Posters from films ranging from “She’s Gotta Have It” to “Scent of a Woman” to “Clueless” line the walls of the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. The movies don’t seem to have much to do with each other, but there is a common thread: each had an NYU filmmaker at the helm. From Oliver Stone to Spike Lee to Martin Scorsese, New York University has produced some of the finest cinematic artists of our time. But before they made images that flicker in our local multiplexes, they made work that played in screening rooms much like this. By students, of students, often only for students.
The First Run Film Festival is NYU’s annual way of stirring up some attention for some of its finest work. It may not be as well-attended as a Sundance or a Cannes, but there’s a lot of variety, the brochures are just as professionally printed as anything you’d expect from the big guys, and people do indeed congregate outside afterwards and discuss and critique in hushed tones of voice.
Take “Captain Valedor”, a film by Kent Sanderson screening two consecutive days. In it, a young boy reimagines his mother’s infidelity and subsequent confrontation with his cuckolded father as a confrontation between aliens and space adventurers in the vocabulary of an old-time swashbuckling serial; the stirring score and playful visual effects stand in sharp contrast to a boy’s altogether more difficult issues; as he watches his father walk away that evening it is clear that no well-timed laser blast from a starship is going to stop the bad guys this time. This film is paired with “The Girl by the Side of the Road”, a more or less incomprehensible drama of sorts hitting time-honored student film standbys as a motionless blank-eyed person in a bathtub, a frustrated creative type and quick cutaways of ostensibly frightening content accompanied by familiar sound effects. If I had to guess what the piece was about, ‘fear’ might come up, after some confused shrugs.
Flip through the program more or less at random and you’ll find one subject on everyone’s mind: uncertainty. “A man tries to cope when his son goes missing,” reads the description of the film “What’s Left”, as if hesitant to imply that the man successfully copes. “The consequences of an unforgiving offensive stance” serves as the description of an eight-minute experimental piece entitled “Glacial Fist”. Evidently not a comedy.
Even as we speak some of these films are finding success on the festival circuit outside NYU: “I Killed Zoe Day” by Powell Weaver and “6 Ft. in 7 Min.” by Rafael Del Toro are two such examples, their titles already familiar to the film festival enthusiast. But for every film that does make it, there are many that will not, and it may be that the filmmakers are already considering the shaky world in front of them even as they consider the credit card bills still unpaid for film processing and craft service costs.
Film is the medium of this century, coming into its own anew each day, and these young moviemakers will eventually be the Spikes and Stones that decorate the hallway. We have a chance to look into their imaginations each spring. We have, too, a chance to make a world for their art that is safe and comfortable. They may settle for the first, and surely they deserve that much.