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By Mark Peranson
Cannes, France, Planet Melancholia—“We have a saying in Iran,” said Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, referring to the impetus for his not-a-film made with banned director Jafar Panahi, “that when hairdressers get bored they cut each others’ hair. That is what we were doing: filming one another.” My friends, yet again you are about to witness what happens when film critics get bored: they crack wise.
Forget all the reports you may have read on the Cannes line-up this year: it was the same old, same old. But really, why should one expect anything else? Cannes might be the only festival in the world where programmers make a bit of difference, as Thierry Frémaux and his Wild Bunch (reference intentional) essentially have their pick of the litter—and, without fail, year in and year out manage to litter their prestigious Competition with, well, trash. (As Frémaux said from his bunker in an interview with Indiewire, “Cannes doesn’t compete with anybody.”) The same people have been in charge of selecting the films for the decade I’ve been going to Cannes, and if there’s anything 11 years has taught me, especially in a year with an endless onslaught of movies about families, it’s clear that the Cannes folk have their favourite children: good (frères Dardennes), bad (Naomi Kawase, Nanni Moretti, Paolo fucking Sorrentino), and somewhere in between (Lynne Ramsay, Lars von Nazi).
Surprises in the official selection of Cannes are few and far between, though I will eventually focus on two of them, one bad, one good, neither of which fits the traditional definition of a “film.” This after all is the Mecca of the international arthouse circuit, where sellable films are placed to be bought, and success is measured in terms of sales and stars (the kind with faces and bodies, not the ones doled out by hacks eager to rush to judgment). But what do I know? Some critics, buyers, and programmers legitimately seem to think that this Maïwenn character is an award-winning filmmaker, not merely that (hopefully minority) faction on a jury comprised mainly of famous actors and arguably one guy with a working knowledge of cinema. This is the treachery of images.
It’s still nice to think that once upon a time Cannes was a real film festival—if not the ideal of a festival—where movies alone mattered, and film was genuinely celebrated rather than directors being banned. I didn’t count, but in one particular meaning of the term this most certainly was not a film festival: video/DCP/what-have-you projections accounted for the vast majority of the films in all of Cannes’ sections. (Even Malick, the Dardennes, and Bruno Dumont had their latest works beamed digitally.) Definitions matter, but even when it was actually called the “Festival de Film” (as opposed to the current, less arrogant moniker “Festival de Cannes”), it probably never was. Maybe it’s still as close as a “Festival de Film” gets in reality: a place where debates on cinema still matter and where tension can still be felt in the theatres, almost as palpable as the periodic and unwelcome blasts of air conditioning. But I suspect that my standards have become as inflated as the seasonal prices—both are just too damned high. Despite the generally terrific weather, there was rain on the parade. Something felt off at Cannes this year, both during the event itself and with a bit of hindsight; all in all, it was just another year of illegible notes ferociously scribbled in the dark (often just to prolong consciousness) that I’ll never have the occasion to revisit. (I think I managed to transcribe every last voiceover in The Tree of Life, perhaps not the wisest way to begin to grapple with Malick’s film.)
Maybe my lost lovin’ feeling has to do with a year-long hangover. Despite the simpler pleasures to be found in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive, easily the best-looking and most precisely framed Scope work of the festival (Refn quite rightly won the prize for mise en scène), or the louche atmospherics of Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close (also wonderfully shot, by cinematographer Josée Deshaies, like Gosling proudly representing the Canadian content in the Competition), I didn’t have a trusty Apichatstallion in the competition race. The widespread appeal of the critic’s choice, perennial bridesmaid Aki Kaurismäki’s typically (and not much more) Kaurismäkian Le Havre, also escaped me, just like the hours of sleep did the night before the 8:30am screening. (This year’s tip of the hat to the critics was meant to be Alain Cavalier’s Pater, a not-a-film that could easily have lost an hour and still made its point.) Maybe my dissatisfaction has to do with the appalling quality of the films in the Quinzaine, which I’m not alone in believing failed to provide anything like a radical alternative to the predictable Palais fare. Though it might sound like it, cynicism or contrarianism is not at work here—rather, well, melancholia. This is not a festival: this is an exercise in futility, an endurance test I would not wish on my worst enemy; it is a legitimate excuse for seppuku on the stage of the Debussy. But damned if I’m not already looking forward to bitching about it next year.
