What Moore Cannes Go Wong?
The wonders of modern technology (and good ol' Xanax): Odd couple Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola actually look cute strolling arm in arm up the red-carpet steps on my laptop DVD player, which I'm using as a catch-up tool on the late-night plane toward the Cannes Film Festival. No worries about what the nervous flyer and procrastinating critic may have missed since the world's swankiest film event got underway three nights ago. Columbia University Professor Annette Insdorf relays the crucial information on the IFC's Cannes Opening Ceremonies--Live! program (I burned it to disc before leaving home): Festival jury president Tarantino and his fashionable date are, the professor reports, "very good friends."
Seems cozy camaraderie is what it's all about a year after le festival--with the help of Elephant, The Fog of War, and Dogville--came under fire from patriotic critics for having fostered a kind of cinematic Coalition of the Unwilling. This year, Shrek 2 is in competition for the Palme d'Or. And Tarantino--the very embodiment of style over substance (and the most valued contract director at Disney-owned Miramax)--has promised to bring only aesthetic considerations to bear on his determination of excellence. Which doesn't stop him from momentarily surrendering Coppola's grip in order to raise his fist in solidarity with the laboring members of Intermittents du Spectacle, whose representative--protesting government reforms to unemployment benefits--has been allowed by fest officials to stand on the red carpet with the word negotiation printed on the back of her coat.
Convenient for international bridge-building purposes, that word is spelled identically in English and French--while the language of good business is universal. Who'd run the show if Cannes bosses pissed off the projectionists on opening night?
Fifteen hours of sleep (whew!) and I'm ready for the overt anomaly of this "apolitical" Cannes: Fahrenheit 9/11. The 11:00 a.m. press screenings in the Buñuel and Bazin theaters are jammed, hundreds of journalists having been turned away. Clearly it's not just Americans who want to witness Michael Moore's attempt to kick our unelected president out of office.
With expectations high, the movie opens with a bang--the "Florida victory" fireworks of 2000--and then a whimper. "Was it a dream?" Moore wonders in voiceover, sounding not sarcastic but sad. The great surprise of Fahrenheit 9/11--particularly in light of Moore's bombastically jocular Bowling for Columbine--is that the movie sustains this delicate tone of weary disillusionment for the better part of two hours.
Leaving himself largely offscreen (a wise choice), regular-guy-turned-superstar Moore instead assumes--and seeks to strengthen--the viewer's identification with some of the Bush regime's victims. These include: black voters represented in vain by black members of Congress, U.S. taxpayers forced to subsidize Dubya's golf game for the first three quarters of 2001, loved ones of those killed on September 11 (the events of which are rendered through bloodcurdling sounds over a pitch-black screen), the unnumbered casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq (Moore's agonizing footage focuses on dead and wounded children), the U.S. soldiers who've come to wonder what the hell they're fighting for (besides the possibility of steady pay, contingent on survival), and a Republican woman--Flint, Michigan's Lila Lipscomb--whose support of the president gradually turns to rage after her son dies in combat. (The deceased's last letter home: "I really hope they do not elect that fool, Mama.")
The film's critics--some of whom would have needed to find an impartial objection no matter what movie Moore had delivered--complained that the documentarian veers too far from his stated topic (Bush the String-Pulling Evildoer and Saudi/Halliburton Supplicant) in order to incorporate the aforementioned voices of dismay and dissent. Speaking as a sporadic supporter of Moore, I'd say the director's strategy here is both humane (How to speak about evil without identifying its victims?) and shrewd (How to speak to the ordinary voter in an election year without putting him in the picture?).
Granted, the "hard" evidence that Moore presents in Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't particularly hard and it's not at all new. (And he doesn't say a thing about Israel and Palestine--subjects of the next movie, we're told.) But what he does say--attributing it to Orwell's view of societal hierarchy as based on power's explicit support of poverty and ignorance--is plenty persuasive. And he's going to be saying it through a helluva loud bullhorn, whatever creative solution Disney forces Miramax to find in order to fulfill the terms of Moore's contract: to get the movie in U.S. theaters by the Fourth of July (and on DVD a month before November 2). As my Croatian-born Cannes hotelier concurred this morning (in the course of serving what he playfully termed my "freedom breakfast"): That's pretty rad.
