This is the Cannes Diary, Day 3
Samedi, 20 Mai 2007
By 10AM it’s clear that there are no passes offered that are any good to me. They give out some for the Classics and the Cinefondation screenings – there is at least one evening premiere, but since I’m in a no-tux situation, I decide against them all. The QR is my salvation, and I head there immediately.
The line at the QR is more brutal each day. It helps to get to the line almost two hours before the film so that one can secure a good place in line – the first-come-first-served nature of the Quinzaine is part of its charm for me. Though the Cinephiles have their own line, we are admitted at the same time as regular press; there is less penalty for being a Cinephile here. There is no way to know how many people will want to see any given film, so the safest strategy is to show up as early as possible and get to the front. The sun is downright punishing, and I’m not the only one who places his bag over his head to ward it off. The Way of the Cinephile is a torturous one. There is no way to plan you day, no way to know what will be seen and what will not, and no way to predict the outcome.
My pathetic and feeble plans indicates that I’ll be able to see four films today. But that’s a 10AM plan, and I haven’t a clue as how to the day will actually shape up. There’s plenty of time in line to make new plans and contingencies, though, so I won’t feel like I’m rushed at any point. I’ll go to plan B, C, D, and E with relative ease. I have no idea, for example, how I’ll see Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely” or Kusturica’s latest, as there are no screenings planned for the Cinephile group. I’ll hope for market screenings or special passes at the Éspace Cinephile.
This Quinzaine film is relatively easy to get in, so it makes me wonder if anyone really wants to see it. Maybe it’s just early in the day, early in the festival. A young attractive girl sits next to me. She smells terrible, a real powerful body odor smell. That’s not so usual in the Prudish States of America, but apparently I’m told it’s common enough in Europe.
TOUT EST PARDONNÉE – Dir. Mia Hansen-Love
This film has the unmistakable quality of having come from the director’s life story or some such. I have not read enough about it to know if that is true, but it’s a good guess. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Bad dad does drugs. Mom is fed up, disappears with 6-year-old Pamela. Dad falls in deeper with his heroin pals accompanied by a soundtrack by the Raincoats. Fade out. Eleven years later, Dad’s sister contacts Pamela and tells the excruciatingly long story of what happened to Dad after we have just seen it dramatized. Pamela is reunited with Dad, who is some kind of writer. He still loves Pamela, and we think maybe a bittersweet relationship will pick up where it left off. Then Dad dies. Mom still hates him, even now. Pamela, presumably because All Has Been Pardoned, dances off, carefree, into the sun-dappled German landscape.
Teenage Pamela is hot, but slightly wall-eyed. This makes her more interesting to watch, as does the fact that her eyes seem to dart back and forth slightly at all times. It’s a bit unnerving, but the camera loves her, and Ms. Hansen-Love spends lots of time just watching the sun filter through her hair. Sadly, the director is never more interested than when she is shooting Pamela doing very little. Most of the other compositions that form the film are terribly flat and dull, with people placed at opposite ends of the screen in almost proscenium staging. I’ll include a few more of the photos from the press kit just to prove this point:
This is because great portions of this movie are given over to talking, standing around, smoking, and drinking. The emphasis in this film is on purely quotidian details of people’s lives. This somehow goes beyond the mere offering of verisimilitudes in order to establish a fitting milieu. The film is – in long stretches – only about milieu, and frustratingly so. Vast sections of the running time are devoted to watching people have yet another glass of wine or watching them smoke while they look out of windows. This is pure denotation, but to what end?
Later we watch teenage Pamela go to a club, and endure scenes of her checking her phone. Can you possibly construct an act more boring than someone checking her messages? Is there an image with less going on than that? It seems as though we have a generation of filmmakers who believe strongly in depicting the mundane details of their own lives. Instead of transporting us to other worlds – as magicians do – or offering catharsis – as dramatists do – they seem intent on a thorough documentation of their own habits. Ethnographers of the future may declare these films cultural treasures for the wealth of information they reveal about the styles of phone used and the manner in which people held their cigarettes in our era. But to a current audience watching, how can we be even pleasantly distracted?
