Thursday, April 16, 2015

Catch as Catch Cannes: Class of 1995!

Ed Wood and gang take a closer look at Ulysses' Gaze.

Today, powerful people in the south of France will announce the Main Competition line-up for the 68th Cannes Film Festival.  This occasion has become almost as exciting to me as Oscar Nomination Day, and I'm pretty diligent in seeking out as many Cannes titles as I can in the months that follow, including from the so-called "sidebars," which easily outclass the center rings of so many world festivals (sometimes including Cannes itself). I don't see a prayer on the horizon of me ever actually attending Cannes, and all the stories about color-coded badges and pushy queues and huffy guards and ubiquitous industry chatter suggest I might not want to.  Instead, for each of the past few years, I have mounted my own Croisette Staycation here in Chicago, acquiring as many films as possible that showed at some past festival and watching them in the order they screened.  One year I covered 1986 and even churned out a bunch of new reviews.  After that I revisited 1973, though I petered out just before I finally got around to finally seeing The Mother and the Whore and Mean Streets. So, as delicious as a lot of my discoveries were, especially A Bigger Splash and Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, I think we can agree I sort of did it wrong.

This year, I'm horning in on Cannes' big announcement day to unveil my own plan to revive Cannes 1995. Beyond the 20th-anniversary angle, this is an especially resonant year for me.  1995 is when I finished high school, moved to a big city, and started seeing many, many more movies in theaters, archive titles and new releases alike, including much more challenging fare than the suburbs of Virginia could host. It's a really special time capsule to me, and some of the non-Competition programming at Cannes, especially Todd Haynes's Safe and Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, nearly broke my personal Richter scale as I fell into all-new levels of love with the movies.

Curiously, though, of the seven movies I've seen among the 24 that competed for the Palme—a low tally for me, against an unusually huge roster for Cannes—I don't have many passions, or even many opinions that I myself would trust. As you can see here, the group includes two films I haven't seen in two decades, three I saw in grad school to hazy or ambivalent effect, one I love but can barely remember, and one turkey I recall fairly clearly. Every one of them is keenly worth revisiting, even Jefferson in Paris, which is up to something important even if it fails in most areas of execution.

Meanwhile, though three Competition titles have eluded all my best attempts to locate subtitled copies (Romania's The Senator of Snails, Spain's Stories from the Kronen, and, most disappointingly, Mali's Waati), I've got a lot of tantalizing titles before me. They include work I've long wanted to catch by Terence Davies (The Neon Bible), Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad), Emir Kusturica (Underground, which took the Palme), Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze), Ken Loach (Land and Freedom), Larry Clark (Kids), Masahiro Shinoda (Sharaku), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Good Men, Good Women), and Manoel de Oliveira, who died just two days after my new DVD of The Convent arrived in the mail.  I'll be posting thoughts on each movie on whatever date the film originally unspooled for Jeanne Moreau's jury. Having learned the virtues of an early start, I'm already through 10 of these 21 pictures, and the kickoff isn't until May 17, so the schedule is looking good.

But that's not all. It's not even the best part!

Me, spreading the word about my big plans.

In the grand tradition of superhero sequels, except this one won't suck, I've added a lot more characters... meaning, I have lured more than a half-dozen other film writers to play along with me, some of whose names you see a lot on this site and some never before.  They'll be posting their thoughts about these movies on the same timetable I am, and at the end of the ten days, we'll deliberate and release our own jury awards, which may or may not coincide with Jeanne's.  We're already in full swing, swapping Google docs and sharing rare copies of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Don't Forget You're Going to Die, and making dates to see the Hou Hsiao-Hsien when it fortuitously passes through the Siskel in two weeks. I'm so excited to be working in league with other fanatics who also happen to be cinephiles I deeply admire.  Plus, we all know I can flag with solo voyages (the rest of the Top Ten of 2014 will come, I promise...), but group projects with internal deadlines keep me honest.  I'll release the names of my co-conspirators when Joel and Ethan Coen release their fellow jurors. It's a season of cliffhangers.

As one more treat—my own version of a good Cannes press-conference—I'll publish a few conversations along the way with some fellow academics and noted movie-people who have particular expertise on the specific films, real-world stories, or broader movements reflected in the 1995 mix.  I've already found a Victorian literature professor to talk to me about Angels & Insects, a Bloomsbury aficionado to discuss Carrington, an expert in Japanese culture to illuminate parts of Sharaku, a well-known Terence Davies enthusiast to illuminate The Neon Bible, and an eminent critical race scholar prepped to chat up Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. As I'm redesigning, updating, and reanimating the website after two especially dormant years, I'm hoping to mobilize it more effectively to introduce you to other voices in the academy, especially some of my favorite colleagues.  I see this as an ideological gesture of distributing scholarly discourse and specialized knowledge to people who can't easily access the institutions where these folks work, but also as a general blow against the idea that academic exchanges are esoteric or impenetrable.

Updated: The major, putative "sidebars" won't go uninvestigated in this feature, though Competition films are taking priority. I'll still be looking at 1995's entries in Directors' Fortnight (which included Safe, Le Confessionnal, a Katrin Cartlidge thriller, a Hugh Grant drama, and The White Balloon) and Un Certain Regard (which opened with my beloved Georgia and also exhibited the Burkinabe milestone Haramuya and exhibited a major Makhmalbaf film, despite being seen as having a slow-ish year). Critics' Week welcomed a pulpy thriller with an odd backstory, an Afro-Canadian drama, and an American indie that got good press at the time but has largely disappeared now.  Some of the best-remembered films held down Out of Competition and even midnight slots: To Die For, The Usual Suspects, the Caruso-Cage Kiss of Death, the Banderas-Hayek Desperado, and Sam Raimi's festival closer The Quick and the Dead, which sadly was only one of those things.  Area specialists in Iranian and West African cinema have already agreed to help us unpack The White Balloon and Haramuya, so I'm hoping you'll offer eager ears for them, too.

So, bookmark this page for Cannes '95 updates, follow me on Twitter for news and posts, especially from May 17-28, and by all means leave your comments below if you, too, lack the money for an Air France flight and have no claims to any dossiers de presse but still want to savor a Cannes experience.  You've got a month to do some strategic renting before we smash a bottle on the hull of this mega-feature.  Thanks in advance to all the friends who are either indulging me or allowing me to enable their own obsessive compulsion (or both), and to all of you for reading.

And what, may I ask, is your favorite movie from this cohort, and what are you most excited to hear me report on, or to see for yourself?

Me, holding court with my fellow jurors.

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