The City(La Ciudad)

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

The City
directed by David Riker

For most of these Spanish-speaking
new arrivals, we (virtually everyone reading this paper) are the omnipresent
Other. For us, they are–if we deign to notice them. You can’t help
thinking of this invisible divide as you watch Riker’s fascinating film,
which estranges us from New York even as it awakens us to it.

Shot in precise, unshowy
black and white, The City tells four stories consecutively. In the first,
a group of day laborers is assigned to scavenge bricks from a demolished building,
a task that has drastic consequences for one of them. The second tale concerns
a boy newly arrived from Mexico and the girl he meets at a "sweet 15"
party. In the third story, an itinerant puppeteer stumbles into unanticipated
difficulties when he tries to enroll his daughter in school. In the fourth,
a seamstress who hasn’t been paid in weeks by her sweatshop bosses learns
that her daughter is sick and needs money for treatment immediately.

I generally don’t like
the dramatic diffusion that comes with multipart stories, but Riker’s use
of the form is both modest and significant, acknowledging the multiplicity of
individual sagas as well as ethnicities in our naked, polyglot city. There’s
also a commendable reticence in the way he fictionalizes these lives. One of
the worst movies I’ve seen this year, Rosetta, the Belgian film
that absurdly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, imagines the "oppressed
underclass" via a story that smothers its characters under a glass of ideological
preconceptions that are both rigid and unthinkingly condescending. Riker’s
film is more genuinely humane and far less pretentious–a work of small
truths rather than grand statements–no doubt because it emerged not from
some intellectual’s drawing board, but from years of street-level contact
and observation.

Riker comes at filmmaking
from a social-activist angle. As a young still photographer, according to his
bio, he "photographed the anti-nuclear movement around the world…demonstrations
at military bases, the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common in England,
the historic march on the United Nations, and took portraits of people involved
in the movement including Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki." All of that, per se, means nothing to me. But what comes
next does.

At 21, he quit photography
because, he said, "I realized I didn’t know any of the people in my
pictures." He added, "I had always wanted my pictures to be truthful,
but I now realized that I needed my subjects to…have the chance to contradict
what the viewer might think is going on. This was a very painful moment for
me, I put down my still camera and decided to learn filmmaking."

That esthetic Damascus Road
is easily the most remarkable reason I’ve ever heard for a young filmmaker
to choose his vocation. The quest for truth, even to the point of allowing the
filmmaker’s subjects the right to contradict his vision of their lives,
is Godardian in the best sense, and so far beyond the self-serving vapidities
of Godard wannabes like the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta) and Harmony Korine
(Julien Donkey-Boy) as to suggest that the term still has a worthwhile
meaning. The moral seriousness of Riker’s decision was borne out by the
lengthy, total-immersion method he adopted to make The City.

Simply looking at the film
you can tell that it is cast with actual Hispanic immigrants, but the filmmaker’s
search for truthful images went far beyond that. The film was shot in segments
over several years. (The third episode was shot first, then money was raised
to shoot the first; the second and fourth were shot concurrently.) During this
time, Riker lived in the immigrant communities, learned Spanish, made extensive
casting searches and conducted classes for his prospective cast members, and
generally received a firsthand education in the distinctions between, and commonalities
among, immigrants from Peru, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic,
Mexico, Costa Rica, etc.

It’s part of the general
enfeeblement of current film culture, especially as regards "political"
filmmaking, that many theory types, the cappuccino Marxists, would surely look
askance at Riker’s method, scorning as naive his presuming to represent
the viewpoints of marginalized communities. His response to such abstract prohibitions
is worth noting.

