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Anthology’s Auto-Cinema series contemplates the car
BY SEAN EGAN | With the unveiling of Citi Bike, the MTA increasing subway fare and the seasonal rise in gas prices, the best (and most cost efficient) way to get from point A to point B has been at the forefront of many New Yorkers’ minds. With many now seriously considering the pros and cons of different modes of transportation, it seems particularly timely — and relevant — that Anthology Film Archives is providing two film series which focus on two very different kinds of vehicles.
The Anthology-curated Auto-Cinema series (now through June 25) presents a collection of previously released films that prominently feature automobiles, in an attempt to examine their role in cinema as well as society at large. Soon thereafter, Anthology will host the annual Bicycle Film Festival (June 26-30), which not only promises to present films concerning its titular vehicle, but also a number of other exciting bike-related events.
Auto-Cinema scrutinizes the function and significance of the commonplace machine most take for granted.
The series was reportedly inspired by the relatively close release dates of two of 2012’s most interesting auteur-driven movies: David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” and Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.” While the films differ wildly in tone and content, they both featured inscrutable protagonists who spend a large portion of the film riding around sprawling metropolises (New York and Paris, respectively) from the back seat of state of the art stretch limousines. With this coincidence sparking their interest, Anthology dug deeper to find other films raising similar thematic questions through the lens of the car.
In “Cosmopolis,” writer-director David Cronenberg — the master of body horror and all things icky and technological — adapts Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel about a gifted twentysomething Wall Street financial wizard, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), who loses his fortune over the course of the day while stuck in traffic. This simple summary does not do Cronenberg’s slow burn of a film justice, as he uses the limitations of his setting to make a deeply paranoid and unsettling picture. Through claustrophobic camerawork, moody lighting and vaguely science-fiction-y iconography, the limo becomes a hermetically sealed capsule, which keeps out the (literal) anarchy of the outside world (and, in the process, potently uses the vehicle as a metaphor for the modern world’s over-reliance on gadgetry).
These themes of isolation and lack of concern for the world are aided immeasurably by Pattinson’s distant and detached performance as the nonchalant Packer, and the inscrutable, steely grimace he wears for the majority of the film. Both incredibly relevant to today (especially with its presentation of the “one percent” and Occupy-like protests), and timeless in its ideas, “Cosmopolis” is highly recommended viewing.
No less potent a rumination on the dangers of technology now than when it came out, Cronenberg’s 1996 psychological thriller, “Crash,” is also an official selection of the Auto-Cinema series. Highly controversial upon release (due to its twisted and explicit portrayals of sex and violence), Cronenberg again uses the automobile to criticize the modern world and unsettle the audience. Set in a future not unlike our own, the film follows a ragtag cast of characters (headed by James Spader and Holly Hunter) who become sexually aroused by violent car crashes and the destruction they produce. The film is classic Cronenberg, liberally and thoughtfully intertwining sex and violence, and the human with the mechanic — all while conjuring up disturbing imagery that would make even the bravest filmgoer squirm (the “leg scene” in this film is definitely not for the faint of heart). “Crash” uses the automobile as an example of how people in the modern world frequently fetishize machinery and technology to the detriment of the ones they love and society as a whole.
If Cronenberg’s films show the car to be indicative of a larger, more sinister problem with technology eating at the heart of society, Carax’s “Holy Motors” is a vibrant and inventive movie about the transformative potential of the automobile and technology. The plot of this mind-bending, genre-hopping, whacked-out film — if you can call it a plot — concerns a man named Oscar (Denis Lavant), who uses his limo as a state-of-the-art changing room to get into elaborate costumes while riding to various “jobs” in Paris that seemingly require him to perform as a variety of distinct characters, for some mysterious and/or unknown purpose or audience. This conceit allows for the film to gleefully shift tones on a dime, careening with aplomb from slapstick comedy to intimate drama to violent thriller to full-scale musical numbers. The car becomes a symbol with a multitude of potential meanings: as the place where we are most vulnerable and in touch with our real selves, as a place of reinvention where we shape our identities or as the backstage to some grand-scale theatrical performance. These are just some of the heady themes one can mull over once this wickedly clever and visually stunning film has faded from the screen.
Celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, like Cronenberg, has a pair of features being screened for the Auto-Cinema program. “Taste of Cherry” (1997) and “Ten” (2002) both take place almost exclusively within the confines of normal cars, but the scope of the ideas Kiarostami explores within them know no limits. “Taste of Cherry,” a winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or, concerns a man who wishes to commit suicide as he drives around Tehran, interviewing potential candidates for people to bury his body. With its long conversations and beautifully shot landscapes, the film becomes a meditation on life and death, with the car also acting as a place for open dialogue between individuals. Stripping away the sumptuous cinematography of “Taste of Cherry” in favor of a couple of dashboard mounted digital camcorders, “Ten” explores similar themes, focusing exclusively on a series of conversations between a young mother and her various passengers. These conversations span from the incredibly personal ones with her obstinate son, to encounters with friends, sex workers and a religious old woman. Kiarostami here shows the car to be a space where people can debate and examine societal norms and the “big questions” (particularly those concerning women in society and sexual politics), as well as have intimate and honest conversation with others, including family.
