A question asked during the Q & A of Bi Gan’s fascinating “Long Day’s Journey into Night” brought about an answer from the young Chinese director that continues to linger in my mind. The person in the audience asked the director if he thinks contemporary filmmakers should focus on making emotionally driven films (like Gan’s work), as opposed to making movies that comment on the current socio-political atmosphere of their respective countries. Gan, coming across as an incredibly humble filmmaker, said something along the lines that he feels that his contemporaries are more aware, daring, and mature in their attempt to comment on the political. He, himself, feels limited, which why he makes films about internal emotions.
As I interpreted it, the politics the questioner and Gan were referring to were concerning the current real-life conflicts that exist in the society between social class, gender, and leadership. So, any further comment I make about differentiating the politics and personal in cinema stems from my interpretation of the political as a combination of those conflicts, and nothing else.
Viewing all the films I saw at the 56th Annual New York Film Festival through the lens of that particular exchange between Gan, and the audience member, most films reveal themselves to be existing somewhere along a spectrum. My favorite films of the festival, in fact, found a way to fuse the two elements rather beautifully, sometimes refracting the politics through the prism of a personal story (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Roma,” “The Favourite”), sometimes maintaining an inseparable balance between the two (“Cold War”), and sometimes emphasizing the political, but never letting the personal fade away (“3 Faces”).
Two films from Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke (“Ash is Purest White) and Ying Liang (“A Family Tour”), further emphasized the consistent effort that filmmakers put in maintaining a synthesis between the personal and political, sometimes unable to find the balance quite so smoothly. Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” outright showed how even an incredibly talented filmmaker as Jenkins could slip up in his attempt to walk this tightrope in exploring these two aspects, sometimes being unable to capture either of them as thoroughly as the filmmaker wants. But, then one could always choose the route that Bi Gan takes – to entirely erase exploring the politics in a film. You might just need to be as technically proficient as Gan though to pull off a brilliant 50-minute long-ish single take scene that not only enthralls from an execution standpoint but also adds significantly to the thematic beats of the film.
Or, maybe you could simply maintain a tatami shot like Hirokazu Kore-eda does in his deeply humanistic, and typically low-key film, “Shoplifters” that is so intimately focused on the people that occupy the quiet, and private houses in Tokyo that the politics rarely, if ever, interfere with the personal politics that take place between the characters. Despite exploring the breakdown in marriage, Paul Dano’s directorial debut, “Wildlife,” too prefers this silent approach, emphasizing the sad loss of childhood that its young protagonist faces over commenting on the gender politics between its characters. Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” uses an entirely different hand-held camera approach to the former two films static shots approach to, nonetheless reinforce the personal over the political by painting an honest, but unmemorable portrait of Vincent van Gogh’s mindscapes, whose enduring image remains that of Willem Dafoe’s possessed eyes.
Speaking of possession, Claire Denis’ wildly out-of-control “High Life” continues to remain hard for me to place anywhere on this personal-political scale. Although from whatever experience I got out from it, I lean towards believing that Denis’ film focuses much more extensively on personal issues of trauma, and loss and humans’ inability to deal with them as opposed anything overtly political. The other two films, though much clearer in their position along this imaginary spectrum, also feel as out-of-control as “High Life” in entirely different ways.
Joining her compatriot Frenchman in providing me with one of the most dizzying experiences, not visually, but regarding the sheer volume of dialogue that combines the personal and political with utmost ease is Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction.” Beating even that film, however, in the amount of dialogue used in a film to use a personal crisis as a way to allude to several on-going social conflicts is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 188-minute long “The Wild Pear Tree,” the last film I saw in the festival that quite poetically put an end to a festival that felt long, but mostly genuinely memorable.