama, is even called The Wonders. Set in the countryside of southern Tuscany, it’s the coming-of-age story of a young girl (the solemnly lovely Maria Alexandra Lungu) who dwells as a squatter in a crumbling old farmhouse and is being educated by her father (a German-speaking political exile) to subsist as a beekeeper. She loves him, and she loves the bees, but she’d still like to dress up as an Etruscan and compete on a TV show hosted by Monica Bellucci.

From Hong Sang-soo comes Hill of Freedom, a charmingly disordered story about the things that happen to a painfully sincere Japanese man while he’s hanging around in a little neighborhood in Seoul, waiting to propose marriage to a woman who is inconveniently absent. It’s a film about connections, near and missed, in which everyone fumbles to converse in English, having no other common tongue. When it ended, I wanted to watch it again; and given the perfect running time of sixty-six minutes, that wouldn’t have been hard. Equally delightful and brisk, Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France might be described as variations on Love’s Labour’s Lost, lived out by young people in present-day Buenos Aires who are working on a cross-gender radio production of the play. The main character would prefer his own story to end with a profession of love and a kiss in the park; but the best that Piñeiro can do for him, in this wise and alert comedy, is to end the movie on that note.

Occupying a place of honor in the fellow-feeling category is a documentary portrait by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) of Ron Hall, whose nickname gives the film its title: Stray Dog. A biker, trailer-park manager in southern Missouri, loving husband to a Mexican immigrant, and survivor of the Vietnam War (who is both fiercely loyal to his fellow veterans and continually struggling to forgive himself for what he did overseas), Hall comes off as both an irresistibly warm and honest presence—not larger than life, just exactly as big—and the center of a communal network in which people give great strength to one another, having learned to expect nothing from anyone else.

The sympathy and hope you may discover in Stray Dog seem to come of their own accord, thanks to Granik’s apparently effortless filmmaking; but movies struggle to achieve such feelings, perhaps now more than ever, as Eugène Green suggests in his very beautiful and thoughtful La Sapienza. A story about the revival of a burned-out Swiss-French architect’s marriage, La Sapienza is in large part an Italian travelogue, touring the Baroque masterpieces of Francesco Borromini. The buildings are gorgeous, continually ascending swoops of luxurious ornament. Green’s filmmaking, by contrast, is earthbound and head-on, and insists that the actors sit still and speak like robots. It’s a self-consciously rigorous style, which suggests just how great a strain it is, in today’s world, to feel any spiritual light.

* * *

So I come to the dark side of this year’s festival and two selections that seemed to antagonize people, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. I like them both.

Based on a viciously funny and grotesque screenplay by Bruce Wagner, Maps to the Stars is a kind of Noh drama set in Hollywood, where ghosts (literal and metaphoric) return to haunt the wealthy and beautiful. A dreamily mysterious, disfigured young woman (Mia Wasikowska) makes her way into the service of an actress (Julianne Moore) who is teetering desperately on the brink of middle age (that is, obsolescence) and ought to be more cautious about who she takes into her home. A 14-year-old child star (Evan Bird), foul of mouth and attitude, is meanwhile reviving his career after a period in rehab, and is connected to the desperate actress through his creepy quack-therapist father (John Cusack). Drugs and alcohol abound but are not the sole reason why the dead keep interfering. Maps to the Stars is alarming and ultimately bloody, even by Cronenberg’s standards, and is good for much the same thing as the purges that so many Hollywood people undergo. It detoxifies you a little—not of alimentary contaminants, but of the cruelty and venality we’re all encouraged to swallow—and permits you a lot of appalled laughter in the process.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is based on a far more challenging text—the novel of the same title by Thomas Pynchon—and so takes risks that lesser filmmakers don’t even know are possible. Because the film’s incidents are at once entirely random and frighteningly coherent—they’re the odds and ends that feed into paranoid delusion, or the proof that paranoia is not delusional—Inherent Vice keeps introducing character after character, plot after plot, in a structure that lacks niceties such as “while” and “although” (let alone “because”) but is all “and, and, and, and.” Anderson throws everything he’s got at the story to keep it going, from slapstick and hallucination to ultraviolence and degraded sex. I will have to see Inherent Vice again to know if I feel it succeeds. Until then, I can say that the film’s brooding intimations of conspiracy don’t seem misplaced, given a festival world that includes Citizenfour and The Look of Silence, and that Joaquin Phoenix, playing a beach-bum stoner private eye in 1970 Los Angeles, is the loosest, saddest, most strangely incorruptible detective since Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

