INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
For reasons that diligent readers of these pages will comprehend, this year’s Cannes smacked your trusty correspondent like a whirl of lefts and rights, like confronting Mike Tyson defending his belt in 1988—in the blink of an eye I was groggy, face-down and bleeding on the canvas. Even if my perception of Cannes 2008 was akin to a sprint, in reality it was a cinematic eternity—the number of days, perhaps not coincidentally, being the same as the rounds in a championship fight. However often a critic might last the full 12 rounds, Cannes is a festival where drooping lids and droopy films breed snap opinions, not considered analysis: maybe it was just me, but did everything seem pretty much the same? (And I’m not talking about Ashes of Time Redux.) If I’m correct, even in part, might this year’s festival generate a clarion call for difference, against international funding bodies and sales agents, a quiet dismissal of against cinema made for a hypothetical art-house audience? Today’s auteurism at times risks running its course, at least in its popular formulation: films that can easily be read as works similar to, or fitting into, a filmmaker’s extant oeuvre, films that gaze inwards rather than searching outwards. To revert to English: though far from awful, Cannes creaked with too-frequent examples of the world’s greatest filmmakers presenting far from their most interesting recent works, especially in a less-than-memorable Competition. In other words, the art was safe and sellable. Or, just as plausibly, I was the patsy who was tired, and often punch drunk. Let’s call it a split decision.
The allure of being able to present one’s film at Cannes, especially in Competition, can lead to the wheels of art/commerce spinning wildly, drawing in the extended family of cinema—its programmers, critics, even viewers—and subsequently imposing on the creative isolation of the artist. Auteurist cinema provides comfort to most, like slipping on an old pair of shoes. The shoes may have shrunk a bit, due to age, as in the case of the Dardennes’ Le silence de Lorna, which, immediately after its screening, became the calling card for deflated auteurism…though, really, should we complain? (Oh, how we would have loved it if the Dardennes films was directed by Wim Wenders. Or if anything else was directed by Wim Wenders.) But the shoes can fit snugly, and warm the soul, like Straub’s first Quinzaine offering, Le genou de Artemide. Straub’s short, taken from another Pavese dialogue, could be seen as an outtake from Quei Loro Incontri (2007), or so it would have been if it was co-signed by Huillet; but because of its content, which I won’t disclose in the hope you’ll seek it out, Straub’s fully personal work becomes a statement, a testament. (Alas, I missed the ur-auteur Quinzaine film, Bertrand Bonello’s De la guerre, which features Mathieu Amalric as a filmmaker named Bertrand, and Laurent Lucas as himself.)
Not to say that nothing impressed. Genuine, but fleeting, pleasures were to be had, both in Competition and in the surprisingly strong Un Certain Regard: Michelle Williams’ heartfelt quest for lost companionship in Kelly Reichardt’s aggressively minor Wendy and Lucy; Jia Zhangke’s evocation of Chinese history, 24 City, wherein Jay Z reconfigures the means for almost identical ends, and creates an auteur film par excellance (and we know this because Variety’s Derek Elley dubbed it, I kid you not, “egregious,” and most other critics in my screening were fast asleep); the impeccably framed Cinemascope images authored by Lucrecia Martel that I duly processed between cat naps—my fault, clearly, not hers; the best moments of the drippingly bitter ironic voiceover in Terence Davies’ “My Liverpool”; the even more bitter, bitterly funny take on teenage angst in Antonio Campos’ debut Afterschool, an antidote to the sanctimonies of Cantet’s goes-down-easy classroom (itself superseded by Season Four of The Wire, which is more cinematic and believably systemic); and le scandale de Garrel, as if anything else was going to happen when, as the bell rung at 8:30am for round nine, a gaggle of now-jaded, sleep-deprived film critics—many of whom surely never have seen a Garrel film—were confronted by a monochrome object reaching for the sublime in the form of a hardcore critique of the institution of the bourgeois family, capped off by the Angel of Death, reflected back in this haunting mirror of a film. Which, admittedly, may be a minor work for this auteur.