Asked about his outsider
status by Cineaste, he said, "My perspective is that…an outsider
can motivate people within the community to talk about things that they otherwise
might not–the things that seem obvious and ‘go without saying’…
If you’re from the outside, you are at great danger of not understanding
with much depth what you are dealing with. The issue is whether you can develop
an understanding.
The only way that I was able to check myself was that
at every stage of the process–from the initial research, the very first
interviews, through the development of the script, the presentation of step
outlines, to the improvisation and right through to rough cut screenings–I
had the community around me, talking to me about it and debating." (Emphasis

As earnestly sociopolitical
as that may sound, it is without question the key to the film’s exceptional
artistic integrity and richness. Riker here certainly is acting as an artist,
not an anthropologist or community organizer: he decides on fiction over documentary,
writes the stories, determines the look and other elements that convert his
investigations into an esthetic end product. But he does so with a combination
of personal diligence and humility-before-his-subject that closely molds his
vision to the world he beholds, and that believes without compunction in the
ability of film to reflect, interpret, honor and illuminate the real world.

In The City, that
belief’s payoffs come in scores of choices that don’t stop at hard-won
authenticity but transmute it into instances of striking poetic perceptiveness.
In the first story, "Bricks," there’s a moment when the laborers,
picked up by their employer for the day, enter the back of his truck. The darkness
its closing door produces suggests a palpable, fearful disorientation that,
you suddenly realize, immigrants in general must feel frequently. In the third
story, "Puppeteer," the title character, who lives with his daughter
out of the back of his station wagon, is approached by a city worker who would
like to help him, perhaps, but who notices the little girl and says to the man,
"Someone who loves his daughter so much would take the dirt off her face."
There’s no cruelty in the remark, just an incomprehension that bespeaks
vast, everyday chasms in human and cultural understanding. Who of us has not
said or thought such a thing?

The film’s stories
touch on issues of work, education, housing and so on, but The City doesn’t
content itself with being an "issues" film. And while striving with
considerable success to avoid sentimentalizing the poor, it doesn’t eschew
sentiments. Still, its deepest meanings arguably reside in the faces it shows
us. In the second story, "Home," the girl who meets a sweet, newly
arrived boy at a party looks at him with a mixture of innocence, wariness and
romantic curiosity that seems far beyond the capacity of any "real"
actress. "Seamstress," the fourth episode, begins and ends contemplating
the faces of workers in a sweatshop, and Riker is smart enough to know that
no rhetoric on his part could compete with their eloquence; so he simply, precisely,
gives us a story to frame them.

The City isn’t
the kind of film that knocks you out of your seat; it’s the kind that sticks
in your memory for hours, days, years after you’ve seen it. Three decades
ago, films of its rough sort (e.g., Nothing But a Man) were a significant
part of what made "American independent cinema" a vital alternative
to the blandishments of Hollywood. In the 90s, alas, indiefilm has risked being
little more than a trustfunder’s stepping stone to the major studios. In
avoiding easy polemics and showy self-aggrandizement alike, Riker shows the
way not only to a renewed form of social engagement, but to art.

dull thud you may have heard the Sunday before last was the curtain falling
on the 1999 New York Film Festival. The festival’s closer, Felicia’s
by Atom Egoyan, is a singularly lugubrious, unrewarding experience,
but in that I’m afraid it was entirely suited to an annual event that has
gradually lost much of its purpose and vigor.

Whenever people I know,
in New York or beyond, discuss why the NYFF’s decline gets virtually no
notice in print, the reason that always surfaces first is critics’ personal
liking for the people who run the festival, especially its director, Richard
Pena, longtime selection committee member Wendy Keys (who retires this year)
and publicist Joanna Ney. I share that liking in spades, which is why saying
the following is more than a little uncomfortable.

I’ve covered the NYFF
now for 19 years running, and through much of that time I’ve counted myself
a major fan of the event and the function it serves in American film culture
at large. But in the latter half of the 90s it has seemed to me that the festival
has been slipping gradually from its former vitality, toward a kind of cloistered,
programmatic enervation. This year was the nadir to date.

