Over There

While American critics script eulogies for foreign film, this year's festival at Cannes suggests that reports of its death are an exaggeration

Unwilling to play the killjoy, a critic may suffer a kind of internal collapse and simply go with the flow of commerce--or, flowing in the opposite direction, he may become a haughty contrarian, retiring from the mainstream movies in favor of Kazakhstani cinema (or whatever) that he encounters at film festivals.

--David Denby, The New Yorker, 1998

Cannes, France--

The question "What are we doing here?" would seem an appropriate one to ask the director of a film called eXistenZ. But David Cronenberg, president of this year's Cannes Film Festival jury, isn't entertaining any profound inquiry into the nature of the cosmos vis-à-vis Andrei Tarkovsky's Soviet sci-fi epic Solaris or François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. As we of the press stand in a stuffy conference room of the bunkerlike Palais des Festivals for the start of this year's fest, Cronenberg is struggling to endure the journalist with the snooty-sounding accent who wants to know why we're here discussing a bunch of esoteric foreign films when, back home in a galaxy far, far away, "tens of millions of kids" are only concerned about Star Wars: Episode I. "This is a ridiculous, irrelevant question," Cronenberg snaps back. Next question, anyone?

While Cronenberg was quite correct to lambaste this scribe for making the most obnoxious query of the day (this amid stiff competition from a host of other media jackals), the war between the empire of megabudget entertainment and the specialized foreign art cinema beloved by a few "haughty" rebels isn't far from the minds of those attending this annual conclave of filmmakers, critics, and reporters (give or take the last remaining cineastes of the Twentieth Century). What are we doing here? indeed. Cronenberg and nine of his fellow film professionals and celebrities (among them the director's former actors Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum) have been assigned to select award winners from among the 22 movies in competition--so that's their excuse. Others, many of them gathered in this room, are here to report daily on what the jurors, the stars, and, possibly, the directors might have to say about the movies or anything else that's apt to sell papers (like Cronenberg's inevitably testy response to a stupid question, for instance).

Meanwhile, some of the rest of us who aren't here to schmooze with talent or sip the studios' dry martinis have come to watch as many of the 22 competing films and hundreds of additional selections as possible, pending the availability of seats, the making of deadlines, and, as a last priority, the procurement of sleep. The more eagerly awaited films in competition include Felicia's Journey, a serial-killer thriller by director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter); Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, billed as an old-fashioned women's picture that pays loose homage to the Bette Davis vehicle All About Eve; Kikujiro, Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano's uncharacteristically gentle followup to his Fireworks; and Peter Greenaway's latest sex-filled enigma, 8-1/2 Women. Then there are the well-hyped new pictures by such American auteurs as David Lynch (The Straight Story), Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), Spike Lee (Summer of Sam), John Sayles (Limbo), Steven Soderbergh (The Limey), Tim Robbins (Cradle Will Rock), and, er, Kevin Smith (Dogma). (Consult "Ameri-Cannes," right, for critical comment on this new Yankee product.)

As for me, I'm also here to join a critical debate, already in progress, having to do with the allegedly diminished artistic value of new foreign cinema compared to those French, Italian, and Swedish classics of the '60s. These masterpieces, per critic David Denby, "defined our moods in late adolescence, [and] enlarged our sense of romance and freedom and passionate melancholy as well as the expressive possibilities of movies." It's a tall order, evidently. "Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art," wrote Susan Sontag three years ago in a New York Times Magazine piece called "The Decay of Cinema." "No amount of mourning," she claims, "will revive the vanished rituals--erotic, ruminative--of the darkened theater." This conversation hasn't been limited to the elite pages of East Coast papers and highbrow journals. "The sad fact is that foreign-language films no longer matter," Time's Richard Corliss opined in 1997. "Americans, absorbed in their junk culture, are shuttering a window to the rest of the movie world."

Along with his eulogy, Corliss included some sobering data: Foreign films accounted for just one percent of U.S. box-office receipts in '95, compared to four or five percent in the 1960s; and "Fellini's three-hour La Dolce Vita, released in subtitled and dubbed versions, grossed the 1961 equivalent of $80 million." But by far the most unsettling of these obituaries came last year in the New Yorker courtesy of Denby, who, perhaps auditioning for a job that wasn't yet his, claimed to speak for those in his profession by lamenting "the latest and most obvious sign of our sorry lack of sway." Actually, Denby's own influence proved pretty healthy, since, just a few months later, he was appointed lead reviewer of the magazine that for decades had printed the groundbreaking criticism of Pauline Kael.

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