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Cannes - 2004

     Never mind the red-carpet glitz and star-packed soirees; they're so "been there/done that" for regulars of the Cannes International Film Festival. There was but one conversational concern at this year's fest, the obsession of practically all, from whatever country: how to get those craven, cynical, war criminals ejected from the White House. The 57th Cannes Film Festival, May 12-23, was all about Bush-and-Cheney-loathing, and it's therefore logical that Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/ll, a furious, spewing, poison-pie in the face of our stupid-white-man Chief Executive, won both the International Critics (FIPRESCI) prize and the coveted Palme D'0r. The latter was given by the Fest's Official Jury, which had Quentin Tarantino as its president.

     Earlier, many speculated about how Tarantino's geek tastes might affect the awards. Would the Kill Bill helmer lean on his jury to reward a hyperviolent Asian action picture or an anime feature with the Palme D'0r? Or would the jury balk and choose something very left-wing and politically correct? My guess (I wasn't at the meetings) is that compromise reigned. Tarantino secured a very nice Grand Prix second prize for his South Korean favorite: Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy, a time-bending, kinetic, "noir" revenge tale, featuring sizzling digital visuals. In turn, he agreed to endorse Farenheit 9/11, for its energy and chutzpah rather than its didactism.

     According to indiewire, Moore told reporters that Tarantino had taken him aside to say, "We want you to know that the politics of your film had nothing to do with this award-you were given the award because you made a great film."

     Certainement, Quentin.

     In France, Moore is regarded as a Buddha-bellied demi-god since he premiered Bowling for Columbine at Cannes 2002. The first public screening of Farenheit 9/ll brought a 20-minute ovation of stomping and cheering: the tuxedoed crowd of several thousand acting up like Sox fans, with George W. standing in for the Yankees. The Palme D'Or victory proved equally popular. Who wasn't with Moore when he declared, jubilantly accepting the prize, "You will assure that the American people will see this movie!" That is: screw you, Disney Studios, for refusing to allow its Miramax subsidiary from distributing it in the USA.

     Was Farenheit 9/ll the best picture in Competition? My vote would have gone to either Wong Kar-Wai's elegant, opulent 2046, a Hong Kong-set sci-fi love story, Josef von Sternberg meets Philip K. Dick, or to Agnes Jouia's Comme Une Image, a witty Gallic tale concerning the uneasy relationship of a self-absorbed French writer and his needy, overweight, adult daughter. The former was, absurdly, left out of the awards altogether, despite the transcendant cinematography and sensual performances from Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi as a Last Tango-like couple. The latter won a deserved Best Screenplay, and, wisely, was bought for American distribution by Sony Classics.

     So what's Farenheit 9/11 about? It's a sprawling, often haphazardly organized attack on Bush's non-elected presidency, for which Moore's zealous researchers have tracked down all kinds of footage showing George W. as a consummate nincompoop. This movie isn't a "Bush is smarter than you think" documentary. Here, he's an even more dimwitted, callous frat boy than his enemies can imagine, whether smirking and being goofy and infantile seconds before announcing the war in Iraq, or ending a somber political speech by, in one swirl, turning to the golf course behind him and yelping, "Watch this drive!" Most astonishing: Moore has located a 9/11 home movie of Bush in the moments after he found out, from the Secret Service, that the second plane hit the Twin Towers. For seven Warholian minutes, our President did positively nothing, continuing to read aloud a story about a billy goat to elementary school children.

     Will the Kerry campaign have the sense to make use of clips from Farenheit 9/11? Wouldn't blue-collar undecided, or even evangelical Christian voters, be disturbed by Bush's smarmy talk to rich Republicans, whom he describes, decadently, as "the Haves and Have More...My base."

     I did meet at Cannes some naysayers concerning Moore's documentary, including annoyed Serbian critics who labeled it "Not a serious, well-made film...Journalism, propaganda," and a young American critic, 26, who thought it far too skewed against Bush, whom he quietly admitted having voted for in the 2000 election. And there was the always-idiosyncratic filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, who hadn't seen Farenheit 9/11 but haughtily dismissed Bowling for Columbine. He said, during a press conference, "If you compare Michael Moore and John Ford, or Bowling for Columbine with the major films of Frederick Wiseman made 25 years ago, like Welfare, they're two different worlds. He [Moore] is helping Bush in a way. Bush is less stupid than he thinks, or so stupid you can't change him."

