Venice Days 2015
This is Broe on the World Film Beat. Everyone has now left the Lido at the end of the Venice Film Festival, but I’m still here with a review of the fest best, and worst; films you’ll be seeing in theaters this season (those are mostly the worst films) and films you may have to hunt down to see (those are the best films).
Best of the best Amos Gitai’s Rabin, The Last Day, mixing documentary, dramatic recreations and journalistic expose to recount the climate around the assassination of the Israeli prime minister at the moment in 1995 the film claims firmly planted Israel on its current belligerent path. Shimon Peres says the Israeli right had promoted an atmosphere of sedition at the time of the assassination. And the film questions how Israeli security, which includes the Mossad, the most feared and successful intelligence organization in the world, let an assassin linger in the area for hours waiting to strike. A psychoanalyst declares Rabin schizophrenic, out of touch with reality, for wanting peace, and the film allows us to instead draw the conclusion that it is Zionism that is schizophrenic, a doctrine that preaches war and hate – and claims that is reality. An excellent look inside the more fanatical aspects of a society where peace has been abandoned in favor of endless war and love thy neighbor has turned into “build bigger fences”.
Also best of the best, Behemoth – Movingly poetic deconstruction of the coal industry in China’s Inner Mongolia using the framework of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where hell, in flaming red, is the rape of the earth in the coalmining process, purgatory is the grey waste of human lives as an appendage of the process and heavenly blue is the effacing of the marks of destruction in the glimmering corporate modern city, devoid of humanity and oblivious to nature.
Monster of 1000 Heads. Shot in Mexico this film is about a woman’s interaction with the medical bureaucracy and her increasing frustration as she moves up levels of an uncaring capitalist machine in which no one is ever guilty, but which nevertheless destroys her family.
Underground Fragrance – The New York Times calls this style of filmmaking Asian miserabilism via Tsai Ming Ling who this director Song Pengfei credits as his mentor. The film, following in the footsteps of Jie Zhang-ke’s Still Life, is the story of three individuals whose lives cross in their struggle to maintain their dignity in an area in rapidly corporatizing Beijing that developers are trying to clear.
Heart of a Dog is a touching transfer to the screen of what remains of the early 1980s lower Manhattan performance art aesthetic by one of its main proponents Lori Anderson. The narration, visuals, and music create an overwhelming mood of sadness and loss at the death of her dog Lolabelle, a sculptor she knew, and her mother. Hovering just offscreen and acknowledged in the end is the real death she is contemplating, that of her partner Lou Reed whose song concludes the film on an eerily poignant note. The film also takes on surveillance after 9/11 and the fact that the phenomenological approach to art that marked this downtown scene, with personal moods, feelings and stories revealing the universe, may be dwarfed by the utterly impersonal reduction of us all to simply data.
Madame Courage is the name of the drug that the film’s protagonist uses to prop himself up and keep going in a world where he is utterly unloved. This Romeo and Juliet in the Algerian slums paints a desperate but heartbreaking portrait of the city’s forgotten.
Bonus film I liked, not to mention last week’s Neon Bull and Bleak Street:
Frederic Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights. There are 167 nations represented in Jackson Heights, Queens, and besides celebrating diversity, the film’s focus is on the ousting of small businesses, largely Spanish, from the area and their replacement with chain stores. Not to be missed, in a series of stirring vignettes, is a Mexican woman’s extended monologue about how she was finally able to get her sister to the US.
Now we come to “less than meets the eye,” as Andrew Sarris would say:
I mentioned last week the out and out racist import of Beasts of No Nation, nuff said on that.
Looking for Grace. This Australian snoozer was the most hyped film going into the festival. The director, Sue Brooks’, affection for her Australian middle class characters, which translates as bad Raymond Carver, derails any attempt to understand those characters. She doesn’t even explain why the lead teen character, Grace, ran away, because that might expose the underlying lovability of this very troubled class. In a Rashoman moment she gives us what the director thinks is a key moment in three different points of view. The problem is the moment is not that significant. In the end the film uses the worst plot cliché, the sudden death out of nowhere of a lead character, a sure sign of running out of narrative steam or gutless refusal to examine the implications that the film raises.
Black Mass. The story on this ‘true life’ gangster saga is that Johnny Depp is back. That’s only true though if you thought that he had ever arrived, that his combination of acting ticks and crowd pleasing shtick amounted to actual performances. Whereas before he was all animated emptiness, now he’s slowed down to a kind of prosthetic death beneath the hard-boiled makeup. The rest of the film is third rate Goodfellas with its expose of power instead turned back into neighborhood vengeance, accomplished with sadistic glee. An all-around stinker.
Spotlight is an interesting journalistic procedural but in the end the matter of fact quality of the exposure of the Catholic Church’s coverup in Boston of priest’s sexual abuse is itself a kind of coverup of the actual violence involved in the abuse which we feel not at all. The film is too smugly in love with its own do-gooded-ness, epitomized by Michael Keaton’s condescending performance as the leader of the journalists, to really make us feel what its victims experienced.
Childhood of a Leader is structured by the tantrums of the child, a future head of a vague tototaltarian state. It has a bombastic visual style emphasizing the horror of the child and his upbringing with a booming soundtrack that makes John Williams sound like Philip Glass, with both sound and visuals searching for a theme to attach themselves to. The film ends up not as complex psychodynamics but as cheap horror. Lets call it Rosemary’s Fuhrer, as Wilhelm Reich meets The Omen.
The Clan. Politically retrograde film from Argentina’s Pablo Trapero how has given up trying to match the elan of his first two films, Crane World and El Bonaerense. This one set on the moment of the breakup of the dictatorship is instead about a left-wing criminal family which struggles without morals, ruining the life of the male teen protagonist who wants really nothing more than to play Rugby which in the film’s muddled-headed and oh-so-commercial terms seems to be its answer for social activism.
As I sign off from the Lido, I want finally to mention Tsai Ming Ling’s Afternoon, a long poignant discussion of Tsai, who I think it’s fair to refer to in his promotion of all types of outsiders as the Taiwanese Pasolini, and his muse, his main actor, Lee Kang-Sheng as Tsai claims to be winding up his career. So different as a reflection on a career than another doc at the festival, on Brian DePalma presenting a standard array of his clips from previous films, this simple single shot, with the screen going black in changing the cartridge like Hitchcock’s Rope, highlights ultimately Tsai’s thoughtfulness but also the actor’s extraordinary naturalness which allowed Tsai to build so many key sequences around him.
This is Broe on the World Film Beat, live from the Lido, with my coverage of the Venice Film Festival. The big story on the opening of the festival this year the way the rivalry between the major studios and the online services, becoming studios themselves, played out on the Lido. Venice had led off the last two years with the Academy Award Winners Gravity and Birdman, both of which were anointed at the festival and went on to easily sweep the awards. This year the major studio opening was Everest with Jake Gyllenhaal whose film Demolition also opened the Toronto fest. This alpine snoozer is not going to win the Academy Award, and even festival director Alberto Barbera described it as a film that had ‘great special effects,’ the kiss of death because it implies ‘and nothing else,’ which is the way most critics judged the film.
LISTEN TO THE COVERAGE HERE
Going head to head with the studio powerhouse opening was Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation. Netflix did not produce the film, merely picked it up for distribution as the majors often do, planning on distributing mainly not in theaters but to its 67 million subscribers. The mode of distribution is very different with the streaming service claiming it never looks at box office numbers. The major theaters have refused to pick up the film for its October 16th release, judging it a threat to their industry but it will be released in Mark Cuban’s Landmark theaters where it will qualify for the Academy Awards.
The synergy around the two releases in terms of them benefitting both the companies and the festival was striking. Everest shot in the Italian Alps region of Alte Adige was also an advertisement for shooting in that region which is increasing dramatically as has shooting in Italy as a whole since the government has granted a 25%, not rebate, but simply discount. This has occasioned new Chinese productions in a three-picture deal and the new James Bond film Spectre with as one report noted ‘impressive car chases around the Colosseum.” The Netflix film, about the horrors of child soldiers in Africa as well as being a prestige picture designed to challenge for the academy award at a prestige opening, was timed to hit Venice a bit before Netflix opens this fall in Italy. The film was also directed by Cary Fukanaga, the show runner for True Detective and thus was designed to prove that television auteurs, a big part of Netflix and Amazon’s claim to studio status so far, could compete with cinema auteurs.
