Cannes Diary 5

This is Day 5 of the Cannes 2007 diary. It is now time for Cannes 2008, but your correspondent is not attending.

Lundi 21 Mai 07
Jackpot! My hideous morning ritual standing in the Cinephile Line of Losers pays off. I get a pass to a Schöndorff film and the Uli Seidl premiere at the Lumiere. No tux is required for the premiere, as it is an afternoon event. This gives me time to figure out my laundry. I have come to Cannes with a limited change of clothes, and these have run out. Even this morning I have worn a shirt that is – how shall we say it – not so fresh. Standing in line waiting for passes makes me more aware of my bouquet. I am, after all, in Europe, lands of decreased use of personal deodorant. I doubt anyone will be able to identify my particular scent in the crowd. But I have been raised in the quasi-Victorian/Puritan lands across the water, and have grown up fretting seriously over any odor I might be generating.

Because I did not make it into “The Red Balloon Returns” or whatever it is called, I spend a few moments considering an imaginary filmography that covers other aspects of the director’s career.

1. “Le Baton Rouge.” Juliette Binoche carries around a big red stick. This she uses to beat anyone who slightly offends her.
2. “Le Bateau Rouge.” Five everyday stories of Paris life are visited by a sinister-looking red boat that manages to appear even though the Seine is nowhere nearby.
3. “Le Baguette Rouge.” In a Middle Eastern village four women must wear the hijab, especially when baking the special red-colored bread for the upcoming festival.

Later, I’m back in line at the Quinzaine with a quick sandwich. I’ve got more than an hour to get into “Zoo,” and there is already a hideous line. I look silly here with my coat on my head, but under the brutal sun (which has just come out for the daily sadistic punishment) it’s preferable to no protection. This whole week has been something of a confirmation of mortality. St. Augustine himself could not devise a more stirring tutorial. I am keenly aware of my stinky, bloated, pathetic, drippy, burbling corpus. Capable of offending on so many accounts, I’m startled by my own presence in the sweat and sunburn of the morning. I feel like a used Kleenex most of the time. As the day passes by I ferment in the outdoors, with no refuge (press people have an air-conditioned lounge in the Palais) and no home to go to (like most Cinephiles, who are locals). I feel like the homeless guy crashing the party.

ZOO – Dir. Robinson Devor
This is the infamous documentary about the guy who lived in the outskirts of Seattle and who died when he had sex with a horse. The material is shocking already, but the director keeps it under control, never letting it fall into exploitation. For those who don’t know the story, he lets it slip slowly, waiting for the realization to dawn on the dimmest among us –  a strategy that allows him to build tension for a good half hour before he lets it out.

Devor has a nice control of the presentation as well, shooting it in Errol Morris-style recreations, with most of the actual people involved. Two key participants stay unknown, too embarrassed to appear before the camera, lending only their voices and “acted” by stand-ins.

Though the film is careful and genteel, there is a kind of take-no-prisoners approach. The participants talk about events in their own words. Devor shows as much as he likes, including an actual horse gelding, for example, but his restraint is the most interesting part of “Zoo.”

Not everyone can understand their love

Great, shadowy photography keeps all the subjects shrouded in darkness – unrecognizable, unknown, and creepy. There are only portions of people’s faces shown, only the most innocuous of details for you to focus on, and only shapes and outlines to indicate things we don’t really need to see in detail anyway. This lack of description makes everything ten times scarier and more repellant than if he were to stage some kind of freak show.

Thankfully, there are no attempts to psychoanalyze anyone or understand any of the people involved – yay! It’s told from multiple points of view – somewhere in between docudrama and total fiction. This was great viewing, but not for everyone. After the screening my traveling companions noted that I was the only one exiting the theatre smiling.

Ah, yes! My traveling companions! I am delighted to have a couple free hours to spend with them before attending my first premiere at the Lumiere Theatre, the best venue in town. We spend a lovely hour or so eating thoroughly inedible and completely forgettable food at some local joint. Try as I might, I cannot recall a single detail of that meal.

