Friday, May 23, 2008

Day 8: Three thumbs down

Well, some days are like that.  And more their annoyances prove more than enough, happily, to make one glad for the wonderfulness of "normal" days when things go just fine.

First, there's the matter of the trains.  To save some dough on this trip, as are apparently a number of others, I'm staying in the nearby city of Nice, which is about fifteen miles from Cannes, and between the two runs the very marvelous French train system: on time, comfortable, and quiet (mostly).  Except when the trainmen decide to strike, pretty much unannounced.  With no train headed to Cannes to late afternoon, I headed off to the bus station, a good long stroll through central Nice, which was very nice, and I duly caught the bus, again comfortable and smooth, but with many of the trains still, the roads were jammed, as also the bus, and what was supposed to be an hour ride turned into two plus.  

This part of the French coastline is densely populated in the few miles between the sea and the hedging mountains, apartment buildings upon apartment buildings engulfing the occasional single-family dwelling.  Though many have wonderful views of the sea with but a highway and train tracks between them and the shore, empty it is not.  Through every little town that bus dutifully plied its way, and it was interesting, at least for awhile.  Eventually at Cannes we did arrive, giving just enough time to view the first film on the list for the day.

And this was the second downward thumb, this one actually having to do with movies.  In many ways, La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman) is an artfully done film, and therein lies the problem:  a little too artfully.  Sometimes good ideas in story-telling go too far.  The striking Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl) tells the tale of prosperous middle-aged woman dentist who in a distracted moment while driving in the countryside runs into and over something, a big something.  A glimpse in the sideview mirror shows a dog lying roadside, though whatever it was she struck caused a bigger result than even a good-sized canine.  Dazed and confused, she later tries to figure out exactly what did happen, something that does become sort of clear, seemingly, by the finish of the film.  In trying to both display and delve into the dentist's mental state, the film casts aside most shreds of narrative momentum or clarity.  Scenes follow disjointedly, and the camera is constantly too close, excluding viewers from the very world and people the central character accesses (and we are never quite sure who certain characters really are--friends. lovers, children, grandchildren, servants, spouses?).  The hope is that by the close the randomness of the film will gel and clarify, but instead the film just seems to end as assorted family "take care of" any incriminating evidence that might implicate the protagonist.  That not just a dog died in that mishap of inattention does become apparent.  And so we live our lives apparently, concealing in silent conspiracy inconvenient realities, or that seems to be the point.  Maybe, probably.  Interesting, yes, for this filmmaker knows well how to move a camera and withhold information, but also annoying for having been too stingy and self-conscious and coy. 

Thumb three was lethal, and for the first time in decades I walked out of a film (a somewhat common practice at Cannes; if something's bad, there's always another maybe better one showing somewhere).  In his second feature, Ocean Flame, Hong Kong writer-director Fendou Lui lays out the story of a petty criminal (he runs a call-girl blackmail scheme) who systematically demolishes his new girl friend, an attractive and very decent person, full of modesty and restraint.  The primary means for this is psycho-sexual violence by himself and others to whom he gives sanction.  Perhaps that sort of thing does happen, and perhaps it might provide a topic for exploration in film, but this is not the creature.  The problem is that the predominant point of view belongs to the thug, who's given rather too much machismo cool, inviting rather too much viewer sympathy (all the other thugs in the film are blatantly repulsive personally and physically, making him look pretty good in contrast).  So when he starts pushing the boundaries, one is first alarmed and then, as he goes further still, repulsed, even as our "hero" rather enjoys his stratagems (he reasons all this humiliation and suffering will toughen her up). The film does have some virtues, particularly its lovely camera work (some of this violence takes place in picturesque locales).  Still, its inner dynamic and the pleasure it gives differ little from an ordinary slasher flick, and it never looks very closely at its characters.  If it had, especially beyond the cardboard construction of the female victim, more would have exited.  The blurb says there's redemption for him in the end (after I left)--after he kills the girl, her lovely face above a blood-filled bathtub, as the ads show.  No thanks, though I could use some redemption myself for watching the schlock as long as I did.  

Still, Cannes was beautiful, the sun shining all day long, and today it shines again, the trains run, and I get to see other movies.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day 7: on parents and children

The really big surprise here is a theme of sorts that has thus far emerged, at least in the fourteen films I've seen.  Moreover,  I would guess that no one else would ever have guessed that this would appear so prominently.  This is, for sure, NOT a family values Festival, but the central focus of many films has been family, and very specifically the mother and child bond.  And this is pretty international, and certainly not solely an "American thing."  

The family tangle is front and center is The Three Monkeys, a Turkish film that explores the travail of a family paying the price of a boss' error, and they are already trying to recover from having lost a son.  They ward off disaster and actually hang together, though tenuously.  Walter Salles, the director of the gorgeous Central Station (1998), also about family, returns to the gritty urban terrain of San Paulo to treat the desperation of a hard-pressed single mother trying to raise four sons, different fathers all, and pregnant with still another child.  This is sociology to some extent, and given that this film features a tenacious but not especially likeable mother, it is also without sentiment, save perhaps for the haunting and very strange ending, a reprise in a way of the sort of thing he did at the end of Central Station.  Again, against all odds, that human bond in kinship, biological and relational, holds fast, though it is beset by titanic economic and cultural forces.  (There's also a not very good film from the Phillipines depicting one day in the life of an extended family that runs a porn theater.) 

