INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
Cannes, France—Standing outside my hotel on a damp sidewalk at 5:00 am waiting for a taxi to the airport, as street cleaners buzzed about attempting to return a ravaged Cannes to the small Mediterranean village it longs to be for the rest of the year, long after Martin Scorsese had delivered Le Leçon de cinéma, long after the 60th candle had been blown off the blueberry birthday cake, not long enough after the fourth(!) press screening of Denys Arcand’s latest chef d’oeuvre, the ominous words of Travis Bickle came to mind: “Thank god for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.”
By all accounts, as befitting a place where superlatives are flung about like cheap lingerie in a low-rent strip joint, this was the hottest, stickiest, busiest, and most film-filled Cannes in recent memory. The Competition was a healthy 22 entrants strong, and the Hors Competitions was expanded to include, as a tribute to the festival itself, an Olmi-spear-headed Special Screenings old-man sidebar of Cannes vets, which unspooled in the newly created “Salle de 60e,” a well-constructed tent on the roof of the Riviera (Rohmer turned an invite down in favour of Venice, which might explain the presence of the youthful Wang Bing as the odd man out, though his film is a three-hour interview with a senior citizen). Cannes at 60 was also widely proclaimed by the major media outlets as the best Cannes in ages. The return of the Competition to a stellar level, a wide-ranging consensus on the hits and the misses; anyone who followed the international press knows what I’m talking about. Of course it’s left up to me and my (w)rap to assert that this is a bunch of hogwash—but I really mean it. Anyone who disagrees can join me in repeating the mantra that the festival had cleverly drilled into our collective heads immediately upon landing: chacun son cinéma. To each, his (yes, his) own.
Even the trade that attempted to try some historical perspective—through quantitatively comparing its Cannes ratings to previous years, and I’m talking about you, Screen—ignored the obvious conclusion. Though it admitted that the average rating for the full Competition was a mediocre 2.2, the same as the last two years, its post-Cannes analysis still triumphed the splendiferousness of this festival, for there were three (yes, a whole three!) Competition titles that earned a rating of more than three palms from their illustrious jury (of whose peers exactly?). That’s right, of 22 films, only three were judged on average to be “good.” I might agree, but regarding different films. Still, where does this willfully faulty interpretation of the evidence come from? (One could ask Colin Powell the same thing.)
Maybe it’s just that being at Cannes, everything either has to be the best or the worst (or the most). If it wasn’t the best or worst year, it was most certainly amongst the most Felliniesque: Federico’s ghost hung over scores of films, beginning with said all-male save Campion and Cimino Chacun son cinéma, as the entire uneven 33 short-film program anniversary featurette about “that thrill when the lights dim and the movie begins” was dedicated, presumably by producer Gilles Jacob, to his memory. (Highlights: Oliveira, HHH; lowlights: well, many, but let me just say I doubt I’ll see another Gitai film.) Most strangely, in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park there was a cavalcade of Nino Rota music from Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Amacord (1973), jousting with musique concrete (and often sounding like it, or, in its new context, maybe like some long-lost Charles Ives); the ice-cream oddities of Reygadas; another Roy Andersson film; Ferrara’s New York-set Felliniesque carnival, Go Go Tales, was even shot in Cinecitta; even the man with a heart of stone, Ulrich Seidl, offered up a the send-in-the-clowns moment, albeit in the form of old people who were, as was discovered in the closing credits of Import Export, literally dying on screen.