On to less earth-shaking matters: My good fortune getting into coveted screenings at Cannes this year has come to an early end. After chatting with an L.A. critic in the festival press office around lunchtime, I decide to follow him up the ritzy Rue d'Antibes to the Star multiplex for Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs--which isn't part of the festival, but is showing in the "market" as a way for its producers to garner distribution offers. Market screenings in Cannes are generally open to critics if seats still remain after the rest of the industry has had its way. But not always (the rules are made at the producers' discretion), so Nine Songs is a risk for us writers, who could miss not only this screening if we don't get in, but others that are starting soon halfway across town. Part of the appeal is that Winterbottom's movie seems risky for distributors, too: It apparently follows a young man and woman in London who go out to a rock concert, come home and have wild sex, go out to another rock concert, come home and have wild sex, go out to another rock concert, come...you get the idea. Another part of the appeal is the total running time: 69 minutes.
Alas, it takes about 69 seconds for the L.A. critic and me--along with three other Yankee scribes--to lose our...excitation for the screening. Pas de presse, we're told over and over by the French market staff--which, it seems to me, is rather enjoying its delivery of bad news. Refusing to give up easily (Nine Songs has already been reviewed in Variety, after all), we valiant critics place a last-ditch cell phone call to the fully loaded producers at Wild Bunch. (Given their name and reputation, it occurs to me that maybe bursting into the Bunch's office with our fountain pens drawn would be a wiser approach.) The definitive word comes roughly 69 seconds later: Pas de presse.
"New low for me," jokes one of our deflated members. "Shut out of a porno movie."
Fahrenheit 9/11 premiered on Monday and people here are still busy debating it two days later. Which is saying a lot for Cannes, where the half-life of a film, amidst dozens of others screening every day, tends to be a lot nearer the running time of Nine Songs. Among last year's loudest defenders of the Patriot Act: Roger Ebert, working hard to withhold critical comment in his column yesterday, granted that at least one scene in 9/11 appeared "positively eerie," while Todd McCarthy came out swinging, calling the movie a "blatant cinematic 2004 campaign pamphlet" in his Variety review's second graph. (I wonder what McCarthy would call his review.)
One of the many things that Moore's movie does brilliantly is strip away the facade of political objectivity in film reviewing, professional and otherwise. No stranger to critical provocation himself, the old French New Wave giant Jean-Luc Godard deigns to enter the 9/11 fray this afternoon, claiming in the course of a rambling, often hilarious, ingeniously theoretical press conference--ostensibly in support of his own Cannes entry Notre musique--that Moore's film could likely boost Bush's approval rating in the U.S. Frankly, I'm not sure I follow Godard's particular logic here--but it wouldn't be the first time he has left me scratching my head or feeling grateful for the opportunity. Indeed, after a few hours of failing to rid the auteur's troubling statement from my mind, it finally occurs to me: Dubya, whatever the man's intellectual abilities (and Godard appears to believe he has them), is no slouch when it comes to addressing the actions of enemies both real and imagined.
Tonight I catch Godard's film in the market, and it's a stunner. The first third is an appropriately lacerating montage of war footage, the accumulating horror of broken bodies not diminished in the least by the fact that many of the images are taken from Hollywood (which is its own well-oiled war machine). The talky middle third burrows into the occupied territory that Moore's film clumsily evades, most strikingly in a heated exchange between a young Israeli Jewish journalist and a middle-aged Palestinian intellectual who opines, "The world is interested in you, not in us." The final third is called "Heaven," and although I'm certain it takes place in the afterworld, I'm not at all certain what it means.
How's this for a blatant cinematic campaign pamphlet? We need fewer Shreks and more films like Jean-Luc Godard's: urgent, gravely serious, philosophical in style and content, more than willing to risk the viewer's incomprehension in trade for rare moments that set the head and heart ablaze.
