I’ve been attending the New York Film Festival for nearly a decade and, because of various scheduling factors and assignments, I’ve known it largely as a venue for splashy, high-end premieres of one sort or another. Even though many of the NYFF selections typically hit Cannes, Toronto, and/or Venice first, they’ll still, say, be the first place anywhere that shows Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, or Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, or Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, under optimal conditions and maximum excitement. The Irishman is a perfect case in point, not just for the massive hype of a major fall movie shown for the first time, but for a more recent phenomenon: Last year especially, New York Film Fest became a go-to destination for catching movies that otherwise might not play on a big screen near you.
Of course, The Irishman and Marriage Story and the previous year’s Ballad of Buster Scruggs all did get theatrical engagements before their Netflix bows. But they were always tied up in uncertainty over which theaters would agree to Netflix’s shortened-window terms, and whether those theaters would give those movies anything better than token shoebox-auditorium engagements (Netflix seems semi-committed to theatrical releases for its prestige projects, but also reneges on promised splashiness like the thousands of screens that were supposed to show The Irishman). NYFF was a way for nervous cinephiles to make damn well sure they saw these movies on a big screen.
Now those concerns seem downright laughable. Wondering about whether a movie might play on big enough screens so that it might be experienced with a giant crowd of strangers? Ha, that’s pre-pandemic thinking, the concerns of a more innocent age! The New York Film Festival, like all but a very select few and foolhardy film concerns of the past six months, has moved online. The types of marquee features that might typically populate the opening, centerpiece, and closing slots have largely vacated the release calendar entirely, making a smaller, more streaming-friendly festival. Last year boasted the mid-fest world premiere of The Irishman. This year’s opening night? Part of a TV show Steve McQueen did for Amazon.
Well, sort of. Lovers Rock, the first of five stand-alone BBC films under the umbrella miniseries title of Small Axe, will eventually turn up on Amazon in the U.S., and at 70 minutes, it’s certainly closer to prestige TV pilot length than a typical big-screen epic, especially one following McQueen’s 2013 triumph with the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. But Lovers Rock< turns out to be the right choice for this scaled-down, off-center edition of NYFF, and not just because the lines between TV and film are increasingly blurry, blah blah blah. They are, but often in ways that make both shows and movies worse: films that feel like ongoing installments in big-budget serials, or shows that feel extended beyond reason into eight or ten or thirteen chapters that could have been condensed into a lean two or three hours with enough discipline. The terms that apply to the Small Axe project–miniseries; anthology–have lost some meaning. (Although: “miniseries” has always been a weird one. For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it basically came to mean “two-part TV movie,” typically running the length of a long movie, or four episodes of network TV, despite the fact that almost all network shows were aiming for twenty-plus per season.)
Thankfully, Lovers Rock doesn’t feel like NYFF called up Amazon and asked them for the next hot show to pass off as a big movie. It doesn’t much resemble any mainstream television show of recent vintage; it’s basically about a group of West Indian group of Londoners getting together for a house party. There are some romantic entanglements and confrontations, a little bit of an intro and an outro, but the majority of the movie is Black people having a great time dancing. (The title refers to a genre of reggae that gained popularity in mid-70s London.) It’s the kind of mood piece that (a.) captures a mood of ebullience, rather than brooding or wandering and (b.) hardly ever shows up on even the more adventurous prestige TV, which tends to be plot-driven even as its mood pieciest. Yet it’s not really a mini-movie, either; though McQueen’s eye for composition remains, he lets it rove around a bit, and doesn’t focus with the intensity of Shame. Speaking of Shame: That movie memorably lets Carey Mulligan croon a slowed-down cover of “New York, New York” for minutes on end and McQueen finds a wonderful flip side to that record here: The crowd at the party so adores Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” that the DJ lets the song itself drop out, as the partiers continue singing it themselves, unexpectedly morphing into a centerpiece sequence. The singing is still dissipating when McQueen finally cuts away. It’s as overwhelming in its delight as Shame was in its dirgelike sadness.
