Golden celebration

New York Film Festival at 50.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Steve Apkon, Kent Jones, Joanne Koch and Richard Peña
Steve Apkon, Kent Jones, Joanne Koch and Richard Peña Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
In celebrating the New York Film Festival at 50 (1963-2012), what do Luis Buñuel's Exterminating Angel, Alain Resnais' Muriel, Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai, and Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water have in common? How about Lucrecia Martel's haunting La Ciénaga, Michael Moore's Roger And Me as first time filmmakers and Last Tango In Paris, In The Realm Of The Senses, The Marriage Of Maria Braun, Barfly, and This Is Not A Film?

New York Film Festival Gold: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
New York Film Festival Gold: A 50th Anniversary Celebration Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Jacob Burns Film Center Founder & Executive Director Steve Apkon moderated the discussion between Richard Peña, director of the New York Film Festival from 1988 to 2012, Joanne Koch, who was the executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Kent Jones, the present New York Film Festival Director of Programming, who discussed selections, triumphs, talent that left them speechless, and the new book, New York Film Festival Gold: A 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Taking the train from Grand Central to Pleasantville, New York on September 11, a steamy 90 degree Wednesday that felt more like the height of summer than early autumn, I journeyed to the Jacob Burns Film Center for an evening that would usher in the 51st New York Film Festival, which officially starts on September 27. The 45-minute train ride, a little bit Ozu, a little bit like a Doris Day and James Garner commute in Move Over, Darling, set the tone for the night's programme celebrating 50 years of New York Film Festival.

Hanna Schygulla with Rainer Werner Fassbinder presenting The Marriage Of Maria Braun (image Helaine Messer)
Hanna Schygulla with Rainer Werner Fassbinder presenting The Marriage Of Maria Braun (image Helaine Messer) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Apkon thanked the team at Film Society Lincoln Center, who had been "enormously important in inspiring the work of this [the Jacob Burns] Film Center." He started the evening with a flashback, almost to the day, half a century ago: "50 years ago last night [1963], Philharmonic Hall [now Avery Fisher] opened with Buñuel's Exterminating Angel. It was the first night of the New York Film Festival… The first festival included Alain Resnais' Muriel, Chris Marker's film [the lone documentary], and the feature debut of Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water." Apkon quoted Ryan Wells' article The New York Film Festival at Middle Age: "The approach was celebratory, not competitive. It's about soaking it in, getting educated, and not pitting filmmaker against filmmaker."

Richard Peña, who is most often asked how he chose the films for the festival responded: "The only way to choose them is to see them." Due to the limited amount of films presented in the festival, those that won't make the top 100 can be put aside earlier, after 20 minutes, although they might find their spot on one of the Film Society's many other programmes throughout the year.

Richard Peña and Michael Haneke
Richard Peña and Michael Haneke Photo: Godlis
Asked if discoveries can still be thrilling to the selection committee after seeing so many movies, Kent Jones gave the example of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, a film in this year's main slate. After a minor eye operation, he said, "the greatness of the film became even more powerful to me."

The first clip shown that evening was from Roger And Me, Michael Moore's first film, selected by Peña in his second year. "Little did we know what we were unleashing into the world," he joked about his dear friend, host of last year's tribute to him.

Joanne Koch added: "General Motors was a big contributor to Lincoln Center. I had a visit from the chairman of Lincoln Center who asked "are you really going to show this film?" And I said "yes". And George Weissman, who was a very intelligent, mature man said "okay" and that was the end of it. I was amazed that by the following year General Motors contributed even more to Lincoln Center. It was the right decision."

Faye Dunaway and Barbet Schroeder at the 25th New York Film Festival for Barfly.
Faye Dunaway and Barbet Schroeder at the 25th New York Film Festival for Barfly.
The second clip of the night was from another first time filmmaker at the time, Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga, from Argentina, in 2001. "For me, she's a major figure," said Peña. Jones seconded and added that with her first film, Martel already "emerged fully formed… you don't want to compare it to Citizen Kane, but…"

In order to show the clip with a better picture, the switch resulted in a scene from La Ciénaga without subtitles, which prompted Apkon to bring up his discussions with Burns Center board member, Jonathan Demme, about the importance of looking at films and turning the sound off. Martel, he said, though, "paints with sound." Jones brought up Robert Bresson in this context, as a filmmaker for whom sound was most important, "when he'd pick actors, he would listen to their voices on the phone."

The next clip, illustrating the importance of world cinema, was from Jafar Panahi's This Is Not A Film, which was smuggled from Iran to Cannes in a birthday cake. "Because of his involvement in filming some of the protests against the fraudulent election a few years ago," Peña explained, "he was arrested and as a result of that election forbidden to film… There are few testaments more wonderful to the power of creation to what the spirit and creativity of a real artist can do, just armed with a camera."

Grand Central Terminal in the heat of the night
Grand Central Terminal in the heat of the night Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Behind the panel, the slides illustrating 50 years of NYFF included Hanna Schygulla and Rainer Werner Fassbinder presenting The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1979), Faye Dunaway and Barbet Schroeder for Barfly (1987), and a portrait of Peña with Michael Haneke, when he presented the Academy Award winning Amour last year. Clips from Mr. Warmth – The Don Rickles Project, directed by John Landis, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris (1972) and Nagisa Ôshima's In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) rounded out the evening, while I was already on the nightly train, rolling towards Grand Central Terminal.

It was announced on Thursday that British director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank) will be their filmmaker-in-residence during the 51st New York Film Festival.

You can read our early reviews from this year's festival plus coverage from previous editions here.

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