Leonard Quart|Letter From New York:On films and film criticism

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — I have been a film critic and editor of one of the most critically incisive, uncompromising and enduring film magazines in America, Cineaste, for over 40 years. I also taught a wide variety of film courses at a branch of CUNY and at its graduate center for decades, and more recently I have taught film part-time to adults at NYU. Film remains one of my most intense passions. I love the act of just sitting in a theater's darkness immersed in a multiplicity of images as they pass before me.

However, being a critic is not just actively embracing sound, image, dialogue, performance and narrative. It's trying to make distinctions about why one film works and another doesn't. Why one film may be great, and another merely good, and to not be taken in when stylistic virtuosity covers over a film's lack of vision or substance. More importantly, it means reflecting on what films signify beyond recapitulating the details of the narrative. The meanings one perceives may not be straightforward, and can be open to varied, sometimes conflicting, interpretations.

Critics don't only look for explicit meanings but for implicit ones that can be discovered even in a small Western like Anthony Mann's "Naked Spur" in its use of a striking physical terrain that captures the fevered inner landscape of its protagonist, played by Jimmy Stewart. A good critic is aware of the political and social environment that blocks a director from producing a film he desires to make. For example, what the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda had to deal with politically when making films under constricting Communist rule, or the kind of commercial constraints encountered by Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir when they left major careers in Europe to work for the Hollywood studios.

The political and social environment can also help shape a director's perspective, such as the McCarthy era's impact on films like Kazan's "Viva Zapata" and "On the Waterfront," and Zinnemann's "High Noon." In addition, one should have knowledge of the director's other works and of films dealing with similar themes.

Above all my critical aim is to avoid fitting films into rigid sociological, psychological or political categories, and to clearly focus (avoiding jargon and over-interpretation) on the concrete act of viewing and analyzing what appears before my eyes.

One of two chief movie critics at The New York Times, the always reflective, judicious, cultivated, and often too catholic A.O Scott, has written a book entitled "Better Living Through Criticism" (Penguin), that "celebrates art and the imagination," and criticism. Scott never views criticism like some writers do as "an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather as another name for the defense of art itself." I also share with Scott his belief that criticism is "a pit of opposing impulses existing in a state of perpetual confusion and self-doubt."

Back at the BIFF

In my role as critic I wanted to make a few critical comments about the 12th Annual BIFF (Berkshire International Film Festival). The festival may not screen big budget Hollywood films or the work of major European directors like Michael Haneke, Oliver Assayas and Mike Leigh, but it offers a rich range of documentaries (the festival's specialty), independent American films, and foreign films that have often won recognition at other festivals.

Among the films I saw that I had positive feelings towards was "Menashe," a low budget, realist, and sometimes predictable Yiddish language film set in the Hassidic Brooklyn enclave of Borough Park. The rigidly prescriptive community prevents Menashe, a recently widowed father and hapless but kind grocery clerk from raising his son. (He must be married.) However, its prime focus is on Menashe (a subtle performance by Menashe Lustig) and his passionate, profound relationship to his son, which emanates genuine radiance.

Another film I liked was the "King of the Belgians," a gently satiric and poignant mockumentary about monarchy, an ethnically divided Belgium and the Balkans. But though a few witty scenes strike home, the film's distinctiveness lies in its portrait of the tall, dull and dignified king, who at first seems almost lifeless. However, on a picaresque journey from Istanbul through the Balkans he is liberated and turns into a warm, spontaneous, assertive figure who needs no script to take command over his life.

A third feature I saw was "Paula," a lushly composed German biopic about the high-spirited expressionist early 20th century German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker who inhabits a world dominated by male painters. The film may skim the surface of Modersohn-Becker's artistic and life choices, but it remains continually beguiling.

The best film I saw at the festival was Matthew Heineman's documentary "City of Ghosts," which focuses on quietly courageous citizen-journalists who report on the atrocities that ISIS commits in its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. Most of the citizen-journalists using social media report now from exile, while a few still operate covertly inside the city. Their activities are heroic, but they must live with the fact that members of their families are killed because of their relationship to them, and with the acute pain and alienation of displacement. Given the subject, the film can't help but be moving, yet, it never consciously manipulates our emotions, just depicts this media war against ISIS's repression and terror in a powerfully understated manner.

A fine festival, and its founder and director, Kelly Vickery, and her staff deserve only praise for shaping and sustaining it.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com

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