AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES 1992 – THE 45th INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
MULTICOLORED DRINKS, FREE HATS AND SNAZZY LOGO'D T-SHIRTS
by Harlan Kennedy
ŕ Louisette, une amie
All the food you want and all the multicolored drinks. All the free hats and snazzy-logo'd T-shirts. Even a hundred films to watch, give or take a thousand. It sounds like the land of eternal child's play – how long before Steven Spielberg makes a movie about it? Called Palm!, it would be set in a famous French coastal resort. Robin Williams would star as the man championing the simple vision of childhood against the mustache-twirling machinations of Dustin Hoffman as Captain Critical Responsibility. C.R.'s the evil genius who orders us to see each subtitled picture in the Main Competition and then to discuss it, using four-syllable words, in the smoke-filled Causerie of the Petit Carlton, Cannes's answer to the Paris Left Bank. Peter Palm (Williams) just wants everyone to have a good time, fly about the Croisette, and get a prize at the end.
The Cannes Film Festival is the world's most bizarre culture-fest. We're expected to judge serious films and at the same time we're shoved back into a kind of second childhood. No wonder two movies about family memory, Terence Davies's The Long Day Closes and Bille August's Best Intentions, hit home with Cannes audiences. They combined cinema with precinematic memory; they showed festivalgoers that there was a life before auteur theories or subtitle twitch (that nasty ocular affliction that has you blinking for hours after seeing a foreign film) or notes-toward-a-semiography-of-André-de-Toth.
These films also hint at a growing trend in cinema: one that started with all those Europeans – Fellini (Amarcord), Tarkovsky (The Mirror), Bergman (Fanny and Alexander) – and has now spread to the English-speaking world. Bill Douglas was the movie trailblazer for Western memory movies with his My Childhood trilogy. He's been followed by Terence Davies in Britain (Distant Voices, Still Lives) and in America by pictures like Woody Allen's Radio Days and Barry Levinson's Avalon.
Allen's and Levinson's films weren't just family photo albums. Through a maze of childhood memory lightly fictionalized, Radio Days stalked the growth of the listening culture in 1940s America, just as Avalon charted the rise of the TV watching age. Davies's dazzling new movie The Long Day Closes is about the impact of movies, specifically the impact, on his generation, of Hollywood in the all-singing, all-color-saturated 1950s. Davies's "long day" opens with a descending crane shot past a tattered poster of The Robe and ends, after nods to everything from The Magnificent Ambersons to Doris Day, with a panning shot across a gorgeous curdled cloudscape as "phony" as a Wyler sky in Wuthering Heights.
Unlike Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies's new film is about happiness. He telescopes into one year, 1955––56, the four years of bliss he claims he enjoyed after his father's death: a time clouded only by his entry into a new Catholic school, here sketched with poisonous brevity after being given the full masochistic treatment in Davies's first film, Trilogy. Re-creating his own Liverpool streets on a studio backlot in London's Docklands, he turns his childhood into a tragicomic fantasia. There is no simple storyline. The free-associative flow of sequences – tracking shots travel not just between house and house but between year and year – is as bold as the license Davies takes with reality in individual scenes. The hero "Bud" (Leigh McCormack as the young Davies) daydreams in class of a sailing ship and feels real spray splash his face. Later, a beam of sunlight from a school window backlighting the boy's head turns into the wobbling light of a projector beam, "transporting" him to a cinema.
The human conflicts of Distant Voices, Still Lives are gone – the bullying father, bullnecked weeping brother, miserably married sister. Instead, The Long Day Closes is about the conflict between the artist and himself. If Davies's passion as a boy was for the cinema, his challenge in this film was to reconcile the escapist sensuality of moviegoing with a hard-edged truth about the real life around him. He hits on the inspired device of using lines from old movies as a lubricant between memories or memory-clusters. "In those days they had time for everything" (Ambersons); "Mrs. Wilberforce, I understand you have rooms to let" (The Ladykillers)the ghostly voiceovers of Welles or Guinness guide us through the smaller arteries of the personal and particular. Though Davies loves sentimental grandiloquence – not just movies but the music of Mahler or the cracked keening of popular song in family singalongs – he never uses it "straight." It's a playoff with the accompanying image, a fugal counterpoint between alluring rhetoric and real, raw life.
