Cannes Diary 6

This is Day 6 of the Cannes Diary, 2007

Mardi 22 Mai 07
Nothing. I mean, totally dead nothing, zero to watch today. Cinephile screenings are dogs and the market is embarrassing. Only one film to consider and that is

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN – Dir. Guy Maddin

This is only the second film to be produced by Seattle’s “Film Company,” a concern by which insane millionaires Gregg Lachow and Jaime (pronounced “Jamie”) Hook greenlight directors, not films. The budgets are micro-sized, but there are no stipulations other than that the production films everything in Seattle.

Maddin shot this hallucinatory melodrama on Super-8 and blew it up to 35mm with his characteristic kinetic editing – on display in his films including “Heart of the World,” and “Cowards Bend the Knee.” The film is his first silent, as well, having no synchronous sound whatsoever.

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Kicking ass, Maddin-style

In special engagements the film has played with a live orchestra, foley unit, narrator, and castrato singer that provide all the sound necessary for the film. This is still the preferable way to see the picture, as it makes the viewing something of a spectacular event. But as these screenings are likely expensive and time-consuming, one should not necessarily wait if a screening is available.

At one level “Brand” seems like an artifact – a film from the late twenties we just did not know about and which was recently discovered in some dark cave next to “London after Midnight.” In other ways its sensibility is thoroughly contemporary. Not to be missed.

I saw this film in Los Angeles, under the conditions described above – live Foley, live orchestra, and in the lovely Egyptian Theatre. I only mention it here because it was one of the only things worth seeing today. If I had seen it, it wouldl have been in a shabby Market screening, rather than on the giant luminous screens of the Palais. Tant pis, as the French would say, because today is the day for some of the worst films ever to show.

DEATH PROOF – Dir. Quentin “Losing What Little I Had” Tarantino

Let us begin this section with the caveat that I don’t like QT’s films. They seem loud and hateful, and relish in the worst parts of being a human being – They are basically celebrations of justified ugly anger and feeling good about beating people up.

Eeeyikes, at the risk of psychoanalyzing QT (the subject of another fascinating article I am sure) let us suffice to say that “Death Proof” is a rather weak entry even in the canon of a fairly weak director. Even if you like the director, “Death Proof” comes off as a desperate maneuver by someone who is really trying to please but has forgotten how.

 

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This car is not the only thing going down in flames.

OK, Here’s the gist of that fascinating article, just so I can claim to be the first one who proposes this idea. “Death Proof” is just one big hate-fuck of a film. It’s likely that all of QT’s films are, but as this one is the least competent in quite a while, the mechanisms are laid bare. If we consider the cinema of Kubrick, Lynch or Haneke, all of whom take an amoral, distant view of human behavior and attempt to understand it rather than revel in it, QT’s films come off like inducements to mob brutality rather than understanding of what makes us tick.

Notice how the my analysis on previous days of both Mungiu’s and Seidl’s films have to do with less identification with the protagonist and more seeing what the protagonist does and how they respond. Is Seidl trying to make you feel as though you are Paul? Well, maybe you haven’t seen the film, but if you had, the answer is no. And yet you still empathize with Paul (problematic though he is) and you still have hopes that Paul will get away from his hideous stepfather. Even Paul can be humiliated, and some part of your heart goes out to him when he is.

QT, on the other hand, wants you to feel the rage of someone as she crushes another guy’s head into the ground under her heel. The point of view the director is attempting to construct is that of a gang rapist patting you on the shoulder and telling you it’s your turn – and that it’s OK, she really is a whore and deserves it. QT is interested in egging you on with your murderous fuck-you-all-up impulses without any interest in examining where those impulses come from. Kubrick looks at the ape and says “By golly, no matter how sophisticated we think we are,  that thing is still in us.” QT looks at the ape, gives it a high-five and says “fuckin’ A!”

There is an extended entry in this diary that deals with QT overall, but we’ll leave that for another time. This day is definitely “Death Proof” day, with a number of screenings of the picture at top venues.

Marred by interminable stretches of insipid dialogue by some of the most vapid people ever to plague the screen, QT shoots his bar girls as if they were part of a nature documentary – but a dull one on boring people. Then we get a sudden spray of silly violence by which all the girls die (a momentary relief) and it’s time to introduce four more chatty girls. But these are different. They are badass.

Keep in mind that the aesthetic of “badass” is also part of QT’s mania. In real life most of us try to avoid the badass, not because we respect him, but because the dumb ape will probably try to take our stuff when it’s not his right to do so. No one loves a real-life badass, we all just fear him and hope he goes away. For QT to glorify such a type is a real appeal to the lower limbic system of the brain. Badass people in real-life always give you a sense that they are really super-insecure and are trying to overcompensate. The badass reaction to the previous statement is to punch you, further validating the diagnosis.

