Monday, September 13, 2010

Monday Reviews: The American. Also: Venice

Henry James kept warning us: Americans going to Italy are always asking for trouble.

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 performance—say, 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?

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Anonymous Guy Lodge said...

Good lord, you didn't even go to Venice, yet you still manage to write a festival summation more perspicacious and tuned-in than anyone else's. How do you do it?

Anyway, thank you for writing this. I agree with every single point you make here, and am glad you picked up on the fact that the term "unanimous," in a festival context, doesn't quite mean what everyone thinks it does. I find this whole non-controversy really tiresome -- and borne, I fear, mainly out of the needless spite that still circles the name "Sofia Coppola" in large parts of Film Dweeb Nation. (And doesn't around the names "Isabelle Huppert" or "Michael Haneke," as you and too few others have pointed out.)

No, Somewhere, good as it is, wasn't the best film in Competition by a long shot -- but I completely understand why it won, and it has nothing to do with QT's little black book. It was arguably the one film out of the 24 that combined rigorous formal control -- and make no mistake, Coppola has advanced in this respect; those Antonioni comparisons aren't coming out of thin air, even if the filmmaking over-invites them in some sequences -- with warmer romanticism. And in retrospect, it should have been obvious that a jury containing Desplechin, Arriaga and Salvatores was going to veer toward that side of the street. Who knows, maybe Somewhere was everyone's first choice, after all -- and if it wasn't, jury compromises have been reached on far worse films in the past.

As for that idiotic "nothing for Italy" protest, nobody who actually saw the four Italian films in Competition -- which ranged from the inoffensively sloppy to the literally unwatchable -- could write that in any good conscience.

The thing that most infuriates me about the online reaction to the awards is the way certain bloggers -- I won't name names -- are so quick to paint this solely as a loss for Black Swan. Because naturally the one film for which they bothered to track the Lido reaction is the only one of any consequence. "What are Silent Souls and Post Mortem? They won't be in the Oscar race, right? Why would the Venice jury even think of rewarding them then?"

Sorry, that was long. I still have a lot of vent in me, it seems.

5:30 AM, September 13, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I have to say: Why would people care so much about awards that are given by a handful of people* when you have people like Guy who actually explain their opinions as well as giving grades.

*The most inexplicable thing, for me, is that it mostly is only about the opinion of one person, the president. I get why a president is useful but only in the case of the jury being split. It seems to me like the highest honor is decided by the president alone. Why would I care? Even if it is my beloved Huppert's decision which, for me, counts a million times more than Tarantula's. Um.. let me be a little cheap :p

I'm not sure I agree with you on the suspicion that some people just didn't want to see another American film winning, since most of the people annoyed by Somewhere's victory wanted Black Swan to win. At least, that's what I gathered.

I don't see how people can get irritated by a decision that has been made by only a few people. Isn't that the case where it's most likely to have an off-consensus choice? And isn't it easy and unnecessary to say that Tarantino gave the award to his ex just because she is his ex?

That said, I don't see how he would have prefered a film like Somewhere over the other candidates, but as long as they don't have to explain their reasons, we can only make assumptions in our heads and not go and accuse publicly because we really have no proof of anything.

7:40 AM, September 13, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

Yay, new feature! I'm really looking forward to reading up on all these years.

When I was looking over the list of Golden Lion winners, it struck me how many of them are excellent films. I like how the Palme D'Or winners are often so divisive, but qualitatively, Cannes' history can read as a little iffy.

That being said, I can't pretend to advocate Somewhere as a worthy addition to the Golden Lion fold (it probably belongs just above Gloria on your list), and heard a few jibes about A Sad Trumpet Ballad. I remember thinking when I was watching Essential Killing that it was the kind of film that Tarantino would like, because of how primitive and volatile it is. Still, if he wanted something hard-hittingly humanist, Black Venus is such a braver choice.

7:43 AM, September 13, 2010  

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