A diary is only as good as its subject , and if Ms. Hansen-Love has any personal connection to this film, hers seems a shockingly common experience, the thin dramatization of which offers us very little. She is offering a rather static examination of things everyone already knows. It’s cinematic navel-gazing.
The audience around me actually gasped in surprise at key moments of the story, though. They must have been lulled to sleep by shots of people drinking coffee and staring at things so that even the shop-worn seemed exciting.
This seems as good a place to insert this rant as any, seeing as how Ms. Hansen-Love’s film serves as a perfect example. This preoccupation with tedious anthropological details strikes me as being the essence of narcissism. The filmmaker is drawing our attention to a series of mundane behaviors that are neither necessary for the advancement of plot nor poetic encapsulations of specific moments or feelings.
Not to say that the cinema can and must do either of those two things, but those are very popular modes. Ordinarily a filmmaker will break out of those two common ruts when there is some definite gain in a new strategy. Part of my failing as a critic is that I can discern no benefit to this “Quotidian Narcissism.” Certainly other critics are falling over themselves to declare this cinema groundbreaking and emotionally gripping.
Dead time in films is wonderful. I love the films of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, who once included almost 10 minutes of a girl sleeping at the end of “Sud sanaeha” (“Blissfully Yours,” 2002). I found the image mesmerizing. What I saw was specific to the utmost detail – that girl’s face in that late afternoon light, the soft breeze blowing through leaves and hair, the sound of the jungle – all the poetic nuances and subtleties that make up a unique time and place. For me that triggered memories from my life: quiet, still time I spent alone or with someone.
Of course, some people slept through it, too, and some people hate those kinds of scenes. But let’s apply that same examination of Weerasethakul’s dead time to scenes from “L’Homme Perdu” or “Tout est Pardonnée.” Are they specific? Is the light specific? Are we somehow reminded of that one special time we checked messages on our mobile phones, or that particular drink we had at the special bar? That one-of-a-kind coffee we had while staring out that unique window? I dunno, maybe you are and I’m not. Come to think of it, I’m not a big coffee drinker nor a smoker nor a compulsive mobile phone user, so maybe I’m just sore because this filmmaker was boring me. Perhaps everyone else is fascinated and I’m the only weirdo.
These endless scenes of people on phones and drinking have more to do with delineating a “lifestyle” of the character than offering an experience to the viewer. As you’ll see later in Zoe Cassavettes’s film, it’s an attempt to build the character by showing you the accessories of that character – the handbag, the glasses, the clothes they wear, their friends, the kind of bar they go to, what they drink, where they live; it’s like a slightly moving series of photographic slides shown in an attempt to give you character as a sum of the things they own and a catalog of their habits. It’s a moving version of someone’s MySpace photographs.
As a dramatic strategy this is troubling for two simple reasons. The first is that, like the Kevin Smith movie that relies on you knowing “Star Wars” trivia to get the jokes, it is divisive. If I, a potential viewer, do not understand the code of what it says about a guy who drinks that brand or lives in a house like that, then I miss what the filmmaker is trying to convey – I’m not in the club. If, furthermore, I don’t make all-encompassing judgments about character based on the trivial details, then the director has lost me completely.
He second is far more insidious. It is that the filmmaker is so enmeshed in a world made of habits and preferences for manufactured goods that they have no other reference point from which to draw a portrait of a sympathetic character. You will simply have to know what kind of girl she is from her Starbucks order, because the filmmaker cannot do better than that.
This new dead time seems to be motivated by the filmmaker’s desire to celebrate a character’s coolness by showing their “cool” behaviors.”This is my protagonist,” the filmmaker seems to be saying, “and these are his friends. This is what he does – he is cool and he goes to clubs. He drinks. This brand. He smokes. This brand. And he holds his cigarette this way. Maybe he will get a girl and they will make love; maybe she will dance with her friends. This is my story.”
