Feature by: Leo Goldsmith
Posted on: 26 March 2009
Newness is an inherently dubious concept. You don’t need Ecclesiastes to tell you there’s nothing new under the sun—browse any supermarket, multiplex, or issue of New York magazine, and witness the breathless pursuit of novelty and innovation at its most unconvincing. Newness is the oldest trick in the marketing playbook, but it’s never been made clear why something new in itself should be interesting. It might be awful. It might even be a Snuggie.
Think of Terence McKenna, the great eschatologist and psychonaut, who introduced a concept called “novelty theory” in the mid-1970s. Drawing upon the I Ching and the Mayan calendar, McKenna argued that the ebb and flow of newness, increasing in creativity and complexity in regular time since the world’s creation, would at some point reach an infinite “zero-point.” This is to happen around December 12, 2012, and will cause the end of the world or something else similarly novel. (Hoping to beat the universe to the punch, Roland Emmerich offers his own idea of creativity’s zero-point three years early in this summer’s 2012.) This is to say that, good or bad, there’s always a measure of risk – sometimes marginal, sometimes apocalyptic – in the new.
Fortunately, even if newness does destroy us all in three years, we’ll still have a few more rounds of New Directors/New Films. For thirty-eight years, and with an intriguing mix of prescience, caution, and risk, ND/NF has been unearthing an annual sampling of cinematic novelties: rare finds, foreign unquanitifiables, buzz-burdened successes from recent festivals, and out-and-out curiosities.
Consider this track-record: In 1971, its first year, the festival screened very early films by Wim Wenders (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick), Humberto Solás (Lucía), and Otar Ioseliani (Once There Was a Singing Blackbird); in 1974, Steven Spielberg (Sugarland Express, of all things); in 1978, Greenaway’s shorts (Vertical Features Remake and A Walk Through H); in 1982, Spike Lee (Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads); in 1983, Charles Burnett (My Brother’s Wedding); in 1984, Hou Hsiao-hsien (A Summer at Grampa’s, a personal favorite of mine).
It’s an impressive list that the Film Society of Lincoln Center loves to trumpet, in spite of some creative uses of the word “new” – Shohei Imamura was apparently new again with 1979’s Vengeance Is Mine, and then yet again four years later with The Ballad of Narayama. But the festival’s auguries often prove downright Mayan in their foresight, with names like those of Souleymane Cisse, Lino Brocka, Theo Angelopoulos, Margarethe von Trotta, and Lee Chang-Dong appearing early and often.
Co-hosted by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ND/NF features its own array of novelties this year: the colorful, drunken hang that is Unmade Beds; the brusquely Gallic transgender gross-out comedy Louise-Michel; the warm, offhand surrealism of Home; the cold lite-ness of Cold Souls; the exhilarating doomsday eco-doc The Cove. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be looking at these and a selection of other films from the festival—some that seem to presage the end of cinematic creativity as we know it, sure, but many others that have about them something closer to the bright, fresh newness of Spring.