Cannes Diary 9

This is the Cannes 2007 Diary, Day 9. It is also the last day of the Cannes diary, although it makes slight reference to the 10th day at the very end.

Vendredi 25 Mai 07

It’s a long wait under the warming sun of the Cannes Cinephile line, and I have a moment to reflect and write. I am by now so insulated from humanity that this sort of navel-gazing rambling is second nature to me. This is a dark proposition for you, as you may have to sludge through some of my epiphanies on the way to better material. Let’s hope I can at least present the self-absorption with a modicum of entertainment value.

The Competition Originale films I missed yesterday were “Persepolis,” an animated film about a young girl’s life in oppressive Ayatollah-era Iran (which has since had its U.S. run in 2008), and some more local dull product, man with a past, etc. Both were in French, both were at La Licorne. Though they were CO films, they looked dull, and I decided to skip them. Maybe I needed 24 hours to gear myself up for watching several movies entirely in French, because that’s certainly what lay in store for me.

Digression on the nature of success and how it has ignored me completely
I noticed, to my humbling horror, that one of my old pals from USC has got a film here in competition. This director has an interesting history with me. When he was in school he was obviously a rich kid from Jersey (or some such place) who had a possible family tie to the industry. But unlike some others, he was really passionate about movies, and seemed to study them pretty closely. I didn’t care much for his tastes, which ran to the same muddled sentimentality that marks many USC filmmakers (John Singleton’s “Boyz in the Hood” comes to mind). But usually the “connected” kids were the least interested in movies – they didn’t really have to prove anything because their uncles or fathers would buy them a career anyway.

In school this particular director grew the obligatory Coppola/Spielberg/Lucas beard (although he styled himself a Scorcese, also bearded at that time) and went around telling anyone who would listen that he was going to be the big success story from our group. I always found it slightly amusing, because he was younger than I and an undergraduate. That kind of cockiness either annoys me beyond my tolerance or gives me some amusement, and in his case I chose the latter, most likely because he did actually like films, and knew something about them.

He had, however, a most sickening coterie of toadies who would literally follow him around. I guess they wanted to ride his generous coat-tails as he ascended the ladder of success. I wonder if any of them did. This seemed infinitely sad to me; some of my peers were already giving up on their own hopes and dreams to follow someone else’s – before they had even started, and before they had given themselves the chance to fail at their own hands.

As a young person you should have SOME bravado, SOME sense you are taking the world by storm – we count on the young generation to have that fire in the belly. This guy certainly had it, but his followers, poor saps, saw themselves as subservient and defeated at such an early stage – more attracted to the star director and his promise of fame than to any chance of their own in the world. And, quixotically, this star-director-in-the-making had NO outward signs of success. His work was average, neither bad enough to attract attention nor startling nor innovative. To be completely frank, he was just another Spielberg wanna-be – the usual for students in those days.

Once again, I say this without rancor – this was a very common thing in our school, and, after all, to be a good pupil one must study and imitate the masters. I am certainly not attempting to indict his current career by claiming he was nothing special at school. Lots of people are nothing special at school nor at any other time, and there is certainly no shame in that.

Anyway, I used to needle this director all the time. I was never impressed by him, and I used to tease him about what I saw as empty bravado – big claims with nothing behind them.

This is his third feature that I am aware of. They have all been dismal B.O. flops, and for that I think he should be proud, to be honest. The second of his films didn’t even open, that I know of. It’s been rough for him, I imagine. His films always have big stars (courtesy the family connection, I imagine). But he’s still a punk undergrad to me who (as in his SC days) confuses his own feelings about his work with feelings his work should generate.

One of the things we used to argue about incessantly was “Apocalypse Now.” This guy worshipped the film, and he was sure that it was Coppola’s dedication, his belief in himself, and his drive that made the film a masterpiece. When discussing the picture with him (a film I think is a beautiful, but troubled and unstructured mess) he could not conceive that the director might have been culpable in Martin Sheen’s heart attack during the shoot, or that he treated his crew with disrespect and even reckless abandon dragging them out in the jungle without much of a plan. To him the heart attack and even the potential loss of an actor would be justified for the greatness of the art. It was the romantic notion of the director as wild man – someone who somehow achieves brilliance through an unexplained alchemy emanating from the personality and aura of the filmmaker.

Of course this is crap. I’ll bet dollars to donuts it was Walter Murch’s hard and methodical work that made that mess of footage into anything.

Understandably, I vowed I would certainly never work with this guy if my comfort – or my life – meant so little. I also vowed that I would never treat people that way. Great art can also come WITHOUT sacrifice. Why not concentrate on the art first, then sacrifice only if necessary? Why did one have to suffer? Or cause others to suffer? My Buddha nature seemed a more worthy goal than the vale of fire; than endurance as a measure of sincerity.

And now, in Cannes, seeing that his feature is here, I wonder how he’s doing, and if he’s treating people the way he said he would, or the way I would. Or something in between.

I will readily admit, it gives me a twinge of the old “well, what the hell have I done with MY life,” feeling… When the balance sheet is tallied, he has made three features and I have made none. And since my ambition is somehow still alive, I consider this strongly. After all, a filmmaker makes films – end of story.

That there are circumstances – his possible family connections, my lack of resources – doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. And that is a sobering thought, certainly. But this is the extent of my envy. If, for, example, it was I who had made any of his films, I would probably jump in front of a speeding train. I don’t want his career, his sensibilities, his interests, nor do I want to attend Cannes as he is. I’d rather sit in the Cinephile line, as I am now, the bottom of the barrel, with my own sensibilities intact. I may be envious that he has a film here and a career far better than my own, but I do not want what he has.

