INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
To begin with cliché: At the same time, Cannes is a physical and a mental place—a dinky fishing village that for two weeks turns into, depending on one’s perspective, if not the day, a manifestation of Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. In 2009, what is regularly a demoralizing fortnight of the year’s so-called most important films seemed endless, with the average length of films reaching over two hours, and, factoring in the oppressive humidity, about three. Regular readers will probably have anticipated me writing that this year’s Cannes was the “worst ever,” but after wading through the blood and the bullshit, the one lesson a critic should have learned from Cannes 2009 is to be careful with words, to understand their definitions, and to operate with precision, without needless hyperbole. Thus, instead, I begin with another proposition, one I have ruminated on for the two weeks following my escape from the Riviera, one only time can confirm or debunk: 2009 was, far and away, the stupidest Cannes ever.
Every year, the stupidity at Cannes begins with the critics. Before the festival began, there was a feature in Indiewire that asked, “Is Cannes still important?” Asking this question is stupid: of course, Cannes is still important, and, of course, it will remain important so long as film festivals exist. But important for whom? Let’s be precise: Cannes is important because it presents the critic with perhaps the last remaining opportunity to be in a leading position to set the terms for the discourse about how a film is going to be treated, discussed, and analyzed. Cannes plays into the ego of the critic to be part of something important—a fact made even more crucial at a time when, on a daily basis, the influence of film critics is being hacked away body part by body part, while, paradoxically, there is more film criticism than ever before. At Cannes one is surrounded by literally thousands of people of various degrees of intelligence all eager to make their views well known in as rapid a manner as possible. In other words, a recipe for complete and utter disaster. When exacerbated by technology that enables an even rapider response time than ever before, and a slate of films that insists on poking at one’s gray matter with a sharp stick to elicit a reaction, the end result, for me, was a closing-down of sorely needed critical functions. And why bother write anything? It’s got to the point that one doesn’t even need to go to Cannes to experience it: Cannes has become the most virtual of all film festivals.
At Cannes, stupid critics lose sight of the goals of film criticism—instead, their function becomes the need to make over-the-top, egregious generalizations and pronouncements with as little critical thinking and reflection as possible. Part of this surely stems from the ceaseless waves of projections, one “masterpiece” giving way to another “abomination.” Thus, what otherwise, in a different context, might seem acceptable becomes plain-out stupid; what may be a mediocre effort by an always talented auteur—as great filmmakers never make bad films—becomes a high masterpiece. And never the twain shall meet. In this sense, film critics found a perfect match in many of the films in this year’s Competition, where many of the auteurs behaved as if they were film critics, in this regrettably undisciplined and self-indulgent mode, beginning with the need to throw up bloated title after bloated title badly in need of paring down, to content, theme, plot, and character that were, how should I say it, stupid.
As much as one wants to escape from this game, far be it from me to be able to step out of this mode of engagement when wading in the murky Competition waters. A deconstruction of what was wrong must begin, I suppose, with Lars von Trier. It would be futile, and, in a way, pointless, in any year to cherry-pick ridiculous observations made during Cannes, but, to begin with a cliché to end all clichés: After the initial screening of Antichrist, a blogger (having read and physically ingested so much about this film I cannot recall who wrote this) stated that he felt he was present for a crucial moment not only of Cannes history, but cinematic history in general. One can only wonder which month of last year this person started to watch film. But, I digress. To discuss Antichrist in such terms—or, indeed, to seek to destroy it—is to play into von Trier’s game. Despite having nine of his ten features screen at Cannes (does anyone have a greater batting average?), he’s always struck me as an overhyped TV director—his best work remains the first Kingdom—so when he abandons storytelling for disjointed proto-Strinbergian-Norwegian death metal psychohorror, well, the wheels have fallen off Lars’ notorious bus. In the context of Cannes, it was hard to completely discount Antichrist: this was, after all, something, or so the argument went. And something is better than nothing.