QT is in love with badassery, all right, and badass girls get him even hotter than badass guys. How have positive qualities like “confidence” and being “capable” transformed to the ugly qualities of badass? More later on this topic, as well.

Kurt Russell literally lights up the screen when he appears. I don’t remember him ever being so good. Perhaps it’s because the soporific quality of the surrounding actresses and QT’s love of his own dialogue would make Cookie Monster look like a serous contender for the acting prize. But no, I’m going to give it up for Kurt Russell – he’s working hard, and gives us the only interest or charm in the entire two hours. In fact, if we could prepare a cut of “DP” (pun intended on the title) that excised everything except Snake Pliskin, it might be a work of genius.

Next there are twenty more minutes of scenes designed to cure consciousness that take place in diners and driving in cars. The girls all speak like different colored versions of QT himself, and the director has the unmitigated gall to test our vomit reflexes by having his characters name-check one of his favorite films like a product-placement.

It’s particularly annoying and egregious, too. If I meet a person in real life who raises their voice and in mock hysteria intones “What? You haven’t seen ‘Vanishing Point???’ It’s only the greatest film ever!” Then I dearly want to slap that person. It’s also QT’s desperate attempt to take an obscure film that he loves and elevate it to the highest status just by mentioning it in his own films. Ho-hum.

Next there’s another violent section, leading to a derivative car chase and the culmination, which is kicking the crap out of Kurt Russell. End of film.

The big thing at Cannes was that QT had added material to “DP.” This material consisted of a lap dance scene that was omitted in the “Grindhouse” release of the film and a black and white section showing Kurt Russell playing with the dangling feet of one of his intended victims. Neither scene adds much if anything to the film, and seem to be explications of the director’s interests in women. The dangling feet, in particular, should be of interest to other foot fetishists. QT has admitted often that he has a thing for feet. If you don’t also, you’ll find this as enjoyable as waiting for a bus.

Young people under 25 seem to “get” QT and love his films, perhaps because they haven’t seen very many good movies. A girl in line for the bus one day told her companion “You see, at first, he’s the predator. But then… he becomes the prey.” She mentioned this complex structure, as it was her primary reason for liking the film. I really should let that comment stand alone as the absolute summation of “Death Proof.” What else is there to say?

PARANOID PARK – Dir. Gus vanSant

Chris Doyle’s cinematography is back! “Hero” (Ying Xiaong, 2002, Zhang Yimou) looks quite good, but where are all Doyle’s experimental shots? Let’s not talk about Doyle’s staid, constricted American films, like “Liberty Heights (1999)” or “The Lady in the Water (2006).” Of course we do follow more backs of heads down hallways, as in the last film Gus Van Sant made about high school. Naturally it’s filled with young boys getting undressed, showering, and skating. In a way, it’s a chicken hawk’s dream.

But it is also full of interesting visualizations, formal play with time, unusual ways of seeing, and specific and hard-to-quantify emotional states. Van Sant does a great job of fixing his character in time and space while he ponders the next move, or simply to emphasize the boredom and disconnectedness he feels about having sex with his girlfriend. The horror he feels at seeing the crawling upper torso of the rail yard bull he has dismembered is conveyed with equal clarity as the combination of disinterest and amusement he regards Macy, a girl who clearly fancies him.

Winner of the “60th Anniversary Prize,” the Cannes jury has seen fit to award the special one-time award to last year’s winner of the Palm d’Or. “Paranoid Park” was clearly one of the best films I saw at the festival, and I understand the judges’ enthusiasm over it.

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Too cool for school. Note Academy 1.33 aspect ratio.

There is a common theme in GVS’s latest films. There is a marked celebration of young men – physically and unemotionally, but not mentally. It’s also apparent in Larry Clark’s films, in particular “Whassup Rockers!” (2006), also a film about skaters. In all of these films the characters’ amorality and blank affect is a key component, as is a particular kind of eroticism – young nubile bodies paraded before an appreciative lens.

On the one hand, it is kind of an alarmist tactic (which seems to be Clark’s main kick) – “Parents! These are your children! YOUR kids! This is what they are LIKE!” Clark’s “Kids” (1996) was most certainly all about shocking parents into realizing what their progeny were doing while their parents ignored them. This is less true with “Rockers,” but one can see the trend extending all way back to Clark’s “Tulsa” series, and perhaps even before. Clark has always been interested in showing a shocked bourgeoisie documentary evidence of the people he’s not afraid to meet and befriend.