The film won the award for best child actor, which, considering there weren’t many, is a little like saying it had great special effects. At Cannes, independent impresario Harvey Weinstein said the streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, etc) were the future of more mature film production. That is not true in this case. Beasts made my five worst films for being an out and out racist portrait of Africa regurgitating every possible cliché in the Idris Elba warlord character as the utter corruption of the revolutionary era of independence but in no way explaining how Africa got to be this way and who, meaning the colonial powers, was responsible. All this was done under cover of being a transcription of a book by a Nigerian author. This is the Blackhawk Down version of history where there is only the present and no past causes.
On the other hand at the festival Venice itself did intrude. Fest director Barbera acknowledged that one of the reasons work had not finished yet on a new press hall was that last year the mayor of Venice was arrested, this because of the Mose scandal where millions have been contributed not only in Italy but throughout Europe which regards Venice as part of its patrimony to build a series of gates that would prevent the city from flooding. The new mayor this year during the festival explaining why work still is not proceeding claimed that the problem is not corrupt officials siphoning money from the public trough but ‘human error.’
Actress and model Elisa Sednaoui opened the festival declaring that ‘we will not let Venice be transformed into a Euro Disney.” Of course, she then introduced Everest which along with the remake of Ben Hur and James Bond in the Roman Coloseum was part of a film industry reduction of Italy to a theme park.
Finally, the immigration question, so disturbing in Europe, burst onto the Lido, with demonstrators and African immigrants actually having their moment on the red carpet where they demanded one Europe without walls and asylum for all not just so-called political refugees, since they are all equal and all fleeing the poverty of Africa.
And now to the films. I was very much out of sync with the Alphonso Cuaron, Mexican director of Gravity, jury, It prized what I thought was a non-political film from Venezuela, From Afar, and gave Best direction to Pablo Trapero The Clan, utterly bewildering for a politically retrograde film that was one of my worst, Most astoundin of all was the prize to Childhood of a Leader, which I and many others thought a clear choice for worst film of the festival in its muddle headed and Hollywood histrionic attempt to understand fascist psychology. Let’s call it, as a nod to Michael Haneke’s actual exploration of fascist historiographics—the White Ribbon for Idiots.
The jury was heavy on rewarding unknowns but for my mind at the expense of ignoring much more substantial work and my two best films who share best director were Amos Gitai’s Rabin the last days, whose subject is really Isreael as schizophrenic nation that has rejected peace and Liang Zhao’s Behemoth which uses the framework of Dante’s Divine Comedy to poetically render the hell that is the coal industry in China and elsewhere.
Let me point to two major trends this week which I believe will influence film releasing in the next year and many of these films you will be seeing in the US over the next year. One is a very clear distinction between the haves and have nots in the films this year. Those outside the neo-liberal order, trying to survive it figured in films from Italy (Non Essere Cattivo--Do Not Be Bad--,a supposed updating of the Roman underclass of Pasolini’s Accatone), China (Underground Fragrances inspired by the work of Tsai Ming Ling) and most stunningly Mexico in Arturo Ripstein’s Calle de Amargura, literally Street of Bitterness, to be released in the US as Bleak Street, a kind of Los Olvidados for the aged about the lives of worn down sex workers.
This trend is exemplified, for example, in two films from Brazil, one Neon Bull, in my five best, about the changing life in the northeast, the poorest region and site of worker struggles. This film about Brazilian rodeo focuses not as American films do, on the star of the rodeo, the cowboys, but instead on the bulls and the humans who attend them by readying them for the cowboys.The film compares the impoverished lives of each. However, as in so many of the interesting films, the focus is not only on exploitation, but on overcoming it, even as northeast Brazil becomes filled with malls and nuclear plants, the lead supposedly macho character follows his desire by working at being a clothing designer.
On the other side from Brazil, was another of my five worst, Mate-me Por Favor, Kill Me Please. And yes I was thinking kill me please several times as I was forced to watch a smarmy privileged teen film whose heroines, menaced by a serial killer, seem to have no interaction with the rest of their society unlike the far better film from this year from Brazil Casa Grande, to be released in November in the US, where the teenage boy does get exposed to how the other 99% lives.
The other major trend is that this was the year for the revival and particularly of the Italian revival. These films will open in the US at Moma’s October series To Preserve and Protect. The festival began on an incredibly high note, as opposed to the false high based only on the altitude of Everest, with Orson Welles Merchant of Venice, supposedly part of a CBS series called Orson Welles Bag, which CBS could not tolerate for even a single episode and pulled the plug. The 30 minute show has been reconstructed and features Welles’ intro in 1969-at the time of American racial strife-which stresses the importance in that time of racial intolerance of Shakespeare’s tale about breaking that prejudice for Jews in Venice, the city from which the word ghetto comes.
The show culminates in Welles speech as Shylock about his humanity and throughout suggests that the Venetian power structure is nefariously organized against its outsiders. The restorers did not have the sound track from the ‘69 version so they used a Mercury Theater soundtrack with Welles doing Shylock’s speech from 1938, producing the eerie but delirious effect of two Welles, with voice and image 30 years apart.
The rest of the Italian revivals were equally strong and included:
1973s Vogliamo I Colonnelli (We Want the Colonels) by Mario Monicelli. This film charts a gathering of all the right wing elements from the legislature, the nobility, and the army to stage a coup, but they are all too old. The officer reading the coup notes forgets his lines and another has a heart attack as he is about to take over the media. Funny but also telling assemblage of the Italian right which attributes to it much of the violence of the early ‘70s in the the anni di piombo, the years of lead.
1953’s La Lupa (The Shewolf) by Alberto Latuada. My best of all the revivals. This missing piece of work by the director of Il Bandito, The Bandit, was seen at the time by the Italian left as not neorealist and by the right as too neorealist. Both ahead and behind its time, this is a tale of an ancient village with houses still hollowed out of the mountains and a woman who will not have her pleasure abated seducing a soldier first in a cave and later again after he has married her daughter and while the daughter is giving birth. The film features women angrily storming a tobacco factory that will not give them work and is a combination, as with the work of Guiseppe De Santis of Bitter Rice fame, of Italian operatic extreme melodrama and on location neorealism. Wonderful revival.
1977’s I Mostri by Dino Risi featureds two great Italian actors in a film that deserves to be seen outside Italy. Ugo Tognazzi and Vittorio Gasman in a series of sketches, many hilarious, that together add up to a satire of Italy in full economic revival as a country whose institutions are utterly corrupt, from the father who instructs his son on who to cheat and get ahead in lines by faking a medical condition to the lawyer who humiliates a witness who comes forward to tell the truth.
Finally, the jury award for best restoration, 1975’s Salo or 120 Days of Sodom. Very prescient film today. Pasolini’s tale of depravity in the last days of the war under the fascist-nazi regime, his telling statement that sex is really power written on the body is so true today when the over 63% of internet users watching porn believe themselves free and instead are utterly bound to bourgeois convention that is as deformed in its calculated depravity for profit as Pasolini’s fascists. The directors is utterly aware of this coming mass fascistization of sex at the time of his making of this, his last, film. The real thing more than makes up for the shoddiness of last year’s abysmal Abel Ferrara biopic on Pasolini.
This in Broe on the World Film Beat signing off from the Lido. Next week, in time for their foray into cinemas this fall, I’ll be discussing my best and worst, including Tsai Ming Ling’s extraordinary bow out of filmmaking and the non-return of Johnny Depp.
My Cannes Best of the Rest
LISTEN TO THE SHOW HERE
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed films in the main Cannes competition. Well, I just can’t get enough of the festival so this week, in my final report I will be looking at the best and worst films outside the main competition. Some of these films will play the New York Film Festival and then open in the US, a few will open before the festival, and some may never get a distributor. Nevertheless what follows are films to watch for or watch out for and some exhilarating and disturbing trends.
Thanks especially to Paris’ Forum des Images, Reflet Medicis and the Cinemateque which allowed me to catch up on films I missed at Cannes.