Not to say that Cannes should check itself into an old folks home, only that it would be nice if the cinema world could recognize that Cannes is essentially a middlebrow festival where the cutting edge of cinema arrives—especially in Competition—accidentally, too late, or for business reasons. Case in point: this year’s dark horse winner, Cristian Mungiu’s very well shot and acted 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days a.k.a. “the Romanian film.” Not only did the Cannes rulers atone for their blunder of consigning the much better Death of Mr. Lazarescu to the 2005 Un Certain Regard (and both Puiu’s and Mungui’s debuts screened in the Quinzaine), but they even invited the master Cristi Puiu to serve on the UCR jury (which awarded the tragically unfinished California Dreamin’ a.k.a. “the other Romanian film,” though Puiu was not involved in the decision as he had to leave for family reasons). Another reason for the love was that 432 was the critics’ consensus, in all polls and also judging from the applause in the Debussy when the awards were announced. But the “Romanian film” wouldn’t have even been in Competition were it not for the efforts of Wild Bunch, the sales agents, who hopped onto the title after passing up on representing the previous crests of the Romanian New Wave on the Croisette. Thus the film ended up with the big boys, so say reliable sources. (The Wild Bunch association also ensured that the now-legendary aborted fetus close-up would in fact not only remain, but, in the producer’s cut, be prolonged to last the entirety of the sixth reel).
But maybe I was at a comparative disadvantage to, say, the French, as some of the best films that were screened (Zodiac, Death Proof, Zoo) I had already seen. This was indeed the year of les grandes cinéastes Americaine, even if the palmaires were spread out to the ten corners of the world as if to tacitly acknowledge the anointed globalism of last year’s bestest director Iñárritu (signifying a helmless jury unable to make anything like a statement about the state of world film). Yes, the prize of the 60th, either the second (if you trust the website) or third (if you trust the awards ceremony) went to Gus Van Sant, who, as Emmanuel Burdeau quite aptly put it in his Cahiers blog (yes, even the Cahiers blogs now), seems to make films “as easily as waking up in the morning,” but more about him in a second. Of the bulk of the rest of the awards, the less said the better.
Perhaps it’s better to name a Rois et Reine: the rulers of Cannes were most definitely Mathieu Amalric and Asia Argento, Amalric being the best in Nicolas Klotz’s Quinzaine entry La question humaine, worst as inert blinking Oscar bait in le Schnabel, one of four films for Amalric in the Official Selection (and rumoured to have made it into Competition at the expense of Klotz). An honest admission: I was never so much of an Argento fan before her triple tour de force in this year’s official selection, for which so many hyperbolic adjectives have already been spilled that I feel churlish in adding mine to the multinational voices of praise. But let me note that Asia’s best performance seems to have been her most misunderstood, in a film that was amongst the most misunderstood (and inexplicably reviled), Olivier Assayas’ bipolar, bicontinental B movie, Boarding Gate. Yet again playing her stock in trade, a prostitute, Asia’s line readings are very precise, albeit in an animalistic, instinctive way. It’s her best all-around performance, even more impressive considering she had to put up with an improvising lunatic in the bloated form of one Michael Madsen, herein symbolizing bloated globalized capitalism.
In Abel Ferrara’s comic masterpiece, Go Go Tales, Asia improvised the show-stopping slobbering Rottweiller tongue kiss, while on the go-go stage (this coming from a woman who claims to be afraid of dogs, which must be her only fear, period). Ferrara’s film is his La Ronde (1950) (what camera movement!), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and The Golden Coach (1953) all in one, a consistently hilarious and heartfelt screwball comedy about art and commerce, about community, love, filmmaking, and performance, performance, performance, held together by a masterful mise en scène. Though I must admit that I didn’t get this the first time around: only in Cannes can one fall asleep during a film set in a strip-club with wall- to-wall music (and the caterwauling of superstar Sylvia Miles: Bed, Bath, and Beyond baby!). But on a second, much more awake glance, a Cannes rarity, I didn’t stop laughing for a single second—so much so that the guy sitting two seats away from me was compelled to move to another row. Apparently laughing is a no-no on the Croisette—and let me tell you, it was hard not to burst out in laughter during Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven, this year’s Babel; befitting Cannes 2007, Akin’s predictable award should have been renamed “Most Screenplay.”