But, really, is it? Before Antichrist (B.A., a term I hope persists not only in cinematic history but in the history of time itself), the blood already flowed in Park Chan-wook’s plain-out stupid stylistic exercise in Korean vampirism, Thirst; Andrea Arnold tried to pass off Fish Tank as something more than a futile take on kitchen sink realism crossed with “So You Think You Can Dance, Britain”; Ang Lee made what probably can be called both the stupidest and gayest film about Woodstock imaginable; Jacques Audiard wowed the adoring masses by daring to present something with a plot; and Brillante Mendoza presented Kinatay, a film Roger Ebert called, apologizing to Vincent Gallo in the process, the worst film ever to screen at the Cannes film festival.
Of course, Ebert is wrong, but suffice to say that even though most films in this year’s Competition dropped below the Mendoza line, the passable Filipino director oddly anointed for two years straight also got slipped some stupid pills before rolling the camera. The image of the Cannes critic, especially one who might have been relieved of his or her virginity in 2009, came in Coco Martin’s doe-eyed police student turned serial-killers’ accomplice in Kinatay (Filipino for “butchered,” indeed). No film more faithfully compacts the experience of the 12 days of Cannes than Mendoza’s moralistic arthouse shocker, a film that seems disappointing after the bustling familial films of Manila slum-life that preceeded it (but also not nearly as bloody as has been claimed—especially if you’ve seen, well, any horror film made in the last 30 years). Kinatay’s highlights, if you can call them highlights, are a lengthy set-piece of sitting in the dark (in the back of a car), followed by the up-close witnessing of the dismemberment of a stripper-prostitute-drug addict named…Madonna. There’s a point to this stupidity: rabble-rousing. Mendoza’s sole goal here is viewer-spectator identification, and who could identify more than the Cannes critic? Yet the tale is simple-minded, marred by exceedingly faux-Dardennes’ mise en scène (crossed, perhaps, with a poor man’s Grandrieux). At its frequent low points we are given close-ups of the back of Martin’s T-shirt, its words progressively translated for ironic effect as the ceaseless night of misery unfolds. When Mendoza—or his adept subtitler—at last decides to give us the criminology school’s motto, in all of it’s glory, “Integrity Once Lost Is Forever Lost,” it has become a thudding irony of another order indeed: the hall of mirrors was complete, and the festival wasn’t even half done.
Clever scheduling by master sadist Thierry Frémaux—who, after this year, I’m completely convinced includes films in Competition he knows are lousy so as to stack the awards in favour of certain directors—set the stage for Antichrist to dominate the discussion, which it sure did. Having been beaten to the punch by the critics, there’s no need to describe what happens in Antichrist at all, nor mention the actors, the style of direction, or the ridiculous dedication at the film’s end. I’ve thought deeply about Lars’ spectacle and concluded that his personal demons interest me very little. One mark of an important filmmaker, for me at least, is that as a critic—if not a viewer—one feels engaged, and has a desire to say something, anything, about a film: maybe when confronted by films that go out of their way to attempt to elicit reactions, to spill blood in the guise of art, I’m left feeling cold (cf., the oeuvre of Michael Haneke). Antichrist isn’t the kind of film that invite you to share in any experience, and be an active part of it—rather, with its supposed reflective misogyny and mounting stupidity, it pushes you in and pushes you out concurrently. It’s a grunge immersiveness that’s akin to arthouse 3D, a kind of pathetic attempt to use extreme cinema to keep viewers and critics interested in film at a time when cinema itself has started to mean so very little. I really couldn’t care less whether the supposedly chronically depressed Dane is sick or if he’s faking it. If he’s sick, Antichrist is akin to a sporadic series of infantile finger-paintings; if he’s faking it, then, well, he’s just a big fake.