There is a strip from Charles Schulz’s long-running and frequently outstanding comic, “Peanuts,” in which Linus, the younger brother, asks Lucy, his older sister to tell him a story. This is her story: “Once upon a time there was a man. He lived and died. The End.”
After the lights went up and I found myself on the sidewalks of la Croisette, I began to look around at my fellow festival attendants with a jaundiced eye. Goddamn, if every person in France doesn’t smoke. And every one of them apparently wants to wave their stinky cigs in my face. Call me weird, but every other nymph in this bra-less wonderland ruins my pathetic middle-aged fantasies when she whips out her lighter and lights up a fag. I do have to say that French kids seem to have fewer tattoos than Americans – or they have the good sense to hide them better. Considering how much flesh there is to be seen on the Cannes beaches, anecdotal evidence would suggest the former.
I am noticing that the kids here are all rolling their own cigarettes, as well. Jeeziz Crow, this seems ultra-pretentious. What are they thinking? “Commercial cigarettes are not nearly carcinogenic and offensive enough for me. I must take charge of the manufacture of each smoke as well.” Out comes the little pouch. This seems to be a fad amongst high school students, by the way, and no one over 19 is seen doing it. I wonder what celebrity began the fashion. Probably someone from the film I just saw.
A note on pronunciation: The name of this city is “Cannes.” This is said like the English word “can,” with a short “A” sound. It is not “CAHN,” as I have been saying for years, much to my chagrin. In all actuality, that pronunciation doesn’t even make sense if you know any French, so I have no idea what I was thinking. It is also not “KEE-YAN,” as most Americans say it, with that broad, flat Midwestern vowel stuck in there. The thing it is most certainly NOT is “Cans.”
MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS – Dir. Wong Kar-Wei
At 15:30 I’m in line for a 17:00 film. France is on a 24-hour clock, so I have quickly adapted to adding or subtracting 12 from the times to understand what is really meant by the numbers. To be perfectly honest, it makes much more sense than a 12-hour AM/PM clock, and I wonder why Americans had to side with the British on everything that stubbornly contradicts logic (the metric system comes to mind). The line is already prohibitively long. My feet will not hold out. Young smokers make everything uncomfortable for me in line. We literally inch forward. One thing about the French – they have never learned the virtues of standing in a queue single file. If you are at the end of a line in France the next person to arrive will not stand behind you. He or she will automatically stand NEXT to you, as if you really aren’t there. Then he or she will slowly inch forward, eventually cutting in front of you. I have seen people work their way five or six people ahead at an incredibly slow pace – sometimes taking an hour just to crawl forward a foot. They seem to enjoy pushing at the head of the line, and strive to cram everyone into a bottleneck. Do they just have no idea how to queue?
I stand in the middle of a group of high school girls smoking their shitty hand-rolled cigarettes. We seem to go back and forth between sitting down in line (we’ve been waiting for an hour already, a long time to stand), getting yelled at by some official or other (something about keeping the stairs open for access) and then getting tired enough we sit down again. I can foresee this getting ugly.
It’s my first screening at La Licorne (The Unicorn Theatre, the designated Cinephile-Only screening house), and if they are all this crowded and awful, I’ll be trying not to see films here. And yet, due to the crazy Cannes Cinephiles schedule, I’ve decided I need to see three films here tonight.
And old lady sitting next to me has her leg out at a total right angle, preventing me from having enough room to sit down. My feet are screaming at me in languages I cannot even understand. The girls have already seated themselves, but my comfort may involve getting kind of close to them. I throw all caution to the wind and wiggle in between them. The high school girls find me innocuous, and I try not to peep at their underwear – it’s not so easy with everyone wearing pants so low these days. I’m not even that much of an old letch, but I’m so mind-numbingly bored in these lines I’ve got time to consider everything and anything.
