Here I am at the Cannes Film Festival on the sun-soaked Côte d'Azur, looking not only for great movies but for some vivid anecdote that might encapsulate the experience of le festival in 2003. I'm reminded that this is what a filmmaker does: He or she endeavors to collect a wealth of little details that'll add up to a complete picture. A picture, of, say, Loneliness in the case of The Brown Bunny, or Military Might in The Fog of War, or High School in Elephant, to name just several of the hundreds of new films screening in and around the 56th festival in Cannes.
So I need an image here--an opening shot, if you will. Given the surprisingly dungy state of some of the movies competing for awards this year at the world's most prestigious film festival, I'm tempted to describe how one never walks anywhere in this rarefied resort town without taking good care not to step in la merde de chien. But that would be crude. And given the shitty attitude that tends to characterize the art of the deal here, I'm tempted to relay the rumor that writer-director-actor-editor-producer-cinematographer Vincent Gallo--whose one-man show The Brown Bunny climaxes with a four-minute blow job--had himself intended to kneel only before those journalists whose publications would promise to put his puss on the cover. But that would be crass.
So let me settle for something scary that I witnessed while traversing the Croisette one afternoon: a parade of foreign freaks--one covered in fake blood, another in a string bikini, several others in rubber monster masks--screaming, "Troma! Troma! Troma!" at the top of their lungs. Granted, Troma--the New York-based distributor of playful schlock-epics such as The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High--regularly sends its cadre of gore-drenched young flacks to howl at festivals worldwide. But this year the shtick managed to resonate beyond the realm of cheesy marketing. After all, this was the year when the spectacle of American violence became high art in the land where Libération is the name of a newspaper and not a bombing campaign.
Which isn't to say that America's bloody behavior was performed only by Americans at Cannes. Danish dogmatist Lars von Trier continued his tilt away from "realism" with the Brechtian Dogville, whose allegory of rabid cruelty in the U.S. of A. seemed sharper for playing out in a blatantly theatrical context. The Colorado town of the title is represented on a stage with only minimal props and chalk marks to outline the characters' homes and possessions. The result is a setting that draws class distinctions literally and puts the viewer in the proper position to accept the concrete detail (e.g., the words "Elm Street" scrawled on the floor) in place of the big picture (e.g., America). This, of course, is the definition of art: bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.
As in countless American fictions, a stranger comes to town. She is Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious fugitive from gangsters who takes shelter in Dogville and proves worthy of her name by providing her hosts with an ambiguous sort of salvation. Initially the upstanding citizens of this Depression-era town--including the John Boy Walton-like writer (Paul Bettany) who makes a philosophical experiment of bringing Grace to Middle America--accept their new neighbor with open arms, putting her to work in trade for keeping her in hiding. Then Dogville, as one of von Trier's didactic title cards puts it, "bares its teeth."
This was the point in von Trier's three-hour movie--the first installment of a "U.S. trilogy," he announced--when I decided I'd had more than enough of the director's proclivity for inflicting pain on his fragile heroines. (At the premiere, Kidman herself was seen repeatedly leaving the theater in tears.) But the maker of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark has a twist in store here: Kidman's character bites Dogville back. And if you choose to see Grace as the personification of von Trier's punishing victim-art (like Dogville, she's presented to the common folk by an artist with a gift for "illustration"), then the movie is more intriguing still.
To elaborate: The Danish auteur's timely critique of American vengeance was underscored as it came in for American criticism that could only be interpreted as vengeful. In the course of sending Dogville to the pound, Variety's Todd McCarthy jibed that the director was "sensitive to criticism" for having conceived the movie in response to U.S. reviewers' rough treatment of Dancer. The critic went on to crack that the film would naturally rate highest among the "Blame America First crowd," and to remind von Trier that the U.S. "has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world." (Not that McCarthy--any relation to Joe?--is sensitive to criticism or anything.) And Roger Ebert, who claimed not to have recovered from the "ordeal" of the Dogville screening by the time of filing his review, considered the movie "a gangster-Western-feminist avant-garde experiment in which (I think but am not sure) the message is that fascists will win out every time over do-gooder liberals." (Indeed, the avowedly liberal Ebert would seem to have lost the war of words in this case.)
With the help of these two most powerful U.S. critics, von Trier's film garnered the "anti-American" label early in the fest and was widely predicted to win the Palme d'Or despite the presence of erstwhile American sweetheart Meg Ryan on the jury. Yet this distinguished group--headed by French director Patrice Chéreau (Queen Margot)--apparently preferred its anti-Americanism to be homegrown. Shot on location at a sprawling high school in suburban Portland, Gus Van Sant's Elephant--a cold, brooding fictionalization of events that culminated in the Columbine shootings--came away with the top award at festival's end. McCarthy, none too surprisingly, was on hand to call the movie "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst" for not providing an explanation of its teenage killers' actions. True enough, in Elephant, Van Sant doesn't stop to say, My fellow Americans: The culture of violence in this country is largely a product of the media. (That's Michael Moore's job.)