As much as Lovers Rock complements McQueen’s more grueling work (and presumably fits together with his other four features in the Small Axe series; we shall see when two more of those titles turn up later at NYFF), it does stand apart from traditional features. It was fun to watch the house party unfold in my actual house, but at the same time, the movie feels somewhat incongruent with the home-screen experience, and might play even better in a bigger venue or, better yet, outdoors — I didn’t attend the drive-in premiere, but that mixture of closed-off cars and open sky might be the ideal way to see such a big/small movie/show. Though it’s undoubtedly refreshing to see Black people in stories that don’t center racism or abuse, Lovers Rock isn’t a major statement so much as a malleable artwork installed on screens of different sizes; I took it as a kind of verite musical, where bits of plot aren’t meant to interfere with the joy of singing and dancing, even if it’s to someone else’s tune.
The big advantage to NYFF online is that I’ve been able to dip into features that I know little about and might not have had time to see at a single appointed time and Upper West Side location. The festival itself also seems more open to smaller offerings with its new “Currents” section, including movies like Fauna, a Mexican-Canadian production from director Nicolás Pereda. The movie starts out following Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and her boyfriend Paco (Francisco Barreiro) on a lightly cringe-comic trip to meet Luisa’s family, including her brother Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez). But the movie shifts in its second half, as Gabino starts telling Luisa about the book he’s reading, which morphs into on-screen action recasting the characters in new roles. A low-key comedy becomes a low-level crime story, with layers of role-playing weirdness, not least because Luisa and Paco are both actors (and in an extra-meta twist, Paco is given Barreiro’s history as a Narcos bit player). There are some sharp points about the cultural ubiquity of drug-culture portrayals, but Fauna is most interesting when it’s exploring the roles we assign each other in and out of families. (It makes a fine companion to the recent indies I’m Thinking of Ending Things and the about-to-open Kajillionaire.) Like Lovers Rock, it’s a slender 70-minute movie, and all the better for it.
Main Slate selection The Calming also has a metatextual current: Song Fang’s quiet, uneventful film is about a filmmaker (Qi Xi) who makes quiet, uneventful films, traveling between countries, reverberating from a break-up, visiting family, and trying to figure out what’s next. It’s basically a project about the spaces between projects.
There are long, static shots of Qi Xi on trains, having quiet conversations, and looking at leaves. This film is what would be traditionally referred to as “boring,” and I cannot flout convention by reporting that I found it hypnotic or fascinating. But the title doesn’t lie; the movie is calming (unless you find shots of people looking at leaves enraging, which is entirely possible). It’s also vaguely narcotized, with everyone speaking in the same hushed, semi-emotive tone, and the “evocative” shots of Qi Xi in various environments deadening into time-killing routine. Compared to Fauna and Lovers Rock, The Calming is epic-length at 90 minutes. I can’t recommend The Calming or even say I found it particularly edifying; I don’t doubt Song Fang’s sincerity but I do question whether this is a movie that would play particularly well in movie theaters as opposed to art installations–or rather, I would have asked that question if Song didn’t beat me to it, and have someone voice that exact concern, albeit politely, in a Q&A scene. There’s another meta touch when the movie itself follows a minor bit of creative feedback that Qi Xi’s character receives about her film. A question the movie never metatextually raises: To what end?
But I will say that I watched this movie in two parts, on my laptop, resuming it partially with the expectation that it would lull me to sleep. It almost did, but I stuck with it, and it did stick with me. I can remember images from it days later, probably in part because the film holds on a lot of its images for what feels like forever. My guess is that in person, I would have dozed off. At home, I was able to return to the movie, my own environment shifting as I moved from couch to bed. It’s no substitute for seeing a movie on a big screen with an appreciative crowd, but these first three movies of my at-home NYFF certainly made me aware about my weird little crowd of one.