IMPORT/EXPORT – Dir. Uli Seidl
At least once during the festival I made it into the heart of hearts – the great belly of the Cannes beast – the Grand Theatre Lumiere, the premiere venue for screenings. Climbing the carpeted steps (although straight to the balcony – riff-raff such as we do not get to sit in the orchestra) I thought of how lucky I was to have somehow conned my way in. We Cinephiles are, after all, the lowest parasites at the festival.

The projection here is flawless, and since I have been a projectionist at one point in my life, I am a total snob about good presentation. The Lumiere has some thousands of seats in a stadium configuration. My front-row balcony seat in the middle offered a perfect view of the screen. Under such conditions, “Import/Export” was presented in the best way possible. Can I rave any more about this venue? I nearly cried when I saw the image. Even the by-now-totally-boring Cannes opening trailer that plays on all C.O. films was a wonder to behold. Any film would look good under these conditions.

The famous Ass Shot from the film

This Ass Shot was used everywhere at Cannes to advertise this film. It appeared on more posters and advertisements than any other image I saw there. Strange, because it makes it seem like the film is all about female hindquarters, which it clearly isn’t. And Ekateryna Rak, whose buttocks those are, does far more than this one little scene in the film. The other still that is shown all the time from this film is this one:

Which is also pretty great, but has just as little to do with the film. This is also a memorable scene, and well worth watching the whole film just for it. “Import/Export” is hard to summarize in just one image. Why bother trying?

Olga’s the import, from the Ukraine, working illegally in Austria. Paul is the Export, working with his sleazy stepfather running a gumball machine and old videogames racket in what is left of the Second World. Great photography and fabulous compositions. This film is also shot in the Haneke/European style. Static frames, whole rooms included in the shot, most scenes played out in MS to LS, blues and greens, central compositions, no music – scenes seem to make a cohesive whole by the end, unreasoned conflicts and ambiguity in traditional narrative – pinch me, am I dreaming? Critics have panned “I/E” for being overwhelmingly grim, intense, and depressing. It is all those things, of course, but why does such mastery of form go unnoticed simply because the subject matter isn’t uplifting? Is Seidl somehow lesser because his observations dare to be negative?

At its core, “Import/Export” has this idea: Olga has a surfeit of empathy and connectedness, whereas Paul is the opposite – lacking empathy and lacking connection. Olga’s troubles come from being too close and too generous, Paul’s from not understanding the feelings of those around him. On a dramatic level, this film is not about a character reaching for her goal, or a guy trying to “make it” in business. Those things are on the surface, but the director is far more interested in how these people react to their circumstances and surroundings than in any ultimate destination.

Our fascination with Paul is that he is tested. Paul is kind of despicable – cocky, aggressive and a bit slow. He brings home a large excitable dog to his girlfriend who has a legitimate fear of them. Because he cannot understand why she runs from the animal, he pushes the dog right in her face – so they can be friends. How perfect to place that kind of guy in the service of his stepfather, a cocky, aggressive bully who treats people like animals, exploiting them every way he can think of, for his own amusement.

Likewise is Olga tested. A former nurse, she gets a job as a cleaning woman in a retirement home. There she is forbidden to make contact with the patients and discouraged from friendships with the staff. Olga, full of compassion, cannot help but break both of these rules as often as she can get away with it – at the expense of her employment and modicum of security, both of which have been hard won.

Not sure if “I/E” will ever get an American release. It should, but then again, lots of things should play in America and they do not. I am realizing how poorly Americans are thought of at this festival. The crowd is excited about flashy, exciting American films, but the American audience (and the film buyers) are seen as stupid children who cannot handle anything for adults. We look retarded on the international scale. It’s not just my personal suspicion or worry about my own lack of cosmopolitan qualities.

