The 55th New York Film Festival boasted several art and architecture films, signaled by this year’s poster by Richard Serra: A B&W photograph of a seven-sided Cor-ten steel sculpture forming an oculus looking skyward.
Eighty-eight-year old French New Wave director Agnes Varda teams up with 33-year-old street photographer JR in Faces Places, an artists’ road movie across rural France. The two form an unlikely and utterly charming couple (I’ve since heard that Varda is sick of hearing the film is “charming,” which endears her all the more) who celebrate labor—miners, dock workers, hairdressers, mail carriers, farmers—by photographing them, creating large-format prints, and pasting them on buildings, trains, and shipping containers. The pair, both of whom have signature looks—Varda’s is white-haired bowl cut with a thick red rim, JR’s is a hat and sunglasses that never come off—share a passion for images and how they are created, displayed, and shared. Together they up each other’s game. Their empathy with working people is shown by “empowering them through [the] size” of the ephemeral, dignified photos they post. The workers have a keen sense of how art is for everyone, and they enthusiastically choose to participate in this project.
Susan Froemke’s The Opera House traces the Metropolitan Opera’s move from its beautiful but inadequate home at 1411 Broadway between 39 and 40th streets to Lincoln Center in 1966. With various schemes to move as early as 1908, a variety of locations and plans were proposed, but the winning scheme, spurred by Title 1 urban renewal, was masterminded by Robert Moses, who envisioned this cultural campus replacing the so-called “slums” of the Upper West Side. With Wallace K. Harrison as the architect of the most prominent building in the complex, we see the compromises made in the design process as well as the needs of Met General Manager Rudolf Bing, and the run-up to the opening performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber. Ninety-year-old soprano Leontyne Price, who sang the role of Cleopatra in this premiere, is the highlight and the true soul of the interviewees who help to tell the story.
In Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sara Driver takes us back in time to a musical and artistic time capsule of the 1970s and 80s. Not only a visual artist, whose street graffiti art came inside to galleries and clubs such as Mudd Club, Club 57, and CBGB, Basquiat also played in a band, illustrating the collapsed boundaries between art forms. In interviews with Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab Five Freddy), Lee Quiñones, Luc Sante, Nan Goldin, Jim Jarmusch, and others, plus a rich display of rare archival footage, the period comes alive with Basquiat as the perfect vehicle for telling the story of this era.
Arthur Miller: Writer is revealed to us through interviews conducted by his film director daughter, Rebecca, permitting us to see a private side of this public persona not usually visible, the man behind the icon. Son of an illiterate Jewish immigrant father and a brilliant but frustrated mother, Miller found refuge in art and social consciousness. His plays such as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge explore the underside of the American dream, the repercussions of past actions, and the twin poles of guilt and hope. Miller’s political and moral convictions are set against the backdrop of his marriages to Mary Slattery, Marilyn Monroe, and Inge Morath, and his daily life punctuated by woodworking, furniture making (which he compares to crafting a play), gardening, a through-line of making things.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, also made by a relative, her nephew Griffin Dunne, is more of a hagiography of this important writer and chronicler of our times. Framing the narrative is her own work, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and The White Album, to her film scripts, including The Panic in Needle Park. She lives an amazing life partying with Janis Joplin, hanging in a recording studio with Jim Morrison, and cooking dinner for one of Charles Manson’s women. If only the film was as good as her story or her writing.
Voyeur is the filmed version of Gay Talese’s article “The Voyeur’s Motel,” the story of Gerald Foos, who purchased the 21-room single story Manor House Motel outside Denver for the purpose of spying on guests. Foos crawled through the ventilation ducts, where he’d constructed peep holes to watch. This practice went on for two decades. Each night he watched life—private, sacred, real—unfold: adultery, debauchery, banality, and a murder. He was never caught, and the motel was destroyed.
Fiction films also explore the arts in fascinating ways. The Square shows the chief curator Christian (Claes Bang) of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm who is tall and good looking, lives in designed splendor (he even drives a Tesla), holds a position of prestige and power, and yet… Christian is walking to work when a woman screams, “He’s going to kill me!” When her brute of a boyfriend comes at her, Christian helps out. Afterward, he realizes that his wallet, cell phone and heirloom cuff links have been stolen, and it was all a setup. Christian will be damned if he’s going to let petty crooks get away with it. Through GPSing his phone, now located in a high-rise in a run-down part of town filled with immigrants, the specter of racial and social prejudice arises.
The film is filled with art world send-ups including Elisabeth Moss’s art critic asking the author about his jargon-filled manifesto; a performance artist mimicking an ape who goes too far at a black-tie patrons dinner; an advertising video of a blonde homeless child who is blown up to promote “The Square,” a thirteen-by-thirteen-foot zone billed as a “sanctuary of trust of caring” that is Christian’s latest art commission; a janitor mistakenly sweeping up a pile of earth in a Robert Smithson installation; an artist’s talk heckled by a Tourette’s sufferer. The film hits on hot-button issues: class privilege, liberal guilt, urban poverty, viral marketing, and mutually reinforced passivity in the face of mounting inhumanity.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) tells the intergenerational tale of a strong-willed, artist father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and the long shadow he casts over his adult children (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel). Harold has a stalled sculpture career and has retired from teaching art at Bard, where his work is due to be exhibited—at first in a group show, which he rejects, until his children arrange for a one-man show. He is competitive with his far more successful contemporary, L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), who has an exhibition at MoMA, and Harold, who drags along his son, shows up for the opening overdressed in black tie and without an RSVP. On an architectural note, Ben Stiller’s financial manager goes to visit a client played by Adam Driver, who is building a house in Brooklyn. He solves the budget overrun problem by telling him he can’t have the pool now; instead, he should live on the upper two floors and rent out the rest.
The sublime The Florida Project is set in candy-colored buildings including Futureland Inn and the Magic Castle, motels that have become de facto SROs for the poor. A.O. Scott calls it “an unmagical kingdom, a zone of tawdriness and transience, of strip clubs and strip malls, knockoff souvenir shops and soft-serve ice cream shacks.” This is the setting for the adventures of the street-savvy children who live there, led by Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and for the adults struggling to make ends meet. Willem Dafoe plays the building manager, the steady presence trying to keep all lives on track. The final scene takes place at Disney World, which until now has loomed as a presence but never seen; this sequence was shot on a cellphone, much like director Sean Baker’s previous film Tangerine, since Disney rarely allows film access.
Wonderstruck tells two intertwined tales, one in the 1920s and one in the 1970s. The protagonists of both are children and deaf, and their lives are connected. The American Museum of Natural History and its cabinet of curiosities is prominently featured, as is the Queens Museum’s Panorama, the diorama of all New York City buildings. Julianne Moore, the grown-up version of the 1920s child, is the keeper of the Panorama, and we’ve seen her as a child making cutouts and architectural models, and entranced with a store display-maker stacking models in his window. As an adult, she hides personal mementos under building models in the Panorama. In the 1920s, she discovers an enchanting New York City in black and white.
In Wonder Wheel, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro lushly captures Coney Island in its heyday.
A complete list of films mentioned:
Faces Places, Agnès Varda, JR, directors
The Opera House, Susan Froemke, director
Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sara Driver, director
Arthur Miller: Writer, Rebecca Miller, director
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Griffin Dunne, director
Voyeur, Myles Kane, Josh Koury, directors
The Square, Ruben Östlund, director
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach
The Florida Project, Sean Hayes, director
Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes, director
Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen, director