Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #6: Stephen Cone

Stephen Cone is an actor-writer-director I'd be dying to meet if I didn't know him already. By living in the same city, haunting the same movie spots, and now teaching at the same institution, I've been fortunate to keep crossing Stephen's path, and he's such a warm, smart, interesting guy. This is just what you'd hope from seeing his films, which maintain a fundamental empathy with their characters even as the stories take risky turns and grapple with human complexity. I marveled at this quality of Stephen's work, compassionate without being dull or soft, cognizant of merit in very different people's positions, when I saw his debut feature The Wise Kids. Still my favorite movie about young contemporary characters navigating dilemmas of faith and sexuality—sometimes separately, sometimes together—The Wise Kids is a minor miracle in a modern culture where these subjects, among others, are so hard to broach in a non-polarizing way that retains mystery and respects variety.

Several aspects of story, tone, and style link Stephen's subsequent features together, but at the same time, there's almost nothing they all have in common. The Wise Kids, Black Box, and Henry Gamble's Birthday Party handle large ensembles with impressive balance, but This Afternoon constrains its canvas to just two characters and sees quite far into both of them, especially the woman played so shrewdly by Nikki Pierce. Black Box, which stars another actor-writer-director, Josephine Decker, takes a backstage plot of theater production to some impressively stark places. I hadn't fully expected this from someone who makes decency and human fellowship as textured and interesting as Stephen does in Wise Kids and Henry Gamble. That said, those movies take their own detours into coldness, cruelty, and sorrow, which are all the more bracing because they unfold against broader, appealing backdrops of kinship and camaraderie.

Whoever you are, if you haven't seen Stephen's movies, you should. Henry Gamble, brand new on DVD and streaming, is a gorgeous place to start. Meanwhile, as we learn so often at Cannes, where David Lynch's jury fell for the narratively controlled and stylistically cool Pianist and the mad, more-is-more, midnight-movie barker George Miller stumped for the stripped-down didacticism of Ken Loach, you can't necessarily predict filmmakers' tastes from the kinds of movies they make. I asked Stephen some questions inspired by his own work and my guesses about what might interest or inspire him. I also asked some that were more open-ended and, as with all my favorite film buddies, his answers surprised me as often as not.

ND: Fairly early at Cannes '96, Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves emerged as the three films to beat for the Palme. As I've asking all my interlocutors, had you been on the jury, divvying prizes among that trio, which would you have recommended for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?

SC: If I were the 35-year-old filmmaker/cinephile I am now, I likely would've championed Secrets & Lies, the beautiful, humanist ending of which I think about quite often. The whole film has a special, direct, emotional power that has come to be a staple of Leigh's work. He's one of my favorite filmmakers, but I consistently underrate or even forget about him. That could have something to do with his never being in fashion.

That said, 16-year-old aspiring actor/filmmaker Stephen would've given the prize to Fargo—which I still like now, though I'm not big on the Coens' 90s work in retrospect. It's not inexhaustible to me, like much of their recent work is. The unbelievable richness of their masterful No Country-through-Llewyn Davis stretch to me makes Fargo look like a middling Disney film. And I don't like von Trier at all now; Melancholia's okay, but that's it. I find him to be cartoonishly cynical and stupid, though he very much appealed to my sense of discovery in the late 90s and early 00s.

As an actor yourself, and as someone who teaches acting, which of the performances in these films blows you away? Could be the showcased lead performances or anyone at the edges of these films that really sticks with you.

I do think Emily Watson is quite extraordinary in Breaking the Waves, as is Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies. John Carroll Lynch's and Steve Buscemi's are the best performances in Fargo, in my opinion. Oddly, Frances McDormand, one of my favorite actors, plays my favorite character in the film, but I feel like she's slightly misdirected. It's a broader performance than it needed to be. That said, in thinking about how moved I was by that performance in the 90s, I'm embarrassed to peel it apart like that. It's a touching piece of work.

One of the movies that showed in Directors' Fortnight, Hettie Macdonald's Beautiful Thing, has some of the same compassionate humanism that I associate with movies like The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, and accesses the inchoate sexual and romantic feelings of young LGBT kids in similar ways, too. Do you know that movie, or have any associations with it?

I'm so flattered you'd bring up Beautiful Thing in the context of Wise Kids and Henry Gamble. It was a formative film for me, and I actually remember where I was sitting in the room I watched it in with my friends. Incidentally, I dedicated Henry Gamble to those friends.

Any other movies listed in the Main Competition or any of the sidebars from Cannes '96 that especially stand out for you, for better or worse?

André Téchiné's Les Voleurs is my favorite film of 1996, and one of my favorite films of all time. It's so dense and multilayered and entertaining and mysterious and humane and unpredictable, I can't even believe it. It's remarkable. Similarly, Arnaud Desplechin's My Sex Life... was also a big deal to me when I saw it. Téchiné and Desplechin have influenced me more than any English-language filmmaker who arose in that period.

On the general topic of festivals, is it exciting to showcase your own work in those venues, or do you worry about the heightened expectations from critics or the slightly frenzied environments?

Fortunately, the festivals that have championed my films are less burdened by critical expectations than some of the "majors." Sidewalk Cucalorus, Outfest, Maryland, and BAMcinemaFest: those are my big four. I wouldn't be where I am without them.

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Anonymous Peter said...

Adding Les Voleurs to my watchlist! Henry Gamble's Birthday Party is my favorite movie of the year so far, and I adored The Wise Kids and Black Box so wherever Stephen Cone leads, I will follow.

9:45 PM, May 31, 2016  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

That's the spirit!!!

And, while Les Voleurs isn't in my winner's circle of winner's circles as it is for Stephen, I agree that it's wonderful. I saw it during its theatrical release my second year of college and didn't remember it all that clearly; I'd even started to doubt in retrospect how much I'd like it if I saw it again. So it was a fabulous and welcome surprise that, if anything, the movie was even richer than I'd hoped on revisit. Really surprising, intriguing structure. I hope you track it down!

9:54 PM, May 31, 2016  

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