Applause is often the soundtrack of film festival screenings, especially on opening night. The New York Film Festival’s annual Lincoln Center bow features cascades of clapping as fest personnel, filmmakers and cast members take the stage and muse about the film before the lights go down.
At Thursday night’s start to the pandemic-altered festival at the Queens Drive-In, which featured the world premiere of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, car horns replaced applause, but the mood was ebullient. When festival director Eugene Hernandez appeared via video (projected on the big screen from a location across the parking lot), he urged the crowd to show their appreciation with their horns.
“Why don’t you let me hear those honks one more time?” Hernandez said with a grin. “Feel free to use your horn whenever you feel like, whenever you feel like sharing in the communal experience around this movie and around movies. That’s why we’re here tonight.”
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The rows of several dozen cars obliged numerous times during the brief pre-screening remarks before quieting down during the feature presentation. In the park surrounding the drive-in, inspiration was everywhere, even if everyone wore masks. There was the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open just concluded one of its most compelling editions despite no fans in attendance. The World’s Fair site just across the way was where the medium of television had its first public demonstration in 1939.
The film, one of the five installments in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, will air on the BBC and stream on Amazon Prime this fall in the U.S. after initially being selected for Cannes. Perfectly suited to sundown on a late-summer night, the music-drenched and richly atmospheric work also screened at the Brooklyn Drive-In as part of the New York opening night. A third drive-in at the Bronx Zoo is also holding screenings during the festival, which also is showing its slate online. Rooftop Films is operating the drive-ins. Dan Nuxoll, a Queens native who is Rooftop’s artistic director, took a bow at Hernandez’s urging.
After soaking up the beeps, Hernandez noted, “For many of us, this is the first time watching a movie on the big screen.” In a pre-taped introduction to the film, McQueen told New York Film Fest programming director Dennis Lim that he still hasn’t watched it with an audience. Like most filmmakers with work screening at the festival, the UK-based McQueen was unable to travel to New York.
“Planning this year’s festival has been really challenging,” Hernandez said. “It’s been profound. It’s been, ultimately, quite moving for all of us at Film at Lincoln Center. As we all know, our city has been through so much.”
(Honk. Honk. Honk!)
This opening night kicked off the biggest U.S. fest to proceed during the pandemic after other events had to cancel. It followed Venice and Toronto in continuing on in altered form. Predictably, it felt worlds apart from last year. That festival world-premiered Netflix’s The Irishman, its star-laden after-party so packed that Ted Sarandos could barely squeeze through and Leonardo DiCaprio and his date escaped through the kitchen’s back door.
Lover’s Rock, though, centers on a house party in London’s Black West Indian community in the late-1970s, banished all thoughts of canceled Tavern on the Green bashes and let viewers soak up the revelry on the screen.
Lim took note of how the film’s extended, intimately photographed dance sequences play for viewers unable to do any of the familiar, in-person socializing that defines film festivals. “This is a strange year in which we don’t have for the first time ever an opening-night party,” Lim told McQueen. “But we have an opening film that basically is the party.” The director wryly responded, “Party like it’s 1999. We’re going to die anyway — let’s go for it. Let’s go out with two guns blazing, why not?”
The pair’s exchange did not take place onstage, as is the usual custom at Tully or the Walter Reade Theater, or in their brief pre-taped segment on the drive-in screen. Instead, it happened during a podcast produced by Film at Lincoln Center. Just before the lights went down, Hernandez had encouraged everyone in the audience to subscribe and tune in, to keep the conversation about film going on the drive home and beyond.
“We’re so honored to be able to share this year’s festival with you,” he said. “This is the moment we’ve been building toward all summer.”