He might have been a ghost, the amply bearded, corduroy-clad fellow who haunted Alice Tully Hall in October, clutching an issue of The New York Review of Books, a copy of The Savage Detectives and a legal pad scribbled with screening notes. The spirit of studiousness had otherwise departed the New York Film Festival, even among those who turned out to whoop and shout for (of all people) Béla Tarr.
“You’re an excitable crowd,” observed Dennis Lim of the selection committee before introducing that shambling and sardonic Hungarian, who promised to show his cheering audience “an ugly black-and-white piece of shit.” That Tarr’s The Turin Horse proved to be none of the above is perhaps beside the point. The relevant fact is that the festival is now a place where the young describe Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as “awesome”; the pretty spend as much time sipping espresso outside as watching films within; and the famous, in conspicuous numbers, may appear at any moment amid a blaze of cameras at the step-and-repeat.
All this is good. To thrive, the New York Film Festival needs a sense of occasion, something that is more and more difficult to achieve in the multiplatform era. When I mentioned to a young friend how Lars von Trier’s Melancholia had overwhelmed me at its festival presentation, she said yes, she’d just caught it on iTunes. “But it demands a real movie screen, and a theater sound system,” I objected. Her TV is fifty-five inches, she explained, and the speakers crank up just fine.
Hence the evolution of the festival itself into something multiplatform. Once a tightly curated series of presentations on a single screen, all of which a sufficiently determined person could see, the festival this year completed its transformation into a cinephiles’ carnival swirling in and around four venues, which offered so many pictures that even the hard core had to choose. Among the consequences: an intensified conviviality, the heightened presence of corporate sponsors (somebody had to pay for the complimentary espresso), the relegation of most documentaries to a separate slate and a tacit relaxation of critical authority.
The mark of the New York Film Festival’s merit, despite this latter change, was that in this forty-ninth edition—the next-to-last to be overseen by its longtime program director, Richard Peña—it still managed to stand for something.
The minimum that it represented was, as usual, on display during the commercial tent poles of the carnival: opening night, closing night and the special midfestival screening. Here the programmers and audience manifested their loyalty to auteurs, even when the directors were not at their most challenging; their love (not nostalgic but slightly regretful) for what movies used to be; and a leftish social conscience sufficiently confident to laugh a little at itself. Evidence of these positions began with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, in which Polanski teasingly opened up the play’s one-set format, compressed the satirical title to its final word and made light of his old themes of claustrophobia and domestic viciousness. The actors (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) co-operated enthusiastically, turning themselves into gargoyles of bourgeois self-regard. On closing night, a more recent addition to the festival’s pantheon, Alexander Payne, took a contrastingly redemptive tour of American family life, in its affluent version, in The Descendants, his adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about marital infidelity and big real estate in Hawaii. Although Payne was a little too obvious in his will to reach bittersweet resolution, a little too dependent on a jukebox of Hawaiian background songs, he nevertheless brought out a wonderfully restrained yet vital lead performance from George Clooney and may have made a star out of Shailene Woodley, who played Clooney’s teenage daughter. The star turn of the festival’s centerpiece, Simon Curtis’s semifactual My Week With Marilyn, was of course Michelle Williams’s lovely impersonation of Marilyn Monroe in 1956, during the troubled filming of The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. Some people objected that Williams did not much resemble her model; but then, Marilyn herself didn’t really look like Marilyn. Like Carnage and The Descendants, My Week With Marilyn gave the less demanding festivalgoers an entertainment that might not have been major (though it flirted with a minor key) but was likable, well constructed and respectably self-aware.