Of course there was a large
handful of great films at the ’99 edition, some by festival standbys such
as Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother)
and Jane Campion (Holy Smoke) and others from newcomers including Spike
Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t
). But from a programming standpoint these films are the no-brainers,
just as from a cinephile’s standpoint their festival appearances are inessential;
all have distributors and will be showing up in theaters soon enough, if they
haven’t already.

It’s the festival’s
other, more marginal titles that are really indicative of its direction, and
some of these were not just awful, but bizarrely so. In The Other by
Egypt’s Youssef Chahine, for example, I encountered something I thought
I’d never see at the NYFF: a film of outright (if carefully veiled) anti-Semitism.

The background to this bit
of rubbish is worth noting. Chahine’s last film, Destiny (which
played ’97 NYFF), was an excellent, beautifully crafted movie that bravely
attacked religious intolerance among Islamic fundamentalists. That film, though,
not only brought him death threats but flopped at Egyptian box offices. This
time out Chahine attempts a recovery by combining crude low comedy (ahem, "satire")
with big doses of that favorite opiate of Arab intellectuals, nationalism, which
here is intermixed with dollops of anti-American and anti-Christian vitriol
along with disguised dashes of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment.

Chahine’s recent movies
have been financed by the French, which is why here he’s free and fulsome
with his anti-Americanism but considerably more careful with his anti-Semitism.
Still, that he spits at the memory of Anwar Sadat’s efforts to make peace
with Israel, and makes ominous mention of "Jewish businessmen" whose
scheming appears to be throwing honest, poor Egyptians out of work, will speak
loud and clear to the Egyptian hoi polloi.

Additionally, The Other
is atrociously made. Its craftsmanship is about that of a Samuel Z. Arkoff production
from the early 60s, with acting that’s so bad you can only hoot at it.
Needless to say, Chahine, who has been at past festivals, didn’t show up
to give a press conference this year. But what was this piece of crap doing
in the festival in the first place?

Three possible answers,
which in reality may overlap: (1) The festival is still operating on a 60s-style
auteur policy that reflexively embraces bad work by favored directors. (2) Here
again, as it does too often, the festival is rubber-stamping the judgments of
the French, for whom Chahine is a favored exotic. After the Egyptian got a special
career award at Cannes in ’97, he was saluted with a career retrospective
at Lincoln Center. (3) The movie’s crude anti-Americanism accords with
the festival’s moldy definitions of "daring" and "sophistication."

Those outdated definitions,
I would say, are at the heart of what’s askew at Lincoln Center. The festival
was founded in the early 60s and too much of its programming now seems chained
to the paradigms of that decade. The results are becoming increasingly ludicrous.
The loathsome Julien Donkey-Boy, for example, rather than representing
any sort of cutting edge, seems made to sucker festival programmers whose notions
of "experimental" and "edgy" are glued inside a Way Back
Machine set on 1968. Meanwhile, the festival misses great, really original American
films ranging from The City to David Lynch’s The Straight Story
(here there’s a history of obtuseness: the NYFF also rejected Blue

In the case of The Woman
–NYFF 99’s one American narrative feature that hadn’t
been seen at other festivals–people walked out of the press screening in
glassy-eyed incredulity. No one could believe that this fifth-rate Sundance
wannabe got anywhere near Lincoln Center. Stephen Holden in the Times
aptly jeered the film noir spoof as "the most hackneyed of moviemaking
concepts…turned into wearying film-school shtick." Even the Times
headline writer got in on the act, gleefully titling that review "Hard-Boiled
as a Two-Day-Old Egg at a Two-Bit Diner."

Problem-wise, what’s
mentioned above are only a few tips of a greatly perplexing iceberg. What to
do? I seriously think that Pena ought to assemble an entirely new selection
committee, one that reflects a much greater diversity of opinion than has been
the case recently, and that everyone concerned should give all of the festival’s
policies and practices a searching and thorough once-over. I don’t know
if the festival has ever subjected its mandate to a complete review, but the
millennium isn’t a bad time for that.