It was only appropriate that the unveiling of a new 70 mm print of Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal 1958 study of sexual déja vu, should wind up one of the high points of the 34th New York Film Festival. The restored movie, now opening around the country, unspooled with a terrific gala at which Kim Novak unveiled her own personal spruce-up in a head-turning, low-necklined, royal blue tuxedo. She could have been the festival’s poster gal, since, with a few notable exceptions — chief among them Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt — familiarity dominated this year’s roster.
Inaugurated as a world-class showcase that rode the crest of the French new wave back in the ’60s, today’s New York expo du cinema can seem quaint in its insistence on the virtues of European film. That’s because prestige studio projects and white-hot independent acquisitions now routinely debut in a gaggle of other festivals, most of which culminate in awards ceremonies — chiefly the upstart Sundance in January, war-horse Cannes in May, and in September, the wheeling-dealing Venice and overstuffed Toronto lineups. As is typical, New York’s ballyhooed opening-night selection, Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes months ago (Pulp Fiction went the same route in 1994). More and more, the noncompetitive N.Y. screenings, the atmosphere of which selection committee chairman Richard Pena says would be ”poisoned” by prizes, amount to a program of greatest hits from other festivals.
Of course, you’d hardly know that from the way members snap up 75 percent of tickets before they go on sale to the public. Every year, this leads to tense box office tirades and frantic, last-minute scalping by ticket holders, often conducted in trademark tones of Manhattanite hostility. Consider the single showing scheduled for Underground, Emir Kusturica’s post-World War II chronicle, which arrived at the fest 16 months after it won Cannes’ Palme d’Or. More than 150 people waited in the standby line while a sellout audience, some of whom had flown in from L.A., shuffled in. ”I’d much rather have people dying to get in than show a film too much,” says Pena. ”This should be a signal to film distributors that they’ve got something here people want to see. Our place is to be the bridge to introducing a film, not a terminal station.”
So far, the fest remains the latter for Underground — it still has no distributor — and for several fine French films, including A Self-Made Hero, a compelling comedy-drama about an impostor who styles himself a veteran of the French resistance. (Thank your lucky stars, however, that nobody picked up Irma Vep, a pretentious, intellectually vapid shot at a deserving target — international-coproduction filmmaking.) But the ecstatically received Iranian saga Gabbeh did get snapped up by New Yorker Films last week — and the festival provided a chugging publicity platform for some higher-powered fare:
SUBURBIA (opens early 1997):
Where did the laid-back sensibility of director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) and the hyped-up braggadocio of Noo Yawk writer Eric Bogosian, from whose play this bleak melodrama was adapted, meet? More or less in the middle, said the filmmakers at their post-screening press conference, cordially leaving an empty chair between themselves. But viewers felt there was more of Bogosian on display in the film, which follows the monologue-heavy musings of a group of twentysomethings hanging out in the parking lot of a suburban convenience store. Think of it as a punk American Graffiti, with a similarly stardom-bound group of young actors, including Jayce Bartok as a dim rock star back for a visit, Parker Posey as his brittle Bel Air-bred publicist, and Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do!), unforgettably funny as a dope-fixated, drunk-out-of-his-mind party guy.