We all have to find our way to what we want. These things are nice ideas (money, influence, ability to do creative work of your own choice), but they need to come on one’s own terms or not at all. The “not at all” part is one that I’ve got worked out fairly clearly, though, and that’s just my problem.

So there are opportunities for this kind of reflection at most stages of this Cannes experience. I declare that I will only return to this shore in future triumph.

Time Wasting
The Cinephile line is now open and I can see what my choices are today, and they are not too appealing. I can see “Rio Bravo”and watch Malcolm McDowell talk about Lindsay Anderson. This would be interesting in a vague way (I like both star and director) but not at the expense of the CO films I should be seeing, and which are playing later today at regular Cinephle screenings.

Now I wait at the Gray for as long as I can. That was my last Cinephile line, and my last offering of tickets to bland events. A huge pile of reading material awaits me in the Gray lobby, and it is not yet 10PM. My first proper screening is at 2PM. It’s time to say goodbye to the Croisette. All my films are at La Licorne, a short bus ride away from the Palais. Goodbye, proper screening venues! Goodbye, all sense of attending the festival as a proper participant! I join the Cinephile Unwashed at the Unicorn Theatre for a grand slam of CO films before I blow this burg.

To kill time I visit the 12th century castle that sits in the middle of Cannes. Yes, that was a surprise, wasn’t it? I’m in Europe, and they have such things as 12th century castles. You see it from every bus ride, and it’s actually quite easy to access. No one is going there (or to the 17th century church there) because they are so distracted by the films, the glitz, and that “Burn” truck. But there it is, a worn battlement and a rambling tower, adjacent to a much younger (but still ancient by American standards) church.

La Tour itself seems to be closed for some event when I visit. It has been converted to an art museum, but one that is not particularly devoted to the tower, the 12th century, or anything particularly. They seem to be showing some local paintings this month. L’Eglise de Notre-dame d’Esperance (The Church of Our Lady of Hope) is open, though, and I investigate.

It has a typical 19th century feel – very dark with damaged oil paintings from the teens of last century, creepy saints with their eyes lifted heavenward and their mouths agape, and dusty religious artiifacts. I am reminded of the similarity between the English word “agape” and the concept of “AGAPE,” the Greek word for brotherly love used so often in translations of the Gospels. Obviously inspired by the rococo, the sculptor who has crafted the icon of St. Nicolas, patron Saint of Cannes, depicts him as if he were in the throes of orgasm. There has always been something eerily sexual about Catholic iconography from previous centuries, and it is never more clear than in these old churches. Vatican II seems to have purged much of it from the American churches, bringing us the hippie guitar masses of my childhood and ridding us of the turgid, exploding saints. More’s the pity.

There is now, as there always has been for me, no feeling of presence or comfort in a church – only echoes. That and the electric feeling of ghosts – it’s clearest in the handiwork of the people who built these walls and laid this tile. There is a wobbly, imprecise, handmade feeling to this massive building – the arches and columns are not perfect, untouched by machines or manufacturing – the whole enterprise has a slightly uneven feeling. It seems much more impressive this way – you can tell it must have taken lifetimes to complete.

This is a great place to be after all the hectic action and irritating waiting associated with the festival. Allowing myself a few minutes to get lost in my own weird historical reveries at this place has done me a world of good, and I feel recharged enough to get on with things.

I descend the hill to the Hotel de Ville and on to La Licorne. Maybe it’s the Stockholm Syndrome, or something quite like it, but I’m already feeling a bit sad at having to leave. There’s a lot I didn’t do while I was here. No parties, no yachts, no real premiere action – some of that might have been fun. I was so into the movies – and the movies only – that I didn’t do much of anything else.

I have another acquaintance who attends Cannes every year, and I seem to have avoided him this trip, not that I was trying. I fully expected to see him on the street corner somewhere, but our paths never crossed. This fellow attends Cannes every year (though he has nothing in competition) in order to sneak into parties and broadcast the entire debacle through his weblog and podcast. His website always features slightly desperate starlet types with their arms around him, smiling into the camera as he lifts a martini glass to the lens. It’s really no wonder we did not run into each other, when you think about it.

I hop the bus, hoping that Cannes-la Bocca will offer better food. I walk past another shwarma place, and, hopes high, I duck in. I am not disappointed. The woman who runs the place (who wears the hijab, I might add) gives me a huge helping and even adds a cube of very sweet dessert. I am in love. This is the first decent meal I have had in over a week.

I sit in the park, next to a creepy smoking guy having his 11AM beer. It’s the only park bench in the shade, and I wish he would leave. I don’t want to smell his godawful shitty cigarette, but the alternative is the hot, punishing Cannes sun. I decide the guy’s cig is not that terrible right now, so I tuck into the shwarma. I almost weep, it’s so good.

A passing guy orders his dog up on the picturesque water fountain in the center of the park and it becomes a dog-bath. Moments later the beer-loser next to me gets up suddenly and walks away, muttering a possibly sarcastic “bonne journee” as he does. I think I invaded his space and made it harder for him to be a deadbeat.

The nearby Hotel Ibis offers me little comfort and not much A/C. Their lobby is a tiny corner compared to the luxurious hotels at the Croisette. I feel restless, having almost two hours before the film. I consider bumming around the basement of La Licorne, where the toilettes are (it’s actually kind of a big lounge space) but when I see people queuing up for the film, I get right into line, where I belong.

