by Stephen Holt
I feel like I’ve been going to the essential and awesome New York Film Festival ever since I can remember, hardly missing a year, and legendary French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has been making films longer than that. His epic documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” a three-hour fifteen-minute effort is a monumental achievement by any standard, and has obviously been years in the making. It is, in essence, his cinematic autobiography.
By showing us clips of the many, many French movies that have influenced him, as well as those he has worked on himself from the 1930s to the ’70s, it’s a priceless education in cinema as well as immensely engrossing and entertaining, as is the man himself.
Several years ago at a talk at the Montreal World Film Festival, I remember him snapping when the words “neo noir” were mentioned. “There is no NEO noir!” he exclaimed, “There is only film noir!”
The festival is screening many of the films that influenced him, as well as films directed by his idol, the late American director Henry Hathaway. Tavernier began his career as an assistant to Jean-Pierre Melville and then was a publicist to Francois Truffaut. He was fired by the former, then hired by the later in the space of a day.
He also goes into detail about how the French grand masters worked intimately with their composers of the music of their films, and how they felt music was as important as any of the other filmic elements. He highlights how the composers worked with the directors from the start of most of these films, unlike feature films in Hollywood “where they only come in at the end, and with a full orchestra.”
The timely theme of race is front and center in many of the films that I was able to catch this week as a prelude to the big Oscar-y films that will arrive next week and the week after that, culminating in Ang Lee’s highly anticipated “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” on Oct.14. Opening Night Feature Ava DuVernay’s doc “13th”, “Manchester by the Sea”, “Personal Shopper,” and Almodovar’s newest “Julieta,” among others, are coming up. As usual, the NYFF is an embarrassment of riches.
Two very strong docs sharing a racial theme impressed me, “I Called Him Morgan” and “Abacus: Too Small to Jail.”
“I Called Him Morgan” is the gripping story of the late African-American jazz great, trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was murdered by his wife, Helen. It plays like a black and white thriller and is drenched in magnificent jazz performances from the Golden Age. Helen was Morgan’s common-law wife, who devoted her life to getting him off heroin. And back to playing the trumpet. How he steps out on her with a younger woman, and how she takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him dead in Slug’s, a jazz club on the Lower East Side, is powerfully affecting. The jazz is joyous. His early death tragic.
A lot lighter, but just as serious was the doc “Abacus: Too Small to Jail,” about this family-owned bank in Chinatown during the financial crisis of 2008. Thomas Sung and his lawyer daughters are formidably honest and forthright in their attempts to save their family’s bank. It’s like a Chinese version of “The Big Short,” but this time the main players are empathetic and earnest as they are caught up in a situation created by some of their crooked employees.
Director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself”) provides an incisive and interesting look at the rarely seen world of small businesses in Chinatown, NYC. And Thomas Sung is a heroic character you can root for.
On a much lighter note, another doc Lisanne Skyler’s “Brillo Box (3¢ Off)” was a delightful change of pace from the grimmer aspects of some of the films I’ve seen here so far. Skyler traces the provenance of an Andy Warhol sculpture of a Brillo box that her parents bought for $1000 when she was a child to the $3 million dollars it sold for at auction today. As she traces the twists and turns of “her” Brillo Box through the international peregrinations of the art world of the past 20 years, I felt Andy himself was looking down, and smiling. He’s still having the last laugh.
Of course, the talk of the NYFF of the movies screened so far, was “Moonlight,” which has emerged as one of the most popular and most praised films at the festival. As an out gay man I can say that I found it profoundly disturbing, perhaps because it was so accurate. It wasn’t only the lonely, childhood homosexuality depicted so piercingly well here in the first two sections; it was the drug culture that entraps the characters, the endless cycle of crack and other addictions that shocked me. It was as horrifying as it was powerful.
The first two extremely painful and poignant chapters were exactly what I, as a gay child went through in a strict all-boys Catholic school in the Bronx. I didn’t know I was gay or what a gay person was. And neither does Little, later called Chiron, the central character, whom we watch grow awkwardly and painfully from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. These segments just shattered me. The child actors Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders convincingly embody a lost, abused, sullen and heart-breaking existence.
Even though “Moonlight” is set in the hard-scrabble inner city of Miami, I was shocked to find the same homophobic prejudices that I had to endure growing up gay and Catholic were taken out on Little, who is always being beaten up and bullied as often as I was two decades earlier. Miami in the 1980s might as well have been the Bronx in the 1960s. Being called a “faggot” was the worse label you could possibly endure, and like Chiron, I was called that every day. The depiction of that horrific behavior was spot on.
But the most shocking thing to me in “Moonlight” was how every character in this movie is trapped, not by homosexuality, but by crack. “Moonlight” I feel is also a movie about drug addiction and its devastating impact on the African-American underclass depicted here.
Is it romantic? Romance is a luxury far down the list of pursuits when your mother is a crack addict (brilliantly played by Naomie Harris, who deserves an Oscar nomination) and your only substitute for a father-figure is your mother’s drug dealer (played with great warmth and nuance by Mehershala Ali, also nomination-worthy). What hope is there? Not much. But there is always the moonlight… the shimmer beneath which “all black boys look blue.”
The first two sections are stupendous, but part three takes a difficult turn when the grown-up Chiron becomes a muscular, drug-addicted gangsta and dealer, who has been hooked we discover, by his own mother. She however has kicked the habit and managed to leave that world completely. She’s in a rehab facility, wants to stay there forever, and calls it home. She now has hope. Or at least some kind of stability. British actress Naomie Harris, who terrifically played Winnie Mandella in “A Long Walk Home” opposite Idris Elba a couple of years back, excels here as she apologizes to her adult son for leading him down the same path to addiction that nearly killed her. “But I was always your mother. Chiron. I was always there for you to come back to.”
Harris holds the film together through its three generational segments. As horrible and abusive and frightening as she is, she is still his devoted mother even when she is stealing money out of his pockets for crack. She is all he has and he is all she has. “You’re my only and I’m your only,” she tenderly tells him. And oh yes, there’s the moonlight…
After Harris’ character recedes from the story, “Moonlight” darkens. We’ve followed Chiron’s struggles and longings with hope, so to see his fierce gleam of survival fade to anguish is devastating. But the weight of impossible choices that men must make in the face of despair is part of the point writer-director Barry Jenkins wants to drive home in this luminous gay film, and it would betray his intentions to sugarcoat that somber reality.