But there is one very telling, and perhaps instructive, line in the piece, a throwaway claim about halfway through. "Film culture," O'Hehir writes, "in my now-defunct Susan Sontag sense—has a history, and I think it pretty much ended with Pulp Fiction, the brief indie-film boom of the late '90s and the rise of the Internet. It's just taken us a while to realize it." The line caught my eye because it seemed so startlingly false: For many of us who were in our 20s and younger when Tarantino's masterpiece exploded like a dirty bomb in theaters across the country, Pulp Fiction was the moment when film culture began. Fiction was where our awareness of not only film's rich history, but how that history could be reinterpreted, repurposed, and reinvigorated, came to a head. For O'Hehir (and Wolcott, and their ilk), their version of film culture may very well be dead. But film culture is not. It's merely become something else that they don't recognize.
Like O'Hehir, I've come to this conclusion after two weeks of preparation for the 50th New York Film Festival—a time in which I've seen a great many films, from Antonio Mendez Esparza's quietly powerful Here and There to Cristian Mungiu's riveting yet low-key Beyond the Hills to Christian Petzold's modest character drama Barbara. But I have to confess that I've seen nothing at the NYFF that resonated as deeply or engaged me as thoroughly as Looper—yes, a Bruce Willis action movie, but one with an ingeniously worked-out plot, surprisingly deep emotions, and a thing or two to say about the uncertainty of inevitability. Moreover, it's a lot of fun, which is a quality that doesn't have to exist separately from cinematic brilliance. It would be easy to presume otherwise; too many film writers turn up a collective nose at films aimed at reaching and cheering a mass audience, as though truly great cinema must be met (at least) halfway.
I overheard that kind of snobbery in the disdainful tones of critics departing the festival's screening venue before The Bay, a creature feature running in the fest's "Midnight Movies" sidebar that may well have been the most unabashedly fun film I've seen there. Sure, it's pop, a horror thriller in the "found footage" mold, but it's done with wit and precision and genuine craftsmanship. Is it high culture? Probably not, so kudos to NYFF for programming it. The festival's other highlight to date, in terms of pure enjoyment, is Ang Lee's Life of Pi, an exhilarating 3D epic overflowing with adventure, heart, and crackerjack filmmaking. But the rhapsodic notices it received when it premiered last Friday may have had as much to do with the quality of the film as they did with the thrill of discovering a picture that is both first-rate cinema and an indisputable crowd-pleaser.
For me, the "film culture" that O'Hehir is lamenting exists in items like You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, the NYFF Main Slate selection by Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad). Maybe it's blasphemy to give up on a Resnais, but I'll own it: I couldn't find a way into the film, so I looked for a way out of the theater. It's handsomely staged and marvelously cast, but the picture is so frightfully dull that I couldn't lock in on it. He's so busy constructing magical realism and frames within frames that he doesn't accomplish the simpler task of engrossing his audience. Even worse is the Main Slate documentary Leviathan, a fly-on-the-wall portrait of commercial fisherman that almost seems designed to challenge its audience to pay attention—it's more like watching murky home movies than an actual film. At the post-screening Q&A, critics grappled for meaning; one asked, not unreasonably, if there was some buried message about the commercial fishing industry. "One thing we're trying to do is make films that don't say anything," announced co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor with pride. Mission accomplished, I guess.