Speaking of big fakes, about one week After Antichrist (A.A.) came along a film which proved the shallowness of von Trier’s project, but upped the ante on the stupid meter: immediately after sitting through the 2h45 of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, I felt like I had seen perhaps the stupidest film I’d ever seen at Cannes; two weeks later, and far, far away, I am not backing away from this statement, and, again, two weeks later, there remains no possible need to describe what transpires in this repetitive, punishing, and alienating experience. (Read the Variety review.) These two empty films made by jokers with stacked decks work as perfect bookends to the Cannes Competition in 2009, and both films end up making the other appear to be worse; whatever one thought of Noé, too, with its uber-Irreversible rotating crane shots and close-ups of aborted fetuses and copulating morons, there was the critical reaction of, well, at least that was something. Yes, it was—something truly, truly stupid, and, as it kept going, a strong contender for this year’s Palme de Bore. Entering the void of the cavity that is Gaspar’s brain seals the deal that provocation is no end in itself, and, predictably, I vaguely recall a tweet that, too, spoke of this screening as if it was the moon landing. The worst part of this “psychedelic melodrama” shot by way of video-game aesthetics is that someone in Cannes thinks that this is avant-garde filmmaking; Enter the Void occupies the slot that, in better years, is handed over—screaming, I’m sure—to something like Colossal Youth. Rumour had it that someone on the jury wanted to give this a prize—though I doubt it was one of the five women jurors that I saw bailing before the ending to end all endings, having missed both the now-infamous money shot, and the appropriate closing credit: THE VOID. Indeed, another moment of cinematic history, unfolding right before my very dreary eyes, and, by that point, very stupid brain.
Not to repeat myself, but one of the problems with Cannes is that you see film critics everywhere. This is not only restricted to the seats to the right and to the left, but also where it matters most: up on the screen. To show just how thin the ice on which this Competition was skating, what does it say that the smartest film was made by Quentin Tarantino? To begin with a cliché: Years spent in that now-infamous video store have given Tarantino a knowledge of A and B-level film history that exceeds that of many film critics, and Inglourious Basterds, his take on a WWII movie, is predictably as much a film about WWII movies as it is a WWII movie in itself. But in undertaking this potentially meaningless task, Tarantino decided to present a structuralist invention, one where the violence has (mostly) been drained, replacing bullets with precisely formulated speeches. In Death Proof, Tarantino initially experimented with replacing action with words: in Inglourious Basterds, rather than bifurcating the narrative and echoing or mirroring it, he presents a series of (mostly dialogue) tête-à-têtes that up the ante through claustrophobic interiors, moving from invoking spaghetti westerns to the morality plays of Fritz Lang. This is a film foremost about power through language, about assuming control (or assuming that you are in control) through speech—or, in Tarantino’s case, the power of the pen; it’s no coincidence that in this war film, a spy was formerly a film critic. If the tapis rouge galumphing director did not persist in presenting himself in public as a moron, critics might see his film for what it is.
But, again, stupid: this characterization can also apply to Brad Pitt’s lazily acted Lt. Aldo Raine, the commander of the self-titled Basterds, a Southerner who may be playing a gloss on Tarantino’s public persona: a flippantly moralistic, wide-jawed Yankee who parachutes into Europe (the film was shot in Germany though set in Nazi-occupied France) and attempts to battle history with an absurd Jew band of Nazi scalpers who, despite their noticeable lack of screen time, provide the film with its misspelled title (another instance of Tarantino, the erstwhile actor, publicly trying to come across as stupid). In opposition, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz’s expertly multilingual “Jew Hunter,” a perfect evocation of a cartoon Nazi, a man who persists in dominating his opponent through prolonged conversation and weighty pauses even when—as in the prologue—the result of the game has been determined before the first roll of the dice. (The Best Actor prize to Waltz was the only one merited by a severely deranged and likely contentious jury.)
