Law & Disorder at the New York Film Festival 2011

Yiftach Klein in POLICEMAN (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Don’t panic if you couldn’t make it the recent New York Film Festival. Most of the films screened have an American distributor lined up and will open in the upcoming months, like the acclaimed A Separation and The Kid on the Bike. The claustrophobic cacophony Carnage, which opened the event, will be released on December 16, while the closing night selection, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, perhaps the director’s best, will open nationwide on November 23. Bring Kleenex.

There were only a handful of films in the program still adrift, only playing the festival circuit so far, most notably Ruben Östlund’s polarizing Play. Confronting the viewer with issues of race, it’s an unsettling night at the movies, and yet absorbing, with a deliberately controversial script that tiptoes away from the inflammatory. You can understand why companies might shy away from this instant conversation/argument starter, however, namely for the shot of a 10-year-old boy defecating on camera. (I really didn’t have to see that. Couldn’t it had just been suggested?)

The cringing begins with the first shot. In a shopping mall, the camera pans between two white boys dithering over money and a group of five black youths eying the other two and figuring out who’s going to play good cop and bad cop. What follows is a psychological and rhetorical con game when one of the five, who’s older than his targets, approaches the two and asks for the time. When the kid checks his cell phone, the taller one then asks to see the phone. Wasn’t there a scratch on it, like on his little brother’s, which was stolen?

Later, the same gang of five set their sights on new targets, three friends out shopping for sneakers, who become virtually hostages of the five for the rest of the afternoon—one long take follows another for two hours of bullying. The viewer will feel both complicit and frustrated—the key to the film’s sinister allure. Why don’t the victims take advantage of the numerous opportunities to run off? Why do they consent to the roles as victims? The director based his screenplay on a composite of over 40 such incidents in the central Swedish city Gothenberg, gleaned from police testimony.

In the casting, the film refrains from depicting the youth in literal black and white terms. Four of the victims are white, one Latino (I’m assuming). And the black kids are by far the more knowing, fully realizing how they are perceived by the majority. They don’t have to threaten violence, but only intimidate. When the kicking and hitting begin, the victim is black, the only one in the group who backs out of the scam, and the film makes a point that the gang makes up one part of a tough street scene that includes white Swedes as well. These nuances barely soften though how bluntly the film traps the white boys into a corner or how perceptions based on race inform everyone’s actions. (Boy, does this film make you walk on egg shells.)

The director is on safer ground taking pot shots at Swedes, who come off as too prissily and anally concerned with decorum, too reserved and scared to confront the loud, unruly youth, whether the clique is roughhousing in the mall or on public transportation. Early in the film, one of the would-be victims enters a café and asks the manager to call the police after he and his friends have been followed by the group, but since nothing has yet happened, the manager tells the boy to come back if there’s trouble. Until then, no need to get the police involved.

Also without a distributor: the rigidly symmetrical and wobbly Policeman, which won a special jury prize at Locarno this summer. Michael Fassbender may have been the unofficial poster boy for the festival, arriving with both A Dangerous Method and Shame, but actor Yiftach Klein, as a Jerusalem police officer who encounters a new threat to his country’s security, competes with Fassbender for the top stud of the festival. (Much of the cast is also exceptionally and distractingly good looking.) In scene after scene, Yaron’s the cock of the walk, the most athletic, the best looking, and the alpha male among his tight-knit five-member anti-terrorism unit.

And he’s charming, too, performing a pop song wearing nothing but his bath towel, all for his heavily pregnant wife, lying prone on the coach. He dances for her, but it’s really all about him. He basks being the center of attention, and the camera loves him almost as much as Yaron loves staring at his own reflection. His preening behavior is plainly recognizable, as is the sense of brotherhood among the cops (not to mention the blue wall of silence surrounding an investigation of Yaron and his team.) However, director Nadav Lapid, in his feature debut, over-emphasizes the rituals of machismo, from the back slapping (thump, thump, thump) to the fetishizing of guns that carries over the entire film. Hitting on an underage waitress, Yaron pulls out his gun, places it on the table, and offers her to touch it—smooth, he ain’t.

The first half is overwritten in comparison to the more intriguing but less convincing second half, centered on Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a petite 22-year-old blond student with alabaster skin. She’s the brains behind another cohesive entity. In her mother’s luxury high-rise doorman apartment, she composes with her three male comrades a manifesto against what they see as a violent, racist state of masters and slaves, which concludes with the resolution that it’s time for the “rich to start dying.” (The irony of their meeting place isn’t lost on the filmmaker or the audience.) However, the cell’s turn towards a Red Brigade-style of terrorism occurs in a vacuum, a fait accompli. Despite their lengthy time on screen, Shira and her co-conspirators remain opaque naïfs. She’s like an Israeli Patty Hearst, without the transformation to Tania.

For a film that painstakingly builds a sense of fly-on-wall realism, its credibility takes a hit when her group carries out its plan of action. What results are some the weirdest, nonchalant reactions at a crime scene (even stranger, the violence occurs at a wedding, already a fulcrum of emotion.) Since Shira’s victims aren’t scared or bewildered, the tension level stays on low, undercutting the film’s climax.

Two documentaries featured in special screenings outside of the program’s main slate will land on cable TV in 2012.The NYFF ventures outside the art house and into the grindhouse for Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, which blows a big wet kiss to Roger Corman, the filmmaker behind drive-in fodder like Monster from the Ocean Floor, The Gill Women of Venus, and The Hot Box with Pam Grier. In other words, the sort of camp that has never seen the light of day at any of the festival’s previous editions. (Though as the film points out, Corman’s company distributed award-winning films by Fellini and Bergman in the 1970s, so I guess he gets a pass.)

The producer/director lives up to the film’s title in the sense that he still continues to make micro-budget schlock even though the major studios have invaded and taken over his turf, with a much higher budget. For a broader, international perspective, Machete Maidens Unleashed! (available on Netflix and elsewhere) wallows in the rise of low-brow filmmaking in the Philippines, where producers like Corman often filmed in the 1960s and ’70s. Released earlier this year, this less reverential talking-head testimonial has more input from the resilient actresses that had their heads held down in toilets and/or ran around topless. But only in Corman’s World will you bewilderingly witness Jack Nicholson choking back tears on camera for the love of the man who gave him his start in the business. This film will also have a limited theatrical release in December.

Among the most seminal books on film and popular culture, a must-read is Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, first published in 1981. (It shares company with Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape and Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, to name two.) That book was the basis of an exceptional documentary that lucidly conveyed Russo’s research on gay and lesbian portrayals in Hollywood. It premiered at the festival in 1995. (It had an advantage over Russo—the abundant film clips to illustrate his points.) Now director Jeffrey Schwarz puts the rest of Russo’s life and activism into perspective in Vito. He covers similar ground as Stonewall Uprising, on the early gay rights movement; We Were Here, about the reaction to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; and, yes, even The Celluloid Closet, yet he adds more. Interviews with Russo’s older brother and a cousin lift the well-rounded film from the political and rhetorical and into the private and personal. Plus there’s little-seen footage of Bette Midler performing at a 1973 gay pride rally. Look for this on HBO in 2012.

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