After the film, I down a quick cola (my only vice) and run off to the “Salle 60e,” the newest theatre in the Palais, for the Schlöndorff film This is past the same gate where that guy refused me entrance the other day. This time he glances at the yellow ticket. “Cannes Cinephile?” he asks again, incredulous, “D’accord. Maintenant c’est possible.” Here he is, below, from a sketch I made of him a few days earlier when he barred my entrance:

The girl in front of me in line is discussing “Zoo” with a guy whose name is apparently “Grayson.” They are within 2 feet of me as I write, so I’m taking a big risk they’ll understand I am recording everything they say. They both have the same lisp, so it’s hard to keep from laughing.

She says she cannot understand “Zoo.” She says that she couldn’t tell who was talking and she could not keep the voices straight. This woman is a moron. Grayson turns his head to check out what I’m wearing. He stops at my shoes and I see his upper lip curl slightly; the fashion police do not approve. It’s OK, Grayson’s not my type anyway, and my wife would surely object regardless. Grayson is snotty and coy, thrusts his hip and shoulder forward in a weird, feminine way. I get the impression that he is friends with this girl because he wants to be her.

They are New Yorkers, and it totally figures. He wears a gold pinky ring that actually has a kind of jagged snaggle-tooth on it – it looks like it is made for tearing open boxes.

Now they are telling each other how environmentally sensitive they are. They want to work for green companies. They say they have to struggle so hard to make it in life. They and all their friends. So hard. They are about 25 years old.

She wants to go to drama school. He says he thought about being an actor, but he’s sure he doesn’t photograph so well. I guess they are both lost souls, and the level of weltschmerz could choke a horse. She says she will be a cinematographer. Grad school will come later, she will take a year and work. Am I just an embittered old geezer, or do they sound like complete fools? Who knows – maybe life and work are not so hard for them. Perhaps they are wealthy and the rest of their days will never hand them a good kick in the teeth or an unexpected monetary loss. Perhaps she will become a cinematographer on little better than a whim – only to ditch it completely when something more interesting attracts her eye.

And maybe I’m being so sour because I really do care passionately about the cinema, and have been trying my whole life to work in it – difficult, stupid, expensive, awkward bastard medium that it is. To hear these two express such ignorant opinions about themselves and the world just gets under my skin like sand in your shorts.

“Some of these people,” she says, observing the line “are dressed really nicely. But some of them are pretty casual.”

Her name is Jessica, and she says “That’s awesome!” several times without a trace of irony, which is completely unacceptable. She’s going to Milan next if she can figure the trains out. How can they take themselves so seriously? I’m hoping to ditch them in the theatre, but when I seat myself, guess who comes to sit next to me: Jess and Gray. Ah well, my fate is sealed, and I must continue recording their every utterance.

She says she has put herself through college. “That’s fan-TAS-tic!” offers Grayson. Talk about narcissism. I am completely invisible to them, though, and that’s very good. “What is your website?” she asks. Grayson is some kind of designer, of course. Now that I’m entirely too close to him I get a better look – Gray is actually going grey. I take him for one of those vain creatures who never stops dressing like the 20-year-olds, no matter how old he is.

“I’m very good at networking,” she says. I figure she’s awesome at it.

ULZHAN – dir. Volker Schlöndorff
You may have been wondering why I was so excited to see a Schlödorff film. What’s he made lately? I have no idea, but “The Tin Drum” was so good, I really did not consider anything else. Has Volker Schlöndorff MADE any other films? *

This film is kind of the anti-Borat, a movie all about the beauty and wonder of Kazakhistan. Schlöndorff and his writer seem bent of showing us every positive aspect of this country, but in a weird kind of 21st century Socialist Realist way. It’s an excuse to show off a beautiful country – stunning landscapes, the hideous capital built with oil dollars all in the last five years (By the way, do some math, and figure what America’s “energy policy” was like five years ago. There may be something to this whole Central Asian Unocal pipeline idea if it allows Kazakhistan to build this incredible model Disneyland in such a short time), the gorgeous mountains, the harsh steppes, camels, and – yes indeed – the titular character.


Ulzhan herself is radiant and beautiful. Both camera and director are clearly in love.