First, back to La Loi du Marche, The Law of the Market, a Cannes competition film that won for best actor and that in the US will be released with the utterly depoliticized title The Measure of a Man. The film, which I discussed previously, about a worker forced to take a surveillance job in a supermarket where he must collar “shoplifters” who he realizes are as poor as he is, is a huge box office hit in France where the so called Socialist President Holland’s main problem is a perpetually high unemployment rate since he has sworn to change that situation. Law of the Market, about capitalist cruelty, opened wide in France, though on less than half the screens of the global American summer blockbuster Mad Max and has been competing favorably with both that film, and the disaster film San Andreas. Apparently in France there is some taste for facing problems directly instead of sublimating them under the spectacle of an apocalyptic future or a catastrophic present. (The publicity line for San Andreas here is “Where will you be?”, meaning, when the ultimate earthquake hits. I always answer to myself, “Not sitting in a theater watching this piece of crap, that’s for sure.”
As I said in the last report, my Palme D’Or for best film goes hands down to Jia Zhangke for Mountains May Depart, which really should be titled Mountains May Move. Outside the main competition, my prize goes to two films, strangely both American, and which may prove there is life in the American indie; that is, that the form has not entirely degenerated into pseudo-psychoanalytical naval gazing. The first, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is a stirring example of the best the Sundance film festival and its related development fund is capable of producing. The film, set on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation--Yes the site of the Wounded Knee uprising signaled obliquely in the film--is a loving portrait of the struggles on a contemporary res of a Lakota teenage girl against alcoholism, a broken home, and the lure of the outside world. In a reverse Good Will Hunting, the film instead of privileging the genius character who gets away instead stakes its claim on the touching decision of a character who will stay and attempt to make his situation and that of everyone else’s better. First time film by a Chinese female director Chloe Zhao who spent considerable time on the reservation which paid off in a loving and complex treatment of the lives of the Lakota which also, to refer back to Jia Zhangke’s agrarian bias, relates the Lakota struggle globally to that of the Chinese peasant.
As for my second prized film, Jeffrey Saulnier had a critical hit here in France and in the US with last year’s Blue Ruin but it in no way prepares for the splendor that is The Green Room. It’s as splendorific as a splatter film can be. Saulnier has entirely reinvented the horror film by crossing it with a by now archaic but still enervating punk sensibility. Among the accomplishments are: a politicizing of the horror film as the punk left, from DC, battles the punk right from the unwashed northwest as the lead singer, in a club that time forgot, blasphemes fascist punks and gets a hostile reception that rivals the original Sex Pistols’ tour of the US; a reinvigorating of the final girl from Scream fame, as this time a hard-bitten formation of a final couple; and a punk take, in one of the great last lines of any film ever, on the Hollywood notion of the repeated phrase that is reprised as part of the happy ending. I won’t give away the line but I’m dying too. All this while stressing not the digital manufacturing of horror of a worn out Jurassic World, whose “world” is simply the prefabricated Universal amusement park ride and video game, but the relishing of using the accoutrements of classic horror design for effects that are scary, gross, cheesy and touching all at the same time. The b-film rises, walks, and lives again among us.
A welcome entry in the genre of immigrant films is Mediterranea, which begins in a hand held sequence that has become de rigeur for showing the trauma of the journey since Ken Loach’s California crossing in Bread and Roses, here of two immigres from Burkina Faso. The film then details their being robbed in Algeria and barely making it to land in their small boat, a part of the trip described in detail in a French film Pirogue. It then actually begins when they land in Italy, the real subject of this film which traces the difficult relations of the two men among the Italians who are variously interested, amused and utterly hostile and contemptuous of them. The film, in a denouement torn from the pages of the French and Italian current rousting of immigrants, ends with a forced evacuation of their shanties, which utterly deprives them of their sole means of coping with the pressures of attempting to find a better life for themselves in a country and a continent that is narrow-minded and unwelcoming of groups that can reinvigorate and enliven the standard culture while also contributing to paying the costs of a decaying social welfare system. A must see and an important addition to this genre.
Next I want to focus on two films treating a similar theme very differently and that theme is the repercussions of violence against women, One, the South Korean film Shameless, a Korean police noir, suggests a radical gesture as the solution to the problem, and the other film, the Indian-European co-production Masaan is replete with what I call “neo-liberal, neo-realism” where the veneer of a social trajectory hides behind what is basically a market solution to the question. Shameless recalls in its detailing of the unceasing brutality and corruption of the South Korean police Unjust in which in the end the seemingly heroic and handsome cop is so despised he is killed by his own men. This film likewise presents the cop as initially above reproach in a Vertigo-like scenario where he tracks the girlfriend of a murderer waiting for the murderer to arrive. But the cop seduces the woman, torn between both men, and then betrays her and it is her violent gesture at the end against his sanctioned psychological violence masquerading as righteous moral defense of the law that constitutes in her vengeance a truly radical gesture. Masaan on the other hand is a smarmy liberal look at the horrors of traditional Indian society where a young girl’s act in meeting a companion for sex in a hotel is discovered and she is ostracized in a way that deploys the female issue as a way of attacking Hindu society seemingly for its inability to grant the modern woman freedom but in fact more for its recalcitrance in refusing to accept the corporate digital lifestyle the woman and her companion are so accustomed to.
While we’re on the subject of neo-liberal remakes, there is the French The Anarchists which likely will be featured in Rendezvous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center next spring and which traces the lives of an anarchist brigade in the Paris of the 1890s, with the sons and daughters of the Paris Commune supposedly carrying on their parents’ fight. Unfortunately, these anarchists, unlike the actual historical movement the film is discussing, are only initially related to the concerns of the underpaid and scantily sheltered factory workers they seem to represent and instead end up looking more in their fashion plate nonchalance like a dot.com start up team whose gauzily filmed final criminal act looks more like a software demonstration than a bank robbery. The subject of anarchism in the wake of the Haymarket killings was much better treated in the first season of the British television series Ripper Street.
Much worse but in an equally neo-liberally blithe manner, as part of the Babelization of film culture, that is, following from that film’s incorporation of all perspectives into a corporate Hollywood perspective, is A Perfect Day, supposedly set in the Bosnian War but utterly unconcerned with the circumstances or background of the war as part of the corporate parceling of Yugoslavia. Instead of an actual sense of the war, what we get, from Spanish director Fernando Leon de Aranoa who once did the very stirring Mondays in the Sun on Spanish unemployment and who ought to know better, is a film lionizing foreign aid workers We have Americans (Tim Robbins), Spanish-Americans (Benizio del Toro) and the obligatory in this new type of Euro-American neo-liberal trash, Angelina Jolie look alike, Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, all cynical but underneath with hearts of gold. The film, as is the problem with so many of these types of films, ends up utterly enraptured with war, just from the side here of the aid workers whose hard-bitten, fairly uncaring, attitude is only the liberal side of Kathryn Bigelow’s soldiers in love with war in The Hurt Locker. The two together prove the mainstream neo-liberal consensus on war as derring-do component of globalization, not so much war is hell as war as for sale.
On the other hand, outside the liberal consensus is a film from Columbia, where there is a creative cinema boom, Embrace of the Serpent, by Ciro Guerra about the interaction between a German explorer and the last member of a tribe in the Amazon. This is Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God from the indigenous point of view or at least from both perspectives. There are two different time frames with the second Apocalypse Now version of the story unneeded, but the earlier just after the turn-of-the-last-century tale is a painful examination of the European mentality and its interaction with the indigenous. This is no domesticated Last of the Mohicans and the native Karamakate in what should have been the final scene burns down the tree that represents the pinnacle of native culture and learning to keep it from falling into the hands of the German explorer who as he says is not in himself evil but who presages the arrival of the drug companies and patent wars which are never far behind even the most benign explorer or supposed seeker after truth.
We’ll end with what is really the most difficult film to discuss, and that is, The Arabian Nights, a trilogy of over six hours by Miguel Gomes whose nominal subject is Portuguese austerity. The film’s intertwined documentary and fictional heart is in the right place, unfortunately its formalist head is elsewhere, that is, stuck somewhere else, if you know what I mean. Gomes utilizes multiple sources in this supposedly retelling of The 1001 Nights complete with Scheherazade describing the kingdom being ruled by a rapacious king, read the IMF and the European Central Bank, and opening with voices of shipworkers explaining how they were brutally let go over footage of them still inhabiting the port where they worked.
