BY Nick Pinkerton in Opinion | 23 OCT 18

New York Film Festival 2018: Home to Experimental Works with Star Performances

From Diamantino to The Grand Bizarre, the most intelligent films are also among the most joyous

BY Nick Pinkerton in Opinion | 23 OCT 18

The Projections sidebar of the 2018 New York Film Festival – home of a variety of works grouped together under the experimental/avant-garde banner – is perhaps not the first place that one would go in search of star performances in the traditional sense, but then this year’s opening night film, Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino (2018) is nothing if not an outlier. A populist underground film doing blockbuster scale on a budget, it gives Carloto Cotta, in the title role, as good a comic role as any actor has had this year. He plays a dull-minded, chisel-chested Portuguese footballer with a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque sartorial sensewhose grinning guilelessness makes him an easy manipulated mark for a right-wing junta bent on pulling off a mad science scheme that will lead to the country’s exit from the EU.    

Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Diamantino, 2018, film still. Courtesy: NYFF

A regular in the films of Miguel Gomes – he played the ardent, dashing young lover with the pencil-thin matinee idol moustache in in Gomes’s Tabu (2012) – Cotta here is the eponymous numbskull, driven into his first ever fit of introspection by a blown World Cup penalty kick and a chance encounter with a raft of refugees, which inspires him to take an orphaned immigrant into his palatial home. But not all is as it seems: The beamish immigrant boy is in fact a female undercover agent (Cleo Tavares), Diamantino’s towering twin sisters are in fact bilking him for all he’s worth, and the clinician he’s visiting is in fact upsetting his hormonal balance while slowly killing him in order to create a Portugal national football team populated by clones. Diamantino alone has no ulterior motive, desiring only to coddle his ever-dandled pet kitten and stuff his young charge with waffles and Bongo Juice. Led by the nose through personal crisis and crypto-racist commercial shoots, he grows in cup size if not in brains, a 21st century Candide whose idiot optimism survives undimmed, still brimming with empty-headed cheer as conveyed without an ounce of malice by Cotta. The tone of affectionate wiseassery that marks the film may be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, though how any skeptic can hold out past the moment where Diamantino blows a kiss, then proceeds to ‘juggle’ it on his body is quite beyond me. 

Ted Fendt’s short feature Classical Period (2018) might likewise be characterized as a ‘performance-driven’ film, though its performances are of a very different kind. Fendt, a projectionist, writer and translator who edited the Austrian Film Museum’s 2016 volume on Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, in the last few years has built a small but utterly idiosyncratic body of film work, with his latest coming on the heels of 2016’s Short StayClassical Period, like its predecessor, runs around an hour, is set in Philadelphia, and shot with minimally treated natural light on 16mm. And here again, Fendt employs nonprofessional actors who are so nondescript as to be remarkable in their unremarkability, seen in largely one-sided conversations in a succession long-take medium shots and the occasional Quattrocento-style profile close-up. 

Dora García, Second Time Around, 2018, film still. Courtesy: NYFF

The reference is not random, as the subjects of the film are a group of amateur Dante scholars who communicate almost entirely through exegesis or meaningful exchanges of cultural capital, with characters taking turns holding court on the architecture of Society Hill’s Georgian Powel House, the 17th century poetry of Philip Massinger, Beethoven’s role as a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic periods and sundry other such impeccably civilized topics. Overt conflict is at a bare minimum here, though one of the group, played by Evelyn Emile, does refer to an ongoing struggle with insomnia that may indicate deeper troubles – an overall air of mild depression hangs over the film – and at one point she lashes out at the nearest thing the movie has to a central character (Calvin Engime), effectively accusing him of canting through his cantos. (That the two resolutely fail to transition from the Classical to the Romantic in the course of the film is perhaps not irrelevant.) Like Straub and Huillet, Fendt is evidently fascinated by the peculiars of his performers’s oratorial cadence, stumbles and all, and with what we may broadly call ‘cultural heritage’, but he is very far from an imitator transposing their peculiar style into an American vernacular. His films are the work of a genuine original, incredibly self-assured, possessed of an uninflected melancholy and at this early stage practically ready for their own adjective.     