I’m down to about 10 Euros. That should be enough for the day the way I’ve been spending, but it doesn’t give me fabulous options. I’ll be eating crackers for dinner, if I even have any dinner, and I’m expecting to walk to the hotel as the buses will have stopped. This is as fitting and end to the fest as any.

Digression on the Nature of Narrative
The natural human tendency to look at one another and attempt to understand the other’s emotional state is part of how humans communicate. It seems as though this empathic response is a key component of why movies work. Film theorists, if they want to be respected, need to study anthropology and evolutionary biology if they are ever going to understand how the spectator responds as he or she does.

Humans are incredibly social creatures. Our emotions seem to have arisen out of the development of our social order and the strategy of cooperative effort for survival. Just as language has developed in order to make cooperation more sophisticated, humans can also read each others’ responses and emotions in order to make this process easier. Thus, in order to get along with our group, we have to be able to let our own desires be known (or not known, in some cases). This is just as important as pursuing – or sublimating -our desires. What we cannot get on our own someone else may provide. It seems as though a certain measure of generosity and kindness is also built into the human system.

Cinema tricks out these natural processes. We are shown pictures of people who do not exist and thus we empathize with them. This is a kind of contract with the storyteller. Pay attention, says the talesman (as a friend calls him or her), and there will be a reward. Often in narrative this reward is catharsis, and sometimes it is wisdom. Either way we get to vicariously experience the emotions of the characters, and the key to this is empathizing with them.

Or perhaps more correctly, we cause ourselves to feel something of what the characters feel in order that we might empathize more clearly with them. It’s our mechanism – the part that an audience brings to the story. The part the storyteller assumes will be provided.

By following the exploits of a protagonist you can experience some of the same emotions as the characters. This explains a good deal of our pull for the underdog or our attraction to romantic movies. A romance has one main objective: to remind you of the feelings you have had of being in love. This is why pre-adolescent boys hate them so much – they have not yet felt romantic love for the opposite sex, so they can’t get too caught up in them – they have no experience with which to relate to the romantic movie, and they are uninterested in feeling those things. Adults may, however, be inspired to fall in love with a character or an actor/actress. This is quite common as people confuse the feelings they have been reminded of (and asked to empathize with) and their own feelings at the time when they watch the film.

The hero story allows us to root for and feel the victory of the winner. The mystery allows us the chance to feel intelligent when we guess the motives and the identity of the killer. And the horror film allows us the thrill and adrenaline of danger without being in any peril ourselves. It’s one part of our brain (possibly the cortex) tricking another part of our brain (some more reactive part that recoils in horror at the sight of blood, perhaps) into reacting and then enjoying the resulting emotions that this trick creates. Perhaps what we are doing is feeling a bond, even though it is artificial.

Kind of a great set-up, in a way, and lots of fun. We deliberately allow ourselves to be emotionally triggered (“suspension of disbelief”) and we use that occasion as a sort of social reinforcer besides. We all get together and cry, or laugh, or whatever. Because even if we saw it all on HBO ourselves in the privacy of our rooms, we will still talk about it when we are together – “did you see that show last night?”

So let us forget all that nonsense about Jacques Lacan and his mirror stage, all that neo-Freudian bullshit and those complicated phenomenological approaches. It does our discipline no good to behave like that, and adhering to those old, defrocked figures of fun give a bad impression to legitimate disciplines.

This new theory of mine, although a little crackpotty around the edges, is at least in line with research in human behavior.

So, given that cinema can make use of narrative, and that cinematic narrative has many consistent factors (sights, sounds, mis-en-scene, editing, etc. – the formal qualities of film) and is inherently time-based (also a formal quality, but worth separating for its impact), the question could be this – does cinema serve as a function of narrative or is cinema larger than narrative? Is the taxonomy like so: Narrative is the superset of forms that includes cinema? Or is it that Cinema is a superset of forms that may include narrative?

For now I believe the cinematic experience is a kind of narrative – and that narrative is best understood as a neurological function. At its essence, narrative is simply a series of cause-and-effect relationships chaining to some sort of master conclusion. It is the same neurological process that allows us to use tools (hit animal with rock, then you can eat animal), and the same neurological process that eventually leads to social order (I hit him, then he hits me, then we all hit, so best not to hit him).

The Classical Dramatic Narrative is a complex device, but it should not be confused with this fairly primitive narrative I am attempting to describe. Because film is inherently time-based, (as opposed to photography or painting, which have no specified time frames for viewing), it is inherently narrative, which is to say that one thing will follow another in a series until the presentation is finished. Even if there is no logical connection between images or sounds, our brains will interpret that first one thing happens and then another.

One may ask, at this point, “well, what wouldn’t fit that description? Lots of things have causes and effects.” This makes it even clearer that narrative is a neurological process – one that we apply to just about everything. Cinema has not yet had its John Cage, but if it ever does, that artist will point out that literally any shot you join to another shot (no matter how diverse) can constitute a series of events – a narrative. Eisenstein probably wrote as much, but I cannot find the citation.

The narrative impulse is in the human brain, and has to do with how we arrange, qualify, pattern-match and conclude events around us as much as it does how they are arranged and what then even are. Consider “3-card Nancy.”

This is a parlor game invented by Scott McCloud, the well-known cartoonist and author, whose books “Understanding Comics (1993)”, “Reinventing Comics (2000)” and “Making Comics (2006)” have been instrumental in developing scholarship amongst those who study comic strips and books.