This Is a Political Entity. Oh, let’s just get it out of the way. When a Danish filmmaker gets bored, he makes a total ass out of himself. Lucky not to be arrested and deported—or locked in a mental asylum—Lars von Trier, surely jealous of the praise being given to Terrence Malick (who only just showed up to accept his operatic standing ovation, thereby missing the scattered boos during the press screening), again succeeded at making himself the centre of attention. Oh, what I would have paid to be present in the King of Comedy’s palatial retreat outside of Cannes in Mougins for the “gun-and-badge scene,” when a shamed Lars had to surrender his festival pass to the stoned-face gendarmes. (That’s your cue, zany Taiwanese animators.) Lars did succeed, for a few action-packed days, in shaking me out of my personal moroseness—more so than Malick—but also, the action-and-reaction chain had the possibly unintentional effect of revealing the Festival de Cannes as not just a mere “film festival,” but a political entity in and of itself—albeit one that still maintains all the trappings of being part of l’état de la France.
I’ve written elsewhere on the politics of film festivals, so I don’t feel the need to rehash those arguments here, but I’ve got to mention the most hilarious turn of the screwy. As far as I know, the government of Iran never expressed disapproval that Cannes showed two films from “banned” filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof—who did receive permission to complete his film—and Jafar Panahi (more about Panahi later). Yet regarding Lars’ “ban,” the official Iranian line was that the festival rendered its claims to defend free speech “a meaningless slogan.” As Iranian Deputy Culture Minister for Cinematic Affairs (yes, they have one of those) Javad Shamaqdari wrote to Gilles Jacob: “You well remember that the event was founded to confront fascism. Fascists are those who believed they are the only people who have the right to use welfare and life and could not bear presence of opposition…Mr. Gilles Jacob, believe that, regardless of my viewpoint about Lars Von [sic] Trier, the Cannes Film Festival recorded a black point in its history.” All that’s left to do is for Moretti to cast von Trier in his next film as the Nazi Pope, and all will be well in the film festival world.
This Is Not a Film. When a Korean filmmaker gets bored, he also makes an ass out of himself. An amateurishly shot “self-interrogation,” the Un Certain Regard-winning film Arirang—it tied with Andreas Dresen’s surely minor Stopped on Track—is cannon fodder for the enemies of director Kim Ki Duk, and of those the director rightly claims there are many; there should be even more after Arirang sees the light. For three years, the filmmaker has been living in self-imposed exile inside a tent squeezed into a tiny cabin. This is, in short, what we see director Kim Ki Duk doing for the better part of Arirang: washing himself, making food, eating food out of a dog bowl, talking to his cat, doing nothing, brushing his hair (he’s in dire need of a hairdresser), watching TV, stoking the fire, roasting and eating nuts, staring into the distance, brushing his teeth, drinking soju, doing nothing, operating a backhoe, making espresso, eating a tomato, and ceaselessly bitching like there’s no tomorrow. And, how could I forget, singing.
For it seems that “director Kim Ki Duk”—as he addresses himself on occasion—has been experiencing something like a “director’s block” for the last three years, his exile stemming from a combination of a John Landis complex following the near-death of an actor on the set of Dream (2008), and being stabbed in the back by a former assistant. Like I care. Unlike the banned Panahi, Kim’s retreat from filmmaking is ultimately a luxury; yet spurred on by the need to explain this gap to his many fans, Kim films himself on his consumer Canon Mark II digital camera to understand himself “as a director and as a human being.” Much insufferable bloviation ensues about how he became a world-famous film director (even in Israel!), how he wants to work in different countries, how he misses film festivals—all of them!—as they gave him a chance to be understood in Korea, where otherwise he’d just be a box-office failure.