Naturally the director and writer include a mopey Frenchman in the mix, just so it passes the Cannes test. It’s First World meets Third World after the collapse of the Second World. At least Europeans are pretty closely tuned in to the times they live in. We’ve yet to see any response to the collapse of Eastern Europe in American films. The Europeans are making films about the second generation of people after that collapse.

Mopey French Guy 2.0

Once again, our male lead does this whole “man with a past”( C.f. “Un Homme Perdu,” “Tout est pardonnée,” “The Banishment,” “The Man from London,” and whatever else I didn’t see that has this theme) thing – dead wife and kids? He never says, but it seems clear to us – and to Ulzhan. He does it with a surprising amount of likeability. His approach should be studied by everyone else making movies with this theme, even though the character is tiresome.

But lest you think I loved this film and am recommending it, let me add that it comes off like an unhealthy mixture of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Kundun,” though I sincerely doubt they pitched it like that. There is too much Hollywood music for one thing. Actually, it’s Tuvan music, but it’s timed at the right emotional moments and pumped up to soar and scream along with the meaningful looks from actors and pan shots across mountains. Heavy heavy moments – the impossible love story, the last scene of our hero lying on the mountaintop, successful in his search for his own death… yep, “The Tin Drum” it certainly ain’t.

Speaking of which, David Bennent is back and creepy as ever. It’s kind of weird hearing his squeaky French. He really is a kind of Dennis Hopper in this film, stomping around in his after-the-nuclear-holocaust costume, ranting about eastern mysticism and telling tall tales no one seems to believe or want to hear. He’s certainly entertaining, but he serves to derail and diffuse this film more than he adds to it – and that is already an issue with “Ulzhan,” even without his help.

I’m on a roll now, and I head back over to the Quinzaine for a Thai film I’ve been wanting to see.

PLOY – Dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang
“Ploy” is a kind of pun in this film. On the one hand it is a girl’s name – a slinky 16 or 17-year old who innocently intrudes on the lives of a couple when he finds her waiting all night for her cleaning woman mother to pick her up. “Ploy” also refers to the suspicions the wife has w/r/t this girl. More than a little high-strung, she concocts various scenarios – many of which are played out – that include killing Ploy and dragging her body into hiding.

Many of these scenes, as well as dreams and dramatizations of scenes that may or may not have happened in the world of the story (one of them comes from a book one of the characters is reading) are intermixed to create a film much larger than the suite of small hotel rooms most of it is shot in.

Ploy has no ploy. Neither does the guy behind her.

This film is uneven. There are definitely patches of brilliance (her song, some compositions) and patches of hideousness (milky blacks in those love scenes- what the hell?) But overall “Ploy” is worth watching – small, intimate, and yet atypical and unpredictable in all the right ways.

Is it that shooting digital in general results in an image skewed towards blues and greens? Or is everyone timing to the Fuji standard? I don’t know, but “Ploy” is one of a few films this season that have the blue/green shift. No complaints, the image is fine except for the contrast range issues in certain scenes. In general the HD looks just fine, and gives one hope for the medium.

Later as I try to leave this place I wait at a bus stop and listen to ignorant 25 year olds tell each other how awesome “Death Proof” was. The crowd is ridiculous, and the bus is late. I am eventually bullied out of my place on the bus by a twerp who crushes in BEHIND me, squishing everyone and preventing the doors from shutting. Because this jackoff is not going to get off the bus, I decide I’m too uncomfortable and I sacrifice my space. Of course the bus takes off immediately, and I have to wait another hour.

I did realize at the moment I was being crushed that I was no better than the rest of the lot. I was pushing to get in as well, and I was creating great suffering on that bus. So I did the right thing. And yet here I am, moments after jotting down some notes on the empathy of characters in “Import/Export,” and I only feel like crushing the skull of that asswipe who bullied me into not getting on the bus. I feel like I’ve been had.

