New York Film Festival: capsule of world cinema today

The New York Film Festival probably can't be beat for a concise overview of current world cinema. Judging from the latest edition, which just ended at Lincoln Center here, the movie scene is in good shape at the moment.

Not that it was a brilliant festival with lots of masterpieces. It wasn't. But it was a lively festival with lots of surprises. What it lacked in genius it made up in energy and variety - key ingredients for a healthy art form.

So a smart-aleck street picture by Scott B and Beth B rubbed elbows with a fine Walt Disney drama. Documentaries about gospel music and Siberia shared the screen with a long-lost Yiddish drama and a forgotten Cecil B. de Mille fantasy. Movies arrived from such unexpected lands as Lebanon, Turkey, and South Africa.

Experimental film, long a weak spot in the festival's yearly programming, was represented by several eye-opening shorts and a couple of diverting features. Credit for this goes largely to Jim Hoberman of the Village Voice, a new member of the selection committee, who went out of his way to solicit unconventional works that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Films by established masters made splashes of various sizes. New dramas by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, Michelangelo Antonioni and the Taviani Brothers, Jerzy Skolimowski and Joseph Losey, showed the old guard in active and imaginative form.

It was especially refreshing to find exciting, fully realized features from countries not usually thought of as cinematic capitals: ''Little Wars,'' by Maroun Baghdadi of Lebanon; ''City Lovers,'' by Barney Simon from South Africa; and ''Yol,'' by Yilmaz Guney and Serif Goren of Turkey. Although each is more successful in individual scenes than as a whole, all are capably directed works with strong stories and worthy messages.

''Yol,'' a melodrama about five Turkish men facing personal problems while on furlough from jail, has already opened a regular commercial run. And the others could probably find enthusiastic audiences on American theater or TV screens. Still, for all their virtues, I have a few hesitations about the source of these movies' impact.

Each has a setting most Americans will find exotic, such as the streets of war-torn Beirut or the windblown plains of Kurdistan. And each has a sense of behind-the-scenes drama connected with its own making. ''Little Wars'' was shot piecemeal during cease-fires in the Lebanese civil war. ''City Lovers'' bluntly attacks its country's system of racial discrimination. ''Yol'' was surreptitiously directed from prison by a political dissident (Yilmaz Guney) who has since escaped.

Yet each one undermines its urgency by falling back on common filmmaking formulas. The editing strategies, the sound track music, the plot twists, reflect a mass-market conservatism based on well-tried Hollywood practices.

There's nothing wrong with exploiting Hollywood ingenuity to bolster a story or drive a point home. Still, it's disquieting to see the standard techniques and tricks of commercial film stretching their tentacles into the farthest reaches of world cinema. It's like visiting a far-flung land and finding all the restaurants stocked with hamburgers and milkshakes.

Sure, they taste good. But they homogenize the experience, displacing the unfamiliar with the already-known. They turn the adventure of discovery - even vicarious discovery on the movie screen - into something less risky and exhilarating than it ought to be.

That said, the New York filmfest still deserves hearty thanks for reaching so far from home for some of its key offerings. Even by their failings, such movies serve as strong reminders of the universality of human experience, drawing members of diverse cultures and political systems into an hour or two of shared thought and emotion. That can't help serving the crucial cause of international understanding. Films from major directors

Turning to more familiar turf, the festival presented works from cinematically prolific countries, too. (The entries from West Germany have already been reviewed in this column: Fassbinder's harrowing ''Veronika Voss'' and dreary ''Bolwieser,'' Sept. 30; Werner Herzog's massive ''Fitzcarraldo,'' Oct. 7.)

Italy presented a long-awaited drama by Antonioni called ''Identification of a Woman.'' Recalling his masterly ''L'Avventura,'' this moody meditation contains striking visual sequences - especially a symbolic scene shrouded in fog - along with explicit sex scenes and Antonioni's silliest dialogue ever. The plot involves a filmmaker searching for a woman who has sneaked out of his life, and culminates in a moving and mystical shot of a spaceship plunging toward the sun.

Also from Italy came ''The Night of Saint Lawrence'' (retitled ''The Night of the Shooting Stars'' for American viewers), by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. It's an evocative memoir about a group of Tuscan townspeople searching for peace and freedom in the last chaotic days of World War II.

Of the three Hungarian films, ''Time Stands Still'' is the most memorable, and will soon have a theatrical opening. The main characters are high school students during the 1960s, groping their way through adolescence while weathering the confusing storms of a shifting sociopolitical climate. Directed with great visual originality by Peter Gothar, its best scenes are sensitive and stirring.

Less worthwhile is ''Another Way,'' by Karoly Makk, a strung-out and eventually dull drama that deals with political and sexual nonconformity through the story of a dissident lesbian. And the festival hit bottom with ''The Tyrant's Heart, or, Boccaccio in Italy,'' by the respected Miklos Jancso. This film is a hopelessly self-indulgent exercise in historical hyperbole that fails to accomplish in 88 minutes what the Brazilian di rector Glauber Rocha could have knocked off in one scene.