Rather, what the director does, more effectively than any other did at Cannes this year, is to capture the essence of his film's setting--to explain it, in a way--through the purest properties of cinema. (Like Van Sant's Gerry, Elephant is a visual study of an oppressive environment and its effect on those forced to wander it.) Eschewing conventional plotting and dialogue, Van Sant engages a fundamentally elusive subject by swirling around it. The camera tracks one sullen student after another through a circular maze of alienatingly wide corridors; the narrative periodically loops back in time to observe the same seemingly innocuous interaction ("What are you doing tonight?") from another kid's POV. (One of the things that Van Sant's minimalist style allows us to recognize is how much time the average high schooler spends alone.) The sense of ordinary menace here is enhanced by the constant buzz of fluorescent lights and the occasionally piercing blast of a bell, by words whose ghostly echo suggests how the size of the institution conflates individual voices into one long, amorphous mumble. And then the gunshots start.
Though the title refers to that massive beast in our living rooms that none of us wants to look at, one could maybe argue that the more provocative thing for Van Sant to have done with Elephant would have been to leave the stampede outside the frame. Because even without the ferocious climax, the violence is there already--in the design of the screenplay if not in the architecture of the school building itself. So what's the answer? Narrower hallways? Longer recess? More movies that explain rather than explore the problem? Like Van Sant, I must say that I have no idea. Is that irresponsible?
No question that thiswas a particularly brutal year at Cannes, a condition that seemed measurable in part by the number of movies named for animals. Besides Dogville, Elephant, and The Brown Bunny, there was Time of the Wolf, a typically savage film from Michael Haneke in which an unspecified global disaster (take your pick) forces surviving humans to travel in packs. (Seeing this merciless vision of the apocalypse at 8:30 in the morning--the characters hoarding scraps of food and lashing out at each other like wild dogs--did indeed feel like the end of the world.) And there was Purple Butterfly, a Chinese melodrama that conveys its invasive mood less through the early '30s story of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai than through its aggressively obtuse style.
That this incoherent movie, reportedly passed over for inclusion at other festivals, landed in competition at Cannes can only be seen as indicative of the slim pickings in this year's international art-film crop. (New features by Wong Kar-wai, Jane Campion, Emir Kusturica, Quentin Tarantino, and Theo Angelopoulos are said to have been not quite finished in time to meet the deadline of Cannes programmers.) And yet Purple Butterfly seems soaring compared to Tiresia, another competition entry in which a psychotic Frenchman kidnaps a transgendered Brazilian hooker who, without her hormone injections, soon begins to resemble the Lovesexy-era Prince. All of this has something or other to do with Greek mythology, but I can't say for certain, since I bolted after the prostitute's captor started jabbing the sharper blade of scissors into her eyes. So, too, I fled the scene of Oliver Stone's mid-afternoon "leçon de cinema" after the maker of Natural Born Killers, interviewed by French critic Michel Ciment, addressed the once-again-timely issue of violence in the movies by saying, simply, "You have to show these things." (Maybe so, Ollie--but that doesn't mean we have to stay and watch.)
Far more instructive is Errol Morris's latest documentary The Fog of War, despite the fact that its own "lessons"--11 of which appear onscreen as chapter headings--are written by the movie's less-than-trustworthy subject Robert S. McNamara. (Example #9: "In Order to Do Good, You May Have to Engage in Evil.") At a press luncheon for the film, Morris evaded the question of why he structured an ostensibly critical profile of the Vietnam-era secretary of defense according to the man's own philosophical observations. Which is fascinating for many reasons, not least because McNamara--who's running the show as much as Woody Allen ran Wild Man Blues--claims never to answer the question he's asked, but rather the question he wished he had been asked. In other words, the director whose discernible need for control has long seemed to rival that of his obsessive subjects here betrays a certain degree of identification with a man you could reasonably refer to as Mr. Death.
That's a hell of a subtext, and hardly the only one in The Fog of War. Another is the eerie likeness of McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, of LBJ to G.W., of yesterday's war to tomorrow's. Indeed, among festival-related fears, the National Enquirer's 72-point headline of early May--"AL QAEDA TARGETS CANNES!"--had nothing on McNamara's reminder that, now as then, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons are on 15-minute alert to be launched upon the command of one human being. (That's one human being who doesn't feel the need for second opinions--and who, uh, wasn't elected.)