McCloud suggests that you find an old “Nancy” paperback; the well-known American comic strip by Ernie Bushmiller that still runs in some papers today. Old ones work best. You carefully copy or cut out the panels of various strips in the book and adhere them to cards, which you shuffle. Players draw five cards from the deck and take turns placing the cards down to make some kind of little narrative out of them.  There are “rules” of a sort;  you try to get rid of all five cards and the players can reject a card that another player tries to put down if they decide it doesn’t really work. But the funny thing is that just about any panels from “Nancy” will eventually make SOME kind of story.

In theory, a robot could write all our story outlines (I’ve been working on this project for some time, but haven’t had the attention span for the coding). It takes a human being to turn them into narratives. Hence, even the most “experimental” of films has, for any given performance (and even if the equipment that exhibits it malfunctions) a beginning, a middle, and an end – simply because we remember that it started, continued, and ended. It is, simply by its time-based nature, a narrative as far as our brains are concerned.

Classical Dramatic Narrative Structure (CDNS), descending from Classical Narrative structures as established by the Greeks, is an efficient, well-developed, highly stylized model for certain kinds of narrative entertainment. The apotheosis of this form is described in the dramatic theories of William Archer and Brander Matthews, codified in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The decay of CDNS is facilitated by the modern screenwriting manual.

But this CDNS is only one of countless strategies for the cinema. To revise the taxonomy, CDNS is a subset of narrative, but one that can be partially contained within Cinema – CDNS does not belong completely to the Cinema nor does Cinema require the CDNS.

If cinema really is a kind of narrative, then what each storyteller brings us – his or her storytelling style – is most important. A chef, for example, uses his art to create tastes that delight us – even though the palette may include some flavors (bitter ones, for example) not valued outside of the chef’s creations. Few would munch on handfuls of capers, and yet many would eat a dish that had them in it. We trust the chef to prepare a meal that works overall. The musician is trusted to create sounds that stir the sentiment, and part of doing that involves controlling the tensions that certain chords and combinations of sounds create. Likewise, the filmmaker creates sympathetic emotional states for the audience – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss ten bucks goodbye.

Does this mean the filmmaker is responsible for the emotional states he or she arouses? I would argue yes and no. If Spielberg wishes to yank your pity chain (as he often does), then Spielberg is responsible for providing you with the sad/pity context. You can’t blame him when you feel sad, but he has certainly manipulated conditions to provide for your sadness. It is his aim to create pity and sentimentality. He has suggested quite heavily to you that you should feel sad in sympathy with the events and characters he shows you – in Spielberg’s case this may feel like coercion, but it requires that you surrender to it before it has any power – like hypnotism.

By the way, do not think this attempt at levity reduces the man’s powers by any stretch. Though I do not have much liking for practically anything he has made outside of “Jaws,” it really does not enter into the argument. Spielberg really is that damn good. He can direct circles around most of his peers. Even the dreadful fourth “Indiana Jones” movie shows that he knows his way around the language of Cinema, even when he has nothing to do with it. That film’s problems are not in camera placement, editing, or film style.

At no time are your actions as a result of your emotional state anyone’s responsibility except your own, and certainly not the filmmaker’s. If you kill people because you felt violent after seeing “A Clockwork Orange,” we cannot blame Stanley Kubrick. Yet we could approach Steven Spielberg on the street and say “Gee, Steve, old boy, Amistad made me bawl like a little girl.” To which Spielberg may either chuckle and congratulate himself on his cleverness and his control of the medium or he can be sorry you feel this way. In any event, he knows what he is going for, and he knows what he is doing. It should not come as too much of a surprise to him.

OK, maybe it’s not so possible to actually see Spielberg anywhere. People this famous probably do not even go outside their mansions – I sure as hell wouldn’t.

Thus, when I denounce the idiot Quentin Tarantino, it is because he, also, knows what he is going for, and he knows what feelings he is trying to incur in his audience. These feelings, I will argue, are those of a bully looking to exploit the weakness in someone else. To brutalize, to humiliate, and ultimately to dehumanize another person – these are the “pleasures” and goals of a QT film, and the emotional material to which most people respond. Remember what is so “cool” about “Death Proof,” as that dumb girl said: First he is the predator, and then – he becomes the prey.

I will argue, moreover, that this relationship to an audience is what defines his style, and those of his imitators.

This POV-oriented theory is vastly superior (I aver most humbly) to the current popular mode of psychoanalytic film theory because it also removes pesky notions of plot and dovetails with the somewhat tarnished but still valuable auteur theory. Though cinema is a collaborative process, ultimately what we as an audience respond to is the way in which a story is told. The story itself – the list of narrative items that follow in sequence (and usually the province of the writer, besides the dialogue) is most prized in Hollywood, yet we should challenge that notion.

Give a computer-generated list of narrrative events and items to a good director (Haneke, Lynch, Godard) and a bad director (QT, Kevin Smith, that guy who made “Oldboy”) and see what results. Computers operate on a principle they call “GIGO;” Garbage In, Garbage Out. But human artists can turn that second G into Gold, baby, not Garbage.

I apologize, that was right out completely. Start again.

Synopses of films, used so often to sell them before they are made, are therefore completely inadequate to informing you of what a film will actually be like. And the screenwriting gurus and teachers are ultimately wrong about what makes a film work – as the last 20 years or so of exceedingly lame Hollywoood MBA properties show conclusively. Story is NOT King. STYLE (the method of presentation) is. Taxonomically, STORY fits UNDER Style. It is an element (like the CDNS) of what cinema is composed of.