Garrel père et fils included, it was a family affair. As always, Cannes is the year’s best concentration of what stands today for (a kind of) cinema, and that may be the problem, compounded by the fact that at Cannes, often literally, the next film begins before the current one ends, so the films blur together. While the festival started with a wave of torture and suppression—the surreal vision of war as a floating animated hell in Waltz with Bashir; the cinematic torture of alienated Turks in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s plodding moodfest Three Monkeys (precisely nine monkeys less good than you know what); and the modern Passion Play of artist Steve McQueen’s rather impressive Un Certain Regard opener and Camera d’Or winner Hunger—the festival settled into a thematic that could encompass every Competition title, if not every film previously mentioned: family. Not that, as the saying goes, there’s anything wrong with that. But it all was a bit too much family, and a conservative take on it too, as witnessed by the films about the threat to the household, by, for example, the monkey madness of Turkish adultery. The extended family of Arnaud Desplechin’s Christmas tale, a cinematic family tree that begins with just about every French actor in the union and extends back to Bergman and Woody Allen, left me feeling trapped, but at least I didn’t have to see, that very evening, the latest Woody Allen film; the actual Jewish Brighton Beach clan of James Gray’s strangely beloved Two Lovers, a James Gray film for people who don’t like James Gray (or Philippe Garrel, for it’s a sub-par, graspingly romantic, and laughable version of La frontière de l’aube); the gay porn theatre (in a cinema called, no less, “Family”) dwelling clan of Brilliante Mendoza’s unfairly dissed Serbis, the beguilingly loose counterpoint to Desplechin’s impeccably scripted and acted piece; the real and imagined familial relations of Atom Egoyan’s misfire Adoration, whose we-are-the-world religiosity insists on its Toronto location pathologically, as if regional identification could atone for all other sins; and, lest I forget, Eric Khoo’s magical father and son—to quote a critic who shall remain nameless, but whose offhand designation resonated throughout the festival—My Magic is a “tough watch. “
And then, of course, the substitute families: of Cantet’s patriarchal classroom, for one, but also the theatre world, and the world as a bulging hole in Charlie Kaufman’s all-that-jazzy, premature take on 8 1/2 (which earns, say, about four monkeys); the ultimate family, the Mafia, in Matteo Garrone’s satisfying (though it could have been weirder) runner-up Gomorrah; the other Italian families, in the forms of political factions, in the very much annoying but not totally unwatchable Il Divo (I made it through an hour mid round 12 before bailing for lunch); what I am told is an incestuous family in Delta, a film FIPRESCI at least decided was worthy; the married couple who essentially end up adopting a ragtag handful of survivors in Blindness…hell, even the heavyweight Tyson—and his soccer counterpart, Diego Maradona, unfortunately doomed to Kusturica-directed hell—settled down and devoted himself to his kids. (And, also, in Un Certain Regard: Depardon’s tired-but-true peasants; Kurosawa’s post-nuclear Japanese family; the Kazakh clan of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s immersive, animal-rich fiction debut, the Un Certain Regard prizewinner, Tulpan…I shall now pause for a breath.)
But what happened to the loners and the perverts? Ah, yes, the Quinzaine. Celebrating its 40th anniversary down the beach, one could not say the Director’s Fortnight outshone the Official Selection (as predicted by some), but did present viable alternatives. Yes, families were there: in the hippie outpost of Salamandra, where trouble was always afoot; the Romanian vacationers of Boogie, another, albeit weak, jab at the institution of the bourgeois family; in the Jewish Uruguayans of Acne, which sees a teen coming of age in a family undergoing divorce (a film that, I must add, features the more realistic of the two Bar Mitzvah candle-lighting sequences in Cannes 2008—sorry James Gray); or, even more disintegrating, the fractured Algerian immigrant community of the defiantly somewhat-narrative of Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s Adhen, a film that knows what it wants to be and takes pleasure in digressing. But more powerful were those staple characters we all know and somewhat love: the alienated, the angry, the true and existentially tired—the psychopaths.
