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NY Fest : American Indies make a come back

The New York Film Festival, running through October 17, is in full swing, with enthusiastic audiences selling out nearly every film showing and film critics praising the films on offer. New York is in its prime at this time of the year: beautiful sunny weather, a Fall chill in the air, the turning of the leaves in nearby Central Park, and everywhere you go, chit chat about the Festival and the new films of the season.

With such celebrated filmmakers as Mike Leigh and Pedro Almodovar in town, the abundant offerings of French cinema and the highly anticipated films of such masters as Godard, Bergman and Rohmer, the Festival could be accused of being not just a little in love with European cinema (guilty as charged).

But the Festival, proud of its long tradition of embracing European cinema talents, is by no means exclusively a European love fest. Strong showings from the US, Asia and Latin America extend the Festival’s embrace of world culture and cinema movements from all corners of the globe.

American Independents, who have had a bit of a smaller profile in recent years (with a few notable exceptions, of course) are experiencing a new surge of interest, as evidenced by the Festival’s lineup.

Alexander Payne (whose previous film About Schmidt was the Opening Night attraction of the Festival in 2002) is back with Sideways, a hilarious and heartbreaking chronicle of ordinary American lives. This time, his dynamic duo is made up of Paul Giamatti (unforgettable as cartoonist Harvey Pekar in the Sundance prize winner American Splendor) and television actor Thomas Haden Church as a contemporary odd couple who take to the road in California’s wine country to encounter the sublime and the ridiculous in modern American life. The film, which closes the Festival, is being released in the US on October 20 by arthouse distributor Fox Searchlight.

Two of the indie world’s most provocative film artists are back with controversial new films that will certainly divide audiences and critics. Lodge Kerrigan, who emerged a decade ago with the uncompromising Clean Shaven, continues to find his own cinematic language in the emotionally devastating Keane. The film, mainly shot in agonizing close-ups and with handheld camera, is an in-your-face portrait of a troubled young man, who stalks his way through New York City’s most forlorn landscapes in an endless search for the daughter who was snatched away from him months before. Did this really happen or is it another delusion of a man who has been battered by life and may be on the trigger edge of insanity? Damian Lewis, who made his debut in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, gives a no-holds-barred breakout performance that is sure to be remembered at awards time.

Equally controversial is New Jersey’s enfant terrible Todd Solondz, who has made a career of plumbing the emotional and moral depths of his seemingly ordinary characters in such films as Welcome To The Dollhouse and Happiness. His latest film Palindromes (which means a word that is spelled the same forwards and backwards) is another hilarious and harrowing portrait of life-sucking suburbia that follows the adventures of a young girl who runs away from home when she refuses to have an abortion. The film represents a startling creative leap for the filmmaker, as he experiments with traditional structure, not to mention multiple casting of the lead character. And the hot-button issues that Solondz pushes (“family values” and “compassionate conservatism”) are remarkably timely during a Presidential campaign that mixes politics and religion with casual abandon. This is one of those films that draws a line in the sand….you either love it or hate it, but you certainly cannot dismiss it.

From the younger generation of American indies comes the newest film from David Gordon Green, whose accomplished debut George Washington was featured at the Festival in 2000. As a film poet from America’s South indebted to such pioneers as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Green infuses his films with poetic realism and a particular brand of Southern gothic. Green is particularly adept at getting under the skin of his unremarkable, not terribly literate characters.

This time, in the film Undercurrents, a widowed Georgia farmer (played by Dermot Mulroney) is visited by his jailbird brother (Josh Lucas), who is looking to settle old scores. His arrival creates a crisis for the farmer’s two sons, who must make a quick escape through an evocative landscape of forests, backwoods villages and shantytowns. The film is also distinguished by the fierce performance of English actor Jamie Bell (who emerged as a major international sensation as the title character in the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliot), who is a major revelation as the older son who fights the lethal currents of family misery. The film is being released later this year in the US by arthouse distributor United Artists.

First time filmmaker Jonathan Caouette has had one amazing year. His film Tarnation, an emotionally complex and remarkable diary film, was first discovered at the Sundance Film Festival, was screened to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, will be distributed theatrically in the US by Wellspring Media and has been sold to more than 40 countries worldwide.

Not bad for a film made for less than $25,000!! Tarnation chronicles the hard-pressed story and survival instincts of its director, whose father abandoned the family when he was a child and whose schizophrenic mother has been in and out of mental institutions for much of her adult life. However, from this maelstrom of emotional and spiritual challenge, director Caouette sought refuge by documenting his life. What emerges is a shocking and devastating portrait whose secrets lie at the heart of the director’s most intimate sense of self. Tarnation mixes photo snapshots, home movies, video diaries, old answering machine messages, and snippets of pop culture to present a remarkable portrait of family life.

Two highly anticipated American documentaries are making their premieres at the Festival. Documentary veteran Murray Lerner is presenting his unique concert film Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, a chronicle of the late great jazz trumpeter’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, where he introduced electric instruments and funk rhythms in what ultimately came to be labeled jazz fusion. Widely criticized at the time by jazz purists for “selling out” to rock and roll, Davis ultimately found a new audience for his improvisational music and oversaw an amazing transitional moment in American music. The film, which is being presented with the Jazz At Lincoln Center organization, includes commentary by such celebrated musicians as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell.

Ken Burns, who has single handedly revolutionized the documentary form with his television series on jazz and the Civil War, is presenting Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson, a complex portrait of the first black world-heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. In the years in the early part of the Twentieth Century when he reigned supreme, Johnson not only broke through color lines but also was a vocal activist who openly criticized the racist attitudes of his day. The price he paid for his visibility and the influence he exerted on race relations is an almost forgotten chapter of American history that Burns brings into startling deep focus. The film, which runs for almost 4 hours, is co-presented with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In the Festival tradition of presenting the revivals of neglected films from the past, the Festival sets its sights on Sam Fuller, the cinematic poet laureate of hard-boiled America. Fuller made The Big Red One as a deeply personal memoir of his time as an army grunt during World War II. The film, which was originally released in 1980, was drastically edited by the film’s producers and disavowed by the director. However, its reputation as the most accurate portrait of war (and a direct influence on Spielberg’s Finding Private Ryan) has culminated in a re-release by Warner Brothers, in its glorious full-length, rough-and-tumble version. Starring Lee Marvin as a hard-bitten sergeant, this is a powerful portrait of the tedium, surrealism and moral vortex of war (images Americans do not get to see on our television sets in the sanitized coverage of our conflict in Iraq). The film’s timeliness needs no further commentary.

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor


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