Monday Reviews: The American. Also: Venice
Exhibit A: The American, which I'm so glad I elected to see, despite the strenuous pooh-poohing of early audiences and several reviewers. The movie is nifty and tense, if not quite rich enough to prompt full outrage at the bad rap it's gotten for not being a Bourne film. Then again, it's also earned back its moderate production costs already, so no need to cry over spilled bullet casings. Yes, it's a bit slow and airy as thrillers go, but the tension surged impressively more than once, and I followed the dénouement with bated breath. Always exciting, too, to find out that a film that looks this good cost so little, but then, maybe George owns all the Italian locations? Anyway, go see The American, and make sure not to expect either a lemon or an unfairly maligned masterpiece. I'm sure it prompts a wide range of responses on its own without buzz-slaves and their viral preconceptions doing that work on its behalf. Here's my full review.
Exhibit B: Venice, and lo scandalo Tarantino. I find it completely plausible that Tarantino & Co. fluffed things bigtime, but it's hilarious to me how little sense of independent agency is being ascribed to the other jurors in a lot of the press. Guy Lodge, as riled as anyone about the double-dipping for two of the Competition's less well-received entrants, at least makes the rational observation that the inordinate attention cast on A Sad Trumpet Ballad (Director and Screenplay) and Essential Killing (Special Jury Prize and Actor) is as likely a symptom of intense, maybe even factionalized feelings spread across the jury as it is of a Tarantino oligarchy, Dogtoothing poor Arnaud, Luca, Danny, Guillermo, Gabriele, and the much-missed, unbeatably named Ingeborga Dapkunaite into crawling on their knees and speaking Quentin's private, profane language. (By the way, we already have it on good authority that Arriaga, as soon as his blindfold was lifted and his legs unbound, began to write a non-chronological screenplay about the whole, bitter, Salò-style experience. Imagine how much he loooved the dawning reveal that wait! Quentin and Sofia have known each other in the past!)
Please know that I'm in no mood or position to apologize for this jury, especially having seen literally none of the movies. Almost all the critics I trust seem agreed that notable perfidies of evaluation have been committed. And please note that Tarantino is now a surprising 2-for-2 in reporting his festival juries to have been unanimous in picking the top prize, though certainly stranger things have happened. To me, the Hellman citation really tipped things: even if lots of the jurors like Hellman and/or Road to Nowhere, surely they realized that the laurels to Coppola and de la Iglesia would already be received as Tarantino tossing bouquets at an ex and a stylistic sibling, but they might have survived the impression of favoritism without the additional, effusive hat-tip to Monte, for a category of award they didn't even need to give. It kind of seals the perception. Still, I do think it's worth pointing out the following:
The Reuters/New York Times piece that's floating all over is at least as meretricious as the jury decisions it criticizes. Or maybe you agree that the vaunted and longstanding Toronto International Film Festival is an "up-and-coming rival" to the completely different scene of the Lido? Similarly absurd: griping about there being "no prizes for Italian films," when this is hardly a mandate, and Guadagnino and Salvatores were right there in the jury box to wave the ol' green, white, and red if they had felt so moved; and expressing astonishment that Gallo copped a Volpi Cup for a performance "during which he uttered not a single word." Taken any temperature reads lately on an AMPAS voter watching a wordless performancesay, by Jane Wyman, Holly Hunter, Marlee Matlin, or Samantha Morton? Familiar with the idea of silent acting? Did you know They used to do that, and that it occasionally turned out okay? I can imagine Gallo's prize being specious in other ways, but his lack of dialogue hardly seems like the lead story here.
People can question Tarantino's favoritism as much as they like, and there may well be a warrant, but Venice can't possibly have expected him to operate otherwise, given that Cannes '04 already served the template for what a QT presidency looks like: runner-up prize for something right in his wheelhouse (Oldboy/Trumpet), and a controversial top prize that gives him plenty to talk about (read: loudly stick up for himself about). Guadagnino's friend and muse Tilda Swinton was widely rumored to have stood up against Tarantino's tastes on the Croisette six years ago; her advocacy of Tropical Malady was almost certainly crucial to that film's winning of a Jury Prize. The takeaway here is to make sure Swinton is always on a Tarantino jury, or else on every jury. Her platoon of tastemakers did awfully well by the Berlin slate in 2009, spreading the wealth around well-liked titles while still making adventurous choices, and passing over famous Swintonian accomplice Sally Potter.
