Festiville at NYFF: Part 2—Reveling in Revivals

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Festiville Editor Mitchell Beaupre surveys the offerings in this year’s Revivals section of the 59th New York Film Festival, with restored classics from directors including Melvin Van Peebles, Joan Micklin Silver and Mira Nair. 

With my Festiville colleague Isaac Feldberg on the ground at Film at Lincoln Center, tackling the Main Slate films from this year’s NYFF, I was happy to stay at home. Far away from the derision of angry Catholic protesters, I had the fortune of cozying up with some classic films that don’t have to worry about the heavy heat of awards season. 

The Revivals section of NYFF is often my favorite—the perfect mixture of newly restored films that we’ve all heard about, and lost gems that have eluded the attention they deserve over time, but are now finally ready to receive the glory they’ve long deserved. 

The single greatest film-watching experience of 2020 for me was discovering Mohammad Reza Aslani’s long-thought-lost Chess of the Wind thanks to last year's NYFF, a viewing that immediately cemented it as one of my all-time favorite films. With that Iranian masterpiece finally coming to public audiences this month, I was keen to see what other wonders this year’s Revivals section was ready to offer. 

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles 

NYFF was already set to screen the new 4K restoration of Melvin Van Peebles’ landmark film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, when, just three days before the 2021 festival began, we all learned of his passing. Van Peebles was an icon of cinema. Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay are just two of the many artists who have paid tribute to the way he helped pave the way for Black filmmakers to create their art the way they wanted to make it, rather than feeling the need to contort their vision to the system in Hollywood.

In his first NYFF dispatch, Isaac Feldberg reported that the festival’s head programmer Dennis Lim took some time on opening night to dedicate this year’s festival to Van Peebles, who he described as “a force of nature, an independent who broke all the rules and made up his own, [and] a trailblazer who paved the way for a new African American cinema.” 

Van Peebles’ son Mario was on hand, speaking of his father’s legacy during a Q&A accompanying the screening of the film, and Ishara would have been happy to hear him talk all day. As for other Letterboxders attending the festival, Carlos was effusive in his response to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: “Folks, this rewired me… This is how movies MOVE. This is how thought THINKS.” It’s not a film for everyone, but even those who might have struggled with its formal experimentation, like J. Alejandro, are able to see the significance in the courage on display here. 

The Criterion Collection has just released a box set of four Melvin Van Peebles films, which includes the new restoration of this classic. That set is available to purchase now. 

Mississippi Masala

Directed by Mira Nair, written by Sooni Taraporevala

In the film industry’s long history of crimes against female directors, the fact that Mira Nair isn’t a bigger name is particularly egregious. The Indian-American filmmaker broke out in 1988 with her debut feature, Salaam Bombay!, and followed it up in 1991 with this overlooked gem. 

Mississippi Masala stars Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, separated by cultural differences that fuel Choudhury’s community to disapprove of her relationship with a Black man. Steeped in historical context regarding the history of Idi Amin’s crimes against Asians in Uganda, at the film’s forefront is an unbelievably scintillating romance between its two leads. 

Perhaps that’s what made it so surprising when, during the film’s NYFF Q&A, Nair revealed that Washington and Choudhury didn’t have much chemistry at first. Her note to Washington to soften his performance, to play up his vulnerability because female viewers would love it, definitely paid off. A phone call between these two characters, where they aren’t even sharing the screen together, sizzles with a level of chemistry rarely seen in film. Imagine the fireworks when they kiss. 

It’s no surprise that Letterboxd reactions to the new restoration focused quite a bit on the leading pair, who are “both so hot it’s insane”, according to Trisha. Divesh praised Nair’s commitment to ensuring the leading couple were both non-white, a rarity even today in on-screen interracial relationships, while April was most moved by the story of Choudhury’s father, played by Roshan Seth, a man struggling with his internalized anti-Blackness after being forced out of his home country by Amin. 

Mississippi Masala is a film with so much room for empathy, and it’s been restored to its full wonder here, as mentioned by Ross, who shouts out Ed Lachman’s cinematography. 

Hester Street

Written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver

Strange to realize that it’s been almost a year since the passing of Joan Micklin Silver, whose work has slowly been gaining in appreciation over the decades. Her 1986 rom-com Crossing Delancey has been the source of much praise around our offices, featuring in two episodes of The Letterboxd Show podcast—first, with guest Susannah Gruder last year, and more recently with Marya Gates. NYFF went deeper into her canon to screen the restoration of her very first feature, 1975’s Hester Street, which she adapted from Abraham Cahan’s 1897 novel, ‘Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto’

“Funny, moving, and highly authentic”, is how Drew describes this tale of two Jewish immigrants doing their best to assimilate in late 19th Century New York City. While Jake (Steven Keats) has quickly made this country his new home, his later-arriving wife Gitl (Carol Kane) isn’t finding it so easy to adapt. Kane was Oscar-nominated for her performance that’s “so affecting and personal”, says Chela. Hester Street may have been Silver’s debut, but you’d never guess it from how immaculately she reconstructs this time and place, truly allowing the audience to feel as though this was a film made in the period it’s set in. 