I have lots of time to write, so I muse on the previous film (“Tout est Pardonnée”) and its preoccupation with anthropology. I see this sort of thing in my students’ work all the time. With students you get a certain number of them who are really struggling withy film grammar. As a viewer they have seen two shots cut together that compress time, but as fledgling filmmakers they feel compelled to show every aspect of getting character X from spot A to spot B. W’ll see the woman getting up in the morning, leaving the bed, walking to the shower, opening the curtain, stepping inside, lathering up, toweling off; instead of just cutting from the alarm clock to her eating her toast in the car.
These are media savvy kids who have grown up with films and TV. They seem unable to emulate what they are seeing. Unless, that is, I am so totally out of the loop that I am not aware of TV shows composed entirely of shots of people drinking and smoking. Today’s film makes me wonder if I’m not just miserably out of step with the world. I don’t understand Reality TV, either, so maybe it’s one of the early warning signs that I’m becoming an aged crank, scratching out lengthy missives like this one in my crampy little handwriting, filling up notebooks with words no one wants to read. And then, almost a year later, publishing it on some completely unknown and unread blog for absolutely no one to read.
But back to my previous complaint: narcissistic dead time.
In an age when YouTube is a phenomenon and teens”publish” video of themselves sitting at computers, preening and mouthing the words to their favorite popsongs – can we get any more inward than that? Any more narcissistic? These films seem to celebrate that narcissism in the name of the greater project at hand – a declaration of “I am cool.”
This is also the age of hip hop records in which, as more able and equally cranky old man writers than I have pointed out, seems to be about young men demanding attention and telling you how famous they already are without actually demonstrating any talent or value that would support their claims. Simply for existing and wearing underwear above the waist of their pants, we are to love them. “All Eyez on Me,” sez the rapper, “I expect fame and respect even though I’ve done nothing to warrant it.”
And yet millions buy those records, and millions watch YouTube videos. There must be something in the raw presentation of narcissism that appeals to the narcissistic. At first I thought the fascination had to do with watching teenagers as we would watch the residents of a zoo – faces glued to the window of the computer to make out the details and see the animal in action.
At the apex of this reasoning, I get totally shut out of the WKW film. I’m about 5-6 people away from the head of the line when the officious Cannes Cinephiles guy cuts us all off. It gets ugly, with pushing and shouting to get in the theatre. I wonder what subsequent screenings here will be like.
So, I did not see this film. I only include it here because it was amusing how difficult it was to see it. I was shut out of no less than three screenings, one for Cinephiles, and two for the market. Getting shut out of a screening is particularly galling, as it means you have waited in line for perhaps an hour and a half (minimum wait time for most screenings I attended) only to be turned away.
Since I did not see the film at all, and since I had so much time waiting for it (possibly 6 hours) I have invented all the details for the film and have included them here.
Jude Law is a man who is terrified of fruit. Nora Jones is a circus performer he meets when he attends a seminar for a multi-level marketing program. He has decided the plan will conflict with his hobby, which is building a model railroad that is an exact replica of the railway system in 1920’s Shanghai. Tony Leung, in an unbilled cameo, is his rival: a man who is also building a model railroad of 1920’s Shanghai. Their war is a bitter one. Leung’s version is from August 1923, and Law’s is from September of the same year. Each feels his is the best, and most representative of the time period (it all hinges on the acquisition of a specific rail yard in late August; Law’s includes it, Leung’s does not).
Both men are trying to impress Natalie Portman, who is a railroad historian. When Law meets Nora Jones at the seminar, however, his heart is captivated. They spend the next half hour staring at each other. Stan Getz music plays, and each is shot in close-up with an extremely long lens. These shots are cross-faded back and forth a dozen times. They make love, passionately, and just at the crucial moment Jones begins to feed Law her favorite food – blueberries. Law doesn’t even notice – is his phobia of fruit cured?
He stares at himself in the mirror for five minutes. He talks to a banana. It does not respond. Then he goes to the kitchen and stares at a carton of blueberries. He asks them why they have become the symbol of his love. These scenes are shot with an extremely long lens and dissolved to each other for twenty more minutes.
He goes to find Jones, but the circus has moved on to another town.