The problem is that Gomes is a formalist at heart and foremost and it hurts in this film. In the opening, he is speaking to the camera and then goes and hides and the crew chases him, just as he often hides what he has to say behind the formalist veneer throughout the film. His constant deconstruction of the stories rather than being exhilarating, as it often is in Godard, seems at cross purposes with what he is saying. That is, to tell a story, as American television knows, is often a sign of energy and vitality; to continually frustrate the telling of a story, on the other hand, in a film structured around the promise of story, is often to reduplicate the defeated lack of energy of the victims of austerity. The formal conventions of questioning every narrative moment here ultimately signifies exhaustion rather than critique. Nevertheless, his recounting of the folk traditions which enable resistance, from peasant bird collectors in the city to the anxiety of losing a dog is a catalogue of people’s thought and reactions to a crisis which has devastated the country.
That concludes this year’s Cannes Report and this is Broe on the World Film Beat. I and the beachcomers are the last ones on the beach and it’s time for me finally to go home.
Cannes Competition Wrapup: Tales of Sound and Fury (And a couple of films of substance)
Two points to continue last week’s discussion about Cannes as mega storefront for luxury goods. The first involves the controversy over women having to wear high heels, with Emily Blunt at the premiere of Sicaria and others reacting against the prohibition that was then denied. The point of the convention is that women walk the red carpet not as actresses, or not as actresses primarily, but as manikins—as movable billboards and high heels are part of that fashion fetish. At same moment as Cannes this year was supposedly celebrating women in a festival panel organized around them, the red carpet economy trumped women’s liberation or even their comfort.
Second point. Along with the red carpet economy, last week I talked about how the Kering Company (Gucci, Chanel) influenced film selection, and this week I will return to that with Salma Hayek as fashion model more than actress in the way she is used in the film Tale of Tales. In another way though, many of the French films this year--with the exception of the political film The Law of the Market whose American title is the depoliticized The Measure of a Man—were about what might be termed lifestyle excesses; sensational ways of being that simply conform to the high end bourgeois extravagant market concept of living that propels the luxury companies that finance Cannes. Thus French badboy Gaspar Noe, this year returns to Cannes with Love which is auteur porn, and the catch or the enhancement being, it’s in 3D, (you know the way things shoot off the screen at the audience in 3D, well… That’s enough of a visual I don’t think I have to go further). Also on the agenda was incest, presented not as a factor of unequal sexual economy but as intriguing lifestyle choice in Marguerite and Julian and that staple of the French repertoire the philandering male featured in both Philip Garrell’s The Shadow of Women and Woody Allen’s (who at this point is an honorary French director) Irrational Man. Again the films and their reception rather than challenging any aspect of contemporary life seem more about setting up an atmosphere for the selling of luxury products to continue unabated, much the way television advertisers seek out shows that set up the proper atmosphere for their products.
A word on Cannes Prizes. The Cohen Brothers Jury I thought made only one good choice, Vincent Lindon for Law of the Market, while on the whole rewarding obscurely political films like the validation of the struggle of the Tamils (Dheepan) and a concentration camp film (Son of Saul) rather than taking up films that dealt with deeper tragedies like Jia Zhangke’s brilliant expose of capitalism’s ruinous effect on the emotional life of its victims, Moutains May Move and the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ three-film look at the devastation on the country of austerity in his retelling of A Thousand and One Nights,” of which more next time.
Here is a breakdown of a few of the films:
Law of the Market is the best Dardenne Brothers, perennials at Cannes, film the Dardennes never made. Vincent Lindon is simply superb as a down-on-his luck worker who finally gets a job as a sort of supermarket security guard who confronts shoplifters. What he finds though is that they are simply poor people, aged, or minority residents who can’t because of the economy, afford to pay. This is the American Paul Blart Mall Cop with the class tensions intact instead of mocked. Much of the film is written on the faces of Lindon’s slightly world-weary worker and those of the victims of this destroyed economy, with the director, Stéphane Brizé surrounding Lindon’s Peter Sellers like absorption of the indignities of an embattled class in a Being There for the age of austerity with real workers in the service economy. A scene with Lindon responding to the detached voice of a prospective employer which emanates from his computer in a way that suggests the inhumanness of this way of more casually dismissing people is a master class in deadpan authenticity and throughout the actor modulates his performance to that of the actual workers cast in the film. My choice also for best actor and one of the best films.
One of the best films of this or any year is Mountains May Depart by Chinese master Jia Zhangke. Jia has been documenting China’s often brutal transition to capitalism for 20 years and the French have this year taking to calling him the Chinese Balzac because of his desire to chart the social and political history of modern china, but if he keeps on giving us masterwork after masterwork, we are going instead to have to start referring to Balzac as the French Jia Zhangke. I mean it and his work is that good; this is not just hyperbole. His last film was in the generic key of noir, about how often irrational violence has accompanied as a more than inevitable byproduct China’s rise to capitalist great power status. This time he employs the melodrama, quoting in the film’s most affecting second part Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. His actress Tao Zhao, who should have been Cannes’ best actress this year and is mine, in this, the best film, is a woman who initially in a Jules and Jim scenario must choose between the aspiring capitalist in leather jacket with car to match or her real love, the peasant miner in faded jeans. She makes the wrong choice of the capitalist which haunts her but not as much as the loss of her son, simply named Dollar, to his father in Australia. This is an old-fashioned weepie, an extraordinary melodrama about the power, persistence and finally resilience of this Chinese woman in the face of an argument the film is persistently making that in global capitalization China is losing its soul.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, distributed by the Weinsteins, is a tale of sound and fury signifying Oscar, but little else. There are three Oscar notable performances, as well as likely prestiege Best Picture nomination in the works for this grouping of Euro superstars, with Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth and Sean Harris as Duncan also Oscar worthy, whatever that mean. But while a former Weinstein Oscar winner Shakesphere in Love was lighter than air, this one is darker than a cesspool, but for little meaning or purpose. Polankski’s Macbeth began with the remnants of the battle; this one begins in full 300 type carnage mode with the battle itself. It is possible to do a political Macbeth. Orson Welles at the time of a political change in the US with the more conservative Truman usurping Roosevelt’s New Deal has Duncan fleeing Macbeth’s terrorized kingdom just as Welles was about to flee the US. Here the meaning leans in the other direction. After the last election, with the British Labor Party in utter disarray, Scotland is now the citadel of the left in the British Isles. It is finally David Cameron’s England which in the film finances Macduff to destroy the dream of Scottish independence, even this sordid one of Macbeths, so the film is utterly conservative in every possible way and will likely succeed in the US as also did another Weinstein Eurobrew, The Artist.
A far stranger film in a similar vein is Matteo Garone’s Tale of Tales, adapted from the Neopolitan hard-edged proto-fairy tales of Giambattista Basile. This mix of Euro and global actors recalling the super productions of the 1970s and 80s used to be called a euro pudding. Unfortunately, this highly commercialized mess isn’t even Euro jello. The various tales are in style poised somewhere between Passolini’s raunchy peasant inspired Decameron and EuroDisney, with the pendulum often swinging in the direction of the latter. Salma Hayek as the queen struts the runway, in one case the palace maze, in a series of gowns that can not on their own constitute a character. John C. Reilly acquits himself best, because he has the good sense to abandon the film early and not return. Vincent Cassell reprises his Europervert role from Brotherhood of the Wolf, but this time without the critical quality of lambasting a decadent aristocracy. So this is simply licentious lip smacking. The film claims to tap the peasant sensibility of the Naples countryside, but too often instead, as in the finale where the teen princess alone triumphs, what is being tapped is the commercial sensibility of Sophia Coppola ala The Bling Ring. Run don’t walk, away from Tale of Tales.
I’ll be back next time with my Croisette clean up, sweeping up in Cannes after all the other critics have gone home and bringing you the best of the films outside the main competition including a trilogy of films about Portuguese austerity.
Tale Of Tales: Not So Subtle Cultural Imperialism
This is the passing of the mantle of the directorship at Cannes from Thierry Fremeaux to Pierre Lescure and at first look the former director of the pay for view channel Canal Plus would seem to be recharging the world’s largest and most prestigious festival in a way that de-emphasizes the commercial and gets it back to the business of promoting the art and politics of the cinema. Last year it should be said in his favor that he inaugurated the appearance of the television series at Cannes with Bruno Dumont’s Petit Quinquin.