The worst—well, relatively speaking—is that Kim thinks he can get away with off-the-top-of-his-head ramblings by throwing in a veil of “fiction.” He inserts a framing device of himself watching himself watching himself—telling himself, “You think too much!” and even laughing at himself crying what are likely real tears, as he endures the climax of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003)—to make it painfully obvious that the real director Kim Ki Duk is conscious that what he’s doing is incredibly embarrassing, and that his new cinematic counterpart’s bald-faced bitching is coming across as self-absorbed and paranoiac. And if that wasn’t enough, he proceeds to act out a climactic serial-killing montage, wielding a gun with a little Buddha on the handle that he fashioned himself. (I prefer his self-made espresso machine.) If the whole thing is “fiction,” then perhaps it is genius; but as the numerous film posters he flashes on screen remind us, director Kim Ki Duk is of course truly incapable of genius, so we can conclude that he means most of what he’s saying.
This is not to say that Arirang is completely bereft of value. Director Kim Ki Duk presents one of those delicious occasions for reading metaphors for the Cannes festival in his own elaborate philosophy (to use the term generously) of life, grounded in the fact that to survive, humans must kill animals and plants for sustenance: “sadism, self-torture, and masochism. Torturing others, getting tortured, and torturing oneself.” (Cannes’ primary act of annual sadism was best exemplified by its placing of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 160-minute opus on the second-to-last night of the Competition. The following morning brought 136 minutes of Rahu Mihaileanu, or so the schedule indicates: as with the Dresen, I have seen no physical proof that anyone actually sat through that screening.) Eventually, director Kim Ki Duk surmises, most people settle for self-torture, though his filmmaking career bears evidence of a desire to encompass all variations of pain infliction, something he truly accomplishes over the course of Arirang. To this degree, a generous and patient viewer—or a jury chaired by Emir Kusturica—might consider the film a conceptual success. As might those who harbour an animosity for the Korean film industry. But this ultimately is not a film: it’s a waste of time, and any place that would even play it doesn’t deserve to be called a film festival.
This Is Cinema. But seriously folks, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s unimpeachable This Is Not a Film—perhaps the closest Khavn de la Cruz will get to Cannes—was the saving grace of this non-festival, an absorbing, fascinating, and slyly complex portrayal of the Iranian director at home, living his daily life, and delivering a master class on how to make a film without making a film. (The closing credits modestly—and legally—identify the work as “an effort,” which would make Arirang “a joke.”) Everything that director Kim Ki Duk does wrong—which is literally everything—Panahi does right. Always comfortable in front of the camera, despite periodically protesting his distaste for the scenes that are being and have been shot, Panahi is totally bereft of arrogance. He illustrates his grander points—which have more to do with filmmaking in general than the specific place in life he finds himself—through mise en scène, not flatly declaring them to the camera like director Kim Ki Duk. The work feels completely effortless, but my money says it’s an elaborate sound and image construction: though it claims to be a day in the life of Panahi, Mirtahmasb explained in interviews that the film was shot over four days. The only conceivable excuse the festival had for placing Panahi’s film in a Special Screening slot—instead of, say, in Un Certain Regard alongside Rasoulof’s more conventionally filmic Good Bye (which won a prize for mise en scène)—is that they didn’t actually see it before announcing the line-up. Seeing as the film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, this is a quite plausible scenario.
This Is Not a Film proves that even if a political entity tries to take the power of filmmaking—or film festivalling—away from a director, there’s nothing that can be done if that filmmaker possesses creativity, dedication, skill, and intelligence. The comparisons with Arirang—or even Cavalier’s own elaborate home movie, which ends with a shot of Cavalier and Vincent Lindon filming each other, echoing a similar moment in This Is Not a Film—are obvious. Panahi is a filmmaker whose internal exile is a result of a 20-year government ban from travel and filmmaking; he can’t leave Iran, and spent a long period under house arrest. Though he’s presently free to travel within his country’s borders, all of This Is Not a Film takes place in his apartment as he awaits news of his appeal, doing daily tasks like preparing breakfast, speaking to his attorney and supporters (such as director Rakshan Bani-Etemad) on his iPhone, watching the Japanese tsunami on television. To quote again director Kim Ki Duk: “I can’t make a film so I’m filming me. My life is a documentary and a drama. I think films are the truth…there’s no need for lighting or fancy cameras.” Over the course of the not-a-film, Panahi’s main company, besides the video camera—he is reluctant to turn it on or touch it himself, as a way of ensuring he does not break the ban on “filmmaking”—is Igi, his daughter’s rather large iguana, whose roaming throughout the apartment, creeping up Panahi’s body and ending up on the walls behind the bookshelves, serves as a deliciously ironic parallel to Panahi’s own mental and physical state. (Some other priceless comedic bits involve a yapping dog belonging to his neighbour, who unsuccessfully attempts to saddle Panahi with the pet.) Eventually Mirtahmasb shows up, claiming to be making “a behind-the-scenes film about Iranian directors not making films,” and the real film within the not-a-film begins.