Sometimes, even at Cannes, the political is personal--and affordable. Made with the Mac's iMovie for a mere $218.32, Jonathan Caouette's thoroughly obsessive autobiography-cum-therapy workout Tarnation tells mainly of the filmmaker's difficult relationship with a mother who suffered shock treatment and other abuses as a child. Caouette, whose intense, immodest montage includes the Lana Turner-esque soliloquy he delivered in drag at age 11, draws on two decades of diaristic home video whose starkly confessional tone is abstracted through digital recoloring, copious split-screen effects, and jarring interjections of printed text and unlicensed pop. (The movie--an unqualified hit in the Directors Fortnight sidebar that Godard and his fellow militants set up as an anti-Cannes in the late '60s--is being billed as a "musical documentary.") But there's nothing the least bit distanced about the son's poignant attempts to connect with Mom, whose unconditional love is reciprocated through one of the most generously affectionate characterizations of a mother in all of movies.
Speaking of love and obsession: My favorite living director, an artist for whom passion is synonymous with pain, has a serious case of separation anxiety--and it makes me cherish him all the more. "All memories are moist," reads an early intertitle in Wong Kar-wai's two-hour pseudo-sequel to his own In the Mood for Love, 2046--which, aptly enough, arrived in Cannes still wet from the lab. Though he was four long years in production on his latest film, wherein Tony Leung's heartbroken journalist essentially revisits the old Love as if in a parallel universe (an even more painful one, with Maggie Cheung's former role being shared by kindred sufferers Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Faye Wong), the Hong Kong master of melodramatic indecision couldn't let go even in the final hours before his gala premiere. Shooting additional footage as recently as a week ago, scrambling to splice at least one new scene into each of two unscreened prints, and forcing Cannes to rejigger its schedule for the first time in the festival's 57-year history, the perfectionist may well have mustered another masterpiece--and relinquished his chances of winning the Palme.
Pushing my own deadline here, I'd like to borrow Ebert's trick of delaying critical comment--more for personal reasons than political ones. Ebert booed after the world premiere of 2046 at 7:30 tonight; me, I dried my tears and got back in line for the 10:30. Indeed, I saw Wong's film about repetition compulsion (and diminishing returns) two times in one night. But I'm not ready to talk about it.
"At first I thought I was making a film about a writer," Wong tells me when I ask which of his movie's many interlocking themes mean the most to him. "But in the end I think it's really about me. I tried to forget everything about In the Mood for Love. But in the process, things just kept coming back."
Meeting the director of 2046 in a sun-drenched hotel salon two days after the screenings, I still feel the film like an open wound. The intensity of emotion in this movie, the degree of personal loss that it communicates largely through color and light and shadow (and our memories of Love), is simply overwhelming.
And yet Wong is wearing the most relaxed, natural smile. "Our memories are selective," he says, seeming resigned to the fact. "Sometimes they're the only reward we have for what doesn't work out in reality. But we can't always select what we want to remember."
My faint glimpse of the director's darting eyes, obscured behind his customary dark shades, suggests to me that this maestro of secret melancholy possesses a playful, slightly mischievous, yet fundamentally gentle and resilient soul. I sense that he'll be fine without the Palme d'Or--even without Cannes, if it comes to that. (Whatever else he may be missing would seem, at least on the evidence of the new film, much harder to replace.)
For me, the festival ends as it began: on video. Tonight the press office is packed with writers from around the globe, gathered around a wide-screen Toshiba to witness the results of the Tarantino jury's deliberations and then punch them into computers. A Grand Jury Prize to the blood-soaked, Kill Bill-ish revenge opus from South Korea, Park Chan-wook's Old Boy, serves as the penultimate scene of a wacky, perverse, shock-inducing, Tarantinoesque awards show. And then the Palme: Fahrenheit 9/11.
I'm thrilled--and just a tiny bit skeptical of this final decision handed down by the maker of American gangster movies. Moore's solemn, purposeful film is, I would say, about nothing more than getting George W. Bush out of the White House. But what were the issues for the maker of Pulp Fiction? Did the fact that he's "very good friends" with number-one Wong fan Sofia Coppola count for anything in relation to the fact that he's been working since 1992 for 9/11's credited co-producer Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax? The awards show's climactic string of cuts--from Tarantino (Fair 'N' Height!) to Moore to Big Harvey, grinning from ear to ear--has nothing, perhaps, on 9/11's photo montage of Bush and Rumsfeld joshing with members of the Saudi royal family. But the similarity sends a chill nonetheless.
Was this really the "apolitical" film festival? Or was it, as Moore might wonder, just a dream? Put it this way. The new politics at Cannes seem more or less the same as the old politics all over the world: It's not about what you think so much as it is about who you know.
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