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Nashville Scene Glam Slam

Fear and loathing at Cannes '98.

By Rob Nelson and Donna Bowman

JUNE 1, 1998:  After Cannes' 50th anniversary last year, I wrote that the world's most prestigious film festival "is defined by the most extreme contradictions: culture and glamour, art and commerce, sunny beaches and dark theaters, critical debate and crass deal-making, challenging cinema and mainstream product." Yes, and it's also crowded as hell. This year's 12-day marathon--including 22 films in competition, dozens more in various sidebar packages, and several hundred others screened around town for "market" purposes--drew 4,000 journalists, fans, flacks, and industry bottom-feeders, making it extremely time-consuming, if not impossible or dangerous, to walk from one end of the Croisette to the other.

The quintessentially Hollywoodian Primary Colors kicked off a fest that also included four French and four American movies in competition for the juried Palme d'Or. These big-ticket titles ostensibly help to underwrite one film each from China, Taiwan, Greece, and Russia--none of which has big stars or a fair chance of earning commercial distribution in the U.S. or France. Not for nothing was Godzilla selected as the closing-night film, even though, by any other standard, the choice was indefensible. But Cannes in May isn't Cannes; it's Planet Hollywood.

The insanity of the daily schedule, the banality of the red-carpet parade, and the inevitability of needing to choose one film over another makes disappointments all the more profound, atrocities all the more hateful. You can spend a sweaty 15 minutes darting from one screening to another, often with 50 pounds of PR in tow, only to find that the movie is less than you hoped or worse.

Little at this year's festival approached true greatness, despite some world-class talents in competition. Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole was typically minimalist--so much so that a dramatic high point of the first half-hour was a character's cough. Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe was a minor work, but its hotheaded Everyman protagonist (Peter Mullan), who quits the sauce and romances a sweet social worker, rang true. Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flowers of Shanghai, a snail-paced portrait of brothel life in late 19th-century Shanghai, was one of the festival's most challenging films; at least a quarter of the audience walked out before it was over. Even Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fell short of his best films, but Johnny Depp's shabby-clothed journalist outsider provided the festival's most resonant critique: "The mentality here is so massively atavistic that crimes often pass unnoticed."

Indeed, alienated outsiderdom emerged as the festival's theme. Patrice Chereau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train was a wildly overwrought melodrama about an extended family whose every member has some sexual "problem" (homosexuality, transvestitism, female hysteria). Claude Miller's The Class Trip depicted a young boy's Freudian daydreams, but without dreaming much itself. Roberto Benigni's bizarre, obnoxious Life Is Beautiful turned from a featherweight slapstick comedy into a more upbeat Schindler's List, making it perhaps the closest we'll come to seeing Jerry Lewis' notorious unreleased Holocaust melodrama, The Day the Clown Cried.

The outsider heroine of Dance Me to My Song--a woman with severe cerebral palsy, played by a woman (Heather Rose) in the same condition--offered one of the festival's true surprises. Rolf de Heer's unflinching direction notwithstanding, this is indeed "a film by Heather Rose," who not only gives a fierce performance but also cowrote this harrowing love-triangle variation on her life story. The near 10-minute standing ovation given to Rose bodes well for a film that could tap some of the same real-life underdog appeal as its fellow Aussie import Shine. On the other hand, perhaps it would be better if Rose weren't embraced by Planet Hollywood.

By contrast, Todd Solondz's Happiness--an ironic/sarcastic title if there ever was one--depicts an endless amount of fear and loathing under the guise of the blackest comedy: A clean-cut suburban father (Dylan Baker) recalls a cathartic dream about gunning down random strangers, then jerks off to a teen magazine; a mother (Cynthia Stevenson) ends up tasting her boy's first ejaculate. To an extent, one appreciates the director's view that America is sick, suburbia is polluted, most men are sickos, some women are mean and pathetic, and all children are victims. But then what? As in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz successfully beats the viewer into submission--and so the cycle of abuse continues.

