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Where Art and Glitter Coexist

Film Festival offers lessons in deal-making, party-giving, and - oh, yes - the art of cinema. AT CANNES

A SHARP-EYED observer once divided film-festivalgoers into two groups: the moths and the moles. The moths are those fun-loving creatures who flit from one reception or party to another, trading gossip with colleagues and rubbing elbows with celebrities. The moles are those serious folks who burrow deeply into screening rooms and theaters, soaking up reel after reel and hardly even noticing the weather as they scoot between auditoriums. I'm neither. I incline toward the molish side, I suppose, since I see several movies each day and use the social circuit mainly to fuel up on hors d'oeuvres when there's no time for actual meals. But a bit of mothy behavior can be profitable, mainly in the way of tips (don't miss the Italian drama! Skip the British fantasy!).

The Cannes International Film Festival, now in its 43rd year, serves up plenty of opportunities for both species. The mole in me loves the official programs and also the commercially geared Film Market, which are full of art and entertainment pictures made everywhere Turkey and Lapland to Hollywood. At the same time, my mothy streak is more than satisfied by an occasional chat with, say, an American director, a Polish actress, or a Taiwanese screenwriter.

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Not that art and commerce always coexist friction-free at this huge festival. Visits here provide a strong reminder that, as Woody Allen once told me, film is the only art that uses big money as one of its creative tools. The sidewalks, lobbies, and caf'es hold as many deal-makers as art-lovers, and there are times when you start wondering if dollars really are the raison d'^etre of cinema.

Kurosawa's risks paid off

Then you see a truly fine movie - or just as exciting, a film that takes risks with its ideas, its style, and its budget. And - voil`a! - your faith is restored on the spot.

Cannes started with a couple of such daring items last week, and, although both were flawed, they offered the kind of stimulation that commercially safe projects rarely do. Both of them have already been picked up for United States distribution by Warner Bros., so American audiences will probably be seeing them soon.

The opening-night film, ``Dreams,'' was directed by Akira Kurosawa, a revered master of Japanese cinema. Those who know him for action films like ``The Seven Samurai'' and innovative dramas like ``Rashomon'' have watched his talent grow more introspective in recent years - in such historical pictures as ``Kagemusha'' and ``Dersu Uzala the Hunter,'' both of which I found below par - and then plunge back into epic territory with ``Ran'' in 1985.

None of which could have prepared anybody for ``Dreams,'' which follows the life of a young man from childhood to adulthood entirely through fantasy sequences based on Mr. Kurosawa's own dreams. The opening portions are as majestic as they are deliberately old-fashioned, recalling turn-of-the-century films by Georges M'eli`es and aspects of Kabuki theater and traditional Asian dance.

Sadly, later scenes become surprisingly static, talky, and even preachy, lecturing us on nature conservation and pollution control. These are worthy subjects, but my dreams are never like this - and bringing the movie close to a dead standstill.

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Flaws and all, though, ``Dreams'' is proof that advancing years and commercial pressures needn't deprive a filmmaker of the urge to travel down new paths.

The most exciting and controversial picture of the festival's opening days came from America: Clint Eastwood directed and stars in ``White Hunter, Black Heart,'' a comedy-drama that takes almost a risk a minute. In an audacious performance, Mr. Eastwood plays another American filmmaker - John Huston, thinly disguised under the name John Wilson - preparing to shoot an African epic that's obviously meant to be ``The African Queen,'' the Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn classic of the early 1950s.

A talent for work, a genius for life

Wilson doesn't get his cameras rolling, however, until the last shot of Eastwood's picture has faded to black. What the self-centered, compulsive, but generally likeable Wilson does do is become obsessed with the idea of shooting an African elephant. And it's all right with him if the film project grinds to a stop while he putters around in the bush looking for a target.

Many spectators here hated ``White Hunter, Black Heart,'' and what seemed to drive them craziest of all was Eastwood's performance - as a grinning, speechifying, chain-smoking imitation of the real John Huston, whose voice and mannerisms have long been familiar to moviegoers from his own on-screen appearances.

I'm convinced the film has been badly misread by just about everyone, including the scattered critics who have joined me in liking it. The picture can best be understood by recalling Oscar Wilde's famous remark that he put his talent into his work but his genius into his life. That's just what John Wilson is trying to do, and botching the job at every step, so that both his art and his life come perilously close to falling apart.

Sardonic echo

Eastwood's performance is a built-in metaphor for this. Huston's persona is so unusual and so fresh in memory, that any attempt to mimic him realistically must be doomed from the start, even if it were made by an actor with more gifts than Eastwood has. Eastwood knows this, I'm certain, and intends his wry portrayal as a sardonic echo of the grandstanding performance that is Wilson's life.

The screenplay was co-written by Peter Vietel, based on his novel about his actual experiences with Huston while working on the ``African Queen'' script in Africa nearly 40 years ago.

Other films in the festival's first half ranged from the bright and audacious to the sad and sorry. My tipsters helped me spot outright losers in advance, so I was able to concentrate mainly on worthwhile pictures from a diverse list of countries.

Eastern Europe acquitted itself well, as usual, with some outspokenly political films. ``The Interrogation'' was made in 1981 by Ryszard Bugajski, then banned in its native Poland when martial law went into effect there. Although marred by a monotonous plot and some weak story twists near the end, it mounts a powerful attack on the Stalinist mentality, with its account of a singer who's imprisoned and tortured by security police. Krystyna Janda, known for her work in ``Man of Marble'' a few years ago, gives an astonishing performance as the heroine.

Banned for an even longer period, Karel Kachnya's 1969 drama ``The Ear'' also takes place in the 1950s, when a Czech man and woman come to fear that their house is being watched by government forces for reasons they can only guess.

Filmed in similarly evocative black-and-white are ``The Shooting Gallery,'' a new Hungarian film based on the true story of a Hungarian teenager who murdered his belligerent father, and ``Korczak,'' a disappointing drama by renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda about a physician who tried to save the lives of Jewish orphans during the Holocaust.

Soviet-French disappointment

``Taxi Blues,'' directed by Pavel Lounguine, is a Soviet-French co-production about a Moscow cab driver and a dissolute musician, characters who represent the Soviet Union's down-and-out social classes. The film develops a compelling energy during some scenes, but lapses into mere cleverness and competence during others.

I was more impressed by Gianni Amelio's deeply intelligent Italian drama called ``The Open Door,'' which attacks capital punishment through the carefully worked-out story of a judge wrestling with a tempestuous murder case during Italy's fascist period.

Still to be unveiled, as of this writing, are new pictures by directors ranging from Federico Fellini and Idrissa Ouedraogo to Jean-Luc Godard and David Lynch.

Moles and moths alike are tingling with anticipation.

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