In between the two, there is cinema itself, also presented as an opposition—between the Jewish popular cinema of the time, and the Nazi propaganda being generated by Goebbels at UFA to compete, starring a war hero-turned movie star played by Daniel Bruhl. There’s the staging of a film premiere which coincides with not one, but two “terrorist plots” to kill Hitler, one as revenge by the theatre owner named Shoshanna who escaped the Jew Hunter in the prologue, and the other called “Operation Kino,” initially led by a German movie star double-agent and a British spy who is quite literally a film critic (a suave Michael Fassbender), with not one but two books on German film under his belt. (Never before, and never again, I’ll wager, will there be as many G.W. Pabst references in a feature film.) Inglourious Basterds is a tonic to recent egregious depictions of cinema Nazis, say, Downfall (2004): not only does he kill the film critic as well as Hitler—another plot point by now I would hardly be ruining—but Pitt at one point remarks that watching Eli Roth’s bat-wielding “Bear Jew” pummel Nazis is the closest thing the Basterds get to watching movies. But Tarantino doesn’t linger on the violence, or really delight in presenting it at all. In spite of, or maybe thanks to, its sparse mise en scène, Inglourious Basterds is the closest that Cannes got to cinema pleasure, two-and-a-half hours of generous talk and intellectual trash that zooms by up until its literal explosion.
Tarantino ends his film with a close up on Pitt staring into the camera (actually, down onto Waltz, on whose forehead he has emblazoned a swastika) proclaiming, “I think this might be my masterpiece.” It’s a good joke and a great ending, especially considering the symbolism of the source, the sign, and the signifier, but the closest thing to a masterpiece came quite early B.A. in Un Certain Regard. Corneliu Porumbiou’s Police, Adjective is certainly the smartest film I’ve seen this year and continued the Romanian run, winning a jury prize (making it six prizes in Cannes for the land of Dracula in six straight years, the second for Porumboiu after the Camera d’Or in 2006 for 12:08 East of Bucharest). Unlike Tarantino’s film, Police, Adjective’s smartness never draws attention to itself; it’s smart without being clever. Indeed, Fassbender’s Pabst scholar is not the last film critic I wish to acknowledge, as there’s also Cristi, Porumboiu’s vigilant and dolorous cop, who spends two-thirds of Police, Adjective on the streets of Vasilu, walking and watching —seeking out the truth but filtering it through his own perceptions. Seen in long shot for lengthy takes, he’s casing out a potential drug dealer, and periodically summarizes what he’s seen, highlighting certain things, leaving out others: we literally see the words of his reports appear on screen, the odd typo included. Cristi is also conscience-wracked, having been presented with a scenario that doesn’t match his reality—the kid he’s tailing is probably not a drug dealer, and to arrest him as such, which he knows will happen if he brings his findings to his boss, would be a step that would lead to pointless jail time.
The richness of Porumboiu’s seemingly simple creation allows it to be read as a reverse policier, a social drama, an attenuated art film bordering on parody, a moral tale. The film’s intelligence does not drive itself home until in its last remarkable scenes, which present a confrontation between Cristi, his partner, and the police chief (indelibly played with gusto by Vlad “The Abortionist” Ivanov). As will hopefully happen to most of the critics assembled at Cannes who still have paying jobs, the chief balks at Cristi’s reluctance to follow the letter of the law, giving Cristi a talking to; in effect he plays the role of a stern, rebuking editor, pulling out a dictionary, and going through, in turn, multiple definitions of topical words, including “conscience” (and, rejecting the one for “police”). The virtuoso scene, illustrated with actual definitions, drives home the importance of knowing the words that you use, and knowing the place in the absurd system in which we all, eventually, even despite our protestations, operate.
The last shot sees Cristi, offscreen, sketching out a storyboard of the location where the sting operation will take place, and Porumboiu lets his climax hang, again insisting on leaving the eventual action—what his film pretends it’s building towards—also offscreen, having been subsumed by the power of words. Police, Adjective makes that final step and becomes a film about filmmaking as well, about the moral responsibility of an artist: in the current context, this is a much-needed act of reflection. (And I haven’t even mentioned the foot tennis.) Though other films from aging masters and young guns also saved the day, nothing at Cannes was as powerful as the dialogue provided in these two films, and nothing, oddly enough, was as stunning as the scene with three guys, a chalkboard, and a Romanian dictionary.