This year 5 of the 19 films in the competition are by French directors, only 2 by Americans and they are somewhat considered outsiders, Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, whose Elephant won here previously. In addition Cannes has a history of opening with a splashy, big budget often awful American summer blockbuster and, maybe because the last two have been such disasters--last year’s monarchical selfie Grace which barely dented the American scene and the year before’s hugely underwhelming, except as a fashion billboard, Great Gatsby--this year Cannes disdained the American blockbuster and instead opened with a French film about juvenile delinquency in the era of the selfie, La Tete Haute, badly translated in its American title as Standing Tall, with the grand dame of French cinema Catherine Deneuve as the judge overseeing the jds case.
However looks can be deceiving and in this case not only have the moneychangers not been driven out of the temple, they have actually slyly taken it over in two not-so-subtle ways. First, while going strictly by auteur, the competition appears to be diverse, nevertheless a good number of the foreign language directors have chosen to work in English with American commercial cinema backing and American actors; a choice, highly conditioned by the market, which has tends to move them away from local, more political and specific concerns and towards a more generalized abstract cinema with a bigger budget. Two extreme cases in point are the Greek director Yorgos Latimos’ The Lobster, with Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly set in an apocryphal future where if you don’t find a mate you’re turned into an animal and which disdains the Greek present where if they don’t pay their debt the Greeks are turned into fodder for the German banks and the Italian Mateo Garrone, best known for his organized crime expose Gamorrah, with Tale of Tales, based on the Neopolitan founder of the fairy tale, Giambatistta Basile’s fractured stories but shot not in Naples but in Ireland and starring Selma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and the ever present John C. Reilly. This not so subtle cultural imperialism can also be reversed as Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director, has chosen this year to work in Mexico in his tale of the corrupting influence of the drug wars in Sicario, but even that film is Americanized with its stars Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt. So as the French paper Liberation pointed out, there is an international cinema packaging, that while it may feature a foreign director in its push for a bigger budget will need to be shot in English with Hollywood stars and thus the globish mix moves the world ever more subtly toward globalization as Hollywoodization and enlists Cannes, the home of the auteur, as a co-conspirator in this process.
The second major commercializing feature of the Lescure era—it was noted that in the festival opening press conference he spoke more about sponsors than about cinema—is the insinuation of brands into the actual filmmaking and film selection process. Particularly active, or ominous, depending on your perspective, this year, which had been called the year of the ‘brandization of Cannes,” is Kering which houses the luxury brands Gucci, Puma and Chanel. Kering was founded by Francois Pinault but is now run by his son Francois-Henri Pinault and the company is this year co-producer of Ice and the Sky which will close the film festival and which has raised some very suspicious eyes. Pinault’s wife Selma Hayek who will be a leader of a panel on women in cinema caused a stir this year with her busty purple gown but perhaps caused a bigger stir by also starring in the competition film Tale of Tales, thus a triple winner for Hayek as Kering Queen.
There is a new or more heightened symbiosis this year between these mostly English language speaking actors and the brands they represent. Take the case of perennial sponsor Chopard, the jeweler. This year the company boasted of having dressed 11 actors for the opening night including Oscar winners Julianne Moore and Lupita Nyongo with Moore then becoming a “godparent” where she supports young actors, like this year’s Lola Kirke from Gone Girl, chosen because they express the company’s “philosophy and values,” the philosophy mainly being of course to “reach new audiences,” that is, to make more money. The values being imparted by the godparent then involve teaching newcomers how to turn their body into a billboard for the rest of their careers because as the company says jewels in a showroom are just nice looking stones but, “on the body of a beautiful actress pieces come alive.” Of course none of this has anything to do with acting or cinema but the infiltration of what is called the ‘red carpet economy’ at all levels of cinema culture continues as Chopard this year sponsored the Lumiere exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris, now linking itself to the birth of cinema.
But what of the Cannes opening of a seemingly topical film about delinquency in the digital era, La Tete Haute. The film itself was roundly criticized as well-meaning but as being too much taken up with Catherine Deneuve and too little concerned with its nominal topic. However, Deneuve redeemed herself not with the critics but with the sponsors by her “stunning” appearance in a Gaultier gown at the premiere; the real purpose of the film then being not to shed light on delinquency but to get Deneuve to the red carpet. And what of the shunning of the monster American summer blockbuster? That didn’t really happen either as Mad Max Fury Road premiered the next day and got the summer season off to a boringly predictable start.
Goodbye from the Croisette from Broe on the World Film Beat. Next week, I’m going to actually talk about some films including the return of the Dardennes in a new guise in the form of the French film The Law of the Market, with an incredibly natural performance by a former union leader as a new Peter Sellers in a Being There for the age of austerity.
Dennis Broe World Film Beat 2014
Top 5 Films
The first thing to say is that in my top 5 and 5 honorable mentions is that there are only two American films and those were both documentaries. So, in my mind, this was not a very good year for American features, and of course the year ended with the most despicable of the lot, The Interview, mercifully being pulled, though now it seems only momentarily, from theaters.
Nevertheless there were films to crow about in the foreign cinema, however most of these either got short shrift or did not get released in the US, and I must say that even New York, a global city, is, if we’re judging from the film world, globally provincial, instead of truly open to the world.
Anyway here goes:
1. Black Coal – Chinese winner at Berlin and an international hit this year, barely shown in the US. Part of a trilogy of Chinese noirs in the last few years, including Jie Zhang-ke’s Touch of Sin and People Mountain, People Sea that in their own quiet way rail against the way that capitalism is destroying the emotional fabric of Chinese society, this one in tracing the isolation around the search for a serial killer in a Chinese coal-mining town in the North, where human value is being
gradual reduced and erased. Bitter, elegiac and truthful.
2. Princess Kaguya – The last work of the Japanese animated Studio Gibli co-anchor Isao Takahata is a resplendent pro-environmental film in that deepest Shinto way about the utter imbrication of the young princess found in the wood and the nature around her, as her well-meaning foster
father attempts instead to enroll her under the artifice of the court. A staggeringly beautiful film that is also in its animation a history of 300 years of Japanese painting and calligraphy. Though said to be the ‘best reviewed film of the year’ elsewhere, utterly ignored by the New York Times, but if there is any sense of justice should win the Animation Academy Award.
3. Two Days, One Night – A return by the Dardennes Brothers to the simpler, more elegant, and more politically direct masterpieces of their earlier years such as La Promesse and Rosetta. This expose of the way the working class has fragmented by buying into an every man and woman
for themselves mentality has the stark directness of The Bicycle Thief, as a female breadwinner, beautifully underplayed by Marion Cotillard, must petition her co-workers to vote down their own raise in order that she not be fired. Best film on the important subject of the breaking down by corporate power of working class solidarity since the forgotten Ken Loach masterwork It’s A Free World.
4. Adieu a Langage – Godard returns, maybe for the last time, here to stunningly apply his avant-garde experiments to that crudest of commercial gimmicks, 3D. It’s a revelation to see how the master refits his subtitles, jagged narrative, philosophical voice over on subjects from the fate of Africa and Palestine to the misuse of the media in an attempt to rethink a device that Hollywood has utterly emptied of meaning. Can you say Green Lantern. All in the context of a love story
questioning through its erstwhile heroine the nature of love or rather its imbrication in commercial representation.
5. My major best unreleased film, most likely unheard of on these shores, is a film by Italy’s Michael Moore, only at this point after Moore’s recent miscues in both defending The Interview and trying to make the Academy Documentary category more exclusive, actually superseding him, is Sabina Guzzanti and her film La Trattativa, The Treaty, an experimental film that in a very Brechtian way mixes documentary footage, reenactments and reflections by Guzzanti and her crew on the subject of the negotiation in 1992 between the mafia and the Italian state, one result of which was the bringing to power of Berlusconi. In both the importance of its subject matter and its utterly exhilarating style, this film is the successor to last year’s breakthrough in the documentary form, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Please help bring it to a theater, or at least a computer, near you.
And the rest, Jimmy’s Hall, Ken Loach’s melancholic comparison of the coopted political climate in the wake of a negotiated Irish Independence in the teen years of the last century and the stultification among European workers today in the post-Recession, austerity climate. Citizen Four, Laura Pointras’ moody portrait of Edward Snowden is a recounting of the difficulties of whistle-blowing in the age of global surveillance, a paean to Snowden’s dedication in pulling off these revelations, and a gloomily visual evoking of the way the secretiveness of this brave new world enshroudes us all in darkness.