The festival is rounded out by a few more screenings of rare works held by Anthology. An impressive short film program promises to be interesting, featuring five films examining the automobile from different social, political and environmental lenses. Chip Lord’s feature length video, “Motorist,” features Richard Marcus as a driver on a road trip, commenting on his surroundings and the nature of cars, while director Saul Levine presents a conversation in a car with his friend Katha Washburn in a single 82-minute take, as part of his “Driven” video series. These last selections help to ensure Anthology’s Auto-Cinema program will be expansive, thought-provoking and something audiences can’t find anywhere else.
BICYCLE FILM FESTIVAL
After Auto-Cinema wraps up, Anthology Film Archives will serve as the main venue for the Bicycle Film Festival, a totally unique kind of event that is centered around the bicycle, both in cinema and in real life.
The festival was conceived in New York City by founder Brendt Barbur over a decade ago, after he was hit by a bus while riding his bike. Wanting to turn this accident into something positive, Barbur (an avid cycler and film aficionado) decided to put on a film festival, noting that he “felt that film and art were a great way to express what’s positive about bikes.”
The first Bicycle Film Festival (BFF) was held in New York City 13 years ago — and in fact took place at Anthology Film Archives, where it found an enthusiastic audience and received great press.
Today, the festival has expanded worldwide to dozens of cities, with thousands in attendance. Barbur says that the festival’s “spirit hasn’t changed at all, and it’s still very community oriented.” The New York BFF remains special, though, despite all the global expansion. “It’s our hometown,” says Barbur (whose office is located in Chelsea), who feels “very honored to have the 13th year of the festival at Anthology.” He continues, noting that “New Yorkers are becoming more excited about bikes. You can see it. Certainly 13 years ago, we did not see the same amount of cyclists. The increase is evident.”
But what of the films? Barbur prides his festival on being a place where a wide range of genres are screened, and where special and unique films — “like a movie directed by a 17- or 18-year-old without a million dollar budget” — can find an audience of cyclists and general movie enthusiasts alike. The one thing unifying these films is the bicycle itself. “At the Bicycle Film Festival, the bike is the star,” says Barbur, who asserts that “In Hollywood, the bicycle has been shortchanged.” He notes that cyclists in Hollywood films are usually presented negatively, as kind of nerdy, immature or weak (think Pee-Wee Herman in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” or Steve Carrell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) — which is a far cry from all the healthy, good-looking, well-educated and well-adjusted cyclists who populate the streets of cities like New York. The BFF seeks to be a place where this trend is reversed.
This year’s festival is no exception, featuring many exciting bike-centered films, with positive portrayals of cyclists. Danish documentary “Moon Rider” is a festival highlight, and tells the story of a young Danish cyclist named Rasmus Quaade attempting to become a world champion professional cyclist. The film will receive its United States premiere at the BFF. Noted photographer Peter Sutherland (who has worked with clients ranging from “Vice” to Adidas) follows up his 2001 bike-doc “Pedal” with “The Way I Roll,” which offers portraits of many different cyclists. “Basikeli” is a new documentary that focuses on the Kenyan National Cycling Team. In the film, the team hopes to be as successful in cycling as their country has been with running in the past, and introduce the sport to a wider audience in Kenya.
The fun isn’t just limited to the theater. Over the years, the BFF has become a multimedia enterprise. Its current incarnation features a concert series (whose previous performers include Matt & Kim, Dan Deacon, Deerhunter, No Age and others) as well as an art show (which in the past has included work by distinguished figures like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Albert Maysles). This BFF will also include a June 29 video exhibition, with the Hester Nights at the Eventi Hotel in Chelsea — as well as an art show at the same location. BFF has planned a huge street party in Seward Park, which will include music, food and, of course, bikes.
Barbur, though, is still looking to the future of the BFF and getting word out about the benefits of cycling. He is currently in the process of directing his first feature film, “The Commentator” — a movie about a Danish filmmaker who goes to the Paris-Roubaix race, influenced by and honoring the work of Jorgen Leth, and featuring camerawork by Albert Maysels and others, and music by alt-rock band Blonde Redhead. Barbur continues to do what he does because he thinks that the festival has helped to provide a voice to the cycling movement, stating that continuing to promote bike usage motivates him.
“I don’t ride a bicycle because I’m an environmentalist, but because it is the best way to get around,” he says, joking, “Who wants to wait for a subway and watch rats run around?” Ultimately, he wants people to recognize and celebrate the bicycle. “Hopefully people are inspired. I know at least one person has been inspired, and that’s enough for me.”
Through June 25
At Anthology Film Archives
(32 Second Ave., at E. Second St.)
Tickets: $10 ($8 for students/seniors/children 12 or under)
For tickets, visit the box office before the show
For info, call 212-505-5181 or visit anthologyfilmarchives.org
BICYCLE FILM FESIVAL
At Anthology Film Archives
& other venues
For a schedule, and to purchase tickets (prices vary), visit