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The Big Four at the New York Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A man holds a chair to block himself from a lion swiping at him, from Errol Morris' 'Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.'

The proportion of documentaries to fiction features is always small at the annual New York Film Festival. This year, the 35th event (September 26-October 12, at Lincoln Center) offered only four. But they are excellent choices.

The glamor spotlight went to the premieres of fiction features: Ang Lee's The Jee Storm; Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh; Adam Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, from Canada. Also prominent were the premiere of MoMA's restoration of Griffith's Orphans of the Storm, performed with the reconstructed score from composers William Frederick Peters and Louis F. Gottschalk; Lars von Trier's The Kingdom Part II, from October Films; a retrospective of films by Polish director Wojciech Has; and premieres of features from Iran (Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry), Egypt (Youssef Chahine's Destiny), Russia (Aleksandr Sokurov's Mother and Son), Mexico (Alturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson), Hong Kong (Wong Kar­ Wai's Happy Together), Japan (Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi and Yim Ho's Kitchen), Belgium (Alain Berliner's My Life in Pink) and France (Bruno Dumont's La vie de Jesus). U.S. indie splashes included Joe Eszterhas's Telling Lies in America, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Robert Duvall's The Apostle. And so many others: selections were made for the fest by Richard Pena and Wendy Keys (Lincoln Center), David Ansen (Newsweek), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and Robert Sklar (New York University).

The big four documentaries were led off by an Italian film of 3 hours and 25 minutes: Marcello Mastroianni... I Remember. The director of this film, the old scamp's last non-acting appearance on celluloid, is his companion for his final 22 years, Anna Maria Tató (and not the 22 year-old Anna Maria, as erroneously cited in this magazine, page 36, October '97). Their interview took place during the shooting of Mastroianni's last fiction feature, Voyage to the Beginning of the World, directed by the dean-provost, perhaps—of Portuguese cinema, Manoel de Oliveira.

I Remember was produced for Italian television and was seen only once before in its complete version; the New York screen­ing was its North American premiere. As charming and witty off-screen as in his many films, Mastroianni reaches back a long way—to his childhood and family, schooling, his fascination with Duke Ellington and Hollywood cinema. After an excursion into journalism, he made several screentests, did bit roles, met directors Marco Ferreri, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, teamed with Sophia Loren in romantic comedies—we all know those films, but here the master—an actor can be called that—discusses the work behind the fun. Self-effacing, Mastroiarmi counts himself just a lucky guy who had good breaks: "I believe in nature, in love, in friendship, in my friends. I love peo­ple. I love life. This may be the reason why life has been so good to me. I think of myself as someone very lucky."

Best known for his off-kilter fiction features, Jim Jarmusch has directed seven major works since 1980, five of which have premiered at the New York Film Festival. In addition, he directs an ongoing series of shorts, collectively entitled Coffee and Cigarettes. Now we have his documentary of 107 min., Year of the Horse, about the band "Neil Young and Crazy Horse." Primarily a performance film, shot by Jarmusch and L.A. Johnson at various rock conceits in Europe, Horse uses also some 1976 footage from a British crew, and scenes from Young's own film, the unreleased Muddy Track.

Perhaps 75% of Horse is performance, and the remainder includes informal behind-the-scenes with the famous group, their bus rides to engagements, the hotels, a riveting scene recapping the 1974 drug overdose of the late guitarist Danny Whitten. Jarmusch appears on-camera, a lively and unsentimental ironist.

Temperamentally a mad scientist, Errol Morris may be as obsessed as the four characters whom he profiles in his new Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. The four are white males, more or less middle-aged, each with a passion that uncharitable souls might call a mania.

Certainly it presupposes a driven personality to become a circus tamer of lions and tigers, like Dave Hoover. He approached that vocation as a youth who idolized the famous Clyde Beatty, a flamboyant figure in the Big Top world of circuses in the '20s and '30s. Beatty was later a Hollywood star of action adventures tailored to his courageous skills, involving Beatty's mano a mano with wild beasts of the jungle. Hoover's generation of boys admired Beatty and some li ke Dave wanted to emu­late him. Why? Maybe dangerous thrills can feed a certain erotic appetite; or perhaps a power struggle with a fierce beast arouses a certain feeling of kin­ship with prehistoric man. Or, who knows: a suicide complex may be a motive for lion tamers. Morris doesn't judge, only observes.