Narrative contains
Cinema which can encompass
Story which can be of the type we call
CDNS

And most definitely NOT

CDNS is the perfection of
Story which is required for
Cinema

This being the big lie screenwriting manuals tell their acolytes. Most story models have it all wrong. Why? It’s obvious – they do not leave room for either “Eraserhead” or “Koyannisqatsi.” They diminish the poetic value of cinema that does not need to describe PLOT but only serves to create (through sights and sounds) feeling. Where is the cinema of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul if we must rely only on story and plot? There is plot in “Tropical Malady,” but I think you’d be hard pressed to say that story is king there.

Even so, this kind of cinema can still be thought of as narrative. There is a sequence – even Stan Brakhage films have sequence, and we will read that sequence because human brains are driven to read sequences, and because we perceive the forward motion of time.

Perhaps it is due to my interest in directing films, but I think the success or failure of a film seems most predicated on how much or how many of the director’s plans came to fruition. If Sirk wants us to cry and we laugh, he has failed. Even if the world goes to see the film and it does great box office, Sirk has failed.

Now, it may be necessary to invoke the specter of Umberto Eco and his famous “reader is the writer of the text” issue. A cornerstone of modern semiotic film theory, Eco had the very valuable notion that despite what an author intends to make, the reader of the text (the person who views a film, reads a book, or hears music) will create his or her own sense about that text.

I can never know what Bela Tarr’s true intentions are when he made “The Man from London” (and as you’ll soon read, I’ll wish I did). He may have wanted to create total sleep with his film. Maybe he had crushing insomnia, and this was a creative solution to the problem. All I know is the film I see in the darkened theatre, and all I can have is my own personal reaction to it.

Eco’s idea is, of course, more along the philosophical/phenomenological lines. He is attempting to create a state of criticism where there can be no right or wrong way to discuss any art. All interpretations are equally valid at some point. The only thing that separates them is if they are INTERESTING or not. Eco’s point is a good one, but it needs to be be rethunk at some point. It sounds good, but in practice the intentional fallacy is not nearly as dangerous as he would have us think.

Because it is more likely that we CAN grasp – with a fair amount of certainty – what filmmakers are trying to do. They’re never really THAT far off the mark. When they ARE (Ed Wood, for example) it is famously hilarious. Suggesting that we cannot know something of what a filmmaker intends is willfully naîve. Of course we can – the filmmaker is usually trying his or her hardest to communicate something to the audience – why make a film if it is otherwise? Yes, we can appreciate Wood’s “Plan 9” as a masterpiece of unintentional kitsch, but this affirms even more that we somehow understand what he was going for.

To say, as many reviewers have, that QT somehow knew his dialogue in “Death Proof” was insanely dull, but that he included it because he knew it would piss off critics (a very popular assumption right now!) is to suggest the artist can mastermind schemes of such dizzying complexity and highly questionable power. He knew they’d hate it, so he left it in – but then they loved it anyway! No filmmaker has this kind of control over an audience and their reactions to the work.

Similarly, when some aspect of a film seems to be universally regarded as bad there are two distinct possibilities: #1. The artist has taken a creative gamble that failed and #2. The artist was just ineffective and did something lousy while thinking it was great.

Not to keep bringing in Kubrick, but it does recall the excellent short film Kubrick’s daughter Vivian made of the making of “The Shining.”  The best scene shows Kubrick angry at Shelley Duvall for missing her cue. An angry Kubrick is kind of interesting, as he neither rants nor raves, he simply says what is on his mind in a more or less stern and irritated tone.

He scolds Ms. Duvall and then advises the director “don’t sympathize with Shelley.”  In an interview later on, Duvall tells Vivian that she thinks Kubrick has masterminded that interchange so that Shelley would have the necessary emotional state she needed to do the scene. He has pretended that she goofed up to put her on edge and get a real performance out of her.

What garbage! SK is clearly holding on for dear life, trying everything he can to get the picture done. To think that he had the time, the energy, or the ability to know the actress so thoroughly and to predict minor fluctuations of the future so accurately that he could have manipulated that kind of effect – well, the mind reels.

Thus, when the critics (Hollywood Reporter apologist et. al) backpedal and claim that QT knows his plot is terrible but that this is the “grindhouse” style or that he knows his chatty women are dull, but that he is playing with his critics –  these are the hallmarks of the starry-eyed fanboy, too wrapped in idol worship to admit their GOD has pulled a real boner this time.

And considering how little of “Death Proof” actually resembles a grindhouse movie, including the look of the film, the expenditure, the stars, and – most importantly – the run time… this is even more incredible.

When the film works, we must blame the director. When the film does not, we also blame the director. The exception is under the American system, in which a team of know-nothing MBAs, focus groups, and studio heads butcher the director’s work routinely. Which is not to say that the work was fine before this assault, just that after anything passes these committees there’s a wonder the material even resembles a film.

Yes, there are directors whose work completely confounds. It is terribly difficult to assess just how much Paul Verhoeven is kidding with his films. “Robocop” is clearly a satire. “Showgirls” is clearly laughable, but it’s very uncertain whether the director is in on the joke. And “Starship Troopers” is most confusing – is Verhoeven’s future, populated by blank Aryan pretty boys and girls, casually joining the genocide – is this a satire? A grim prediction? Entertainment gone wrong? It’s just hard to tell. Any shot of Denise Richards piloting a spaceship with that hypnotic slack-jawed expression on her face immediately cries out that this is a comedy, yet so little else in the film shouts out so succinctly.

And there are the critics and audiences who have proclaimed such badfilms as “Rocky Horror” and “Faster Pussycat…” secret masterpieces of unintentional camp. That despite being directed in a way that we understand is serious, these films are, in fact, very funny. The inappropriateness of the director’s efforts – and his misplaced vision – is what makes a good badfilm work.