I’d not seen a film carried along so completely by textual analysis as is Classical Period since 2013’s The Joycean Society, a riveting-against-all-odds document detailing the meetings, in a remote Swiss location, of a group involved in an ongoing collective close-read of Finnegan’s Wake. And as it happens, that film’s director, the Belgium-based, Spanish-born multihyphenate artist Dora García, was at Projections with a new feature, Second Time Around (2018), this one again explicitly concerned with interpretive interactivity. Here the texts being put under the microscope, and the individuals discussing them, are a rather more diverse and less specialized bunch. Three performance pieces staged in 1966 and ‘67 by the Argentinian artist and important Lacanian analyst Oscar Masotta are here re-enacted for the camera and an audience, who then talk amongst themselves about what they’ve just seen. Others exchange observations on writings including the eponymous work by Julio Cortázar in the library of the University of Louvain, overseen by silent observers. It’s a rough-edged and rather oblique movie, though once viewed you feel you have absorbed something crucial and almost tactile about the character of Masotta, the artistic and political climate in Argentina in the years before the Dirty War, the occlusion of history through the distance of years and miles and the dreary, quotidian aspects of authoritarian rule, something that couldn’t be conveyed in a whole heap of fact-driven information-dump documentaries. 

Jodie Mack, The Grand Bizzare, 2018, film still. Courtesy: NYFF

Whereas Fendt and García’s films are propelled in no small part by the spoken word, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre (2018) communicates in a very different language – a scintillating chromatic flurry of discourse, kept up at a glittering, flittering pace for an effervescent hour. Through stop motion photography, Mack presents us with an onrush of patterned fabrics and textiles, tablecloths and tea towels and other scraps, sometimes filling the screen, sometimes capering in patterns that recall Oskar Fishinger’s visual music films, sometimes alternating or appearing to dance on outdoor backdrops both moving and still. Though location changes are not indicated on-screen, Mack’s movie sets a far-reaching itinerary indicated by sailing plane ticket paper airplanes, flashes of maps, and the recurring image of spinning globes, stitching together material shot in Turkey, Mexico, Greece, China, Indonesia and other points far afield, circling the earth like a roving trader with her Bolex in hand.  

The Grand Bizarre has a trilling, thrilling cadence. At times the movie vibrates with a pure elation that’s close to Marnie Stern’s glissando guitar runs, but this is no mere dance of the seven-thousand veils, and Mack’s virtuoso performance combines visual delight with conceptual rigour. In Mack’s previous feature, 2013’s Dusty Stacks of Mom, she created a Busby Berkeley-style revue spectacle with the overstock of her mother’s shuttered Florida-based mail-order poster shop, and similarly The Grand Bizarre, with its images of teeming ports and markets, situates its whirl of colourful wares within the larger international market of commodity exchange and consumer capitalism. The pure pleasure of watching Mack’s movie runs in contrast to the evidently labour-intensive and preparation-heavy aspect of her stop-motion process, sensed if not seen, and likewise the dizzying plenitude that she spreads before us nurtures a subconscious understanding of all that has gone into bringing that plenitude into being. There is, finally, a sense of work behind every cut, as behind every thread. As Diamantino smuggles pungent satire of right-wing nationalism in the form of a blissy, gender-bending, stupid-smart comedy, so Mack’s round-the-world whirl invites a viewer to contemplate the human cost of product and the interrelation of the synthetic and the natural – and should it come as any surprise that two of the most intelligent films in recent memory are also among the most joyous? 

The 56th New York Film Festival, 2018, ran from 28 September to 14 October at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

Main image: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Diamantino, 2018, film still. Courtesy: NYFF

Nick Pinkerton lives in New York, USA. His writes regularly for Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound and Little White Lies.