The City(La Ciudad)
directed by David Riker
For most of these Spanish-speaking new arrivals, we (virtually everyone reading this paper) are the omnipresent Other. For us, they are?if we deign to notice them. You can't help thinking of this invisible divide as you watch Riker's fascinating film, which estranges us from New York even as it awakens us to it.
Shot in precise, unshowy black and white, The City tells four stories consecutively. In the first, a group of day laborers is assigned to scavenge bricks from a demolished building, a task that has drastic consequences for one of them. The second tale concerns a boy newly arrived from Mexico and the girl he meets at a "sweet 15" party. In the third story, an itinerant puppeteer stumbles into unanticipated difficulties when he tries to enroll his daughter in school. In the fourth, a seamstress who hasn't been paid in weeks by her sweatshop bosses learns that her daughter is sick and needs money for treatment immediately.
I generally don't like the dramatic diffusion that comes with multipart stories, but Riker's use of the form is both modest and significant, acknowledging the multiplicity of individual sagas as well as ethnicities in our naked, polyglot city. There's also a commendable reticence in the way he fictionalizes these lives. One of the worst movies I've seen this year, Rosetta, the Belgian film that absurdly won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, imagines the "oppressed underclass" via a story that smothers its characters under a glass of ideological preconceptions that are both rigid and unthinkingly condescending. Riker's film is more genuinely humane and far less pretentious?a work of small truths rather than grand statements?no doubt because it emerged not from some intellectual's drawing board, but from years of street-level contact and observation.
Riker comes at filmmaking from a social-activist angle. As a young still photographer, according to his bio, he "photographed the anti-nuclear movement around the world...demonstrations at military bases, the women's peace camp at Greenham Common in England, the historic march on the United Nations, and took portraits of people involved in the movement including Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki." All of that, per se, means nothing to me. But what comes next does.
At 21, he quit photography because, he said, "I realized I didn't know any of the people in my pictures." He added, "I had always wanted my pictures to be truthful, but I now realized that I needed my subjects to...have the chance to contradict what the viewer might think is going on. This was a very painful moment for me, I put down my still camera and decided to learn filmmaking."
That esthetic Damascus Road is easily the most remarkable reason I've ever heard for a young filmmaker to choose his vocation. The quest for truth, even to the point of allowing the filmmaker's subjects the right to contradict his vision of their lives, is Godardian in the best sense, and so far beyond the self-serving vapidities of Godard wannabes like the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta) and Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy) as to suggest that the term still has a worthwhile meaning. The moral seriousness of Riker's decision was borne out by the lengthy, total-immersion method he adopted to make The City.
Simply looking at the film you can tell that it is cast with actual Hispanic immigrants, but the filmmaker's search for truthful images went far beyond that. The film was shot in segments over several years. (The third episode was shot first, then money was raised to shoot the first; the second and fourth were shot concurrently.) During this time, Riker lived in the immigrant communities, learned Spanish, made extensive casting searches and conducted classes for his prospective cast members, and generally received a firsthand education in the distinctions between, and commonalities among, immigrants from Peru, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, etc.
It's part of the general enfeeblement of current film culture, especially as regards "political" filmmaking, that many theory types, the cappuccino Marxists, would surely look askance at Riker's method, scorning as naive his presuming to represent the viewpoints of marginalized communities. His response to such abstract prohibitions is worth noting.
Asked about his outsider status by Cineaste, he said, "My perspective is that...an outsider can motivate people within the community to talk about things that they otherwise might not?the things that seem obvious and 'go without saying'... If you're from the outside, you are at great danger of not understanding with much depth what you are dealing with. The issue is whether you can develop an understanding. The only way that I was able to check myself was that at every stage of the process?from the initial research, the very first interviews, through the development of the script, the presentation of step outlines, to the improvisation and right through to rough cut screenings?I had the community around me, talking to me about it and debating." (Emphasis added.)
As earnestly sociopolitical as that may sound, it is without question the key to the film's exceptional artistic integrity and richness. Riker here certainly is acting as an artist, not an anthropologist or community organizer: he decides on fiction over documentary, writes the stories, determines the look and other elements that convert his investigations into an esthetic end product. But he does so with a combination of personal diligence and humility-before-his-subject that closely molds his vision to the world he beholds, and that believes without compunction in the ability of film to reflect, interpret, honor and illuminate the real world.
In The City, that belief's payoffs come in scores of choices that don't stop at hard-won authenticity but transmute it into instances of striking poetic perceptiveness. In the first story, "Bricks," there's a moment when the laborers, picked up by their employer for the day, enter the back of his truck. The darkness its closing door produces suggests a palpable, fearful disorientation that, you suddenly realize, immigrants in general must feel frequently. In the third story, "Puppeteer," the title character, who lives with his daughter out of the back of his station wagon, is approached by a city worker who would like to help him, perhaps, but who notices the little girl and says to the man, "Someone who loves his daughter so much would take the dirt off her face." There's no cruelty in the remark, just an incomprehension that bespeaks vast, everyday chasms in human and cultural understanding. Who of us has not said or thought such a thing?
The film's stories touch on issues of work, education, housing and so on, but The City doesn't content itself with being an "issues" film. And while striving with considerable success to avoid sentimentalizing the poor, it doesn't eschew sentiments. Still, its deepest meanings arguably reside in the faces it shows us. In the second story, "Home," the girl who meets a sweet, newly arrived boy at a party looks at him with a mixture of innocence, wariness and romantic curiosity that seems far beyond the capacity of any "real" actress. "Seamstress," the fourth episode, begins and ends contemplating the faces of workers in a sweatshop, and Riker is smart enough to know that no rhetoric on his part could compete with their eloquence; so he simply, precisely, gives us a story to frame them.