The idea of community and its negative, isolation or alienation (especially, though not exclusively, of the teenage kind), is suffused throughout Gus Van Sant’s exquisite Paranoid Park. Van Sant’s film was somewhat unfairly earmarked by some to be tantamount to a gorgeous afterschool special; it’s more of a sublime coming-of-age film. And it is gorgeous. On a first viewing, I’d argue there’s a lot more going on here than in Van Sant’s other post Finding Forrester (2000) work, though the types of experimentation with sound in Last Days (2005) is certainly a model for what Leslie Schatz—who should have won another technical prize for this wall-of-sound jawdropper, albeit shared with DPs Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li—and Van Sant are doing here. Back in Portland and based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park fits in just as well thematically with Mala Noche (1985) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) as Elephant (2003) or Last Days, with its melancholic, confused youth struggling to find their way; but it’s cinematically (in terms of both sound and vision) so far beyond the earlier work that you might be hard-pressed to guess the films were by the same auteur.
By his actions, Van Sant’s MySpace-cast Renaissance cherub, Alex (Gabe Nevins), proves that he is living in an ethical void. As we meet Alex (or, rather, as we come to meet Alex, over time-lapping scenes), he proclaims that he’s not sure if he’s ready for Paranoid Park, the skateboarding mecca of Portland. His parents are in the middle of a divorce, his relationship with a typical Van Santian cheerleader bitch is in danger of being consummated, and, by the way, he’s probably killed a man. But he’s too paranoid to tell anyone, even though it surely was an accident. In what kind of a society would an innocent assume he wouldn’t be believed if he told the truth? What role does the social group play in replacing the family? These questions are linked in the film. One of the best jokes is provided by the homicide cop who comes to the high school, wanting to reach out to “the skateboarding community.” Such a thing can be said to exist, even if it’s not the typical kind of community: after all, the real life Paranoid Park, a legendary hub of under-the-bridge boarding action was built entirely by homeless kids, for the kids. But more to the point, when you’re on your skateboard, you’re on your own. You’re free.
In this context, it makes sense to mention that Van Sant was the only director in a decidedly apolitical Competition who dared to mention Iraq (not that I would have been in favour of giving a bigger platform to Michael Moore). The fleeting Iraq references should not be seen as the key unlocking Paranoid Park, but their presence provokes many thoughts on the matter, something that I think Van Sant intends: while the other grands cinéastes Americaine looked to the past (Fincher to the high cinema of the ‘70s, and Tarantino to the low; indeed, the same charge can be made to the French, even the kookiest representative in the Quinzaine, Serge Bozon’s La France), Van Sant’s film is set in the here and now, and, typically, in the present tense. To be technical, it’s a literary present: most of the scenes are flashbacks written into life by Alex, and the resulting chorus of voices in his mind, plus the Rota music, is some kind of approximation of paranoia.
Just like these kids are not by nature political, Van Sant is not by nature a political filmmaker. Though it’s not fully developed in Paranoid Park, a film where the crucial action is set on “Citizenship Day,” Van Sant takes baby steps towards establishing a social source for Alex’s paranoid mindset, and for his disengagement. Really, nobody is by nature political—that’s what the film expresses, powerfully (yes, like an afterschool special), that social issues are just as much learned from one’s peers. More than politics or a simple concern for others, and this is a sad thing, what links people now is popular culture, or the movies, as witnessed by the quite hilarious scene of Alex’s brother describing, at length, a scene from Napoleon Dynamite (2004). But that’s not the way things have to be. Alex ending up with Macy, the Portland activist-in-training who reaches out to him often (and whose presence grows as the non-linear film progresses—can yet another prize be given to Van Sant for editing?), is one crucial move he takes towards maturity. In other words, if social circumstances were different, Paranoid Park could itself be another Eden.