The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to last year’s Act of Killing veers toward a more standard documentary portrait but persists in unearthing the dark nature of the Indonesian past, as a man who looks professionally, fitting eye glasses, peers into the souls of the murderers of Sukarno’s workers, artists and labor organizers, murderers who not only walk among the people but in many cases still intimidate them.
Roy Anderson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a hit at this year’s Venice Film Festival which in Anderson’s surreal way explores Sweden’s and Europe’s racist and bloody monarchist past suggesting the link to the present but in a way that is both riotously and heartbreakingly funny.
Giovanni’s Island by Mizuho Hishikubo is by turns an elegiac and bitter Japanese anime about the cross-cultural childhood after World War II of a Japanese boy growing up on an enchanted island in the Kuril Island chain taken over by the Russians. The film persists in exploring against all odds the difficulties but also the rewards of relations between very different cultures as his militarist father is himself brutally imprisoned in a Stalinist gulag while the boy’s first love is a the daughter of the Russian commander. This may be a lot of unknown films, but I would like to say that these Top Tens will be posted at the
James Agee Cinema Circle website under World Film Beat and Broe on the Global Television Beat.
Dennis Broe At The The Cannes Film Festival 2014
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Noir And Capitalism: Class, Crime And International Film Noir.
Long Island University professor and cultural historian Dennis Bros discusses his new book, delving into the connection between the international working class and film noir in movies. And some thoughts about the absence of the working class on screen - but what about when they are actually in movies, or even have a say about the content of those films. Professor Broe has a fascinating wealth of information to share, particularly when it comes to the politics of film noir in movies, and those resistance currents in cinema across the globe. Film noir by definition has historically been a way that filmmakers have symbolically critiqued the global reign of corporate capitalism. And the accumulation of capital, where lives are smashed and dreams are brutally broken. Broe is also the author of Film Noir: American Workers And Post-War Hollywood.
LISTEN TO THE PROGRAM HERE
I'm Dennis Broe and today I will be doing a wrap-up of the Paris Film Festival, 10 days of cinema heaven in the capital of cinema that closed yesterday and that this year remarkable resembled a festival which has also just wrapped up, and which is practically the only reason to endure the big city summer heat and that is New York’s Asian Film Festival in its 11th season. The differences though are instructive.
The film that opened the Asian Film Festival, which is a popular cinema fest that also includes all kinds of exploitational films, was the aptly titled Vulgaria, from Hong Kong about a film about making low budget films and with no skimping on the exploitation. The Paris festival, in its 10th season, opened on the other hand with Hong Kong impresario Johnnie To’s La Vie sans principe, Life Without Principle, To’s account of the impact of the economic crisis on Hong Kong, a selection in last year’s Venice Film Fest which should open soon in the US. The Paris opening selection stressed that here, while there is always the requisite amount of diversions, cinema is, like everything else here, also about politics. To attended the opening and introduced the film by saying he detested the Hong Kong corporations for what they had done to his city, and indeed their emblems absolutely define the city’s skyline in the film’s opening scenes. The film is a multi-character description of the greed that drove this eruption of the crisis in Asia, with the greediest characters all eventually suffering sometimes grisly fates, while the three innocent characters or couples are saved or profit by divine intervention. Best moment of the film is the lovable every-gangster, Panther’s, induction by a former mob crony into the mysteries of the financial markets, where the buddy has made a killing. Panther becomes absorbed in the profit and loss charts, looks up and exclaims excitedly, realizing he has solved the secret of the market, “This is baccarat with graphs.”
There were many more films from Hong Kong, the honoree of the festival, including an opening all-night Johnnie To fest, a film I saw from 2009 called Accident, about a hit-man and woman team in that city who perform killings by designing Rube Goldberg devices that result in the death of the victim and who are finally undone by the mixture of chance and planning that has allowed them to succeed, a film whose somewhat spurious debate between manipulation and fate is sleight, and retros like the director’s cut of Tsui Hark’s 1980s, Dangerous Encouters of the 1st Kind, whose topic is really the end of the student armed resistance moment of the 70s, As martial arts spectacle in disguise with the young Hark cutting his teeth on material that will later be reworked for his wujia epics to come, it was mildly interesting, but as coherent take on the period of the student movement turning violent, as say Fassbinder’s The Third Generation or Wakamatsu’s United Red Army are, it was laughably simplistic with the student’s blowing up things because they felt like it, more David Letterman than Baader Meinhoff. Sort of, “Stupid Terrorist Tricks.”
I saw three of the ten films in the festival’s competition, including new Portuguese sensation Miguel Gomes’ Tabou, a beautiful black and white three part examination of that country’s colonial past that is perhaps the best Raul Ruiz film Raul Ruiz, whose films were also featured in this fest, never made. The film is extraordinary in its experiments with narrative thought ultimately ordinary in where it gets to about the crime of Portuguese colonialism. In continuing with the Asian theme, there was also the South Korean anime King of Pigs, also in the New York fest, which stretches the animated form this time in its evocation of the class brutality of secondary school and being a kind of cartoon version of If, with all the bullying of that film intact. The best of the three films was from Hungary Just the Wind, about the treatment of Roma in that country where beatings and outright slaughter have become more frequent. The film opens with news of one family having been massacred, and, as the three members of another Roma family get up to do their day follows each as they live under the shadow of the massacre. This subterranean terror is excellently described, but there are two problems; one, the film, which crosses the horror with the neo-realist films of say the Dardenne brothers in a way that evokes the great Let the Right One In, ends violently when in fact the psychological violence that it has recounted throughout takes a greater toll and makes the horror film ending seem superfluous and, two, it presents the Roma, gypsies, in a liberal fashion, only as oppressed people, so that their actual culture of opposition and at times outright anarchy which might be a tonic to today’s overly regulated world is diluted by their more bland representation as universal victims. Still, a very interesting film which demonstrates that the recent restitution of the fascist General Horty in Hungary is simply a code for authorizing hate crimes against the non-Magyar minorities.
Finally, to return to the Asian theme, perhaps the strongest film in the festival, was a restoration of the 1960 South Korean film The Servant, a film whose remake was shown two years ago at Cannes. Firstly, this is an unbelievably gorgeous restoration of the original, except for a second half reel that apparently was too fragile to touch, with impeccably precise blacks and whites. The film itself is fairly blunt, as is often the way in the Korean cinema, out and out class warfare between the factory girls in a Korean town and their haughty middle class professor, and his equally entitled children, who teaches them music and lords it over them. The film, made in a brief thawing in the 1960s before a more hardline government returned, is every bit the equal or better than the similarly titled Joseph Losey film, four years later, with Dirk Bogarde. It’s a very dark exploration, like Losey’s, of the hatred of one class for another and the other classes’ imbibing of that hatred and turning it against itself. Coming to an internet video rental site near you, but here in Paris the stunning print has appeared in one of, what seems like hundreds of, repertory theater’s still in existence, and can be seen in its pristine beauty with the rain glistening off the trees as the professor’s maid attempts both to kill him and commit suicide. Now that’s an Asian Film Festival.
You can also listen to this edition of Broe on the World Film Beat on Newsblaze Newswire.
Bro on the World Film Beat
It's Cannestastic: The Simulacrum Abides
Hi, this is Broe on the World Film Beat, today with a Cannes Cleanup.
LISTEN TO BROE'S CANNES CLEANUP REPORT ON ARTS EXPRESS HERE
I’m Dennis Broe and all the other critics have left the Croissette and are home by now, but I’ve remained. I’m here alone sweeping and cleaning up after the event. Actually I didn’t go to Cannes but I did follow it from Paris where the films in three of the four main competitions play in theaters immediately after the event, theaters which include the Forum des Image and Reflet Medicis. Cannes is the main feeding ground for foreign films that will both be featured in the Fall New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and that will be released in the U.S. throughout the year.
The main competition, far from being Cannestastic, was judged a bit lackluster this year, so instead today I’m going to discuss films in competition in the series Un Certain Regard, which generally deals with more established directors who did not make the main competition, and Quinzaine de Realisateurs, or Fortnight of Directors, created the year after the Cannes shut-down in 1968 which was said to have helped provoke the student strikes, and which, in line with the moment of its formation, boasts a strong emphasis on socially relevant films by new or established directors.
I will be reviewing a number of the films and handing out my own awards: My Palme Rouge, the Red Palme, for the most politically engaging film; the Palme Verte, the green palme for a film that makes a worthy contribution to, in line with the color, sustaining the planet aesthetically and spiritually; and, finally, the Palme d’Or de Dinde, the Golden Turkey Palme, to the film which litters the planet with consumerist crap, if I may be so blunt, and it is my segment, so I may be.
