Cannes '96, Expert Witness #6: Stephen Cone
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.
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