The mother and child bond is there also in the French film Versailles, directed  by Pierre Schoeller.  A homeless mother, wary of the social system that might take her child, ends up in the countryside, abandoning her four year old son with another social exile who lives in the woods among others of his sort.  When she has at last procured a job, and social rehab as well, she returns to the woods to retrieve him only to find that the caretaker and boy have moved on to wherever.  The yearning of all for some deep, unfracturable bond roars through the film, in spite of some implausibility in its premise.  Something of the same scenario shapes the new film by the wonderful Dardenne brothers (La Promesse, The Son, and L'enfant, winner of the big prize here in 2005).  In The Silence of Lorna a young Albanian woman, working for a small freelance immigration mob, risks her pivotal status in their schemes in order to help another, an  extreme and dangerous error in the eyes of her cohorts. When she finds out she's pregnant and, yes, refuses to abort, things go from dire to survival.   The same happens in the Argentine film, Leonera (Lion's Den), in which a young woman ends up in prison already pregnant and living there with other women who have their families with them.  In all these film stories, that family bond is made palpable, pressing, and, really, in the final analysis, inviolate, no matter what trouble it causes.  Love in general is pain, and trial, and, strangely, very much worth it--and all the more so between mother and child.

No film emphases that more than the new Clint Eastwood release, presently titled L'Echange (the exchange), though what its eventual English title will be is still not resolved.  It is quite a remarkable film, very much of the masterly efficient and hyper-moral filmmaking the aging director Eastwood has undertaken for what is now decades.  In fact, it is fair to say that the central thematic in most all of Eastwood's late films, one after another, focuses on parents and children and guilt.  In this one, a single mother (Angelina Jolie, who really can act) in 1928 LA comes home from work to find her ten year old son missing.  And there the nightmare merely begins, for she has to deal with an unfathomably corrupt and callous police department.  In her fight for help she is aided by a wonderfully Presbyterian minister (John Malkovich) who rails on the radio against police intimidation and corruption.  And all of this then gets tangled up in the police discovery, very reluctantly, of a nearby serial killer of children.  If this sounds a bit preposterous, out-of-bounds melodrama, well, not so, for all of this is, apparently, pretty much true; parts of the film aeven coming directly, said Eastwood in his press conference here, from court testimony (google Wineville Chicken Murders).  

Eastwood is very much an old-time storyteller, eschewing fancy camera and editing, though the photography and palette are very fine, and all works here very well, the story-telling hardly ever missing a beat.  This confident graceful storytelling, even into the music, which Eastwood wrote himself and probably played (he is a longtime jazz pianist and has lately taken up composing for his films).  The film, whatever its name, offers up a relentless portrait of police chicanery, all true, and most of all, in the story of Christine Collins (Jolie), the horror of losing those creatures that become our lives.

What all these films are up to, and what they collectively might signal about this particular cultural moment in the West, is plainly anyone's guess, but it is one worth appreciating and pondering. Maybe, in the age of Brittany, we're bothering to sober up.   

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A day in Cannes

Cannes is, really, in just about every way, quite the place, from Festival to landscape to, well, opulence.  Over the top is not all bad, especially in the first two.  The Palais de Festival, the main venue for film viewing, is, mildly put, spectacular, containing numerous state of the art theaters, from small to enormous; the equipment and design are just wonderful.  And behind the Palais is another enormous theater, perhaps a thousand seats, located in a tent on a roof.  And still more small theaters occupy the Festival grounds.  Altogether the Festival has some forty venues from those many on the Festival  grounds to city theaters and hotel conference rooms.

None of this is accessible without "accreditation," and badges and briefcases are checked and rechecked.  How careful the Festival is with security shows up once and awhile in sightings of big dogs of the pit bull variety, all thus far nicely muzzled.  Perhaps the biggest security risk are the masses of manic photo-journalists whose monster lenses could double as a guillotine, and they wield them with abandon in cut throat competition for "the shot."  Alas, the celebs show up regularly, especially if one wishes to dart around; I've seen Angelina Jolie thrice, all pretty much by accident (really).  The Press Room, where I work when not in movies, is a lovely spot (see two photos above looking toward each side of the bay) equipped with wifi and endless free espresso.

Of course, there's Cannes the place, a lovely Mediterranean bay surrounded by mountains, as gorgeous a sea shore as I've seen, though Big Sur and parts of northern lower Michigan compete.  The sun helps, which has made rare appearance so far, though on the Sabbath it held forth, shining mightily all day long, and I worshipped abundantly in deepest celebration on an early long walk along the shoreline avenue, the famous palm-lined Le Croisette.