The pervasive gloom in Cannes this year was such that even the most masochistic cineastes could be forgiven for wanting, say, a love story to lighten the load. But while Vincent Gallo indeed delivered what his Brown Bunny press kit calls "une histoire de l'amour," the affair onscreen is mainly between the auteur and himself. (Don't get me wrong: The movie is no less compelling for that.) Sporting a scraggly mane, a three- or four-day beard, and would-be grungewear that looks suspiciously like last year's Hugo Boss, the part-time model and full-time narcissist plays Bud Clay, a professional motorcycle racer who has been spinning his wheels ever since losing Daisy, the love of his life. Piloting an old Dodge van from the East Coast to his next big race in California, Bud meets, woos, and abruptly abandons a string of surrogate girlfriends who seem to fall for him instantaneously. (As in Buffalo '66, writer-director Gallo doesn't explain how the scruffy loner played by Gallo could be such a proficient ladies' man. Apparently unearned arrogance is an aphrodisiac in some quarters.)
The allegory, intentional or not, is unmistakable: The Brown Bunny is a movie about a guy who can't get it up for anyone but his first love, made by a guy whose desire to revisit the broad appeal of his debut renders him all but impotent. So Bud starts cuddling and kissing a woman (played by Cheryl Tiegs!) whom he meets at a roadside rest stop, but soon collapses into tears because...she isn't Daisy. (Daisy, we discover in flashbacks where she's played by Chloë Sevigny, used to grab Bud's crotch when he'd give her a ride on his bike. Love is a many splendored thing.) Eventually Bud checks into the most mod suite of any Best Western in the known universe and waits for Daisy, praying she'll come. Eventually she does...and so does he.
Though Bud may be speedy on the track (and in the sack, too), The Brown Bunny could hardly be said to hop. Nearly half of the two-hour film is devoted to giving us Gallo's hangdog face in close-up, the other half to shots of the highway as seen through the hero's bug- and birdshit-speckled windshield. When a hard rain comes and washes the filth off the front of Bud's van, that constitutes a major plot development by default. (One of many critics who fled the late-night press screening early did so after Gallo's character pulled the van over...to put on a sweater.) When Bud climbs into a motel-room shower at one point and starts washing himself, I momentarily worried that there might be a masturbation scene--until I realized that, in a way, every scene in The Brown Bunny is a masturbation scene.
Gallo's vanity is so extreme and yet so natural that it calls attention to the essential immodesty of almost any artistic venture--any human endeavor, even. And, narcissistic or no, his movie is uniquely, perversely riveting: ludicrous and poignant at the same time, often in equal measure. Visually speaking, it's simply gorgeous. Shot in ultra-grainy Super 16, The Brown Bunny has a tactile quality that's nearly unmatched in recent American film; you can practically count each pebble on the road, each hair on the fuzzy little rabbit that graces the movie's insanely absurd epilogue. The oddball framing of Gallo's shots of...uh, Gallo owes to considerable work done (by Gallo, of course) in post-production: The digital zoom function allows him, for example, to place his own royal blue eye in the top-right corner of the screen--which can be hard to manage on set when you're filming yourself in a scene where your character is driving 60 miles an hour on the highway. The capper to all this--the already infamous blow-job scene--is lit and photographed like a special effect. Which, believe me, it is.
Whether or not it was conceived by Gallo as a Warholian exercise in seeing what'd pass for art at the world's snootiest film festival, The Brown Bunny seemed to me--and to almost no other U.S. critic, alas--to be not only the most original feature in Cannes, but the most convincing. I mean, those feng shui digs at the Best Western aside, what's not to believe about a movie in which a grief-stricken egomaniac drives cross-country staring out the window, listening to bad '70s pop songs, and dreaming of his former lover's velvet touch? No matter: Contempt for the film reached epidemic proportions. Ebert, on his way out of a Bunny screening, stopped on the fabled red carpet to tell a TV crew that Gallo's picture had to be the worst in festival history, then wrote that it's "the most anti-American film at Cannes, because it is so anti-American to show it as an example of American filmmaking."
What kind of anti-Americanism is this? By the end of the fest, despite raves in both Libération and Le Monde (Vive la France!), poor Gallo had been browbeaten into issuing a public apology for having made the film. But the damage--to his credit--had already been done. Personally, I relish the notion that Meg Ryan, the cutie pie from You've Got Mail, would have been contractually obligated to watch The Brown Bunny from start to finish. And if that makes me anti-American...well, so be it.