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.

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?

I myself can't, alas, but I am old enough to have observed (albeit from a distance) the favorable reaction at Cannes to such recent world cinema gems as Breaking the Waves, Underground, Naked, Raise the Red Lantern, The Piano, Taste of Cherry, Crash, Chungking Express, Mother and Son, Flowers of Shanghai, and Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy--and it seems like the only thing comparatively lacking from these masterpieces (besides nudity, in many cases) is the time and attention needed to make them classics. Or is there something else missing? "The trouble," according to Denby, "is that critics can no longer appeal to a commonly held set of values." Like bosoms and cleavage, for example? Or what Denby described as "our moods in late adolescence" [emphasis mine]?

Appearing to appeal to some of those previously shared moods, Peter Greenaway's 8-1/2 Women reflected on the old Cannes culture of sex and auteurism by following, in clinical detail, the exploits of a wealthy father and son (John Standing, Matthew Delamere) who set up a private bordello in their Genevan mansion. As the pair screens Fellini's 8-1/2 to get in the mood, the film-illiterate father asks his son, "So how many directors make these things just to indulge their sexual fantasies?" The young man's response: "Most of them, I think." Lamentably, the press-screening crowd seemed to agree with the kid by roundly booing Greenaway's nudity-strewn headscratcher--which would be a convenient sign of lost patience for prurient and experimental filmmaking (or those other old values) except that Antonioni's L'Avventura was also booed after its bow 40 years ago. Neither should 8-1/2 Women be used to support Variety's claim that famous directors were particularly pretentious and self-indulgent this year, since Greenaway has always been pretentious and self-indulgent--and I say this as a fan.

Certainly, 8-1/2 Women--along with, to a lesser extent, the opulent (and boring) new dramas by Egoyan and Almodóvar--fulfills Corliss's sense of "the allure of foreign-language films" from the '50s and '60s: "They had class and they had sex....These films were invitations to European decadence." Not so the new Kadosh (Sacred), Amos Gitaï's aptly depressing and well-made indictment of the horrific sex roles enforced in the name of religion in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. The main characters are Meir and Rivka (Yoram Hattab and Yael Abecassis), an Orthodox couple who, after ten years of marriage, have not been able to conceive a child. Per tradition, the man's rabbi instructs him that he must remarry, since "a man who dies without progeny rips a page from the Torah"--a declaration that is tantamount to casting Rivka out into the street. Meanwhile, Rivka's sister Malka (Meital Barda) surrenders her principled objections and marries Youssef (Uri Ran Klauzner), who violently forces himself on his bride on their wedding night. In the end, both women are left to weigh their options from a very short list.

More Old Testament than old-style foreign classic, Kadosh is just about the least sexy film on the subject of male-female relationships that one could possibly imagine, and Gitaï's austere, near-documentary approach enhances the fearlessness of his critique. Though it doesn't stand to titillate American thrill seekers, the film should deliver a polemical punch when it plays to an Israeli audience riven by religious debates.

Similarly shaped by the dictates of religion, and even more minimal in its style, Tales of Kish resembles an Iranian New York Stories--a three-part series of 25-minute shorts whose final chapter by Makhmalbaf was the single most enrapturing piece of film I saw at Cannes. Truth told, the other two parts (by Abolfazl Jalili and Nasser Taghvaï) are of nearly equal greatness, but Makhmalbaf's "The Door" is a genuinely magical work whose mise-en-scène (and story) consists solely of blue sky, brown sand, and the sea, along with a young woman and her goat, an elderly man carrying an antique door on his back through the desert, and a postman who tries to deliver a letter to the man's "address." If only "The Door" could reach one one-thousandth of the kids rushing to see the artificial Episode I. Like Takeshi's oddly sweet Kikujiro (and, to an extent, David Lynch's uncommonly simple The Straight Story), Tales of Kish is a movie that any aspiring filmmaker should see as an example of how creative a director can be using nothing more than his imagination and his natural (and modest) surroundings. Incidentally, in the low-budget and highly censored Iranian film industry, such materials are often all there is to work with.

Which reminds me of Denby's ridiculously dismissive regard for Iranian cinema--along with that of seven other countries--as expressed in a single sentence of his New Yorker article. "One must quickly add that the current French, Italian, German, and Japanese cinemas are but a remnant of their former selves, and that the new movies from China, Russia, Finland, and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement or glamour." Granted, there isn't much excitement or glamour in Iranian cinema. In fact, Abbas Kiarostami's recent Palme d'Or winner Taste of Cherry--which, per Denby's review in New York, "lacks the courage, the surprise, the ravenous hunger for life, of a serious work of movie art"--is about a forlorn Teheran man looking for someone to help him commit suicide. No, David, there's no "hunger for life" in Taste of Cherry. And no nudity, either.