Panahi launches into something of a lecture on directing non-professionals, contending that in his kind of filmmaking, the director is never fully responsible for the content of his film. He illustrates this point with a memorable clip from The Mirror (1997), wherein the young “actress” removes a cast from her arm and stops acting, walking off camera—where she is of course filmed by another camera. (Of special note in this scene is Panahi’s bootleg DVD collection, which features the Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin film Buried  facing us, clearly placed there to make a point.) On the surface, Panahi’s professed identification with his young star speaks to his sense that he is just marking time by making this not-a-film, which he constantly degrades over the course of the too-brief 75 minutes. But, on a deeper level, what Panahi does over the course of the not-a-film is behave as an actor, controlling the image as much as when he is holding the camera—which, of course, he is not allowed to do.
Panahi then begins to read from a screenplay of the film he was preparing to shoot (and had already cast) before running afoul of the law, the story of a girl from a traditional family admitted to study in an arts university against the wishes of her parents, who lock her in their house when they leave on a trip. (Indeed, director Kim Ki Duk also relates the story of a film he planned to make, about a US soldier who fought in the Korean War and returns 50 years later to find the body of a man he killed; it sounds awful.) The entirety of Panahi’s unmade film was to take place—like the one we are in the process of watching—inside of a house. (He had never shot interiors before, he mentions, because of the cultural taboo surrounding the need for so-called women’s modesty.) Panahi thus skirts the ban by reading and acting out a screenplay that has already been written, taping lines on his carpet to erect a floor plan of the interior he would have filmed, and “dressing the set,” unconsciously bringing to mind the design of none other than Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003). (Or is it conscious?) He abruptly stops, overcome by the realization that telling a film and making a film are not, and can never be, the same thing. “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Or, indeed, why write about one?
Over the course of his narration—starting even earlier in the afternoon—we hear what sounds like ominous gunshots or explosions on the soundtrack, booms about as jarring as anything Gaspar Noé could conceive of. Panahi is seen looking out the window in curiosity, eventually “filming” on his iPhone 4G what we are led to think are political protests, or the suppression thereof. Only late in the game—as what Panahi is playing is an elaborate game, not only with the regime but also with his audience—are we told courtesy of the television that it’s actually Fireworks Wednesday, the celebration of the coming Persian New Year, and these booms and cracks are in fact celebratory explosives. Still the political situation remains dicey, as Panahi learns from a phone call from a friend in his car who relates how he was stopped by the police and asked what he was doing with the camera on the seat beside him.
But before then, the film has taken another detour, one which sees Panahi finding a perfect balance between relating his personal tragedy and creating art out of it. Following a second illustration of his own filmmaking philosophy via a clip from (the Wellspring DVD of) Crimson Gold (2003), Mirtahmasb leaves, but not before imploring Panahi to leave the camera on, as the main thing is the need to document (implying that what we are seeing is a mere document, when that’s far from the case). Enter the door-to-door trashman, actually a college student “substituting” for a relative, who wonders why Panahi is shooting on an iPhone when there’s a real camera sitting in the kitchen. Panahi then picks up the camera for the first time and follows the almost too-telegenic collector along his route, down the elevator, as the kid reveals he was in the building the night the police raided Panahi’s apartment and arrested him. The student never gets to finish his story recounting the events of that evening, as it’s constantly interrupted by stops to pick up trash, another encounter with that yapping dog, and so on. Eventually Panahi interrupts this surely planned-out set piece, telling him that the story isn’t important; what matters, we’ve come to understand, is the filming. At last venturing outdoors, Panahi comes across the streets of fire, celebrations and yelling that might also be a glance into hell—the last intrusion of the real and hopefully not the last image he will ever film.