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SWEETGRASS (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

September 25 – October 11, 2009

In its 47th year, the New York Film Festival continues to showcase masters and wunderkinds familiar to art-house audiences with a main slate culled from other festivals. Here’s an overview from the first week:


Sweetgrass is an extraordinary piece of visual anthropology that is as beautiful and involving as it is informative about a threatened way of life.

While Americans’ image of the West is stuck in polished Hollywood portrayals of cattle drives of the past, ethnographers-with-cameras Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor follow a Montana ranching family as they and their hired hands prepare and herd sheep over public grounds for the last time. The film moves with seasonal rhythms around the year in the stunning Big Sky Country, revealing the traditional interdependence of domesticated animals and their practical, experienced guardians within their rugged environment.

Other than some brief background provided in the conclusion, the shearing, birthing, winter feedings, steering and chasing of the follow-the-leader animals unfold on screen without narration or explanation. Castaing-Taylor camped out like a cowboy and set up mikes that intimately captured every human and natural sound over far distances. While scampering lambs could have the same general appeal as emperor penguins for city kids and adults, the grizzled herders’ understandably salty language toward the end of the frustrating drive could unfortunately keep some younger audiences and timid school classes away from this enthralling tribute to living history.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes in THE ART OF THE STEAL (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center/9.14 Pictures)
The Art of the Steal
progresses far beyond
newsmagazine summaries to expose in detail how a unique collection of art has intersected with a complex amalgamation of money, power, race, class, and politics. The staggeringly large and superb selection of French Impressionists, Post-Impressionist, and early Modern art is both of ineffable beauty and of incomparable value in the commercial auction market, whatever the economy’s ups and downs. But Philadelphia society leaders, particularly the Annenberg family and the boards of the Museum of Art and other non-profits, looked down their noses in the 1920’s at Albert C. Barnes, doctor/entrepreneur turned arts educator, for his early championing of “degenerate art,” let alone for his teaching its appreciation to working people. As described by passionate former students and teachers (some call themselves disciples), he founded an institution in the quiet suburb of Lower Merion to exhibit the works according to his idiosyncratic instructions and made Lincoln University, a historically black college, the guardian of his collection. Before his death in 1951, he wrote a will he thought would mandate the control of his art works in perpetuity.

I watched the Fourth of July fireworks sitting next to the billboard proclaiming the arrival of the Barnes Foundation to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia (unveiled ominously in the film), and I had only a bare sense from the national coverage of the colorful characters behind the collection’s transfer or the behind-the-scenes manipulations that sign represented. Former Foundation student and executive producer Lenny Feinberg asked director Don Argott (Rock School) to tell the complicated and fascinating story as forces array against Dr. Barnes’s legacy, chipping away at the very specific and restrictive wording of his will. In addition to the expectedly passionate remembrances, the discovery of rare film footage of Dr. Barnes brings him back to life. While the interviews conducted, and refused, are revealing, it is finally all about the Benjamins.

The issue of donor intent is a theme, too, in what could be a companion piece, Megumi Sasaki‘s recent Herb & Dorothy, also an entertaining portrait of unprepossessing art collectors from modest backgrounds with idiosyncratic interests (in their case, conceptual art by living artists). They probably shared with Dr. Barnes a focus and intensity in their personal selections and devotion to their huge collection. It will be up to an enterprising documentarian decades hence to see if their goal of the democratic accessibility of art has been fulfilled, or if their plans suffer the same fate as the likeminded Barnes.

For 13 years, the Festival has included a showcase for experimental film in the “Views from the Avant-Garde” section, which this year includes 16 world premieres. The Rage of Pasolini was an avant-garde documentary in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first iteration in 1963, and it still is, meticulously reconstructed here by Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo’s brother).

Pasolini edited newsreels from the 1950s into a stream of images and sequences, creating a mordantly Marxist and frequently prescient criticism of the consumer society that rose on top of the ashes of World War II. Through the mode of documentary as opinionated essay and narrated in melodic poetry and prose, the film is far more pointed and insightful than similarly recent collages of pre-existing footage, including Terence Davies‘s Of Time and the City about Liverpool.

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (on the same program as the next film) is another notable resurrected blast from the past, even though it’s only a half-hour short. Directors Bradley Kaplan, Ian Markiewicz, and Albert Maysles follow the Rolling Stones on the New York stop of their 1969 “Let It Bleed” tour, on and off stage. (The cameo appearances of a blissed-out Janis, Jimi, and Jerry tug at the heart.) Madison Square Garden is full of excited young folks who now look like extras in Hair, and it is absolutely worth grooving with “Satisfaction” on a big screen, which will be taking full advantage of the newly installed Dolby system in the renovated Alice Tully Hall.


One hundred-year-old Manoel de Oliveira takes a rueful look at the foibles of young love in the hour-long Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl. Adapted from a short story by Eça de Queiroz, he includes a tribute to the realist writer, whose works have not been widely read outside Portugal. He simply updates the original late 19th century setting to a contemporary train on its way to the Algarve, the popular coastal vacation spot. Recalling the thematic style of the Six Moral Tales of the younger, octogenarian Eric Rohmer, a dejected young man (played by the director’s grandson Ricardo Trępa) feels compelled to tell the sympathetic older woman next to him what he warns is his incredible tale of being a victim of love. Seen in flashbacks, Catarina Wallenstein is the mysterious young woman of the title, whose appearance at a window with an ornate Chinese fan right as bells chime seductively evokes a Pavlovian response in the hard-working accountant. How could he not react when their streetscape is filmed so romantically?

The Festival’s annual retrospective series of masterworks rarely seen in the U.S. this year focuses on China and India. The first week features “(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966,” an intriguing survey of the films spurred by the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China until the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Xie Jin’s The Red Detachment of Women (1961) was intended as a 10th anniversary commemoration of liberation, and with both intimacy and sweeping camera work, it surpasses its Uncle Tom’s Cabin-like story of a slave girl escaping an evil landlord’s brutal control to join the rebel army. It is also noteworthy as the basis for the most popular of Madam Mao’s approved operas during the Cultural Revolution, whose impact was shown in Yan Ting Yuens 2005 documentary Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works. Those short shorts sure help the propaganda go down. Nora Lee Mandel
September 26, 2009

2009 NYFF, Part Two

2009 NYFF, Part Three

2009 NYFF, Part Four



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