Ray Mendez is also devoted to a profession involving animals—mole rats, who are blind, hairless, live underground and seem to have a social structure that reverberates with Mr. Mendez. An enthusiast of bugs since his childhood entomology club, Mendez may think or hope that humans can one day live like insects.

A topiary gardener also deals with animals—bears, giraffes and other creatures. George Mendonca is a practitioner of a vanish­ing art-form, shaping boxwood, bushes and other vegetation, con­trolling and trimming their growth to create his own Noah's Ark. Mendonca's is a solitary profession uniting the animal world with that other world of nature, forest growth. He imposes his human sensibility, form and beauty—insofar as he can, given climate and the change of seasons. Another obsessed gentleman.

The fourth figure in Morris's canvas—Rodney Brooks of M.I.T.—is similarly devoted to animals, not of the world of nature, but of science: he makes robots with legs like insects that walk about and seem almost autonomous, without human control, perhaps presaging some kind of future.

The four men are separate but have similarities, and aspects of their voice-overs seem interchangeable. Originally, Morris did not intend more than the four portraits: he sought member to reveal something of human striving for an elusive experience or perfection or knowledge, or more likely, a self­-knowledge. Playfully, Morris seemed to dare journalists and publicists to find a unifying meaning to the film, "a movie that would utterly resist the possibility of a one-line summary. It defeats that sort of thing by its very nature (four seemingly umelated sto­ries) and because the themes in the movie are complex and elusive."

Fred Wiseman's newest documentary, Public Housing, at 3 hours and 20 minutes seems to zip along, in part because he shoots so openly and spontaneously the small everyday activities of a huge Chicago project. We meet several hundred residents at this public housing complex, the Ida B. Wells Home, "Drive Carefully and Watch Out for our Children ." Only four white faces appear in the film, one a cop, another a nun managing a sidewalk rummage of old clothes, one a liquor store owner, and a man-apparently a bureaucrat—nodding half-asleep during a tenants' meeting on grievances. Otherwise, it's an all-Black world where people help one another, harm one another, try to cope and carry on.

Hugo's Les Miserables alternates chapters—the story, then the social documentation of the period, the story again, and so on. And Steinbeck used that format for The Grapes of Wrath. Thus one wonders if Fred Wiseman had that structure in mind, perhaps un­consciously, as his editing seems to alternate exposition, followed by a bridge or interlude of mood, as relief, with general visuals of outdoor project life, with kids running about and other routine activity. These bridges often contain valuable thematic signposts, e.g., the frequent liquor stores, the police cars prowling by, small children holding babies, the broken sidewalks and fences, the idle males standing around, doing nothing.

As exposition, we have perhaps 20 brief episodes: the strong, elderly, rotund lady who is president of the project, fighting by phone with a city official, trying to get housing for the homeless. We see an exterminator of cockroaches go his rounds. We witness three or four incidents of police firmly but politely detaining and frisking young men. Then, a meeting of the "Child Family Separa­tion Center." Also, "Grandmothers Sewing Circle." An addict who has hit bottom seeks rehab from a social worker. At a grocery, customers line up to buy through a revolving window—they aren't allowed to enter, to shop for themselves. Teenagers at a self-help clinic take turns reading aloud passages of abstract psychological jargon, which then are re-worked with a counselor as specific project experiences. Girls and young mothers, with their babies, attend a how-to-put-a-condom-on-him class, demonstrating with a rubber penis and lubricants—"you want to protect your cervix": if the boy balks, thus a woman can use the ungainly woman's condom, also demonstrated. And other episodes, until the last: a pep talk by a sports hero to several hundred young men at Chicago's Kennedy-King College: "We got the shot of a lifetime, we must take care of our own." For Wiseman, an upbeat optimism ends the film. But no absolute certainties.

GORDON R. HITCHENS is Contributing Editor to International Documentary. He was founding editor for Film Comment's first seven years. As a stringer for Variety, he has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world .