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.

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witnesses #4 and #5: Joe Reid and Nathaniel Rogers

At this point, what's left to say to my loyal readers about Joe Reid, multi-platform pop culture profiler extraordinaire, or Nathaniel Rogers, host of the internet's giddiest, freshest, most personally stamped, and most succulent movie blog?  Nathaniel and Joe are fellow cinephiles and dear friends, frequent festival companions and podcasting partners, and easily two of my favorite people anywhere with whom to discuss any movie, any time, from any place.  We hit Skype most Sunday mornings at 9am EST to record a conversation about new releases or old favorites.  A couple weeks ago, they indulged me with an hour-long conversation synced to my #Cannes96 project, which gradually dilates out to a broader conversation about movies we love from 1996 as a whole.  Rather than transcribe the conversation, I'll just encourage you to listen to this exchange with two chaps who express themselves excitedly and unpretentiously while taking in a vast and endless spectrum of movies, from high art to superhero hash.  Along the way, more or less in order, you'll hear us confront my usual conversation starter—"Are you a Waves breaker, a Friend of Marge, or a Keeper of Secrets & Lies?"—and then move on to all of the following...

* rumored Cannes jury squabbles in 1996, especially related to Crash

* brilliant Palme also-rans like Too Late and Goodbye, South, Goodbye

* the sole indignity among the prizes conferred by Francis Ford Coppola's jury

* Nathaniel's memories of seeing Ridicule and Temptress Moon in theaters

* brief but collective enthusiasm for Irma Vep, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Girl 6

* Nathaniel's love of "Peter Greenaway," his pet name for Ewan McGregor's penis

* news of the only movie that Monty Clift, Nathaniel's cat, ever watched in full

* a comparison of snail sex in Microcosmos and abject human sex in Lars von Trier

* Joe leading the charge of praise for Trainspotting, metonymically linked to MTV

* Joe's sense that Flirting with Disaster reflects an earlier, better David O. Russell

* questions about A Self-Made Hero, which link back to Hélène's comments

* raptures about Lone Star, echoing John's, and Nathaniel's thoughts on Sayles

* my valentine to an underdog comic crowd-pleaser hiding inside the lineup

* Joe's and Nathaniel's differently vivid stories of first colliding with Crash

* our short, spontaneous lists of favorites from '96 that more folks should rent

That last conversation wends in varying degrees of detail through The Birdcage, Bound, Emma, Everyone Says I Love You, Jerry Maguire, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Nutty Professor, The Portrait of a Lady, Swingers, and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.  I thought I said something about Big Night, too, but maybe that got cut for time.  The last two words of the exchange are "beautiful thing," which should have been an allusion to that quietly fabulous gay teen romance from '96 but refers in context to... a quite different love story that involves total speculation on my part.

Thanks, meanwhile, to Joe and Nathaniel, those two beautiful things.  And stay tuned, readers, for a few more Expert Witness columns from other friends and comrades in cinema!

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #3: Noah Tsika

Following my wide-ranging survey of Cannes '96 with Hélène Zylberait and my Lone Star-focused exchange with John Alba Cutler, my third Expert Witness conversation is with Noah Tsika, an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Queens College, CUNY, where he specializes in historical, political, economic, and representational aspects of West African film and video.  You can (and should!) get your fullest exposure to this dimension of Noah's work in his book Nollywood Stars: Media and Migration in West Africa and the Diaspora, which debuted just over a year ago from Indiana University Press.  The book is a great, accessible, multi-sided assessment of celebrity, performance, narrative, circulation, and distribution in relation to a huge, Nigeria-based film culture with a mind-boggling and under-reported global reach.

Still, to say Noah "specializes" in any one thing feels like a misnomer, given his eclectic pursuits as a media scholar and his seeming awareness of every movie ever made.  You might know his work from the short study of Gods and Monsters he published in Arsenal's Queer Film Classic series a while back, or from his contributions to anthologies about African sci-fi and genre fiction, or Brokeback Mountain, or 21st-century film criticism. I am desperately anticipating his next book, Pink 2.0, due out this October, about digital queer cinema. (Feel free to pre-order it!)  Soon, we will feature together in a collection of feminist essays on each of Todd Haynes's movies, where Noah's attentions will focus on my beloved Dottie Gets Spanked. Noah's Twitter feed is the best place to enjoy his diverse and funny reflections on new releases as they bow, on the wide-ranging classes he teaches, on the latest exploits and milestones of African films and their headliners, and on important political causes, including those that directly affect his institution and its students.