     But also there were the liberal British journalists who told me they wished a similar documentary would be made at home blasting Tony Blair. And Michel Ciment, the outspoken editor of the French film journal, Positif, declared that "No French filmmaker would dare make a film attacking Chirac, and, if made, not Cannes nor any French film festival would dare show it."

     Elsewhere at Cannes: the standing-ovation moment for true cineastes was a live appearance by Italy's master filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, 91, and mostly paralyzed and unable to speak. With his fortyish wife holding his trembling arm, the director of L'Aventura (1960), L'Eclisse (1962), and other greats hobbled to a theatre seat to the sentimental sound of monumental applause. He was there to see a newly restored print of his British-made classic, Blow-Up (1967), along with the world premiere of a brand new 15-minute work, Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo. This solemn, touching, black-and-white film arranges an encounter of the two Michelangelos. Antonioni, on camera, enters a Roman church, San Pietro in Vincole, and contemplates the statues above him, an imposing funeral monument by the first Michelangelo with a titan-like Moses as its centerpiece.

     There were more prime treats for cineastes at Cannes, including a Q&A with the legendary French filmmaker, Philippe Garrel, who never travels to the USA. And a real crowd-pleaser: a brand new version of filmmaker Sam Fuller's World War ll movie, The Big Red One, with 59 jam-packed minutes which had been cut out by the studio for the 1980 release. What had been seen the first time as a so-so picture with some arresting scenes now is a major epic, an important Hollywood film tracing one gritty Army unit battling its way across Europe, from Italy to Normandy Beach to Czechoslavakia, there liberating a concentration camp. It wasn't only film critics who came out for this one at Cannes. In France, the late cult filmmaker Fuller (Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss), Worcester-born, is well known by the French public. Ridiculously, in the USA, nobody but cinema specialists has heard of him.

     A quick roll call of some of the 40-50 new films I saw this year at Cannes:

***1/2 Our Music- Jean-Luc Godard's cinema essay is, for me, his best film in years. The first section ("Hell") is a digitized, weirdly colored collage of scenes of violence and horror from unidentified genre movies. The second ("Purgatory") involves a literary meeting in Sarajevo, which brings Godard there himself, and also a distressed young Jewish woman trying to understand Israel-Palestinians through the shaky reconciliation after the Bosnian-Serbian War. The third ("Heaven") offers an ironic paradise, guarded over by American Marines. The movie is typically elegaic, sometimes inscrutable, but, not always true for Godard, it has tenderness and heart.

***1/2 The Holy Girl-Arentine director Lucrecia Martel's follow-up to the heralded La Cienaga (2001) is a byzantine, Bunuelian story of an underaged girl chasing after a doctor who has rubbed his crotch against her bottom in a crowd, never expecting she will acknowledge him. Also, he's being romantically pursued by her mother, also he's married with children.

***1/2 Tarnation-My favorite American film at Cannes is Jonathan Caouette's mindfuck movie autobiography of his impossibly crazy life as a gay Southern street child in and out of mental institutions and of his beyond-the-Friedmans fruitcake family. It's Tennessee Williams melodrama on an, honestly, $218 production budget.

*** Moolade- Ousmane Sembene, 82, the Senegalese who is the most renowned of African filmmakers, returns to the cinema with a powerful, necessary tale of women in a rural town courageously uniting together to stop dangerous operations on young girls, cutting away of their clitorises. May this fictional movie be seen widely in every relevant country, for it can change lives.

***House of Flying Tigers-Zhang Yimou's entry into the sword-and-sorcery genre, with a Chinese princess being chased by hordes, and more hordes, of corrupt government troops. Ingenious battles, fabulous scenery, though not nearly as moving as what it aspires to match: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

**1/2 Bad Education-Pedro Almodovar's semi-autobiographical intrigue about gay doings at a boys' Catholic School, and the aftermath in adulthood. One lad has become a famous film director, the other a ravished, heroin-shooting transvestite. Also, there's a pedophiliac priest. The story is Vertigo-like, but has so many cross-dressing twists it becomes tiresome.

*The Motorcycle Diaries-This Sundance 2004 favorite is a shallow, feel-good, psuedo-Marxist fable about the early days of "Che" Guevara, in Argentina before he became a Castroite revolutionary. Directed by Walter (Central Station) Salles, among the very richest men in Brazil, it's a fraudulent "for the people" movie with stereotyped noble peasants, and, even worse, a noble leper colony. Unfortunately, it will be a middlebrow superhit, this year's Shine or Life is Beautiful.."

(Boston Phoenix, May, 2004)


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