Much better was Lars von Trier's Idioterne (The Idiots), which proposes an odd solution to alienation: impersonating retarded people as a rebellious means of raw self-expression and subcultural fraternizing. Although The Idiots is the uncredited second film in von Trier's newly formed cinema collective (his name isn't on it), this is unmistakably the work of the man who made Breaking the Waves--the same aesthetic mix of jump-cuts, seasick camerawork, and washed-out colors capturing the metaphoric story of people too delicate for this world, fighting to assert themselves amidst the powers that be.

Leave it to Lodge Kerrigan, director of the bleak Amerindie Clean, Shaven, to return us to the land of the lost. Kerrigan's Claire Dolan is a tightly controlled, nearly suffocating investigation of the life of a New York prostitute (Katrin Cartlidge) who struggles to put some distance between herself and her manipulative pimp (Colm Meaney), enlisting the aid of a scruffy cab driver (Vincent D'Onofrio). The theme all around is control, and Kerrigan certainly proves the master of his domain. At the post-screening press conference, the youngish auteur brooded impeccably, stared at his water glass, and generally looked like a guy who doesn't get out much. After a week of nothing but screenings, I believe I know how that feels.

Halfway through actor-director John Turturro's boring Illuminata, I bolted, just barely making it into a market screening of the buzz movie in competition, The Dreamlife of Angels. Even though I watched from a cramped and cross-legged position on the floor of a tiny room, this incisive study of the shifting relationship between two young French women was riveting, seeming as real as any doc. (Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution, meaning it may appear here before year's end.)

One night I blew off the festival entirely, skipping the press screening of Hal Hartley's heinous Henry Fool in favor of a 30-minute train ride to a tiny theater showing Adrian Lyne's Lolita. As you probably know, the Child Pornography Prevention Act passed Congress, making it illegal to show a minor having sex, even with the use of a body double. Lyne strained to interest a U.S. distributor before settling for a premiere on pay cable in August. As Lolita unspooled, I wondered what it meant that much of the film excited me (in a manner of speaking) more than anything at Cannes.

As mass-released "alternative" fare like Good Will Hunting continues to make foreign art cinema an iffy prospect anywhere, film cognoscenti visit festivals at any cost because surprises at home are few and far between. At a panel discussion on the state of film criticism, French critic Michel Ciment mentioned that last year's quartet of Cannes award-winners--Taste of Cherry, The Eel, The Sweet Hereafter, and Happy Together--earned hardly any money in commercial release. And yet that hasn't stopped people from coming to the festival.

In other words, for critics who'd rather seek hidden treasures than spend 52 weeks a year helping to announce whatever Harvey Weinstein and Co. consider a sound investment, the film festival has become the last, best arthouse. But since that arthouse isn't open to the general public, reporting on it means risking irrelevance or loss of employment--which only makes the situation worse. Probably the only reason to continue practicing film criticism is the naive hope that, every so often, what you write has some microscopic influence on widening the range of available product. And if not, well, there's always Miramax's fall lineup.

Speaking of which, every once in a while the former indie company's clout lands a Velvet Goldmine--that is, a film by a smart, iconoclastic, politically minded director designed to subvert the status quo of visual, narrative, and sexual representation. Todd Haynes' hugely ambitious glitter-rock epic stacks layer after layer of flamboyant artifice atop stardust memories of the '70s queer youth culture's yearning for "ch-ch-ch-changes"--precisely the project of glam rock itself. The investors were probably thrilled to hear that they'd be getting something like Citizen Kane meets Boogie Nights and Performance. But the role-playing of the filmmaker and his actors (including Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale) is so extravagantly complex--and the style so tantalizingly opaque--that not even the publicists' "meet the talent" press luncheon could spoil the mystery of this goldmine's Rosebud.