The Quinzaine set the stage with Jerzy Skolimowski’s comeback Four Nights with Anna, with its classic Polish antihero, here a harmless Dumontian dodo, transported from the 60s to the Croisette. Fast forward to the Pinochet dictatorship, add disco, and you’ve got Tony Manero, an “easy watch” from Pablo Larrain. But reach the present, and, sure enough, this cinema shuts down: witness the Belgian misfit loners, brought together by circumstance, in the head-scratchingly popular slice of aestheticized nothingness, Bouli Lanners’ El Dorado. (Chock it up to the special France-Belgium relationship, I suppose.) It’s better when such work is stuck in place and removed from a obvious time-frame, as in the very special cinema of Lisandro Alonso, whose Liverpool, like 24 City, is auteurism at its best. A film about an isolated man bearing the weight of personal history while forging through a barren wilderness to reach a prescribed goal—his long-abandoned family—Liverpool sounds similar on paper to Los muertos (2004), but it has a different look and feel. The minor variations within a major conception, not the least of which are the film’s frigid setting and what happens (and is left unresolved) after his protagonist reaches his destination, mark the film as a step forward, the work of a filmmaker we should be honoured to watch mature before our eyes.
In a festival of star-studded personal appearances, whether Brad, Angie, and the unborn twins, Manoel de Oliveira’s “séance en homage” in honour of his centenary, a monkey-suit clad Iron Mike mounting the Debussy to thunderous applause, or Monica Bellucci’s cleavage delaying the 10:00pm James Gray press screening thanks to her appearance alongside the latest pap from Marco Tullio Giordana, the Quinzaine presented 2008’s greatest Cannes moment—and, no, I’m not talking of the El cant dels ocells premiere (this year’s UFO, and, maybe, the quintessential Quinzaine film). In the Quinzaine-produced film about itself, Olivier Jahan’s 40 x 15, the greatest talking head is the sidebar’s first artistic director, Pierre-Henri Deleau, relating the formative, absorbing history of the relationship between the sidebar and the main feast. Established post-68 for a reason that’s more important now than it’s been for the last two decades, the Quinzaine itself is a willful loner, one whose history shows it creeping closer to the big party, certainly compromised, but still content to celebrate on its own.
Standing on stage before the screening, there was Deleau, taking centre stage amid, appropriately, about 40 current and past Quinzaine directors, including Otar Iosseliani, Chantal Akerman, and, standing out above the crowd, one Jim Jarmusch. (For reasons explained by the documentary, Sean Penn and his bodyguards were absent.) Even Bruno Dumont was there, though he sat solo, with six empty seats separating him from the nearest human. I can’t begin to put myself in Deleau’s mind, though he looked a bit embarrassed by the attention—but after the hubbub died down, I’m sure he felt like all of us scribes, hunched over our laptops, very much alone, back in the study where his interview was filmed. As alone as current Quinzaine head Olivier Pere, watching a submission in a Buenos Aires hotel room. Until life returns to a temporary stasis, not quite normal, as, for a certain cadre, normal is both the festival life and the home life.
And this is the predicament of the critic, the filmmaker, and the programmer, three sides of a mutually dependent triangle. It helps explain why this concentration on families/communities and loners/heroes may be the perennial dialectic representing the kind of cinema that Cannes—Indiana Kung Fu Jones Panda brouhaha aside—presents, in both the Official Selection and the Quinzaine, by now mutually dependent entities. (It’s interesting, but certainly a subject for another time, to examine how both merge in Clint Eastwood’s cinema, including this year’s Changeling.) All filmmakers imagine, at some point (when shooting, editing, even introducing their work—all are parts of this world), the audience, even if only to ignore them. We need to actively consider that, when making films and presenting them, directors are inevitably confronted by, and rely on, others. When the isolation of the creative process confronts the surrogate family of the crew, or the imagined family of the critic, programmer, or audience, there can be a shock, similar to the effect of running out of a sauna and jumping right into a cold lake. Or a punch in the face. The same goes, in both practical and theoretical terms, for programmers and critics—if you should come across anyone who attempts to present him or herself as an isolated monad, run away fast.
Maybe that’s why 40 x 15, surely for many a minor work of festival propaganda, spoke the most to me, because of its concise but resonant encapsulation of history and the shock of the familiar, and a world I’ve rarely seen before depicted on screen: I feel confident in claiming that the film captures its subject matter, from all viewpoints, at both its peaks and valleys, and I can’t express the same confidence about most other films I saw—or saw most of. It shouldn’t be too much to ask of filmmakers to confront history, politics, identity, or even their immediate systemic reality (four checks for Jay Z). But if they don’t, they better at least give it their all for the full 12 rounds. In return, we critics, programmers, and audience members will pledge the same.