Britain's movie industry has been through hard times lately, pressed by economic and artistic woes. But you'd never know it to watch ''Moonlighting,'' a grim comedy directed by Polish expatriate Jerzy Skolimowski (reviewed in this column on Sept. 30). The other British contribution was Peter Greenaway's ''Draughtsman's Contract,'' a tragicomic romp about romantic intrigue in the 17 th century. Structured with uncommon rigor, yet eccentric to the point of the bizarre, it proved one of the festival's most cheerfully idiosyncratic items.

France, often a dominant force at the New York filmfest, offered only two new films, neither made by a French director. ''The Trout'' comes from American filmmaker Joseph Losey, who has been working in Europe since his days on the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. Intricate and elaborately filmed, it weaves a tangled web of power relationships among its characters, predicated on both economics and emotions.

''One Man's War'' comes from Argentine director Edgardo Cozarinsky, who has created a ''documentary fiction'' by juxtaposing old French newsreels with the spoken journals of a Nazi officer active in the French occupation. Cozarinsky regards all his raw materials as ''lies,'' full of evasions and deceptions and half-truths. By putting them into direct counterpoint - a ''dialogue of found objects,'' he calls it - he illuminates a dark historical period to fascinating effect, without once resorting to the manipulative techniques of conventional documentary. It's a remarkable achievement. American movies

The best American entry was ''Tex,'' directed by Tim Hunter for Walt Disney Productions (reviewed in this column Aug. 5). Also effective, though very different, was a nonstudio feature called ''Vortex.'' It was written and directed by Scott B and Beth B, making the jump to 16-mm production after several vigorous films in super-8. Though overlong and slow-moving, it's a carefully controlled and blackly amusing yarn about a private eye (played by rock singer Lydia Lunch) caught up in corporate skulduggery. In its own gritty way, it's a post-punk masterwork, with a fierce and funny vim to compensate for its occasional lack of taste and plain common sense.

Except for Paul Bartel's deliberately vulgar ''Eating Raoul'' - a cannibalistic comedy about a bourgeois couple who are more shocked by sex than murder - the other American entries were documentaries. Most lavish was the plotless ''Koyaanisqatsi'' (reviewed in this column on Sept. 30). It was shown as a ''special event'' at Radio City Music Hall, which has a screen large enough to accommodate the visual gyrations of director Godfrey Reggio, and enough Dolby loudspeakers to caress the sounds of Philip Glass's energetic score.

Among the more traditionally styled documentaries, three stood out. ''Little People,'' directed by Jan Krawitz and Thomas Ott, is a moving, informative, and upbeat look at the members of American society who stand less than 4 feet, 10 inches tall. ''Say Amen, Somebody'' - directed by George T. Nierenberg, who made ''No Maps on My Taps'' two years ago - is a joyous and jumping excursion into the world of gospel singing. ''Dark Circle,'' made by Judy Irving and Chris Beaver, is a compassionate and persuasive examination of the ominous links between ''peaceful'' nuclear power and the growing arsenal of deadly atomic weapons. It stands with the very best films on nuclear issues.

Other documentaries ranged from ''Arshile Gorky,'' a biography of the painter by Charlotte Zwerin, to ''Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter,'' a rollicking and instructive journey through pre-1908 film, directed by Charles Musser. Also on hand was ''Coming of Age,'' a well-meaning look at a camp that encourages young people to ''encounter'' one another and explore their feelings. Other films

A few revivals rounded out the festival, none causing much excitement. ''Madam Satan,'' a half-successful romantic drama made by Cecil B. de Mille in 1930, features a deliriously campy ballet sequence on a dirigible. ''The Light Ahead'' is a sincere but dull drama about Jewish peasants in Russia, directed in Yiddish by the talented low-budget specialist Edgar G. Ulmer. ''The Burning Brazier'' is a surreal 1923 romantic fantasy directed by its star, Ivan Mozhukhin. ''Letter From Siberia'' and ''Description of a Struggle,'' both by the inventive French filmmaker Chris Marker, are sociopolitical studies that have retained a fair share of interest - especially the wonderful Siberian study - since they were completed more than 20 years ago.

Finally, in a marvelous change of pace from other recent years, the festival included several excellent items measuring well under an hour long. Among the finest shorts were the witty ''Wild Nights,'' by George Kuchar, and the surreal ''Science Fiction,'' by J. J. Murphy, as well as Cozarinsky's poignant ''Three Postcards From Saigon'' and Stephen S. Weiss's unpredictable ''Miami Is Okay.'' Jean-Luc Godard sent a gorgeous and evocative missive called ''Letter to Freddy Buache,'' and John Penhall preached a powerful antiwar sermon in ''For the Next 60 Seconds. . . .''

Other brief offerings came from Carmen D'Avino, Anne Flournoy, Robert Breer, Andre Leduc and Jean-Jacques Leduc, Emily Hubley, Ernie Gehr, Kathe Sandler, John Pascievich and Mike Mirus, Roger Kukes, and Manuel De Landa, whose ''Harmful or Fatal If Swallowed'' is the most savage satire I've seen in quite a while.

As always, the festival was presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The programmers were Richard Corliss, Jack Kroll, Tom Luddy, J. Hoberman, and chairman Richard Roud.

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