New York Film Festival Wrap: Special Events, Fortuitous Encounters and Spontaneous Combustion

Courtesy of Everett Collection
"The Naked Spur"

It was the people -- and a few intellectual dust-ups -- as much as the movies that made the 49th edition.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As a member of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, it's not for me to assess the event's 49th edition, which wrapped Oct. 16 with Alexander Payne's very warmly received The Descendants.

All the same, the festival's final weekend was a whirlwind of special events, fortuitous encounters and spontaneous combustion. The addition of three venues across 65th Street from Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater meant there were far more people hanging out to see what was going on -- instead of just zipping in and out for individual events -- as in years past. Personal encounters can mean as much or often more than movies at film festivals, and the intensity level was definitely up on closing weekend.

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Continuity with the festival's beginnings was provided by Friday night appearances by 90-year-old co-founder Amos Vogel and 83-year-old critic Andrew Sarris, a former selection committee member, along with his wife Molly Haskell, at a special showing of Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, which was presented at the first New York Film Festival in 1963. This marked the first in a planned yearlong program which will screen one film from every year of the festival and conclude with the launch of the 2012 festival next October.

It was announced Oct. 16 that the 50th edition will mark the final bow of festival program director Richard Pena, who will leave after presiding over his 25th festival. Speculation now begins, of course, over his successor, with initial gossip centering on whether his replacement must have the first name Richard, as only Richards Pena and Roud have run the festival.

Following in the footsteps of Pedro Almodovar and Olivier Assayas the past two years, Payne became the third director to present a selection of personal favorite films and discuss clips from them. Payne's choices were Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur, Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte, Martin Scorsese's Casino and Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard, as well as Carroll Ballard's wonderful but little-seen 1960s short The Perils of Priscilla, shot from a cat's point of view.

Oliver Stone and James Woods had the crowd mesmerized and frequently in stitches at a special screening of their first collaboration, 1986's Salvador. And more sparks flew at a panel dedicated to the work of Pauline Kael, pegged to the publication of Brian Kellow's excellent biography of the New Yorker film critic, who died 10 years ago.

The eclectic group of panelists included her good friends James Toback and David Edelstein as well as author Camille Paglia, a geyser of rambunctious opinion, enthusiasm, anti-PC rants and bawdy zingers that might have quieted even Pauline herself.

Punchy and wide-ranging, the hourlong discussion threatened to unintentionally reignite the critical battles of the '60s and '70s, as Kael's views on nearly everything were vigorously defended after I modestly offered a few words on behalf of her rival, Sarris. Ah, the good old days of ad hominem attacks and heavily armed critical camps!

At the splendid filmmakers dinner afterward, the spirited talk continued far into the night, with Toback recalling a repast he shared with Pauline and Sergio Leone (a director Kael never wrote about but greatly enjoyed, per Toback) and Paglia rejoiced to learn that Pauline had, unsurprisingly, much admired her irreverent and unconventional early books.

I confess with the pride of mutual affiliation that Sunday turned into an entirely inadvertent and unadvertised tribute to Stanford University grads at the festival. I moderated a discussion with my former boss and Stanford man Roger Corman after a showing of Alex Stapleton's lively documentary about the still-going-strong 85-year-old producer-director, who allowed that his prescription for long life and good health is never to retire. His bold and gripping 1962 feature The Intruder, the one serious, sociological "art" film Corman ever made (and, because of its commercial failure, the reason he never made another), received a rare screening afterward.

Another Stanford alum, Ed Pressman, also was on hand for Salvador, which he produced, and Stanford guys Payne and Fox Searchlight president Steve Gilula basked in the love-in surrounding The Descendants. Not a bad showing for a university without a film school per se.

With Rose Kuo having just finished her first full year as executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which stages the festival, the film scene on the Upper West Side definitely feels like it's picking up steam. The coming year is now known to promise even more changes.