It’s time to take a stand against the tyranny of “story.” In Hollywood these days, “story” and “storyteller” are privileged terms, seemingly interchangeable with “films” and anyone who makes them — a distressing development considering the medium’s wild range of possibilities.
The “story” framing used to feel fresh, anchored, however tenuously, to the effort to bridge racial and gender diversity gaps in the industry. It’s not just one kind of story, this line of thinking goes, but all colors and stripes of good stories that matter.
As I sunk into my first week of screenings at this year’s New York Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 15, this sentiment didn’t feel wrong, per se. Just insufficient. To think of, say, a full-body sensory experience like Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” as merely a story about a Nazi family; or Raven Jackson’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” which consists of lush memory fragments, as merely a story about a Black woman’s coming-of-age, would feel dismissive of the filmmakers’ full intentions.
I can’t imagine a single director in this year’s beautifully eclectic lineup who would call themselves a “storyteller” with a straight face — outside of a pitch meeting with investors. One film even satirizes the connection between moviemaking and corporate brand marketing. I’m looking at you, Radu Jude (“Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World”).
That’s because movies aren’t just stories. Narrative can play a part, but the medium also encompasses feelings, moods, distortions of time and logic. The movies are exercises in freedom.
“The Taste of Things,” by the French Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, is, at face value, a conventional Belle Époque-era romance about a gastronome (Benoît Magimel) and a cook (Juliette Binoche) who together create sumptuous multicourse meals. Over half of the film is entrenched in the raw physicality of their work, the textures of the foods they wash, boil, chop and sear into magnificent forms. The film doesn’t rely much on dialogue because the couple’s passion is transmitted through a decadent display of food porn. In one scene, a voluptuous poached pear gives way to a shot of Binoche’s disrobed derrière. It conveys an ineffable quality: that of loving and being loved through the act of cooking.
When I think about what makes a good story — a tale that traces out a plot and a path from A to B — the answers don’t always square with the parts of movies I love best. I’m not super hot on Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic, “Maestro,” but the scenes in which Lenny conducts are magnificent and powerful, like being thrown into the middle of a sonic storm. The rest — the tortured-genius bad-wife-guy intrigue — sometimes felt like homework. I often found myself thinking, “Let’s get back to the music.”
That’s because the best things in life are gratuitous, like sex — kinky sex, weird sex, sex whose finer details you’d think twice before sharing. Joanna Arnow’s deadpan dramedy “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” relishes all of the above. The 30-something Brooklynite played by Arnow herself (in a perpetual Garfield the cat scowl) goes on dull dates and powers through a numbing office job. The focus is her sex life, specifically the submissive role she plays in a B.D.S.M. relationship with a divorced lawyer (Scott Cohen). These scenes are cringey and absurd, but there’s something compelling about choosing the conditions of your own humiliation — and having some fun with it.
Steve McQueen’s postmodern ghost story, “Occupied City,” which clocks in at a whopping four and a half hours, forces us to rejigger and expand our understanding of how movies communicate meaning. The film takes an almost pointillist approach to the telling of history. Based on a book by McQueen’s wife, Bianca Stigter (a Dutch filmmaker and historian whose research into the Holocaust also yielded one of last year’s most astounding nonfiction movies, “Three Minutes: A Lengthening”), “Occupied City” consists of hundreds of mostly static shots of Amsterdam during the pandemic lockdown. With each shot, an impassive narrator (Melanie Hyams) details the corresponding crimes that took place in each location in the early 1940s, when the Nazis invaded the country.
The conceit is willfully repetitive, and its simple, matter-of-fact approach departs from the manipulations of empathy-generating narratives that tend to dominate the subject matter. Often, my mind wandered throughout the film’s countless enumerations, which triggered pangs of guilt and also putting things in perspective: It’s distressingly easy to forget, to lose focus, in the face of horrors whose size and scope are impossible for the human brain to fully process.
Every year I try to take in a few films from the Revivals section, which features restorations of vintage titles, many of them previously inaccessible. “Un rêve plus long que la nuit” (A Dream Longer Than the Night), by the French American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, stood out. Years ago I had visited a de Saint Phalle exhibition where one of the most striking pieces was a door-sized vaginal opening nestled between a behemoth pair of legs. Silly, beautiful, and terrifying all at once, the film is a pagan fever-dream that envisions a feminist revolution through the eyes of a young girl, and its best qualities are in the details: the sheer diversity of papîer-mache penises is astounding.
Also playing in Revivals is a program of shorts by Man Ray, the artist best known for his photographs, but whose films — dizzying experiments with light and movement — turn familiar objects into alien entities. For Man Ray, conventional photography was about capturing reality, meaning his work would manifest images only possible in fantasies and dreams. Now, in the vertiginous age of the internet, with increasingly sophisticated film technologies at artists’ disposal, it’s worth considering films with similar ambitions: those that make legible the unreal. In “The Human Surge 3,” the director Eduardo Williams uses a 360-degree camera to capture the roamings of a multicultural group of friends, each from a different part of the world: Peru, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. Using uncanny, stretched-out images that resemble those on Google Earth, Williams’s remarkable vision of digital interconnectivity collapses borders and language barriers in wondrous, psychedelic fashion.
For more brain-breaking adventures, I recommend scouring the shorts and midlength programs. Preceding Deborah Stratman’s “Last Things,” an eerie, science-fictional take on evolution (from the perspective of rocks!), is a gem: “Laberint Sequences,” by the visual artist Blake Williams, the only 3-D film in the lineup. This 20-minute short is thrillingly destabilizing, and its considered yet adventurous employment of 3-D makes Hollywood’s innovations look juvenile by comparison. Also of note for their beautifully baffling subversions of the cinematic status quo: Ross Meckfessel’s modernist horror jaunt “Spark From a Falling Star,” Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmey’s “Ungentle,” in which a disembodied narrator (Ben Whishaw) ruefully remembers his past — part gay awakening, part spy thriller — over banal shots of contemporary England.
A descendant of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ethereal excursions, Thien An Pham’s transportive feature “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” tracks a man’s journey through rural Vietnam after the sudden death of his sister. You could say the film is about faith, the anxiety of fatherhood, or the existential unease of mortality itself, but plot is beside the point.
What matters is the riveting sensuality, the way the images ensorcel you, vesting quivering landscapes with an almost divine power. It’s the kind of film that makes our culture’s devotion to movies click: It’s not about watching stories, but inhabiting worlds they have not told us of.
For more information on the New York Film Festival, go to filmlinc.org.