Memory is confession. Confession is reconciliation: between the artist and himself, and perhaps between the artist and an audience impatient to know the personal reality behind his mythology. Both The Long Day Closes and Best Intentions, with its Ingmar Bergman script inspired by the romance and marriage of Bergmans own parents, give us "plain" stories flecked with details that fascinatingly compound adopted symbol with source experience.
Bergman's tale is not culled literally from his own memory: we see him only as the child growing in his mother's womb at movie's end. But the characters of the cold-eyed pastor husband Henrik (Samuel Fröler) and the defiant, volatile wife Anna (Pernilla August), who's thrown as a bride from the wealth and comfort of her own family into a snowbound parish north of Nowhere, Sweden, are recognizable from his autobiography.
The other characters are recognizable, too – as templates for once and future Bergmanfolk. We've met them in movies as farflung as The Virgin Spring and The Serpent's Egg: the tortured industrial boss, the goodhearted mistress, the sweetfaced but scheming matriarch. Even the waiflike boy who conceals a macabre inhumanity within his air of orphaned helplessness – Petrus, whom Henrik and Anna briefly adopt before he tries to drown their son – recurred in Bergman's own movies, from The Silence to Hour of the Wolf.
At times we think that if Bergman had been behind the camera here, not just behind the writing-desk, he might have vitalized a movie whose images are too placid and picturesque. Bille August made Pelle the Conqueror, that calendar-art epic of human struggle, and he prefers a glowing composition to a visual or emotional coup de foudre. But then, Best Intentions is about the indomitability of surface manners. Everyone "behaves." This is a pre-permissive past wherein social intercourse, even among members of the same family, obeys a brutal, polished protocol. There are no handholds for rough honesty. Jorgen Persson's photography turns the home of Anna's parents into a slippery-textured palace a-shine with glass and polished wood and table silver.
Best Intentions is The Long Day Closes seen through a looking-glass. It's a reverse approach to memory, but an equally powerful one. Davies's past is metaliterate – a poem-cryptogram compounded of song and silence, of music and movie image, where the spoken word has almost no place. In Bergman-August, the spoken word is everything, at least on the surface. Under the glassy veneer of conversational propriety, real emotions must fight for life and breath like a drowning man seeking the thin layer of air under ice. The visual life of the movie is nearly all in tiny details of facial expression, brilliantly seen in the showdown duologue between Anna's mother and the courting Henrik ("I think her relationship with you will be catastrophic"). Impoliteness scarcely fissures their composure as they aim their Armageddon hatreds at each other.
In one respect Best Intentions does find common ground with The Long Day Closes. Memory creates a fierce intimacy with one's own characters. It encourages nerveless probings into the human face, to seek signs the artist might not know how to interpret on anyone else but recognizes instantly on those he knew. And the fullness of that knowledge allows seemingly opposite emotions and indications to coexist in the same face: like the lamblike sweetness and glacial coldness that dwell together in the pastor's features.
In one scene of The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies submits his intimacy with his own hero – himself – to the ultimate "dare." He films him sitting silent and impassive on a staircase while absolutely nothing happens except three subtle lighting changes. We simply follow the shifting shadows on his face as they hint at shifting thoughts and moods.
The very strength of the memory movie is its freedom from the sunrise-to-sunset plot trajectory offered by most narrative cinema. You could see the contrast at Cannes '92. Never did so many memory pictures or free-associative movie chronicles glower across the aesthetic battlefield at so many high-concept story films.