Cannestroversy. There are always many controversies at Cannes and this year a major one involved possible jury tampering, as 4 of 6 films which received prizes in a jury presided over by the avowedly left Italian filmmaker Nanno Moretti were distributed by the company Le Pacte distributor of Moretti’s last film Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), a not very good white washing of the power of the Catholic Church about a pope who is uncomfortable about accepting that power—and who bears no relationship to a certain contemporary pope who shall remain nameless but, who, because of his power grabbing, is now the subject of exposes collectively dubbed Vaticangate.
Tierry Fremaux director of Cannes called the Moretti jury’s choices an exercise of their “subjectivity,” as so it is in the film industry where objectivity and subjectivity are always merged, that is, both monetary reward and aesthetics exist side by side—and neither is ever exclusive of the other—and Cannes is the supreme moment of this merger. (There was a similar controversy in 2004 when the Quentin Tarantino jury awarded the top prize, the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore for Farenheit 911, and they shared the same distributor, the Weinstein Company. Fremaux, perhaps worried about a rerunning of these accusations, just prior to the festival, broke his policy of never revealing the jury’s individual decisions and tweeted, and this was the first fully twittered Cannes, that Tarantino had not voted for Moore’s film.)
If you’re looking for a weightier controversy, why not try this one. A habitual sponsor and very public presence at Cannes is Hewlitt Packard, which proudly proclaims that its printers help bring the Cannes Film Festival to life by printing out all of the Cannes signs and transforming the town, and whose wondrous technology also helps aid the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by facilitating the checkpoints and thus also helping “transform” West Bank towns into armed settlements and for which it is currently one of the companies that Palestinians have asked the world to blockade. Of course nothing of this is mentioned on the Riviera where there are as yet no checkpoints, though with the financial crisis and the anger at the banks increasing throughout Europe, that day may come.
First, an overall observation on the films programmed. An overwhelming topic that filmmakers have chosen to deal with, something that seems to be uppermost on their minds given the number and the breadth of films addressing this topic, is what Mike Davis has termed, in light of neo-liberal globalization, now hastened by the economic collapse, the “Planet of Slums.” Thus we have films which deal with this typography in a number of places in the world and which stand in these two competitions in contrast to the main competition where you have the other side, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, where that world is kept carefully outside the hermetically sealed limo of the Wall Street baron who, rather than prowling, parades down the same mean streets that these other directors describe from the inside.
Thus we have God’s Horses about the slums of Casablanca, a film which very much employs the argot of the streets, and is very attuned to that argot, recounting an actual incident where so called “terrorists” exploded bombs in a nightclub. The film is at pains to explain how the making of a “terrorist” is primarily the product of the pronounced class difference between those who explode the bombs who live in the most impoverished outskirts with one of the bombers seeing the inner city for the first time on his mission to destroy it, and those who live in the Eurocentric center where wealth accrues.
White Elephant, by renowned New Argentine Film director Pablo Trapero, traces the attempts by two priests, the older one played by Ricardo Darin of the Academy Award winning Secret in Her Eyes, to ameliorate the effects of gang war and the brutality of the police on those in the inner city of Buenos Aires. The film, though good intentioned, is Trapero still trying to work out how to incorporate blockbuster melodrama, here much toned down from his previous Carancho, with the earlier neo-realism of his two great films Crane World and El Bonaerense, with this film suffering from too much of the Belgium and Spanish priests and too little of the townspeople.
Not to be left out, the U.S. is featured, the Bronx to be exact, in Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot, an again well-intentioned story of male-female, tag-team, graffiti artists whose goal is to leave their mark on Mr. Met at Citifield, which the female character, a very engaging Tashiana Washington, who you will be hearing more of, pointedly refuses to call by its corporate name and persists in calling Shea Stadium. The trajectory of a day when all their attempts to raise the money to bribe the guardian to get access to Mr. Met go wrong is meant to describe the frustrated life of many in this condition, but it is not quite inventive or authentic feeling and sounding enough to make its point resound.
More interesting is the first Columbian film in Cannes competition, La Playa DC, which traces the efforts of a teenage artist, Tomas, and his two brothers to make some kind of living in a place where the streets threaten to kill his younger brother, already addicted and imbibing the drugs he is supposed to be selling, and have already deadened the older brother. Tomas finds a way to use his creativity, expressed around designs to be chiseled into hair—they are all impressed with the US hair style called, The Koby (Go Lakers)—and the film links the family’s tragedy ultimately to the death of their father at the hands of paramilitaries, in a way which suggests that the fascist militarization of the country, supported in the North as the US/Columbia War on Drugs, acts in concert with the poverty to limit its people.
Finally, we have the Algerian street scene in Repenti, which details the fate of a Muslim sect member who has committed acts of violence and who is promised redemption if he reneges on the struggle and becomes a Repenti, a repentant. Unfortunately the film is too little about the Repenti, whose character and past, accused of a bombing in which some in his village were killed, is too little examined. It instead becomes too much a kind of The Bedroom Window—middle class revenge posing as existential angst--with the introduction of a plot about a couple whose marriage is damaged by the group’s kidnapping of their daughter. The film in its middle class, more bourgie stand against terrorism also ends up validating the FLN in Algeria, the reigning powers that be, which have just been accused of rigging the last election.
Down a weirder path tread two widely different, yet in the end maybe not so different, looks at historical figures; Renoir, about the last moments of the father’s life and the moment of the sons’ becoming a director, and, Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu’s, John Milius turn in examining the quest of the militarist writer Michima’s suicide over not being able to lead Japan back to its imperial days by restoring the emperor in 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate. The Renoir film is a British genre, the heritage film—you know all those stolid upright Brit’s who serve the empire with tight upper lip presented in misty Merchant/Ivory shots—transplanted to France, with the heritage in this case the extreme one of the father being the greatest French painter of the 19th century and the son the greatest French director.
Since it’s a French heritage film though, it’s heritage with, as the producers urge in Sullivan’s Travels, a little bit of sex, in this case in the form of the nymph-model who Renoir pere paints, nude of course, and Renoir fils falls for. The film touches on fascinating subjects such as the continuity/opposition of painting/cinema in the history of visual imagery but its heart is still in tasteful bodice ripping and in the end it does not disturb the basic mission of the heritage film which is to clean up the past and make it safe for consumption.
An oddly similar cleanup occurs in Wakamatsu’s Mishima, the director and his subject here being a meeting of one of Japan’s most left directors, participant in the student movement and for a while in the subsequent Red Army, and one of its most right wing ideologues, the renowned writer, subject of a Paul Schrader earlier biopic, whose organization of a right wing band to rearm the military Wakamatsu wonderfully situates in the context of the student protests of the late 1960s, but then relates to the equally distorted left violence of the Red Army, akin to the Weathermen in the US, in a way that, especially in the suicide sequence, seems to negate Mishima’s own brand of craziness and flatten it out.
And now the Palmes, last first. Honorable mention to Pablo Lorain’s No, the third and concluding part of the Chilean director’s Pinochet trilogy, which includes perhaps the finest description of the ways fascism penetrates working class culture in Tony Manero and a second film just released in the US Post-Mortem. No is about the plebiscite that Pinochet authorized in 1988 in which the choices were yes Pinochet or No, no one, and Pinochet lost.
The film might have been a riveting story of the struggle to bring democracy back to Chile and it does not skimp on that aspect of the story, but it is much smarter, and instead focuses on the electoral campaign itself with Gale Garcia Bernal’s advertising assistant for the No opposing his boss, played by Lorain perennial Alfredo Castro, who played Tony Manero, and with both involved in selling candidates just as they sell any other product. It is Lorain’s thesis that the moment of overthrowing Pinochet was also the moment of the triumph of a kind of consumerism that in the end may be far more pernicious. The eerie moment of the triumph will echo loudly with anyone who remembers the giddiness at the moment of Obama’s triumph and the capitulation which to wax Shakespearean about it, followed hard upon as the day the night.
