The Plaisir Principle

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

Cannes, France--

 

So I'm here at the Cannes Film Festival in the sunny south of France, staring at a ridiculously dreamy ingénue named Naomi Watts doing press for the new David Lynch movie, and I'm thinking about pleasure. Le plaisir, as the French would say. Actually, just between you and me, I'm misérable: dangerously sleep-deprived, borderline delirious from fever (or cold medicine), sick of braving the crowds, tired of lunching frantically on les jambons fromages, and more than a little stressed about my looming deadline. But that's another story. This one is about pleasure.

Mind you, I'm not talking about "visual pleasure" in the manner of British film theoretician Laura Mulvey, whose Peeping Tom of cinema-studies papers posited movies as tools to forge the viewer's identification with the male protagonist and his "privileged gaze." No, in the case of this article, dear reader, the privilege, I dare say, is all yours.

And to prove it, here's a coming-attractions trailer for what you'll experience in this sexy, swanky, globetrotting feature, whose early rough cut was deemed "A potentially strong piece of work!" by none other than City Pages' own arts editor. In the course of "The Plaisir Principle," you'll find out what that ridiculously dreamy ingénue is doing naked with David Lynch--and it's no straight story, let me tell you. You'll learn why the greatest showcase for art cinema in the world follows suit with mainstream Hollywood by giving moviegoers what they know and love. You'll hear about a charming little indie called The Last Blow Job, and you'll discover the winner of the fest's top prize, the Palme d'Or--and why it sucks, too.

Best of all, you'll get to know a jet-setting critic who comes to doubt the meaning of movie pleasure while overhearing Ewan doing Elton in Gay Paree; who bumps into the Coen Brothers in Santa Rosa and wonders who the hell cuts their hair; who sees the truth in advertising for Clearasil on the cratered puss of Vincent Gallo back in Paris; who OD's on movies after scoring some bad shit from Abel Ferrara in Alphabet City; who grows skeptical of the entire industry while visiting an orphans' hospital in Uganda; and who, during one final stop in Italy, witnesses the resurrection of cinema in the catholic tastes of Martin Scorsese.

But first a little history--though not because history is important (we'll get to that later). This is just for fun. After all, Cannes--by which I mean the festival, although it's no doubt true of the lush seaside ville as well--was founded on pleasure. For the inaugural event back in 1939, Hollywood sent a "steamship of stars" to the Côte d'Azur, including Mae West, Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer, and Douglas Fairbanks, along with ten of its newest movies. Alas, only The Hunchback of Notre Dame actually screened, on account of Adolf Hitler's decision to invade Poland on opening day. The timing of this real-life blockbuster was surely coincidental. Yet it bears mention that Cannes was conceived as the French critique of the Nazis' dictatorial direction of the Venice Film Festival, where Renoir's pacifist Grand Illusion had met considerable resistance in 1938. Which is to say that Cannes, in addition to being about pleasure (and pain), is also about power.

How fitting, therefore, that the 2001 edition would begin with Moulin Rouge--another American take on French material, and set, as one of its characters gleefully reports, "where the rich and powerful come to play with the young and beautiful of the underworld." According to the movie, it's artists who populate this "underworld," tossing breadcrumbs to us lowly consumers who live and breathe in environs even farther below notice. But who are the overlords governing the glitziest film event known to man? Well, the "Power List" in the current issue of Premiere gives top billing to megaconglomerate superstars Sumner Redstone (Viacom), Gerald Levin (Time Warner), and Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.)--the last of whom controls 20th Century Fox, and thus Moulin Rouge. True, the acknowledged director here is Baz Luhrmann, the auteur who was kind enough to share credit with the Bard on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. But, to the French, or anyone else, this is nothing if not un film de Monsieur Murdoch.

Like Cannes itself, Moulin Rouge is one big, glittering billboard touting who owns what. Where, in most Hollywood musicals, the characters sing their innermost thoughts to one another, here the "underworld" playmakers of Paris circa 1900 communicate in anachronistic song samples of licensed material--the only context in which one could imagine David Bowie's "Heroes" mixing with Phil Collins's "One More Night." In an early workshop for Spectacular Spectacular, the aptly nondescript epic within Murdoch's epic, the stage show's writer (Ewan McGregor) hits on an inspired lyric: "The hills are alive/With the sound of music." Lucky for him (or Murdoch), the tune comes from a movie that's owned by Fox. The Spectacular star, Satine, whom Nicole Kidman plays as a liberated but fragile sexpot (who has the copyright on that?), makes her first appearance as she's being lowered on a swing set into the film's titular club, crooning "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"--from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also owned by Fox. (An honorary spot on next year's Cannes jury belongs to whoever can guess what multinational communications conglomerate will be issuing the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.)