All of which goes a long way toward saying a few fairly simple things:

1. The director can be assumed to know what he or she is doing.
2. This means the film will work more or less the way the director intends.
3. We say “more or less” On the less side this is due to either incompetence or the director’s idiosyncracies which are too far-out for most people to identify with (foot fetishes, etc.)
4. On the more side this is due to either ability (talent, style, confidence, experience, etc.) or incompetence somehow working accidentally.

This last bit is not sustainable for a director’s career. They simply can’t have happy accidental screw-ups for every single film. But it does account for films in which one or two things work anyway, or in which the contribution of technicians (actors, etc.) is particularly good apart from the rest of the film.

Occam’s Razor explains the rest.

Therefore, is it fair to analyze QT’s foot fetish? Sure, to some extent. If he continues to film scenes in which feet play such an important role, then this is only due to his personal interest in this kind of material. It is not inconceivable yet highly unlikely that a director would pick someone else’s fancy completely randomly and then film a scene that caters to those interests purely out of curiosity as to what would happen.

Why he has such an interest is, perhaps, impossible to know. Even if we were to interview him, he might lie. Perhaps only he and his therapist know. He may lie to her, too. But we can simply count the foot shots in a QT film, or we can consider the circumstances in which feet are featured prominently. This all establishes his interest. Does he do this deliberately to confound his critics?

I don’t actually know that QT’s therapist is a woman. I don’t even know if he has a therapist. But it is amusing to think that a guy who comes off as such a misogynist would go immediately to some kind of mother-figure with his problems.

Anyway, it’s just not likely that anyone could mastermind a reaction from critics like that. There is simply too much to lose. Making a film that works is hard enough without attempting special tricky techniques that could jeopardize the income the film could generate. And making your film deliberately bad for any reason is the province of camp, something “Death Proof” could have used a whole lot more of if it was campy on purpose.

Well, now that was certainly rambly. I’ve gone from one topic to the next with such a tumble of words, I’m not even sure what I started with. But this is what happens when there are so many hours to sit and write, waiting for my last three films.

THE MAN FROM LONDON – Dir. Bela Tarr

The best way to describe this film is as follows: soporific, beautiful, slow. Actually, to say “slow” may be unfair to the concept of slow. This film is glacial.

The second best way to describe this film is in the following table:

Reel #
Number of Shots
Running Total
1
3
3
2
3
6
3
5
11
4
2
13
5
2
15
6
3
18
7
3
21
8
4
25
9
3
28

Keeping in mind that a reel of 35mm film is about 25 minutes.

This film is so meditative that half the audience walked out and half of those remaining were snoring. I had to resort to quietly munching biscuits (eating is frowned upon in French theatres, apparently) in order to keep my eyes from fluttering. There are two pieces of music in the film and both of them are used constantly. There is one five-minute sequence that is repeated with only slight variation. This is tough viewing.

tmfl_tarr.jpg
Living in this lonely watchtower is preferable to watching this film.

The entire story can be summed up in a paragraph: A man works in a watchtower by a quay and a railroad. He sees a murder, and a bag lost in the water. “The Man from London,” who says he is a detective, but who is clearly shadier than that, comes to investigate/solve the disappearance and some lost money.

In the midst of this, the watchtower guard argues with his family. In the synopsis offered by the festival we are told there will be meditations on “the ontological question of the meaning and worth of existence.” If so, then Tarr’s actor was conveying it with the one eyebrow that was lit during some of the scenes, and I missed it.

I have never seen any of Mr. Tarr’s films before this, so I do not know how this one holds up. I’m not sure I could watch another one like this. I believe his producers are going about it the wrong way, however. If they package “The Man from London” right it could have a long shelf life as a proven substitute for barbiturates.

A quick step for an apple and a cola and I’m back in line again, this time for Sokurov’s “Alexandra.”

You can imagine, if you like, that my little notebook has been scribbled on in golden-lit cafés as cigarette smoke curls in the neon lights of the exciting Riviera. It was in fact, hastily scrawled on buses and while sitting, hunched-over and cross-legged on the sidewalks outside various movie theatres, waiting for the next séance, queuing for the films I did not get to see.

There’s a guy in front of me – a notorious line-cutter and typical Cinephile type. Never misses an opportunity to butt someone in line. Makes a slow crawl during the two to two-and-a-half hour wait to get at least three or four people ahead, inch by inch. Well, I sat back a bit in this line to avoid having to sit on some obvious bird shit on the sidewalk, and this guy whips in with his portable camp stool, landing right in the middle of the sidewalk (which sidewalk pedestrians still have the right of way on over line-sitters).

Of course I immediately move, somehow finding the only geometrically viable spot that places me right in between the bird shit and some other hideous stains. A woman watched me navigate it, and gave me a thumbs up when I figured it out. Or maybe she’s making fun because I’ve just done something highly unhygienic.

A passing baby stroller has just butted the butter out of the way. Naturally he offered obsequious apologies. He’s doing Sudoku, by the way – most everyone in line does. I’m the only lunatic scribbling furiously into a little notebook, and between this and sketching, I inadvertently get people’s attention sometimes. I’m not very happy about it.

Cannes-Line.jpg

I feel like I might be getting sick.

Later, I find I am right back in the exact same seat I inhabited for the last film, and ready to endure more VOSTF (Version Originale Sous-Titres Francais – original language with French subtitles). I have only a few biscuits left, and there are two movies left, back to back, and both requiring the utmost of my sad French reading comprehension. The butt-inski has planted himself on the aisle – for easy exiting, I imagine. What a joke – I’m sure the line won’t be that bad.

