Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In last week's Reads column, I expressed irritation with a New York Press feature, by Simon Abrams, criticizing the New York Film Festival, which begins on Friday. Abrams had a point or two to make, but it seemed an awfully naive and myopic piece overall, one that annoyed at least one of its sources. This week, the wussy wimp-out, not that an article in the Press, which fish jump out of when you try to wrap them in it, was going to ruffle that many feathers.

"I’m a fan of the New York Film Festival. This may strike some people as hypocritical after last week’s “Have You Ever Been to the New York Film Festival?” but it’s true. It’s a classy event that treats its critics right. For many acolytes, if somebody’s going to put film on a pedestal, high ticket prices and a willfully limited audience are an acceptable loss. As one of the self-same proud members of the initiated and well-tended-to, I shouldn’t complain.

And yet, my problem with the festival is that nothing substantial seems to come of it. While the contrary is almost certainly the case, I’m somewhat reluctant to recommend the festival, an event run by a terrific organization that treats both the press and industry with respect and graciousness, but also one where a sad number of the best selections will never be seen afterward.

While the festival almost always champions terrific films that have already attained distribution before their screening—The Orphanage, Persepolis and Redacted made last year’s slate particularly exciting—the disappearance of gems from last year like Carlos Saura’s Fados and Masayuki Suo’s I Just Didn’t Do It may have more to do with the sad reality of U.S. foreign film distribution than the festival’s active duties. But when Lincoln Center, the foremost cultural institution in New York, is the last stop in the city for such brilliant films, something is very, very wrong."

Something is out of whack, and Abrams calls it: Foreign films have to compete for a limited number of screens, for a rarefied audience, with everything else out there, good, bad, and mostly indifferent. Not a barn-burning observation, no "may have" about it. But how are Lincoln Center and the festival to blame? Festival exposure can very well get a film a release, or help it onto DVD, which, like it or not, is where viewers outside of the biggest movie markets will likely find them. What more can the festival do? Even in New York, the best a foreign film can hope for is a week or two at the arthouse, and if it's a smaller distributor, chances are it'll be at the small ponds of Cinema Village or the Quad rather than the Angelika or Landmark, which cater to bigger, studio-spawned fish. I get press invites to festival screenings, too, but, sensing that I Just Didn't Do It might not get much further than the festival, I paid to see it last year, as an audience member, and was glad to have done so. Count me among the "willfully limited," whatever that means. (Two showings at the Ziegfeld, which is what this year's entrants are getting, is more potential audience than a film like that could ever hope to get in a typical citywide release at a shoebox multiplex in two weeks--and the screenings tend to sell out.)

What bugs me about this piece is how craven it is; last week, Abrams bit the hand that fed him, this week, he's salving the wound, glad-handing the organizers as if fearing he'll be cut off, denied access to an annual event he professes to disdain but is loathe to give up. No, you shouldn't complain, if you're just going to weasel out of your complaints a week later.

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