Besides incorporating Orphean myth, Parisian politics, the threatened writers' strike, Kidman's personal life, and McGregor's "enormous talent" into its text, Moulin Rouge wraps all of Cannes's venerable contradictions into one overstuffed package. It's a star-driven blockbuster with the vague semblance of high art; and, in a year when the festival's acknowledged mandate is to cater to Hollywood (enough of those downbeat Marxist neorealist award winners), it's an American studio blockbuster--but set in the City of Lights. And at a time in film history when actual celluloid is as endangered as original music in a musical, the movie's MP3-swapping aesthetic bodes well for the fully digital cinema of the future, when beleaguered celebs like Kidman won't even need to show up on the set to make their movies. Rather, they'll be stored on the hard drives of corporate super conductors such as Murdoch, and double-clicked to duet with other virtual stars for a song.

But back to pleasure. Despite Luhrmann's end-credit claim that "this story is about truth, beauty, freedom, and, above all, love" (how free is a film that feels so strong a need to advertise its themes?), we might assume that the only pleasure being taken in Moulin Rouge is by the News Corp. mogul. Not so, however. At the film's press screening in Cannes, I had the extreme displeasure of sitting across from a critic who took highly audible delight in his recognition of every single pop-musical reference--giggling at the first lyrics from "Roxanne," "Like a Virgin," and "The Show Must Go On" (and on and on), and applauding the discovery that Elton John's "Your Song" was, indeed, his own.

And so I started to wonder: Is the chief pleasure principle of Moulin Rouge--or postmodernism in general, or the Cannes Film Festival on a bad day--to commend the spectator on his savvy identification of in-jokes, of auteurist tics, of products within the product? Yes, I have that CD in my collection, too. Was it Foucault who said that a powerful society is one whose inhabitants learn to love their oppression?

 

Whether or not it's true of life, or of movies across the board (and it may well be), I'm prepared to suggest here that pleasure at Cannes--particularly for the returning attendee--is synonymous with familiarity. For the visiting critic (and particularly the foreign one), this axiom extends to certain practical matters: knowing how to stay marginally sane while seeing 30 to 40 films, out of countless hundreds screening in town, in a mere ten days (it helps to have a therapist who agrees to communicate by e-mail); knowing the precise flick of the wrist required to open your electronically controlled press locker to retrieve those 50 pounds of PR that accumulate every day; knowing which publicists to schmooze for tickets to one-time-only screenings such as Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love (only to discover after the movie begins that there are literally hundreds of empty seats); knowing that damn near the only place in Cannes to get coffee to go is at the otherwise insufferable L.A. power-lunch outpost called the American Pavilion; and, last but not least, knowing the exact location of toilets in the bunkerlike Palais des Festivals, as well as how to work the nifty device that enables a clean strip of paper to fall mechanically atop the seat. Ah...Cannes.

But where was I? Oh--the pleasure of familiarity, oui. Just before the start of every screening at Cannes, the same message--issued by the same gently lilting female voice (Mesdames, messieurs...la séance commence...), and followed by music as trance-inducing as Vertigo's--beckons us to dream, and, perchance, to sleep (particularly when the screening is at 8:30 in the morning). Which is appropriate, because movies have a lot in common with dreams, don't they? The medium's inherently hypnotic flicker aside, movies semiconsciously resemble dreams as a way of offering a familiar experience to the widest possible audience. I mean, who couldn't relate to falling in love at first sight, or falling in bed with a supermodel, or falling from the top of a bell tower--while asleep, that is? So, too, the movie critic, in order to give his reader something to relate to, might write that "Moulin Rouge is like Singin' in the Rain on acid"--or that "movies are a lot like dreams."