Danielle pays credit for that to cinematographer Kenneth Van Sickle and production designer Stuart Werzel, who were both in the audience at the NYFF showing. 

Chameleon Street

Written and directed by Wendell B. Harris Jr

A film with as wild a history as the stranger-than-fiction inspiration for the tale told on the screen, Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street might just be the least-known Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner ever. That’s through no fault of the film itself, which Fletcher hails thus: “One of the most exciting movies of the American independent movement: hilarious, messy, self-referential, jittery, literate, disjointed, transgressive… you really do feel like anything could happen.” 

Harris based his film on the life of Detroit con artist William Douglas Street Jr. (played by Harris), a high school dropout who masterfully impersonated professional reporters, lawyers, athletes, and surgeons, to the point where he was able to perform more than 30 successful hysterectomies. The filmmaker takes inspiration from his subject here, with a movie that becomes its own chameleon as it shifts fluidly through different styles and tones over an hour and a half. As Sarah puts it, “life imitates art imitates life”. 

So, why do we know all about Frank Abagnale Jr. and his escapades, but not so much about Street? After the film’s success at Sundance, Harris sold the remake rights for the film to Warner Brothers, for a remake that never happened. Instead, his own film was buried on its miniscule theatrical release, with critics so confused and put off by its critiques of the societal expectations placed on Black men in America that they largely dismissed it. 

Harris never made another movie again, an absolute shame given how bold and inventive a creation his debut feature was. Amani hits the nail on the head: “Harris did whatever he wanted, so they made sure he couldn’t do it again”. Thankfully, this new restoration brings a forgotten gem back in front of audiences. Remake when? 

The Round-Up

Directed by Miklós Jancsó, written by Gyula Hernádi

“About as bleak as it gets”, warns Keith, for viewers stepping up to The Round-Up, Miklós Jancsó’s cold and despairing examination of a detention camp in the aftermath of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Those familiar with films like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom or The Ascent—yes, we said bleak—may have some idea what they’re in for with this unrelenting look at the utter inhumanity men are capable of. 

As the ruling army sets about arresting suspected guerillas in the country, they subject their captives to endless torture, turning them against one another to force out the information they need from prisoners desperate to survive another day. 

“​​What starts as a bleak but simple look at a man driven to betrayal through desperation turns into something deeper and more pessimistic, where individuals no longer matter as all are pawns in a twisted game with a predetermined winner”, is how Jack describes this difficult viewing, before going on to applaud the “elegantly choreographed long takes [which] make us feel like we too are involuntarily but inevitably marching to a rapidly approaching demise”. Not one for the faint of heart, yet certainly a noteworthy experience for those who are able to stomach it. 

And The Rest 

The Revivals section of the New York Film Festival had plenty more on offer this year, including some jaw-dropping restorations courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Govindan Aravindan’s Kummatty (1979) is “one of the most visually stunning” Indian films ever made, according to Sayed, while Jack drew comparisons to a more modern NYFF filmmaker—Apichatpong Weerasethakul—in his attempt to put his thoughts together on a film “so unique and so abstract that it’s a little hard to summarize my feelings about it”. 

Also restored by the WCP, Sarah Maldoror’s 1972 Angolese film Sambizanga serves as “an important reminder about the brutality of Portuguese colonialism, and the ever-important figures who opposed it”, says William, although others found the film “a little scattershot”, and wished for more detail on the supporting characters. 

Ahead of its Criterion Collection Blu-ray upgrade later this month, Ratcatcher’s new 4K restoration played at the festival, as we all await the follow-up from Lynne Ramsay to her jaw-dropping 2017 film, You Were Never Really Here. Reflecting back on her 1999 debut feature, Bayan calls Ratcatcher “so achingly beautiful and unbearably sad”, although others, like Jesse, didn’t quite connect with it in the same way. 

Over in Britain, the tunes of Kraftwerk, Devo, David Bowie, and more light up the soundtrack for Radio On, Chris Petit’s 1979 road movie that is light on plot and heavy on groovy atmosphere. Shot by Martin Schäfer, who was Wim Wenders’ assistant cameraman on films including Paris, Texas and Kings of the Road, Petit’s film is “a time capsule of 1979 England”. 

Mitchell Beaupre, Festiville Editor 

(Header image from ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’)