The Plaisir Principle

Or, Cannes 2001: How to love the movies without hating yourself

Furnishing the auteur with additional adjectives--doing that little bit to make or break his reputation, to establish his context in big block letters (ideally with more grace than the average movie poster or trailer would)--is the job of the cineaste. And, provided he's not on deadline (or otherwise misérable), that job is a pleasure at Cannes, which has long been ground zero of auteurist study. Before making their own films of the French New Wave in the 1960s, those pioneering Cahiers du cinéma critics Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Jacques Rivette were busy scouring the beaches and screening rooms of Cannes looking for auteurs, and finding the likes of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and William Wyler.

The Cahiers folks were the ones who hit on the radical notion that, say, Othello, which shared the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1952, wasn't just part of William Shakespeare's oeuvre, but of this other classic author whose own stories of power and its inevitable loss included Citizen Kane and The Lady From Shanghai. (I made a joke of it earlier, but it's indeed a measure of even the middling auteur's fame nowadays that Baz Luhrmann felt comfortable taking his name off of Romeo + Juliet. For better or worse, we have the French New Wave to thank for that.) Three years before making Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut would likely have been seen on the Riviera spreading the word that Wyler's Palme d'Or-winning Friendly Persuasion was of a piece with that auteur's The Heiress--regardless of the fact that the latter had been adapted from Henry James.

And so such friendly critical persuasion continues at Cannes this year. In addition to the latest Murdoch, new films by Claire Denis, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Martin Scorsese, Michael Haneke, Tsai Ming-liang, Abel Ferrara, Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Coen Brothers, and, appropriately, Rivette and Godard, are being considered by another community of cineastes whose collective scribblings--combined with their conversations, their boos and applause, their standing ovations and mass walkouts--will serve to either shoot the piano player or have him play it again. The critic's pleasure of getting his vote registered in such cinematic primary elections remains undiminished, although word travels a hell of a lot faster now than in 1959. Thanks to e-mail and an early, invite-only preview of the Coens' latest, The Man Who Wasn't There (which this non-fan quickly took to calling The Movie That Wasn't There), the brothers' reputations could well have been tarnished in their native St. Louis Park even before the film's first official screening.

Which brings me to the paradox of le plaisir. We cinephilic pleasure-seekers want our auteurs to speak to us in a language we're already well acquainted with: We want Godard to sprinkle non-sequitur intertitles over the mise en scène; we want Ferrara to give us the filthy streets of New York and a few dope rhymes from Schoolly D; we want Denis to tease us with sensuous glimpses of a tale that stubbornly resists the telling, a world at once alien and...oddly familiar. But what if it's too familiar? The Man Who Wasn't There, a rather embarrassingly empty exercise in old Hollywood pastiche, slaps together James M. Cain and black-and-white "noir" atmospherics even less creatively than Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, with Billy Bob Thornton failing to earn laughs in the Monty Clift-style role of a pathetic Santa Rosa barber. (Here's what's funny: All those scissors on the set, and still the shaggy-haired siblings couldn't clean themselves up for Cannes?)

Similarly, Ferrara's 'R Xmas is a husband-and-wife drug-pusher melodrama that peddles the same smack from Bad Lieutenant in such a lazy fashion as to suggest that the dealer has been getting high on his own supply. (Granted, I myself was on cough syrup during the screening.) And What Time Is It There? amounts to the umpteenth tale of urban ennui by the Taiwanese Tsai (Vive L'Amour), who sends another ingeniously minimalist message (S.O.S.?), but disappoints by not modulating the frequency.

So, at the risk of my sounding like a publicist for postmodernism, the trick for the successfully evolving auteur is to remain true to himself, but with a twist--and one that amounts to more than just a cover version of "Your Song." The same, but different, as the saying goes. In the case of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux, a restoration of the original that adds an hour of fascinating but narratively disruptive outtakes, the "new and improved" ethos seems to have been adopted more for marketing purposes than artistic ones. (Still, some joked that this 22-year-old movie looks and sounds fresher than anything current in Cannes--and, like the best jokes, the line had some truth to it.) In other redux news, I could cry for having missed the semi-secret screening of Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love 2001," a short film assembled from sexy outtakes of his masterpiece about (what else?) the agony of drawing one's artful affair to a close.

Moving on, alas: The twist in Todd Solondz's freakishly misshapen Storytelling is that the narrative terrorist has finally brought his critics into the frame, if only in an attempt to subject them to the same torture as everyone else. In the two-part film's first chapter, "Fiction," a young creative-writing student (Selma Blair) suffers withering reviews from her classmates for perpetuating black-male sexual stereotypes--except that, wouldn't you know, her character (like Solondz's?) is drawn from real life. Same goes for "Non-Fiction," whose documentary-making protagonist (Paul Giamatti) shoots a film of near-Solondzesque cruelty about a high school loser (Mark Webber) and his family of suburban New Jersey cretins (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, et al.), but isn't the least bit responsible for the very "real" tragedy that befalls them. As a longtime sufferer of Solondz, I find Storytelling to be at once despicably unpleasant and extremely interesting for its countless layers of reflexivity--the once-persecuted auteur creating retaliatory fiction about nonfiction in order to whine in the end about how it's only a movie. While he remains squarely in the company of Neil LaBute, the perpetrator of Happiness here hints (however halfheartedly) at the insufficiency of copping the reality plea--which makes me eager to reopen the case against him.

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