Meanwhile, Natalie Portman and Tony Leung have decided to have a go at it. They stare at each other and model trains roll by. At the crucial moment of their communion, Tony Leung decides he should move the Old Shanghai Depot over three feet. His research was wrong and he must correct it. Frustrated, Portman leaves him and walks the streets of New York. This is shot with very long lenses. Stan Getz music plays.
Ten years later, Jude Law is president of a railroad company. He recently discovered Jones is working at the telephone company. He goes to her. She cries. He cries. Long lenses, Stan Getz &c. He says to her, “I will always remember my blueberry nights.” He takes a bite out of an apple. He is crying and laughing as apple juice streams down his chin. The End.
Having been shut out of the WKW film, I just stay in line for another two hours for the next film. It’s not even one that I want to see, but it’s a Competition film, and that should be worth something. Once inside La Licorne I realize that it, too, is rather comfortable and seems to be better than most American theatres.
How naïve I am! The films at La Licorne are, in fact VOSTF – Version Originale, Sous-Titres Francais. That’s “Original Version, French Subtitles” for you Anglaises. It’s a Romanian film, but I will get only French subtitles! How spoiled I was at the Quinzaine, where everything is also translated into English. And the Corbijn film was IN English. My French is not terrible, but it does drag my viewing down some.
The film turns out to be
FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS – Dir. Christian Mingiu – Winner of the Palm D’Or
The photography is great – the cold blue-green color scheme of daylight and static, single-take dramatic scenes contrast the frenetic shallow depth-of-field in the night scenes. The director and his cast are particularly adept at conveying a multiplicity of emotional states and connections among characters without resorting to a slide show of close-ups. This film bears seeing again just to see everyone else you weren’t looking at the first time.
In interviews with the director, I have been surprised to learn that he has a personal anti-abortion stance. In ordinary circumstances (like an American director) this would lead to a shrill “message movie” in which our enjoyment of the film would be wholly subsumed by sermons. This film, however, bears none of the “pro-life” viewpoint. This girl’s abortion is dramatized in such a way that we have great sympathy for the characters – and an understanding of how difficult and how desperate it was to live under that kind of oppression.
Less than 20 minutes later I’m back in exactly the same seat. I am evacuated from the theatre, I join the line immediately, and I go right back in to see “The Banishment,” another film in competition.
THE BANISHMENT – Dir. Andrei Zviaguintsev, Best Actor Award – Konstantin Lavronenko
The opening scenes of this film resemble Tarkovsky in their slow, deliberate movements. In fact, much of Zviaguintsev’s visual style seems to be an accumulation of the last 20 years of Russian cinema. This is no slag – the images are beautiful and the film has an eerie otherworldly feeling. The countryside is definitely from another planet, but the city feels like it, too – abandoned, only shot at night with an inky black sky and streaking streetlights on the hoods of black cars.
Beautiful images and the story would seem superior if I had not just seen “4 Months” a few hours previously. Good control of narrative tension, though, and a great ability to cause surprising movements and to work with the frame. Compositions are excellent.
The content of the film is a little less tangible. This year at Cannes there seemed to be about four or five themes that echoed around the majority of selections. This film had a few of them: troubled husband and wife relationships that involve small children, abortions, the “man with a past” and others. These were handled well here, but it still left one thinking the presentation outweighed the material.
The story is fairly straightforward. Husband and wife, she’s pregnant, but tells him it’s “not his child.” He flips, forces an abortion, and then things get rough for them. The relationship dissolves at an alarming, stylized rate. It stretches plausibility, as their decay relies on the conceit that neither one of them will communicate the simplest, most important details. His pride and determination in particular is baffling. However, what do I know, he seems to have won an award, most likely for the very qualities I am questioning.
Bleary-eyed, when I leave La Licorne, it is after midnight. I should do everything I can to avoid these Cinephile screenings. The area is too far out – in the nearby suburb of Cannes-La-Bocca. Its closer to my hotel, though, and when “The Banishment” gets out well after the last bus has gone by it means I have less distance to walk home than from the proper city of Cannes.
(end day three)