Coppola is Tarantino's ex, but surely Isabelle Huppert's debts to Michael Haneke are at least as deep, probably more. The White Ribbon maybe had more advocates at Cannes '09 than Somewhere did on this year's Lido, but it's not as though everyone adored it, and journalists were less quick to accuse Huppert of "favoritism" than they are to allege it of Tarantino. Why? I wonder if the European press is making more than we Anglos are of the little-acknowledged fact that no American director had ever won a Golden Lion that wasn't part of a split decision until Aronofsky did it two years ago for The Wrestler, and now we've got another victory for a studio-backed U.S. auteur already. If you consider that Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution were largely American-mades films (Lust had Taiwanese and American funding), then that's four out of the last six. Does this made-in-the-USA mini-wave factor into the irritation so many are feeling?
One year's outraging jury choices occasionally turn out to look like pretty good calls in retrospect, or at least highly defensible ones. David Cronenberg almost got thrown out of Cannes in 1999 for daring to give the Dardennes' Rosetta a Palme over All About My Mother, and for sending three trophies the way of Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité. The stink was unbelievable, but I bet a lot of cinephiles today have at least as much time for Rosetta as for Mother (and Almodóvar did take the directing prize), and Cronenberg's wasn't the first or the last Cannes jury to give it up big-time for Dumont. Even people who hate his films have had an awfully easier time seeing and fighting about them after the Humanité gongs than they would have before, and miraculously, things turned out okay for Pedro and his gal-pals. All of which is good for film culture, even if Cecilia Roth's Manuela admittedly knocks Séverine Caneele's hardy, pugnacious rutting for six.
So before we all go burning our Jackie Brown DVDs in the streets, then, or hiring George Clooney to shoot QT in the head from some nearby, impossibly verdant Italian mountaintop, maybe we all ought to have a look at the films (which only some of the furious protesters have done). We also might wait for a sense of how the awards outcomes ultimately wind up serving the winners as well as the abjectly unchosen. No press is bad press, particularly not the "You wuz robbed" press that Almodóvar rode all the way to his first Oscar. I'd love to see something semi-comparable happen for admittedly tougher sells like Post Mortem or Black Venus, or at least for the more insulated snubbee, Black Swan.
If you're still not appeased, and you feel compelled to pop a valentine into the mailbox along with your condolence note to Natalie Portman (who I suspect will find it in her to survive this devastating setback), may I suggest addressing it to the true believers of SIGNIS? In the last three years, they've given their Competition prize to The Hurt Locker, Lourdes, and now Meek's Cutoff. Maybe a lot of distinguished Catholics doubt whether women can be priests, but they sure seem to believe they can be cream-of-the-crop filmmakers, and I know which one I'd rather be. So, hooray for them and their flawless choices, regardless of gender ramifications. In fact, they've managed to coronate my own favorite Competition films of '08 and '09 and my most-anticipated title from '10, and I wonder what I did to deserve to have my own predilections flattered in this way. I know the Catholic church, via its Legion of Decency, did no favors to American film culture when they used to run our ratings system, in the pre-MPAA days, but time does fly, and I'm starting to think these SIGNIS/OCIC folks oughta be granted their own distribution wing. Why should Sony Classics have all the fun?
And if I have so much to say about Venice jurying, why not do some of it myself? I've added a Venice Film Festival subsection to the site, mostly as a smaller companion piece to the Cannes pages I've maintained for a while. As with most things, though, the new, slimmer model is also a notable upgrade. Best feature: tiny Twitter-sized reviewlets of all the Golden Lion competitors I've seen from the last six years. Worst feature: the number of legendary Lion claimants I have never seen, by Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Rossellini, Ray, Godard, Antonioni, Hou, Varda, Tsai, von Trotta, Olmi, Zanussi, Zhang, Rosi, and many more.
Clearly, I need to get on top of this situation. By all means, tell me the first Lion of Yore that you think I ought to visit. If I start getting too heckled for my own shortcomings, though, or feeling too embarrassed, I will gladly relight the pyramid of dry wood underneath Tarantino, just to deflect attention. Because, after all, what on Earth could he possibly have been thinking? I heard a rumor that Fedorchenko did actually win, but Jack Palance, that nutty old coot, read the wrong name. And what did the petite Natalie ever do to Quentin, anyway? Maybe he's an O.G. Star Wars fan?