From the beginning of cinema, genres have served to orient us in much the same way: The image of a man on a horse (or a poster of the image of a man on a horse) generally signifies that the movie is a Western, which in turn means that it's about, for example, how the West was won. Movies cost a lot to make, and, at $8.50, they cost a lot to see as well--so both investor and ticket buyer wish to know where they stand. Another guide through the cinematic wilderness is the auteur: The words Directed by Sam Peckinpah beneath the image of a man on a horse (or a poster of same) signify that the movie is a Peckinpah Western, which in turn means that it's about, let's say, how the West was brutally won.

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.

But the most striking of auteurist outings at Cannes come courtesy of Claire Denis and David Lynch. As regards the former, please allow me just one of the critic's familiarizing analogies: Denis's Trouble Every Day is this year's Crash, partly for polarizing the Cannes audience more fiercely than anything else, and partly for serving as a classic experiment in Cronenbergian body horror. Not that the movie itself offers much orientation, generic or otherwise. Forcing the viewer to work, as usual, Denis drops us into the middle of an unsettling head trip involving murder, botany, and two of the most bizarre-looking people on the planet (Béatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo, both of whom could stand a visit to the dermatologist). I won't say much to spoil the surprise of Trouble Every Day (shock is a better word), except to say that once Gallo's morose, migraine-suffering creep interrupts coitus with his bride (Tricia Vessey) to masturbate in the bathroom, then goes out and buys a puppy, all bets are off.

And then there's Lynch's Mulholland Drive, a tongue-in-cheek T&A thriller that had me wearing a guilty grin from start to finish. Returning to the deadpan camp territory of his initial Twin Peaks episode (indeed, most of the 146-minute film was once a network pilot, until ABC's cold feet cut the director loose to shoot another hour of narrative irresolution and "hard R" shenanigans), Lynch here gives us the TV-soap alter egos of Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini. A goody-goody young blonde from Canada (Naomi Watts, a truly beguiling comedian in her first starring role) and a sultry-voiced femme fatale (Laura Elena Harring) with a bad case of amnesia meet in L.A.; become engrossed in a patently ludicrous yet oddly engrossing mystery; and, once the prime-time audience has switched to the nightly news, erotically discover that two sets of twin peaks are better than one. The levelheaded Variety deemed the movie's half-hour dreamscape denouement--a sort of signifier-inverting, experimental mini-sequel to the preceding feature--"a severe and unwelcome turn down a lost highway," then all but retracted the statement two days later. Seems even trade-paper critics want a little variety in their diet at Cannes.

 

Befitting its mix of art and artifice, culture and capitalism, auteurist similes and Hollywood smiles, Cannes amounts to a tricky high-wire act in terms of programming. In order to give pleasure without falling to its knees, the festival needs to provide some delicate combination of the familiar and the unexpected, the tranquil and the transporting. Maybe, God forbid, your own pleasure is The Last Blow Job, a German comedy screening outside the festival to solicit studio johns. (It's a catchy title indeed, though The Next-to-Last Blow Job would have been better: Even the crudest exploitation artist knows the benefits of leaving something to be desired.) Still, the valid argument in favor of allowing that kind of sucker--not to mention the lifetime achievement award being given this year to, er, Melanie Griffith--is that they help subsidize the more artistically adventurous fare from countries whose film industries aren't powerful enough to warrant their own WTO debates.

Diversity aside, good business will occasionally allow for good deeds, and no film could make the point more strongly than ABC Africa, a documentary directed in typically spare style by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry). The film begins with a written request for help seen spilling out of the director's fax machine: The United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development is inviting Kiarostami (who received a UN award in 1997 for his humanitarian fictions) to document the progress of the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans, thereby calling attention to its struggles on behalf of the 1.5 million Ugandan children orphaned by war and AIDS. Accepting the challenge, Kiarostami approaches his ten days of shooting in Kampala from a compassionate rather than an investigative angle--which, in its way, is no less political. Displaying the same concern for the inner lives of kids as in his
narrative film Where Is the Friend's House?, the director here traverses the vast gulf between children's play and their death--the latter represented most chillingly through the image of a young Ugandan AIDS victim being placed in a makeshift cardboard coffin and driven away on the back of a bicycle.