 

For the critical doomsayers, maintaining a persuasively bleak outlook within the space allotted has seemed to require them to avoid substantive discussion of films like Taste of Cherry and Russia's Mother and Son--which in turn has the obvious effect of perpetuating the problem the critics purport to despise. "Predictably, the love of cinema has waned," wrote Susan Sontag in '96. And predictable it is when, like Denby, Sontag treats exceptions to the rule of globally deteriorating artistry in one short sentence about recent foreign films that are "wonderful" but described only by director and title (Mike Leigh's Naked, Gianni Amelio's Lamerica, and Fred Kelemen's Fate).

This hardly seems enough to encourage the youth of America to seek out these films on video; to start a subscription to the British film journal Sight and Sound; to read Jonathan Rosenbaum's informative essays about world cinema on the Chicago Reader's Web site; to purchase a membership at an independent video store specializing in foreign obscurities (e.g., Intercontinental Video in Minneapolis, or Facets Multimedia's mail-order tape-rental club in Chicago); and/or, even better, to support those few regional independent theaters showing rare and essential foreign films (which in our town means U Film Society, Asian Media Access, Oak Street Cinema, and Walker Art Center). It bears mention that tracking down foreign films doesn't always require an oath of monasticism or a journey to the ends of the retail universe: No less a corporate fortress than the Uptown outlet of Blockbuster Video rents two of Sontag's three "exceptions" for $1.99 each.

Instead, just as regional film critics or their editors too often squander available space on, say, the umpteenth lengthy review of The Mummy rather than, say, a unique and comparatively unknown masterpiece that might be screening for a limited time at just one local theater (e.g., the Japanese comedy-drama After Life that's now at Oak Street), Sontag, Sarris, and Denby apportion their pessimism in a way that practically suggests a vested interest in keeping things as they are. (Much to his credit, Corliss appended a sidebar to his article that included critical comment on seven hard-to-find foreign gems.) Indeed, for critics to say that world cinema is dead is to convince their readers--and, I dare say, themselves--that they're not missing anything of value that isn't being widely reviewed and nationally advertised. When Sontag writes, "The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn't demand anyone's full attention," she creates a fine review of Episode I (though not of Face/Off). But again, what about, say, Makhmalbaf or Sokurov (Mother and Son)? Rather than sing the latter's praises, Sontag prematurely mourns the death of his unmade films: "And how will Aleksandr Sokurov find the money to go on making his sublime films, under the rude conditions of Russian capitalism?"

As it happens, Sokurov has completed two highly experimental features since Sontag's essay in '96: Mother and Son, which played for a week at Oak Street one year ago, and Moloch, which had its world premiere in competition this year at Cannes. Funded with the support of film boards in Russia, Germany, and Italy (another reminder of the virtues of national endowments), Sokurov's movie was the most challenging in the festival on a number of levels, not least being its visually cloudy, soft-focus portrait of 24 hours in the lives of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in their Berchtesgaden retreat circa 1942. That setup aside, hardly anything happens in the conventional dramatic or political sense.

If Mother brought its own gorgeously gloomy images and near-total lack of narrative to bear on a relationship to which almost anyone could relate, the snail-paced Moloch situates the century's most despicable character (Leonid Mosgovoi) and his unsympathetic lover (Elena Rufanova) within a dead landscape of washed-out colors and a steady stream of impenetrable conversation. Amounting to an austere, poetic rumination on the mystery of human evil, it's an audacious, mesmerizing film, utterly without precedent in the history of cinema (with the possible exception of Sokurov's previous work). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the walkouts began ten minutes after the start of the first public screening and continued for about an hour, until the film finally broke in the projector and caught fire, thereby relieving several hundred other viewers from the seeming burden of staying to the end. (Popular or not, world cinema is apparently more incendiary than ever.) "My film is aimed at people who like to read," Sokurov said during the Moloch press conference. "I wouldn't be upset if people choose to read Dickens or Tolstoy rather than watch my movies." A fine wish, that, although I doubt many of the departing cineastes were rushing home to their dog-eared copies of Anna Karenina.

Ultimately, there are two ways to interpret the ostensible disaster of this event. One would be to despair that even paying audiences at the world's most prestigious international festival of art cinema have little tolerance for true experimentation. The other, less defeatist conclusion would be to say that in spite of this experimental film's utter lack of commerciality, it was nonetheless financed, produced, and screened for a huge, international audience of people whom it thoroughly provoked. Which is also to say that world cinema lives.

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