In the end, what happens? No one cares about me and the jackoff gets to go home on time. I have to wait – tired, hungry, thirsty, and – obviously – cranky. I shoud have turned around and yelled at HIM to get off instead of me. And then I should have gotten off as well!

Look, the plain fact is that Cannes kind of sucks as a destination. Sure they have movies. Praise the heavens, they have movies. But they have movie people, too. The whole operation is like some stylized Spring Break at Daytona Beach, or like an endless prom night. No visible beer bongs, but that doesn’t mean the adolescent spirit of partying isn’t in full swing. Like a big frat party weekend. A big stupid frat party full of careless idiot boozy jocks.

Maybe I’m just miserable and hungry. Maybe there simply are too many selfish young people here. And maybe I hate them because teaching is my actual job right now, and they remind me how much I resent being a teacher and not anything I want to be – or are trained to be. I’ve traveled halfway across the world to pray at my temple of art – perhaps foolishly – and it occurs to me that the best seats and the most comfortable accommodations are routinely enjoyed by people who think Tarantino’s movie is exciting. After all that can be seen here, and after all that is so much better than that sad blowhard’s junky little exercise in onanism, the kids still think the car crash was “sick.”

Some woman just blew smoke in my face. That such a good day for films has such a depressing end does not say much for my medication. When I do get on the bus I sit near two dumb and drunk college kids who begin making fun of this guy’s moustache. Now, keep in mind that this moustache is a brilliant thing. It’s a huge grey handlebar affair – truly one of Western civilization’s great moustaches. That this crazy French guy would cultivate such a thing is awe-inspiring. I wouldn’t do it, and I’m sure it limits his dating possibilities. But these punk-ass nobodies, who couldn’t even GROW moustaches properly if they tried, have to harangue him.

Finally he told them to go fuck themselves, and did so in such a forceful, elegant way that they were stunned. They took forever to recover, but they did. Until he left the bus they continued to snigger amongst themselves and to be as shitty as possible. But Mr. Moustache got the last word in before he left – another withering and dead-on comment that floored everyone within the vicinity. My French isn’t so hot, so I could only get the gist of it, which was something along the order of telling the young whelps they should grow dicks. The dumb kids were left with the French equivalent of “Oh yeah? Says you!” after the doors closed.

The guy behind me is also practicing at being a great big jerk. He’s lecturing his girlfriend. They’re American, so I’m following all of it much more easily. He tells her she is hurting his feelings, and he just wants her to think about how that affects him. She should shape up.”How am I supposed to take you anywhere when you make me feel this way?” he says. The girl sobs.

There’s a nerdy Brit kid chatting up a cute French girl. He seems nice, but he’s telling her how good “Death Proof” was, so he doesn’t deserve her. She says she doesn’t like violent films. She should add that she doesn’t like stupid films, either, and that will pretty much cover the conversation, but she’s stringing him along. She’s a total dish, and I kinda want this kid to score – someone should. He will, too, if he doesn’t blow it. She obviously wants him from the way she’s standing and practically leaning against him, looking up at his face with her big brown eyes. I’m totally jealous.

Now the asshole behind me is telling his girlfriend she acted badly, and he doesn’t like it. She points out that he cheats on her, and it starts him backpedaling like mad. Suddenly he’s more understanding, but his behavior is the result of her insecurities – it’s not what she thinks it is. The girlfriend can smell a rat, but she’s somehow not bright enough to put two and two together. It doesn’t occur to her that he’s simply lying.

This guy is a relationship terrorist. He obviously works this angle constantly, beating down this woman’s self-esteem by pretending to care and to talk about feelings, when he’s really all about knocking her down and asserting control. You want to smack the condescending look off his face.

Now French Girl is half-asleep, those big soft eyes half-lidded as she sways with the motion of the bus. She has each arm outstretched on a pole for support – she is all but embracing the Brit lad, as he is situated right inbetween.

I leave you with this sketch, compiled at various times of the day, showing random people who walked by while I waited in line. There will be more of these, as I spend more time in line.

End of Day 5

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