With the Croisette we come to the opulence part, and that is indeed over the top, chic hotel upon chic hotel upon elegant apartment building and occasional swank restaurant where breakfast can be had for a mere 80 Euros (about $120). It is all sparkly and more than a little enticing, and it goes on and on and on.  For ordinary folk, there are lovely parks, occasional beaches (most all are private), endless walkway, probably all the way to Nice, and of course, the sea and the sun.   A few blocks in from the shore one can find a modest meal, though not cheap, given the dollar these days.  

I'm here on a Press accreditation, thanks to Books and Culture magazine, and especially its editor, John Wilson, who had the idea for the venture back last Fall.  That pass gets me into most venues, save those designated for the really big folks, both in the industry and media, like the gala "red carpet" processions that show up on television.  Those events, filmdom's holy sacrament, need a special invite and, yes, black tie.  B&C put up some of the money for this, as did the Calvin Alumni Association and the C alvin Center for Christian Scholarship: thank you, thank you.  

As for the movies, I see about two or three a day, depending on schedule; they come along day by day for only a limited number of showings.  Most flicks so far have proved wonderful, the feast of the Fest, for sure, though some few perplex in how they got here and what they're after.  The work part comes in writing here and there about these films.

Next time: back to the movies.  


Monday, May 19, 2008

Day 3 at Cannes

The strongest impression at the halfway point in Cannes is the extraordinary filmmaking talent from all over the place, especially, so far, from south of the United States.

For example number one, Mexican director Fernando Mierelles does Blindness, and he pulls it off--rather to well, in fact, for this is a agonizingly dystopic story of the world gone blind, literally so, person by person, one by one.  A mysterious malady afflicts everyone sooner or later, or so it would seem.  Strangely, this blindness is not darkness but white light, a milky white, the experience and look of which Mierelles conjures up with stunning visual force.  And, in some irony, the part that goes darker is the human self, for the world turns darkly barbaric:  everything stops, wrecks, and just falls apart, including the fabric of the sure thing we call civilization.  When the least disruption to normaly typically brings us all to mild panic, think about this one.

The first fraying occurs when the first victims are made exiles, as in Lost, sort of, only without vision and not on a lush island, but in abandoned prisons and hospitals and left to fend for themselves, no one wishing to near for risk of infection.  A health gestapo rounds up the stricken and throws away the key, giving them barely enough to eat and letting them run themselves in a horrific game of existential Blind Man's Bluff (women and children too, actually).

Things do not go well inside and out.  And that Mierelles displays with uncomfortable honesty and immediacy, for violent predatory anarchy ensues--everywhere (this version of the film is supposedly a tamed down one; given that, I think I might pass on a Director's Cut on DVD).  And while graphic and haunting, Mierelles does not pander the sensational or lurid, for what happens we know darn well is all too possible, and it is neither diverting nor exciting in this very real horror flick.

Through all of this does come hope, in spite of it all, or because of it all.  How deep or trustworthy that is, well, each viewer will have to assess deep in their soul's own reckoning.  In this regard, the film resembles a number of other offerings that end with inconclusiveness, leaving questions that puzzle and gnaw, as maybe good art should. 

More later on those, and on Cannes the event.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Day One

Thursday, May 15, 2008
Cannes, France

It seems a bit strange to go to sunniest France, 300 plus days a year, to do little more day after day than sit in the dark.

Of course, things are neither quite so bright (mostly rain forecast) nor so dark, given what happens inside the dark.  What happens in the dark in the seaside town of Cannes is the Cannes Film Festival--the 61st, in fact--the most celebrated and glitzed of all international film fests.  Four thousand journalists invade, and I'm imitating one.  And there are many more folks here, the industry hordes, supposedly around ten thousand, who do the hyping, dealing, and partying. Journalists watch.  At least the ordinary ones do.  There are a select few--the likes of Turan, Ebert, Scott, Denby--whose comments can make or break a film, and they, of course, get to hobnob and party with the glitter.

Sometimes lost in the tinsel of the twelve days of hype and red-carpet star parade is the product, the movies themselves, assembled from around the world, usually the best work of the best directors, submitted early, and selected by an official jury (Sean Penn is this year's chair) to compete for the grand prize Palme d'Or.  About twenty-five films are in the running, and quite a list it is, a banner year indeed, although that always depends on one's taste in movies.  

There's much to like, at least in prospect.  The honor of opening the Festival went to Fernando Meirelles' Blindness, an apocalyptic tale of a world gone blind, literally so.  Meirelles is stunning with nightmare, first in City of God (2002) and then in the film version of John LeCarre's The Constant Gardener (2005).  The new film ends, so says the blurb, with some sort of redemption.

And there are many more promising offerings, films by Win Wenders, Walter Salles, Atom Egoyan, Woody Allen, and the Dardenne brothers.  Steven Soderberg comes with two films on Che Guevara, posing the big riddle of why exactly.  Clint Eastwood has a new film as well, Changeling, and Steven Spielberg has brought his new Indiana Jones installment.

As the saying goes, we shall see.