Film Scouts Diaries

1998 New York Film Festival Diaries
A Strangely Non-Happening Event

by Karen Jaehne

Because the opening night film was the Woody Allen opus "Celebrity," and all the celebrities in the cast were to be invited, there was no room left for the shmucks who are supposed to gawk and gaze and envy these people. It was just a room full of celebrities, and what happens: everybody watches Donald Trump eat and crack wise. The other celebrities try to act like their bank accounts are not separating them from the bulk of humanity, but it's an act. Not well acted.

So what's this festival all about? Where is its center? There was virtually no opening night for the kind of people who are the natural constituency of a film festival - film critics, film lovers from the academic community, the latest breed of film students, and the professionals who keep coming back year after year. It was like an evening of Name That Face, because celebrities never look like themselves in real life (they look like somebody in a Vegas lounge act impersonating them.)

This first weekend, I roamed in and out of screenings at Alice Tully Hall nodding at people I usually see at Manhattan press screenings. Here was David Denby bending in two laughing at an odd moment in the press screening of Celebrity, then soberly rising to don his own celebrity status as box-office-fueling reviewer. To the movie biz, he's far more important than Trump.

And representing the jury, John Powers enunciated a shade too precisely, "I am THE film critic for Vogue," and told us how proud he was that his first film was by this beautiful and smart French woman. Only he didn't say the smart part, but you've gotta hope he meant that. HIS first film was the Alain Resnais-directed Same Old Song, written by and starring the hip Agnes Jaoui, who now has two awards on her mantlepiece for this movie. Powers carefully mispronounced her last name, then said he'd known all day he was going to do that. It all sounded like a great build-up for a later Apology of a Sensitive Man. (When you've worked on festivals, the backstage part leaks through in ways obvious to you; do other people see this?)

So my own thrill involved an almost unique experience of seeing films almost devoid of hype. The publicity machines weren't pumping on the weekend, and you could see the films with an intelligent crowd of cineastes whose responses were about as unmanipulated as is possible. To see the crowd warm to the Taviani brothers' film, whether it fulfills all levels of artistic and esthetic criteria for greatness, made me laugh. And I felt like the man in the Taviani movie: why was I laughing? Was I sleeping and didn't know it? It made me see the film in a different light from the way I'd seen it two days earlier at a press screening. Yes, it's possible to change your opinion. It's probably even good for you.

The most exciting thing was running into someone I worked with ten years ago at a film company that once distributed the kind of films shown at the film festival. My former colleague has moved to L.A. where he pursues a career as a director, and he had helped the movie Gods and Monsters get made by protecting them from the worst kind of industry vipers - folks like we used to be. He's a useful citizen. He's Sam Irvin. Who? Like I said, the good people are not who cares?

Which is what Woody Allen was trying to say in his movie. A celebrity culture is a dead culture. But only celebrities saw the opening night film, so the only thing they saw was themselves in the opening night film, and they liked that. The mirror qua mirror is reassuring, because it shows you what you want to see - yourself. So that's what the 1998 edition of the NYFF did for the world on Opening Night - gathered 1,000 of the most self-obsessed people in Manhattan. Will they ever get over it? Would the festival have to close down?

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