But indelible images are what linger on in the mind after Paranoid Park, many of them in slo-mo, and any single one would have been a better entry for Van Sant in the Chacun sweepstakes: a close-up of Alex as he stands in the shower, in what could be the ne plus ultra Van Sant shot; the boarders quite literally flying through the stable 1.37 frame, one by one, as we never see them take off or land; their pendulum-like motion, swinging back and forth in a massive industrial tube, taking back something through their actions, but remaining in a state of limbo, not sure where to go, feeling free yet deserted. This is film language that is pure Van Sant, but the closest I’ve seen recently to something like the way Van Sant and Doyle shoot bodies at rest and in motion in a feature film would have to be Claire Denis’ high masterpiece Beau travail (1999).
Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong’s fourth film, and the first since he resigned his post as South Korean Minister of Culture—the only other Competition film I saw at Cannes that I’d label great—still sticks in my mind for different reasons, and builds in a way that Paranoid Park, by the nature of its concern for building a musical mosaic by capturing present moments, cannot. Though Lee’s film is most definitely linear, that line is jagged; it has high peaks and low valleys, kind of like the blips on an electrocardiogram. Which is to say that Secret Sunshine has a number of key narrative twists, though they never come across as fake or unmotivated: though at its heart it’s a melodrama, typical for Lee, it’s a film that escapes simple categorization, yet is as elegant and simple as its title.
While the family has collapsed for Van Sant (no surprise to any Van Sant follower), Ferrara’s Go Go Tales is about confronting and overcoming a threat to one’s “extended family,” but, crucially, it’s a view of family that encompasses blood relatives, strippers, bouncers, accountants, and hot-blooded antagonistic landladies. Upping the ante as well as the body count, Secret Sunshine is about the search for something concrete to replace the family, and offers up an answer: a confident self. The family has begun to crumble as the film begins: Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) and her son Jun are on their way to Miryang (a town in the northeast, with only about 100,000 people) to relocate after the death of her husband. When her car breaks down outside the town, her husband’s birthplace, she’s given a helping hand by the clingy Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho, who everyone should remember from The Host). He’s the least of her worries, though, and as she tries to integrate into this new community, in a shocking turn of events that I shall not describe, she ends up under the sway of fundamentalist Christians, a fate she might have avoided had she chosen a better pharmacist.
Though Lee is averse to talking about religion, Secret Sunshine is clearly a shot across the bow of any kind of proselytizing organized religion, but, in particular, in a country in whose capital can be found 11 of the world’s 12 largest Christian congregations, that very one; it’s also no coincidence that Miryang is specified as a town that leans right wing by Song, in his first meeting with Jeon and her young son. (This rationalist take on religion was severely welcome amidst a number of pseudo-religious, sub-Tarkovskian efforts that could be charged with bowing before false idols, such as Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light or Andrei Zviaguintsev’s The Banishment.) But the film is no anti-religion screed, as Shin-ae isn’t a forced participant; she’s makes her choices herself, and she’s the one who has to live with them, or change them, however unbearable that might be. To detail exactly how Lee manages to create humane, complex, yet completely natural characters would require revealing too much of the plot (kind of like how Biblical parables lose a bit of their oomph when you know the set-up), though some insight into his methods are provided in the interview that follows.
Many hallelujahs have been sung to the Gena Rowlands-like performance of Jeon Do-yeon as the woman who comes under the influence of Christianity, the woman who is on the verge of about five nervous breakdowns—and her Best Actress prize was well deserved, especially if the rumours of her on-set exhaustion are at all accurate—but the storytelling is held together by the always terrific and here very talkative Song, playing a nerdy role that any star’s agent would surely tell him to take a pass on. (Secret Sunshine stands out from other Korean films not just because of Song’s impeccable characterization, but also because even when Jeon basically throws herself at him, where any other Korean male lead would leap at the opportunity—or have already raped her—he plain turns her down.) They’re both the most real people on display in any Competition title—by far—so it’s no surprise that more of Cannes’ cognoscenti, who prefer Coen cartoons, weren’t able to let the sunshine in. Jeon’s eventual search for, let’s say it, God, may be in vain because her stalker/protector is always one step behind her on this very Earth—not to mention that he’d even fend off a mighty monster if it would emerge from the river to swallow her whole. And if that’s not God, then I don’t know what is.