You will have noticed by now that many of these selections are theatrical or text-based. The presiding genius of this year’s festival, in fact, was the writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was given a full retrospective, despite his codification in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema as a not-quite-auteur whose work is “Less Than Meets the Eye.” You could interpret the choice of Mankiewicz as the festival’s nod, under the still-new leadership of Kent Jones, toward the virtues of Hollywood’s tradition of quality. Or you could take it as an imaginative response to the latest film by one of the festival’s favorite auteurs, Olivier Assayas.

He is, without question, a great filmmaker, whose Clouds of Sils Maria bristles with characteristic intelligence. A backstage drama about a celebrated actress (Juliette Binoche) and two young upstarts—her assistant (Kristen Stewart) and the Hollywood starlet who threatens to supplant her (Chloe Grace Moretz)—Clouds of Sils Maria is as dialogue-driven in its scenes as All About Eve, but also, paradoxically, as symbolic in its landscape as a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. I wonder, though, if it’s lesser Assayas, made from the head more than the heart and nerves. I will confess to a similar reservation about the new work by another festival favorite, Mike Leigh, whose biopic of J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Turner, is visually gorgeous but formulaically misanthropic. The Dardenne brothers did better with their labor-relations drama Two Days, One Night, starring a marvelously committed Marion Cotillard as a factory worker fighting to keep her job. It’s a very fine film, but one that you feel the Dardennes know all too well how to make.

But then the festival gave us the most eminent of all living auteurs, Jean-Luc Godard, who continues to push himself, and the medium, into new territory. He, too, is concerned with words, as he tells you in his new film’s title—Goodbye to Language—but he hardly seems ready to give them up; not when he can tease you by flashing “La Nature” on the screen and then making the flowers on a tree look like tiles of stained glass. As you may have heard, Goodbye to Language is in 3-D, a technique that Godard puts to uses that were always at hand, without anyone else having noticed them. (It’s as if all the other filmmakers had left $10,000 lying on the table for him to scoop up.) The possible meanings of this elegiac, non-narrative collage are, of course, too elusive to discuss here. It’s enough to say that they’re called up through elements as familiar in Godard’s work as the quarreling lovers in the bathroom, the wise codger thumbing a book and the newsreel footage of Nazis, and as surprisingly new as the romps of the point-of-view character (maybe), Godard’s dog Roxy.

Unlike the dog, Godard is locked in the prison house of language, to which he can’t say goodbye; but in the possibilities of his art, Godard seems limitless. The joy of that freedom—something far different from the pleasure of entertainment—is one of the most important things that movies are good for, and it enabled the festival to conclude in splendor with Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s improbably wonderful Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Shot as if on a dare, as though the whole film had been magically recorded in a single take, Birdman fit right into the festival as another talky movie about the theater, another confrontation between art and commercial blockbusters, another drama of the conflicts between men and women, youth and age. But it also pops out on its own with its giddy tale of a has-been Hollywood star (Michael Keaton), known in the 1990s for playing a caped superhero, trying to justify his life by adapting Raymond Carver stories for the Broadway stage. There are many comedies about predictable showbiz disasters. This one starts in midair, with Keaton in his dressing room levitating in the lotus position, and remains in flight till the end.

In movies, as Godard once said, “everything still remains to be done.” Or as González-Iñárritu might put it today, in movies you can still do anything. That sense of infinite possibility is perhaps the highest thing that movies are good for. On some nights, at least, this year’s New York Film Festival lived up to the promise.

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