This is the last night of the screenings at La Licorne, and they have a program planned all night long, with a 2AM and a 4AM screening later. I’ve seen the 2 and 4 screenings already, so I’m definitely not going to stay for those.

Here are some more people from the line:

Cannes-2.jpg

ALEXANDRA – Dir. Alexander Sokhurov

A war film with no war in it. A strange relationship between soldier/son and grandmother, all shot in desaturated sepia tones. All yellow-brown and dusty green-grey. Apparently recently, apparently the Chechen conflict.

LMC-ALEXANDRA-PHOTO1.jpg
Grumpy Grandma Goes to War.

Sokhurov’s films always seem to have peculiar family relationships in them. Here the grandmother (the titular Alexandra) travels what seems like weeks in military transports so that she can spend a few days sleeping in a tent next to her grandson. There’s nothing sexual about it, and yet it’s hard not to watch them as if they were some kind of lovers. They have long talks, in which they honestly and openly convey their feelings and seem to understand deep notions of how the other person thinks and feels. Neither is insulted, even by the most startling accusations. These are peculiar, intense, and wholly fantastic family relationships. One imagines that if Sokhurov’s own family relationships are like this, that he and his kin are some kind of evolved beings from space.

Alternately, while grandson is off presumably killing some Chechens, Alexandra goes to visit some of them in the market place. Old folks have lots in common (aches and pains, vegetables, black market cigarettes) and Alexandra, hard and severe as she seems, is actually quite caring, quite maternal. Even when she is among the boys in her grandson’s unit you can see them warming up to her, leaning on her like a mother, asking to spend time talking with her or helping her out.

As emotional portraits go, this is subtle stuff. Those late-night conversations seem to have it all out on the table, yet Sokhurov balances those scenes (which sound like conversations he is having with himself) with very subtle ones in which Alexandra interacts with those around her, the incongruity of an old woman amongst the fighting men leading to some striking images and some slight, indefinable emotions.

Then it’s back to the line again for a very short time:

Cannes-4.jpg

 

And back into the theatre. Same row, maybe a seat or two over. What a charade. Last film I endured LA TETE LA PLUS GROSSE DU MONDE in front of me, making sous-titre acquisition a bit tough. I spent the whole two hours with my neck craned trying to see around this person’s truly gigantic cranium. I’m hoping Mr. Lee’s film is of a less complex nature.

SECRET SUNSHINE – Dir. Lee Chang-Dong – Best Actress Award, Do-Yeon Jeon

This is the story of a woman who moves to Miryang, a town where her dead husband was born, a little nothing of a place with the overly mysterious name that means “Secret Sunshine.” The town is ultimately not so friendly – her son is kidnapped and killed, her attempts to make friends backfire, and she is isolated, unloved. She turns to religion, but this fails her as well.

Secret-Sunshine03.jpg
Mr. Kim to the rescue.

The film is shot well, but not as stylized or interestingly as Lee’s “Oasis (2002);” it seems to fit somewhere in between that film and his “Peppermint Candy (2000).” Soft, white diffused light streams in from windows, and even interior locations seem bright at night. It’s not the blues and greens of the European style, but more of the white and silhouette style of Korean and Japanese films.

Mr. Lee, however, has kind of missed it here, whatever he was going for. There is a hilarious satire of goofy Christians that is worth watching, but it may be a bit subtle. This film almost gets going about 5 times, but somehow runs out of gas. Do-Yoen Jeons’s portrayal of a woman grieving is quite affecting and her turn to faith and subsequent fall from grace is well observed and remarkable indeed. Her desperate attempts to connect or to feel something – anything – (ice, cut wrists, sex with anyone) are especially well observed and performed.

But the whole film just kind of stops in the backyard without any fitting ending. No satisfaction. Keep in mind that even a limp film from Lee beats practically anything else in the Korean market, so it may still be worth seeing. Certainly over that dismal “Oldboy.”

And that is it. My week is over. No more La Licorne and no more Cannes. It is now early on

Samedi 26 Mai 07

I walk the several kilometers back to the hotel, but the rest is a blur. Somehow I’m packed and ready to go the next day.

Next thing I realize, I’m at the bus stop, waiting for Hae-Jin and Bob to get back from finishing up their business at the Palais. We’re off to Nice, the airport, and then London. I’ve had a pretty good run of it here, I’d say.

End of the Cannes 2007 Diary. Thank you for enduring it.

3 comments on “Cannes Diary 9

  1. I think that there are more clues in ‘Starship Troopers’ that Verhoeven meant it as a satire upon American militarism. He loads it up with over-the-top commercials that interrupt the story, exactly as he did with Robocop, which we all can see is satire.

    But as I recall, the heads of the studio didn’t see it that way at all. They didn’t understand the movie ‘Starship Troopers’ in this way, and probably wanted a franchise that would rival the Star Wars saga to enrich the studio. Did Verhoeven get final control over the cut? I doubt these studio MBAs would have allowed that. So it’s possible (I don’t know for sure) that they instituted a more serious release cut after Verhoeven was off the project.

    So I looked through the web, and found this interview with Verhoeven, conducted during publicity for his next picture, ‘Hollow Man.’

    QUESTION: IN STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE AUDIENCE DIDN’T GET THE JOKE.