Still, the film hardly amounts to a visual catalog of Ugandan misfortune. Stylistically speaking, much of this beautiful, vibrant work reflects the basic truth that waving a camcorder among children in rural portions of Africa will inspire no small amount of curiosity--and mugging for the camera. Objectivity, such as it can ever exist in a documentary, simply isn't an option here. Perhaps for that reason, Kiarostami regularly turns the cameras on himself and his tiny crew. One unforgettable scene of the filmmakers fumbling toward their hotel rooms after a late-night power blackout makes it clear that light--and, by extension, cinema--is a privilege. Thus the question for the world's filmmakers ought to be, but too seldom is: What to do with that privilege?

It's a question that has particular importance for Kiarostami, who, though he's scarcely written about at length in the U.S., is a hugely acclaimed filmmaker with a devoted worldwide audience. At Cannes, members of that audience would likely have packed screening rooms to see a film of the director practicing choral recitations for three hours--which, given his celebrity as an auteur, would have been a film well within his means to do. And this dynamic makes the issue of what the artist will actually choose to create all the more vital. No wonder Kiarostami includes scenes of an Austrian couple with their adopted Ugandan child, promoting human fellowship where Moulin Rouge promotes mass consumption. More than anything, ABC Africa is a film whose message is simply to remind us of the power of any individual choice, including the choice to do nothing.

Just as Cannes seems to trade on a single wave from Uma Thurman in order to allow the presence of a movie about the struggles of an Argentinian woodcutter, so Kiarostami has traded on his fame to serve as nearly the sole conscience of this year's festival. For a reporter in Cannes given carte blanche to cover the festival as he sees fit, Kiarostami's own urgent dispatch makes the notion of apportioning space to, say, New Line's 20-minute promo reel of completed footage from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, seem soulless, even obscene.

So the question that plagues me in the wake of ABC Africa is: Given the very real tragedies taking place in Uganda and elsewhere, and their scarcity of coverage relative to that other disaster epic known as Pearl Harbor, can the pleasure of movies that aren't about grave world crises be excused? Kiarostami's film concludes, pointedly, with images of resilient Ugandans playing music and dancing, as if to say that cultural expression--if not mere entertainment--is of vital importance, too. And yet when I'm fighting my way through a massive crowd gathered at the Variety Pavilion for a Roger Ebert-moderated panel discussion with American directors, and hear the critic rave about the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Anniversary Party) and Wayne Wang (The Center of the World) by saying, "They want to make the world a little better than it was when they started filming"--in this venue, I feel less than fully convinced of the purity of their motives...or my own.

And then I see the movie I was most excited about on the plane ride over: Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, Martin Scorsese's four-hour-plus work-in-progress doc about his love of Italian cinema. "If you ever have a doubt about the potential of movies to effect change in the real world," he says near the start (speaking directly to me, it seems), "study neorealism." True enough: Working with nonprofessional actors on minuscule budgets, in a nation ravaged by the Second World War, directors Roberto Rossellini (Open City), Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine), and Luchino Visconti (La Terra Trema) captured an Italy in shambles, the way it actually was--saying "a prayer," per Scorsese, "that the rest of the world would look at the Italian people and see their essential humanity."

In other words, like ABC Africa, but by different means, the postwar neorealist films tugged heartstrings--often through the stories of children--without resorting to undue artifice or convention, and without relieving us of our shared responsibility for real events. Though they're now more than 50 years old, Scorsese's chosen clips (particularly from Rossellini's unromantic war trilogy) appear as pictorially vivid and as emotionally wrenching as ever. And yet just as powerful is the director's simple description of watching these films as an eight-year-old in the company of his Sicilian emigrant grandparents, who wept at the stark black-and-white images of their homeland in ruin.

If the lesson here would seem to be that human tragedy makes for great cinema, a more recent Italian film--Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room, a formulaic family-crisis weeper that ran away with this year's Palme d'Or--made it clear that many viewers (choosing what's familiar to them, perhaps) simply prefer to experience a less lacerating sort of pain. It's not just Moretti's total lack of visual imagination (his film could be a sitcom for how it's shot) that makes his work undeserving of honor at the world's most prestigious film festival. Worse still is his unconscionable view that there's no use trying to make a difference in the world, since we're all purely victims of circumstance.

For now, I've concluded that what is most gratifying about cinema is the feeling of engaging the world rather than escaping from it or consuming it. But then how to explain the narcotic thrill of Lynch's T&A thriller? I imagine I'll still be grappling with such issues in Cannes next year. With pleasure.

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