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Second-rate silver screen

Seeing a bad movie at the New York Film Festival, and wearing the wrong clothes to a premiere

Second-rate silver screen

Scene from ‘End of Life’ (screen grab from trailer)

A New York moment: 

I’m covering some of the films at the New York Film Festival, and saw one documentary over the weekend. Titled End of Life, it was supposed to follow five people on the threshold of death. The pitch sounded interesting: a close look at a topic that Americans avoid discussing or thinking about. The screening was packed with young and old. 

The film was so, so bad. The first shot was utter darkness, with audio playing over the shot, and it went on and on and on. It was uncomfortable, and people were squirming. I thought, ah, maybe this is an interesting way to start a film about death. Make the audience feel suffocated with darkness. 

But the film got less meaningful from there. The next shot seemed about 10 minutes long, just resting on the face of a man struggling to speak. Then another long shot without cuts. Then another, then another. 

The pretentiousness of the style was a shame, because the subjects seemed extremely interesting. There certainly were tender moments—a hospital visitor tenderly rubbing lotion on a face, a woman with cancer going through her makeup routine. But it never amounted to anything. For all the long, lingering shots, I came away not knowing much of anything about the five subjects. 

I left the film a little bit angry—not because I wasted my time, but because I know how few documentary filmmakers get opportunities to make a film and show it in a theater. In this case, as a reporter I perhaps also resented that someone had time with a person, in such a vulnerable moment near death, and then didn’t do a good job of telling his or her story. If the directors were trying to say something profound, it went over my head. 

A.O. Scott wrote his own reporter’s notebook recently about the continuing value of film festivals, which challenge filmgoers in a communal setting rather than handing them solo entertainment that suits their interests (Hello, Netflix). I know I’m not any sort of artistic standard-bearer, but this film at least undermined that thesis. I hope I will find other films at the festival that are meatier. 

This week I learned: 

Some New York City ambulances have changed their sirens to the sound we associate more with Europe in order to decrease noise pollution. As traffic in the city has worsened, emergency vehicles get stuck on city blocks more often and blare noise into the surrounding buildings. It’s interesting to think that the “American” ambulance sound is louder, perhaps designed for less densely populated areas, where cars need more advanced warning to get out of the way. The city is considering requiring all emergency vehicles to adapt their sound.

A court case you might not know about: 

What happens when an impeached state Supreme Court justice sues in federal court over her impeachment? We’ll find out! The drama at the West Virginia Supreme Court, where all the justices have been impeached, continues.

Culture I am consuming: 

Free Solo, a documentary about climber Alex Honnold going 3,000 feet up El Capitan without ropes or harnesses. I showed up to what I thought was a regular old screening in jeans, not realizing it was actually the swanky premiere! It all worked out because there were a lot of crunchy climber types in regular-people clothes. 

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org