The City isn't the kind of film that knocks you out of your seat; it's the kind that sticks in your memory for hours, days, years after you've seen it. Three decades ago, films of its rough sort (e.g., Nothing But a Man) were a significant part of what made "American independent cinema" a vital alternative to the blandishments of Hollywood. In the 90s, alas, indiefilm has risked being little more than a trustfunder's stepping stone to the major studios. In avoiding easy polemics and showy self-aggrandizement alike, Riker shows the way not only to a renewed form of social engagement, but to art.
That dull thud you may have heard the Sunday before last was the curtain falling on the 1999 New York Film Festival. The festival's closer, Felicia's Journey by Atom Egoyan, is a singularly lugubrious, unrewarding experience, but in that I'm afraid it was entirely suited to an annual event that has gradually lost much of its purpose and vigor.
Whenever people I know, in New York or beyond, discuss why the NYFF's decline gets virtually no notice in print, the reason that always surfaces first is critics' personal liking for the people who run the festival, especially its director, Richard Pena, longtime selection committee member Wendy Keys (who retires this year) and publicist Joanna Ney. I share that liking in spades, which is why saying the following is more than a little uncomfortable.
I've covered the NYFF now for 19 years running, and through much of that time I've counted myself a major fan of the event and the function it serves in American film culture at large. But in the latter half of the 90s it has seemed to me that the festival has been slipping gradually from its former vitality, toward a kind of cloistered, programmatic enervation. This year was the nadir to date.
Of course there was a large handful of great films at the '99 edition, some by festival standbys such as Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother) and Jane Campion (Holy Smoke) and others from newcomers including Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry). But from a programming standpoint these films are the no-brainers, just as from a cinephile's standpoint their festival appearances are inessential; all have distributors and will be showing up in theaters soon enough, if they haven't already.
It's the festival's other, more marginal titles that are really indicative of its direction, and some of these were not just awful, but bizarrely so. In The Other by Egypt's Youssef Chahine, for example, I encountered something I thought I'd never see at the NYFF: a film of outright (if carefully veiled) anti-Semitism.
The background to this bit of rubbish is worth noting. Chahine's last film, Destiny (which played '97 NYFF), was an excellent, beautifully crafted movie that bravely attacked religious intolerance among Islamic fundamentalists. That film, though, not only brought him death threats but flopped at Egyptian box offices. This time out Chahine attempts a recovery by combining crude low comedy (ahem, "satire") with big doses of that favorite opiate of Arab intellectuals, nationalism, which here is intermixed with dollops of anti-American and anti-Christian vitriol along with disguised dashes of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment.
Chahine's recent movies have been financed by the French, which is why here he's free and fulsome with his anti-Americanism but considerably more careful with his anti-Semitism. Still, that he spits at the memory of Anwar Sadat's efforts to make peace with Israel, and makes ominous mention of "Jewish businessmen" whose scheming appears to be throwing honest, poor Egyptians out of work, will speak loud and clear to the Egyptian hoi polloi.
Additionally, The Other is atrociously made. Its craftsmanship is about that of a Samuel Z. Arkoff production from the early 60s, with acting that's so bad you can only hoot at it. Needless to say, Chahine, who has been at past festivals, didn't show up to give a press conference this year. But what was this piece of crap doing in the festival in the first place?
Three possible answers, which in reality may overlap: (1) The festival is still operating on a 60s-style auteur policy that reflexively embraces bad work by favored directors. (2) Here again, as it does too often, the festival is rubber-stamping the judgments of the French, for whom Chahine is a favored exotic. After the Egyptian got a special career award at Cannes in '97, he was saluted with a career retrospective at Lincoln Center. (3) The movie's crude anti-Americanism accords with the festival's moldy definitions of "daring" and "sophistication."
Those outdated definitions, I would say, are at the heart of what's askew at Lincoln Center. The festival was founded in the early 60s and too much of its programming now seems chained to the paradigms of that decade. The results are becoming increasingly ludicrous. The loathsome Julien Donkey-Boy, for example, rather than representing any sort of cutting edge, seems made to sucker festival programmers whose notions of "experimental" and "edgy" are glued inside a Way Back Machine set on 1968. Meanwhile, the festival misses great, really original American films ranging from The City to David Lynch's The Straight Story (here there's a history of obtuseness: the NYFF also rejected Blue Velvet!).
In the case of The Woman Chaser?NYFF 99's one American narrative feature that hadn't been seen at other festivals?people walked out of the press screening in glassy-eyed incredulity. No one could believe that this fifth-rate Sundance wannabe got anywhere near Lincoln Center. Stephen Holden in the Times aptly jeered the film noir spoof as "the most hackneyed of moviemaking concepts...turned into wearying film-school shtick." Even the Times headline writer got in on the act, gleefully titling that review "Hard-Boiled as a Two-Day-Old Egg at a Two-Bit Diner."
Problem-wise, what's mentioned above are only a few tips of a greatly perplexing iceberg. What to do? I seriously think that Pena ought to assemble an entirely new selection committee, one that reflects a much greater diversity of opinion than has been the case recently, and that everyone concerned should give all of the festival's policies and practices a searching and thorough once-over. I don't know if the festival has ever subjected its mandate to a complete review, but the millennium isn't a bad time for that.
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