Woody Allen’s latest film Rifkin’s Festival would have completely escaped my notice were it not for Will Sloan’s gleeful description of official Rifkin’s Festival tie-in NFTs (non-fungible token) on the Michael and Us podcast. The film, about the existential/marital crisis of a retired Film Studies professor, is among the unlikeliest candidates imaginable for blockchain gimmickry. But years of sexual abuse allegations and Hollywood performers publicly refusing to work with Allen in the wake of #MeToo have perhaps driven the prolific director to unconventional financing. The Rifkin NFT has since merged with a broader “metaverse” project, the whole thing too byzantine for this crypto-layman to parse, but at an earlier stage offered prizes like tickets to the premiere and a revenue share of the film’s French box office.
What a time to be alive.
The film’s protagonist, Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), would of course disapprove of such crass commercial concerns. Mort used to teach film (Mort mentions this often), specializing in the postwar European pantheon of Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, et al. He has accompanied his wife Sue (Gina Gershon) to a film festival in Spain. Sue, a press agent, is there to promote her vapid client Phillippe’s vapid-sounding anti-war movie Apocalypse Dreams. Insecure Mort is there because he suspects an affair.
Despite his ostensible love for cinema, Mort possesses zero curiosity about contemporary film. Throughout the film he lapses into vivid dreams recreating his favorite old movies. In one reverie he’s transported to the gothic deathbed opening of Citizen Kane, in another he’s in 8 ½, encountering the friends, family, and acquaintances from throughout his life, all politely disappointed in his mediocrity.
Allen favors these reenactments with a nerdy fidelity and attention to detail that sadly doesn’t carry over to the rest of the film. Scenes abruptly end mid-conversation, missing any sort of punchline. There are jokes that function only in a kind of absurdist, anti-comedy way. Among the snippets of festival chatter, we hear one guest excited about a Three Stooges director’s cut screening. An interviewer asks whether an actress’s orgasms are “special effects.” These are nonsequiturs meant to illustrate the mind-numbing banality of film festivals, but they’re mind-numbing in an uncritical, scattershot way.
This surface-level examination bleeds into Mort’s own gushing about his favorite auteurs, which is more connected to time and circumstance than describable artistic quality. Mort at one point articulates that he prefers the pessimism of postwar European cinema to the Pollyanna optimism of Hollywood, the former aligning with his darkening, age-weary worldview. Despite its present-day setting, Rifkin’s Festival is firmly rooted in the “movie brat” cinephilia of the 1970s, not coincidentally on the eve of Allen’s career peak in the 1980s. Mort cocoons himself in the comforting nostalgia of a specific moment in cinema history, further alienating himself from those around him.
The irony is that the Hollywood of today that Mort/Allen so grumpily shuns is doing much the same, strip mining the intellectual properties of our childhoods to fuel the next Disney+ exclusive. Maybe Rifkin’s Festival, with its ossified parody of The Seventh Seal chess scene, belongs in the metaverse after all.
Rifkin’s Festival (2020)
Runtime: 92 minutes
MPA Rating: PG-13
Streaming: Available to rent