GVS has less of an interest in shocking the bourgeoisie and more of an interest in portraying the lives of teenage boys without the false voices of mainstream entertainment. The kinds of high school kids (usually played by 25 year olds) that normally populate American TV and films are such distortions that GVS’s portrayals are always refreshing.

But on the other hand these films – and the young men they portray –  provide a context for a kind of Perfect Gay Sex Object, the way that mainstream films might offer heterosexual audiences a Sex Kitten or a Beefcake image.

An aside: Bardot – a sex kitten if there was one – owes her career to bikini photos at the beach at Cannes. It is all coming together.

The PGSO is young, attractive in a wild rough-and-tumble way, expresses himself physically (skateboarding, a full-body sport) and – perhaps most important – he has few if any moral hang-ups. He is, in short, a kind of dream boy – ready, willing, and able.

All of GVS’s protagonists – in both “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park” – are about 5 years away (maybe less) from being kin with Warhol’s factory hustlers, and they spend about as much time onscreen with bare chests, showering, and toweling off (Consider Warhol’s brilliant “Lonesome Cowboys” (1968) for comparison). Almost blank, they seem to exist as loci for gay desires the way that a kittenish oversexed female ingénue exists to focus straight desires.

Of course I say “gay” because men have directed these pictures. The audience at the Cinephile screening was composed largely of teenage girls, who also respond to these kinds of characters, and lots of teenage boys who apparently want to identify with them as well. In fact, the passive, blunted affect of the main character in “Paranoid Park” seems to be the height of skaterdom’s “cool:” easygoing, keeps to himself, and only expresses himself through an exhibition of physical abilities.

End Day 6

3 comments on “Cannes Diary 6

  1. re QT vs. Kubrick, if film is about experience more than intellect (text will convey intellectual ideas much better than film) then why can’t we say that QT’s invitations to hatred, to feeling something in a passionate and primordial way, make for movies that are ‘more filmic’ than Kubrick’s detached observations?

    The emotions and experiences that QT indulges in, and invites us to indulge in alongside him, may be repellent to you, and me, and many others. But they are undeniable.

    Kick Ass!!!

    Of course the youth of bourgeois societies, having no material wants, bored and coddled, and feeling nothing much of anything about anything in their own lives, go to movies to get lives of their own, some sort of lives where feelings are real, if exaggerated (the only kind of feeling such anesthetes can appreciate), and so they grok porn, and Indiana Jones, and QT violence-fests.

    It is also true that much of the exploitation cinema of the early 1970s, that QT so loves, is based around the ‘revenge’ pictures a la Death Wish, and violent horror, and violent themes of social revolution. All that has a context of the political and social upheavals (since murdered by Reagan and conservatives in America), and maybe QT is expressing through his ‘come be a mugger with me’ films, a nostalgic longing for that social rebellion, along with the old exploitation films like ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song.’

  2. Hmmm… did I say Kubrick was about intellect? I get close, but I don’t think it is actually true. I do think Kubrick is distant from some of his characters, but I think his cinema is about emotion as well. It’s a different kkind of emapthy relationship with the protagonist than QT, that’s for sure. I think when we watch “Barry Lyndon” we KNOW that he is an ass, and we KNOW he gets what he deserves, but we still kind of pull for him. There is definitely tension in those scenes, and without it I don’t know that we would care at all.

    You are not encouraged to FEEL like Barry, nor Moonwatcher, nor Humbert, and probably not even Alex. Maybe like Shelley Duvall in “The Shining.” But I don’t agree that Kubrick’s cinema is “of ideas” nor that text conveys them better than images.

    As to if QT’s cinema is “cinematic” and whether or not he uses the tools of image-making to successfully convey something, you’ve got a point. He does create angry, violent, “let’s-fuck-him-up” emotions. I don’t think his use of cinema is especially noteworthy, nor elegant, nor inspired. He is a journeyman filmmaker whose style depends on rather nakedly borrowing from his betters, who themselves are not that highly regarded in the world of film.

    I do think it’s a good criticism that the emotions and feelings QT generates are ones that are harmful to us. Few people are going to argue that egging on the hooligan and the rapist is a good idea. QT cannot be accused of any crimes, of course, and we cannot blame any real-world violence on him. That’s not the point. I’m saying that we go to a QT film to have our worst, most uncivilized thoughts and feelings encouraged and indulged. Even the Greeks would have a hard time saying that kind of catharsis is a good idea for one’s mind and soul.

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