    PAUL VERHOEVEN: No, they didn’t. But they get it better now than when it came out. The way people look at STARSHIP TROOPERS has improved. There seems to be more interest and understanding for what they did. I mean, that movie would never have been made if there was a normal studio system operating at this studio [Columbia/TriStar]. It was because every six months the main guy left, until we got a steady regime now; but before that, four or five were in and out of the studio, and nobody really had time to look at STARSHIP TROOPERS. That movie, with the darkness and the cynical, non-Hollywood narrative where the best people die and the worst people survive “to a certain degree” where there is an intense criticism of Fascist society, be it European or even American, if you want to use that word, or Imperialism or whatever you want to call it – with all those levels that are there, that would not have been possible for the price that it cost if people had even looked at the movie more precisely. (If you’d have done it for $30-million, that would have been different, but that was not the price, of course.) We got the movie done, and it’s a really unique movie, for being so expensive. It’s not unique that it got made, but for so much money.

    PEOPLE THOUGHT IT WAS A JOHN MILIUS MOVIE, NOT A PAUL VERHOEVEN MOVIE.

    It was very ironic. It was basically saying, “Come on. Let’s do a great job for the Fatherland – and die!”

  2. Replies:

    >And yet you “blame” the success of Apocalypse Now entirely upon the editor/sound designer?

    Good call. Yes, that does seem contradictory. My problem is that I’m flipping between authorial intention and final effect of the film without keeping them straight.

    As an audience member, I find the only compelling part of “Apocalypse Now” to be the visual design and the sound. This is undoubtedly as much Coppola’s work as Murch’s. In fact, my ONLY appreciation of Coppola is in his visual design and tempo. I think the stories he chooses and his story sense is quite lacking – to me his films are very well made, but very dumb.

    My disrespect for Coppola as a man who would capriciously endanger lives for his own “vision quest” in the jungle is also shaped by the “Hearts of Darkness” documentary, and may not be 100% accurate, as well. I am quite sure my personal distaste for such behavior has caused me to overstate the case. Perhaps I worry if Coppola is responsible for any good ends they will justify the means.

    As to Kubrick and his methods, I am, once again, bringing in extra-textual material to the discussion, and that IS inconsistent and confusing – you’ve got me again. You are entirely accurate that I am seeing a single slice of the production and not the overall effect of working for months on a project. It is also true that my assumptions that Kubrick has NOT “masterminded” things is also based on other writing, interviews, and opinions of how Kubrick worked – he was not known to treat any other actors in such a way on any other production. This still does not bar him from “unconsciously” treating Ms. Duvall in the manner you describe.

    Even so, it’s conjecture.

    SIMILARLY, and also inconsistent of me, is that I am AWARE of Verhoeven’s satire in “Starship Troopers.” I have seen his other movies, and I have a fair amount of faith in his abilities that I see “ST” as a humorous film. When I wrote that passage I was being deliberately disingenuous, I now see, and describing the final film without extra knowledge outside of the text itself – something I was quite willing to do for five or six other examples! So yes, another place you’ve caught me.

    Reading that excerpt you’ve provided does place the Verhoeven thing in context for me, though. His experience with rotating execs who do not understand the projects they are shepherding rings true with everything I know about American movies and how they are made. This information will, sadly, not be made available to everyone when they see “ST” in the future, and they may be left with the ambiguity I describe.

    Thanks for reading, considering, and writing!

  3. ‘When a film works, we must blame the director.’

    —And yet you ‘blame’ the success of Apocalypse Now entirely upon the editor/sound designer?

    Again, as for Kubrick’s methods of working with his actors, and whether he manipulates them or not, I wonder if you have the experience (you say that you do not) to judge how a seasoned veteran director, who has had long experience working with actors great, lousy, mediocre. hackneyed, and amateur, would go about it. It seems to me clear from daughter viv’s doc about the making of The Shining that Kubrick and Nicholson got along well, that Kubrick liked what Jack was giving him. And the film shows that, as ‘Jack’ is the most interesting character. It is also clear that Kubrick was disappointed in Duvally, or not interested in her, or pissed of with her. She was not giving him the sort of things he wanted of her. Therefore her character, instead of engaging our sympathies, irritates and annoys us. Kubrick seems in the documentary to be ignoring Duvall, doesn’t care when she falls ill (perhaps it was a cry for attention, intended as such or not), and never has a nice word to say about her, while she is always moaning about her isolation, her loss, her limbo during the endless months of production.

    What I want to say, in short, is that perhaps you are right, that in that one shot, with complicated snow machines blowing, behind on schedule, over budget, frazzled, tired out, Kubrick simply lost his temper with Duvall when she didn’t open the door on cue. But it surely falls in with what seems like a long-held campaign of cruelty and indifference toward her, that left her feeling isolated and unloved, sick, sniffly, sniveling, unhappy, and unsure of what the heck was going on — just like her character in the story.

    I could well believe that a director might undertake such a campaign if he thought it would get him the performance he desired, and that months into that campaign, when an expensive shot must be re-taken because the actress misses her cue, he would find it hard NOT to fall back into his predetermined, habitual attitude toward Duvall, and ask even without thinking twice about it, for the rest of the crew to follow his lead and maltreat her.

    But as to your notion of Narrative as a neurological reflex we pattern-recognizers apply to any sequence of images or events, it is very interesting, mind-blowing in fact.

    I wonder about Koyanisqaatsi in this regard, though. Say a few stoner pals got together and got high while watching the mind-blowing images on an enormous screen. The film then becomes the ‘circus parade’ that the U.S. Supreme Court called in the the first years of the 20th century.

    If a director makes a Narrative and the audience only sees some images and colors, can we say a Narrative took place at all?

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