Among the latter, you could goggle or giggle, according to taste, at plots like: 'A man's inner rage at urban violence is the catalyst for his transformation into a cyber gun" –– Tetsuo 2: The Body Hammer. Or: "Jesus, sent down to save our planet from destruction, lands in Paris where he is shot and taken hostage; yet he still finds the city more beautiful than Paradise" –– The Return. Or: "Pico, an enthusiastic woodworm, accompanies the intrepid Christopher Columbus on a madcap journey to the New World" –– Pico and Columbus. Or: "Prince Frederic is turned into a man-sized frog by British Intelligence to solve the disappearance of the nation's great monuments" –– Freddie as F.R. 0.7.
Nor was the market alone in dispensing high-concept madness. The U.S. competition entry A Stranger Among Us has a Looney Tunes plot premise one could pack straight into 19 words: Ditzy policewoman (Melanie Griffith) goes undercover to help Hasidic family suffering from an outbreak of murders and Rembrandt lighting. Alternative title: It's the Andrzej Bartkowiak/Sidney Lumet Show.
By contrast, the memory/free-association movie requires you the audience to find the story or concept. This is called being grownup. We used to know how to do it in the old days (my mother tells me). European cinema – remember – used to run tales about Monica Vitti looking bewildered on an island while the storyline ran out, or about Anna Karina doing two or three things Godard liked her to do, or about the two or three hundred ways Marcello Mastroianni's life changed when the circus came into his brain.
The bravest and most teasing no-plotter at Cannes was Spain's The Sun in the Quince Tree. That's all we get for 2 hours 18 minutes in this film from Victor Erice, the director of Spirit of the Beehive: the sun in the quince tree. Real-life painter Antonio López sets up his easel in his dusty Madrid backyard to paint the lone fruit tree. Literally at first: He marks the leaves and yellow fruit with white paint so that, as they grow or bend through the long autumn, he can monitor their relationship with the steel poles plus horizontal string and plumb-line (come on, pay attention!) that he has set up to mathematically plot the painting. Dogs bark, the sun rises and sets, and (dangerous bit of story coming in here) a fellow artist called Enrique drops by to chat about life and art. Erice must have run out of money once or twice because the film dips into video. Then it comes out again and we are with the well-upholstered images of stasis and incompleteness – so much October rain that López can't finish before the fruit falls – and motivic circularity. Erice favors recurring shots of the neighboring railway, of apartment windows at night blue with TV glow and Mrs. López doing her own thing painting-wise.
This is no La Belle Noiseuse, and at times even minimalism should have some momentum. But Erice's film is on another plane of movie maturity from Working Girl Goes Hasidic or Tom Cruise Goes 70 Millimeter (closing Cannes film, aka Far and Away) or Basic Stinker, the well-known Douglas-and-Stone thing that opened the festival. The Sun in the Quince Tree won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize – and rightly so.
Most encouraging of all were the movies that threw away single-track storylines and still managed to be popular hits. Jean-Claude Lauzon's Léolo and John Turturro's Mac, like the Davies and Bergman-August, feed family memory into the lacunae left by a vanishing plot. Turturro's writing-directing debut is powerfully funny: a diffuse but all-Italianamerican picture of his builder father feuding with his brothers, his mother, and anyone else who stood in the way of his crusading belief in putting up houses so they don't fall down (one nail every 18 inches). Lauzon does a French-Canadian Fellini. He juggles multihued vignettes of sex-crazed Grandpa, fat Mama, musclebound Big Brother, and sex-obsessed Léolo (himself) who, quoth the blurb, "comes to believe that he is the offspring of a sperm-laden Sicilian tomato." Linked by the kaleidoscope logic of memory rather than the domino logic of plot, the movie's high points have an infectious sense of zero-gravity freedom.
Who needs a story when human life is all about multistory storylessness? Perhaps Cannes '92 has given us an early taste of what cinema will be like – should be like – when it grows up into the next millennium.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1992 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.