On Sunday, about 30 of us gathered in front of the Trinitron outside the press room to scribble down the names of the award winners. Befitting the jury's president, Martin Scorsese, the awards were evenly distributed. Haynes took the Prix de Meilleure Contribution Artistique (Best Artistic Contribution), thanking Oscar Wilde and Roxy Music "for giving us so much to aspire to." Hal Hartley won the screenplay prize for Henry Fool; John Boorman was awarded Best Director for The General, his so-so biopic of Irish thief Martin Cahill. Peter Mullan took the actor's prize for My Name Is Joe, while Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, the young women from The Dreamlife of Angels, split the Best Actress award. Roberto Benigni won the Grand Prix for Life Is Beautiful and knelt at Scorsese's feet. And the top-prize Palme D'Or went to Theo Angelopoulos' Eternity and a Day--which seemed to last about that long.

Now that the serious side of Cannes is fini, I'm headed for the Grand Théìtre Lumi¸re to battle the crowds for Godzilla--which I could do just as easily at the Hollywood 27. As the French would say, "Plus ça change...." My plane doesn't leave for two more days, but in a way--in the biggest way--I'm already home.

--Rob Nelson

Lounge lizard

"Mr. Spielberg," the attorney asked, "is character development important to the success and popularity of an action film?" "Unfortunately, it's not important, no," Spielberg replied. "Take Jurassic Park--people went to see that movie over and over again because of the dinosaurs, not because the kids had a nice scene where they sat in a tree at night and talked for three minutes."

C'mon, Steven. People went to see Jurassic Park the first time because of the special effects, but they went back again and again (and then bought the video) because of the characters. Jeff Goldblum's spaced-out scientist and Richard Attenborough's jolly media magnate have their own appeal, but especially strong are the dinosaur personalities--the cute-but-deadly campys, the ruthless raptors.

Spielberg is downplaying character development in the above-quoted exchange because he's a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that the script for Twister was plagiarized. The final script is "like 5 percent" of the success of the movie, he calculates disingenuously. But if he believes that, he's forgotten why Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park are great movies, and why the character-light sequel The Lost World isn't.

Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the creative team behind Godzilla, subscribe to the school of one-shot moviemaking: create a special effect so monstrously huge that the entire world will have to see it once. Who cares if, after the opening weekend numbers are toted up, anyone will want to see it again, or buy the video? Emmerich and Devlin never intend to make a King Kong, in which the monster grabs hold of our imagination and achieves immortality through his tragic personality. As they showed in Stargate and Independence Day, they only want to take seven bucks off half the country's moviegoers and scram--and for that, you don't need character development.

So their Godzilla, created by French nuclear testing in the South Pacific (take that, France!), makes his way very quickly to Manhattan, where people run for their lives and tractor-trailers are crunched in mighty jaws. Then the borough is evacuated (off-screen, unfortunately--now that would have been a movie). Helicopters chase the monster around in scenes designed to provide a basis for the upcoming video game. Meanwhile, soldiers, scientists, and the obligatory venal politician (Mayor Ebert, with his assistant Gene--take that, critics!) try to figure out how to kill the beast. Matthew Broderick plays an expert on nuclear mutations who figures out all the important plot points, like 'Zilla's pregnancy.

After the first half hour, with its witty references to the Toho studio's original movies, Godzilla becomes an exercise in bad pacing studded with free-floating good ideas. It's great to see the monster swimming in the Hudson River, undulating like aquatic dinosaurs do in paleontological reconstructions. It's terrific to see his offspring struggling to corner on the slick floors of Madison Square Garden. But by the time we see these imaginative moments, we're so worn out by the movie's buzz-bomb approach to action and comic relief that we're immune to further sensation. Emmerich cranks up the lumbering Japanese monster to Mach 2, and the editor and cinematographer are simply pulled along in its wake. Meanwhile, auxiliary characters like Maria Patillo as Broderick's love interest and Hank Azaria as a rogue cameraman are written as stereotypes, so no time need be wasted getting to know them.

Worst of all, we feel nothing when the mighty Godzilla bites the dust, other than relief that the sensory assault is over. Why should we? It's just a CGI. That Emmerich, Devlin, and maybe even Spielberg think we don't want monsters to have personalities as strong as our fears only proves that they don't know what a monster movie is really about. Character counts, and Godzilla is a negative number.

--Donna Bowman


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