Green Palmare, 2nd place, to Senegalese director Mossa Toure’s Pirouge, a very quiet, very beautiful, very desperate film about Africans from Senegal making a contemporary boat journey to land in Europe that is compared to a kind of Atlantic crossing, recalling the slave journey of their African forebears, with the journey in the present provoked because the country’s natural resources, on the coast in Senegal it is fishing, have been decimated by the Europeans. Along the way, in this journey of a group in an open motor boat, the great sea sagas are recalled, including Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” where literally two ships pass, in this case another vessel like theirs where the motor has died and those aboard will not make it, a kind of eerie foreshadowing of what may happen to them. The ending, their reception in Europe, is heartbreaking and is also, in its very quiet protest and in the way it emphasizes the uncommon dignity of the main character, just right.
Palme Rose, 1st prize, Gangs of Wasseypur. What can you say about a nearly five-and-a-half-hour Indian gangster film that manages to innovatively revive the genre, not least by using it as a vehicle for outlining a history of the political economy of the country since before Independence in 1941, other than, “Bring it on.” So, bring it on. Here’s hoping for a US release of this extraordinary film that is a bridge between the popular melodrama of Bollywood and the more interior sagas of the Indian Independent cinema; think Scorsese, and you will not be far off, especially since the narrator’s continual passages about the overall exploitation of the country and the way the gang’s manipulate that exploitation and the attention paid to how their moneymaking schemes work recalls the wonderful first half of Casino, about the political economy of Vegas.
Which is not to say that there are not brilliant Tarantino touches, such as the long, hilarious discussion about what the real name of the one of the gangsters who calls himself Definite is (It turns out his real name is Definite). I hope American audiences get a chance to see the film (it’s being released in India in two parts in Kill Bill fashion) because they will Definite(ly) enjoy it. Friendly hint, stay to the end, the last sequence is a Godfather-like ceremonial cleansing and also a comment, again, on the disappearing, or disappeared, nature of democracy, western and otherwise, as the bloodbath that becomes the way of resolving problems takes place on election day.
Finally, the Golden Turkey. For a film as embarrassing as it is bad, 7 Days in Havana. It must have sounded like a great idea to the fairly talented 7 directors, including Benecio del Toro and the aforementioned Pablo Trapero, who were each enlisted to make a short film that would supposedly catch the nature of an old-time, now disappearing, Havana. Unfortunately what it does instead, in sometimes painful ways, is project onto Havana old-time colonialism, which if the movie is any indication is in no way disappearing. The problem here isn’t the directors so much as the producers, the Saatchi Ad Agency, who famously also brought you Margaret Thatcher, here acting for its client, Havana Club, the rum makers.
Most of the films center on the tourist hotels and reinvigorate the colonial gaze on the inhabitants, the other whose life beyond the hotels only becomes interesting when it intersects with the guests. You will learn many interesting things from this film about Cuba, for example I did not know that, judging from the weight given to the topic by several of the episodes, much of the island is gay. The worst of the worst of the subgroup of these films, which distorts what is a legitimate problem in Cuba, is Gaspar Noe’s thoroughly racist and colonial “Ritual” which recounts the exorcising of a woman caught with another woman in a ceremony which takes place in the jungle complete with sound track drumbeats. The major sentiment in the film, though, is that Cuba is a place of beautiful bodies and that all questions pale behind the one of how, using the Saatchi-esque gaze of the camera, to convert these bodies into global commodities. Two thumbs down, way down, on this one.
That’s my very personal Cannes roundup.
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New Golden Age, Same as the Old Golden Age (And That’s a Good Thing)?
LISTEN TO BRO ON THE WORLD FILM BEAT HERE
I’m Dennis Broe and today I want to talk about what film distributor and promoter of Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist, Harvey Weinstein recently termed the “New Golden Age” of French Cinema. What Harvey was referring to was new laws to protect against what the film industry terms piracy and what ordinary people now simply refer to as “downloading,” but he’s also talking about his candidate for heralding this new golden age, The Artist, which might instead be called “Sarkozyite entertainment,” just as Robin Wood and Andrew Britain once characterized the mindless Hollywood drivel of the early ‘80s, delivered in a ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ mode, as “Reaganite entertainment.”
Thus, we have a new kind of French drivel which is particularly characterized by its kissing up to Hollywood and introjecting the Hollywood style in films like The Artist and the recently released Delicacy with the French Audrey Hepburn by way of Renee Zellwegger, Audrey Tatou, although she is Audrey Hepburn light, very light. So this is surely not the new Golden Age, but there were some other films, besides Delicacy, at the recent Lincoln Center Rendez-vous with French Cinema which do suggest that there may be a New Golden Age which has the qualities of the period of the 1930s, the first “Golden Age,” where French films achieved a kind of raw yet mythic quality, called poetic realism, as they commented on working class life and the moment of the Depression.
These new “Golden Age” films do what French films have often famously done, they question major phenomena in French life and the major one going on today is the interpenetration of the collective values of that society by Anglo-capitalism. No film does this better than 38 Witnesses by Lucas Delvaux, a major improvement over his last film Rapt about the kidnapping of an executive that really didn’t get going until the third act when the executive returned to face the contradictions of his life.
The new film uses the port of Le Havre, famous in French film and painting, and centers around what used to be called a tug boat captain, which refers to a golden age film with Jean Gabin called Remorques, who like many others is witness to a murder that he does not try to stop. The film is based on a novel based on the Kitty Genevose case in New York in 1964 and its point is that French society has now broken down in ways similar to America decades ago to where people stay locked in their safe apartments and containerized lives, like the eerie containers that come into the port seemingly with no human element needed. Very well done examination using the crime film but never veering into a false ‘who dunnit’ where the witness will come forward and neatly catch the criminal. The criminal element is in the society as a whole and what has become of it.
Also interesting is Smuggler’s Songs (Les Chants de Mandrin) a film about a French Robin Hood and his band of smugglers in pre-revolutionary France, guest starring Jean-Luc Nancy as the imprimeur, the printer, who publishes the poems and who has published revolutionary tracts today. The smugglers are pointedly a racially and class mixed band, including their Arab leader and a nobleman, a marquis, who aids the cause, suggesting as does the also interesting Low Life which deals with students and their intersection with immigrants, that the contemporary barricades are being manned (and womaned) in France by a polyglot band.
Best of all is Snows of Kilimajaro—by longtime French working class cinema stalwart Robert Guediguian whose films like Le Ville est tranquille, have often centered around Marsaille as does this one about the idea of what the French call retrait, of the retirement of a union man—suggesting that the bourgeois notion of retrait, is, as the word sounds, a retreat, but that for someone who is committed to changing a world that is shot full of inequality, retirement is not a retreat but a continuation of the struggle by helping those in the younger generation who must now make their way in an ever harsher world. This is a very wise film, in its own way a masterpiece, which puts Guediguian in the category of a Ken Loach and this is a blatant plug for it to get a U.S. release.
Also heads up to Louise Wimmer, a kind of Dardenne Brothers type film about a woman with no apartment who struggles to live, a sort of Rosetta with an oddly happy ending.
On the down side –there is Ici-bas (Here Below). In the cinema we’ve had many Joan of Arcs, Premingers’ Joan as politically persecuted, Dreyer’s and Bresson’s as spiritual maladroit, but here for the first time we have the quizzling Joan of Arc, betrayer of those who fought the Nazis.(She serves a higher God, her own desire.) Yes its fascist feminism, a fatuous fable about a nun who falls for a priest in the Resistance, then is betrayed by him—more horrible than heartrending, an example of the perverse left that is an active element of French films.
And finally, there is Gang Story whose title in French is Les Lyonnais, referring to a famous gang from that city in the ‘70s. Notice the great difference in the specificity of the titles, the American title a clear nod to the American and global market. The film manages to enlist every Hollywood gang cliché adding up to a kind of French cousin to its already clichéd cousin American Gangster, all bombast and predictable action with a revolting finale in which the one non-reactionary element of the genre, that there is honor among thieves, is struck down as the hero becomes a fink and the film smiles in agreement. This is a film that indeed belongs to the Sarkozyite Golden Age.
So we have two kinds of French Golden Age, one a false one that simply aids and abets global capital and is a cheerleader for its penetration into French life, and one, in the spirit of the Golden Age films of the ‘30s which thoroughly critiques this phenomenon.
Dennis Broe can be heard on WBAI Radio in New York and on the Pacifica Network on Arts Express Radio. He is the author of a Choice Outstanding Academic Book Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood, and has written for Newsday, The Boston Phoenix, Social Justice and Framework, and Jump Cut.