Speaking of Kael (who has been in retirement for most of the '90s), her chief rival from the golden age of New Wave film criticism in the '60s, Andrew Sarris, released his own coroner's report on foreign film just a few weeks ago in the Times' Arts and Leisure section. His piece, "Why the Foreign Film Has Lost Its Cachet," came in as the weariest and most wanly nostalgic of the bunch ("Once upon a time, people in my circle took it for granted that...the only 'mature' films came from abroad"). Apparently, the trade balance has now shifted to where our country exports immature people who've probably never seen La Dolce Vita. "Young Americans travel abroad in ever greater numbers," Sarris wrote apropos of the lost art, "yet they are ever more complacent about requiring only English to communicate with their peers in other countries--and not necessarily the King's English either, but a rock-hip-hop dialect understood by young people from Finland to Sumatra." Hmmm--sounds like a language barrier, no?
Suffice it to say that Sarris didn't make it to Cannes this year, where he might have found evidence to support his unsubstantiated conclusion that "foreign films of great distinction are still being made, though there are no journalistic catch phrases to support them." This, mind you, from the pioneering importer of the consummately catchy auteur theory that the director (rather than the producer or the screenwriter) functions as a film's primary creative force--an old theory that could certainly be applied to new competition films by such post-'60s stylists as Leos Carax, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Aleksandr Sokurov, along with Egoyan, Takeshi, Greenaway, and Almodóvar. Indeed, a recurring complaint among festival commentators this year had to do with the overabundance of known directors: Even Newsweek noted an "insider's club" at Cannes, with half the competition films coming from previous contestants (ten of whom had directed more than one entry in the past). For its part, Variety observed that the fest's unofficial "Live by the auteur, die by the auteur" motto reached critical mass in '99, with "one indulgent film after another" proving that an established director's "unlimited freedom often results in unlimited artistic excess."
Leaving subjective judgments of artistry aside for the moment, it seems safe to say that there's no shortage of proven film artists making provocative new work around the world--at least as many as those in the familiar canon of Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, and Truffaut, et al., which the doomsayers trot out ad infinitum in an attempt to add insult to the cinema's alleged fatal injury. Granted, Mohsen Makhmalbaf may be a tough name to sell to the general public--although the critic never knows until he tries. And at Cannes, as programmer Gilles Jacob is well aware (perhaps to a fault), such a name continues to have plenty of cachet for the fest's core group of world cinema devotees--which is to say that cinephilia hardly seems dead.
But how healthy is it? Is its condition as critical as the doomsaying critics would have us believe?
For purposes of comparison, let's take a look at how it used to be during the golden age of Cannes. In brief, the festival's birth in 1946 coincided with that of the modern European art movie itself, since the film that arguably started everything, Roberto Rossellini's inaugural neorealist drama Rome, Open City, was featured in the first fest and shared its Grand Prize. As it happened, both this film and the festival proper were delayed by an epic international co-production known as World War II--and if it's true that to some degree the world cinema of recent decades lacks urgency relative to its oft-claimed high-water mark, it might be because the films of Italian neorealism and the Japanese and French New Waves had the advantage (if that's the word) of responding to a massive war and its many effects. (No wonder Yugoslavian cinema appears so vital at the moment.)
In this postwar sense, the concocted glamour of Cannes was part of a larger restoration project conducted under the media's gaze, with the rich and swanky south of France playing host to both highbrow cinema and the scantily clad starlets so often used to sell it onscreen and off-. Following the momentous eruption of the French New Wave in 1959, such showmanship became a science in the '60s, when young cinephiles took equal pleasure in the art and smut swirling around such eternal classics as La Dolce Vita, 8-1/2, Woman in the Dunes, and Blow Up, to name a few. As Corliss puts it: "Part of [La Dolce Vita's] appeal was in the panoramic views of Roman naughtiness and Anita Ekberg's cleavage....Even Bergman gave you bosoms along with the angst."
Ah, oui--those twin peaks of art and commerce. In his introduction to Cannes: Fifty Years of Sun, Sex & Celluloid (ugh!), Variety editor in chief and veteran festgoer Peter Bart tries unsuccessfully to look to the future with as much enthusiasm as he regards the past. "Sure," he writes, "the parties may never be as lively as they were in the past, the publicity stunts never as vivid, and no one will ever be able to re-create the culture shock of the first bikini. But the importance of the Cannes Film Festival should continue to expand, its message growing ever more relevant." Well, good luck. As Bart lays it out, how could a "message" ever hold a candle to the first bikini? Perhaps it's fair to say that Cannes and its films were never better than when the sex was matched by an equal helping of art. I mean, can you imagine what Godard's peerlessly heady, seductively colored Contempt would have looked like in the Cannes of 1963, hawked in person by a half-naked Brigitte Bardot?