I was most eager to engage Noah about Flora Gomes's Tree of Blood, a joint production of Portugal and Guinea-Bissau and a rare West African feature to grace the Main Competition at Cannes. Gomes's name and work were new to me through this #Cannes96 exercise (and perfect evidence of why I undertake these projects) but Noah, as ever, has been tracking this filmmaker for a while.  Some of our exchange centered around this title, but in perfect tribute to my discussion partner, the talk spreads to race and racism on film, environmentalism, Robert Altman, misogynist archetypes, festival politics, places to see all-but-buried African features, and other topics far and wide...

ND: By the first week of Cannes '96, the three big stories were already Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves, and they maintained that status for the remainder.  So first, I'm polling everybody: had you been on the jury, which of those three would you have championed for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?

NT: In 1996, Secrets & Lies was the one for me—and I suspect that it still is. I like to think of it as a film about passing, and I've taught it alongside such works as Basil Dearden's Sapphire (1959) and Imitation of Life (both the 1934 and the 1959 versions, directed by John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk, respectively). Secrets & Lies upends the conventions of this particular subgenre, if you can even call it that. The film is about poor white people who struggle with their proximity to Blackness—who, in various ways, have attempted to pass as isolated, even hermetic, in their whiteness—and an affluent, tremendously accomplished Black woman who is utterly unperturbed by her own "difference." The performances are gorgeous. Brenda Blethyn is, despite what detractors might say, thoroughly in character with her histrionics. It's a dazzling turn: the Cannes jury got Best Actress exactly right, and Blethyn should have won the Oscar, too. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is wonderful, as is Timothy Spall, but young Claire Rushbrook is simply astonishing. Her displays of anger and resentment always terrify me. Secrets & Lies has a truly great ending, with Blethyn's character offering a lovely little benediction. The film is hardly "cinematic" in the conventional sense, but I love its dingy, downright televisual style. It looks like a home movie, which is apt, I think.

Are you a fan of the other two in that group, or was this a pretty easy decision for you?

My parents took me to see Fargo the day it opened in Maine. I remember thrilling to its opening text; the words "true story" and "respect for the dead" so impressed me that I immediately stiffened my back, steeling myself for a Very Important Film. The austerity of the images, starting with a car approaching the screen amid all that snow, along with the urgency of Carter Burwell's remarkable score, made me believe that this would be a life-changing experience. (My mother must have had a similar response; she leaned toward me and whispered, "You'll probably want to write about this one.") But something about the film—its comic tone, its stylized acting, its repetitive linguistic play—disappointed me tremendously. It was only later, watching the film on television, that I began to enjoy it. The constant parodies must have made it less strange. In just a few months, Marge had become a pervasive object of impersonation, and I suddenly felt profoundly comfortable with Fargo. It had been transformed, for me, into a kind of collectively produced folk art.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #2: John Alba Cutler

Some of the friends I've interviewed about films that showed in Cannes 1996, like yesterday's guest Hélène Zylberait, have a pretty broad exposure to festival-circuit auteurs and their long bodies of work. Others are eager and regular moviegoers, but I was especially motivated to approach them because of contexts they could bring to a particular title.  Among this second group is my good pal John Alba Cutler, an award-winning scholar and teacher of U.S. Latino/a literature and contemporary U.S. poetry who works with me in Northwestern's English Department.  John's book Ends of Assimilation is among the best academic studies I've read in several years, in part because you don't have to be a scholar, much less one who is previously versed in the traditions of U.S. Latino/a fiction or poetry, to follow and appreciate it.  In an extremely accessible, wide-ranging, and often politically pointed way, John unfolds a substantial archive of novels, poems, journals, and other writings by Latino/a authors and uses that material, in part, to pose a complex and timely challenge to the languages and values attached to "assimilation" in U.S. public culture.  Not only does he question the pressures, internal and external, that Latinos face to assimilate (or not to assimilate) into what is perceived as "mainstream" anglophone U.S. culture but he voices considerable skepticism about what "assimilation" even means, and showcases the many ways in which novelists and poets have productively complicated these ideas.  If you don't believe me about how artistically illuminating, politically nuanced, and generally amazing this book is, maybe you'll trust this absolutely glowing review from the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can also read more about John's work here, starting on p.22.

I knew that John's scholarly interests and teaching areas made John Sayles's Lone Star a favorite of his, but we'd never had a full, proper conversation about this enduring yet somewhat under-heralded American classic (also the subject of this recent and interesting essay on Fandor).  In what follows, John is typically thoughtful and provocative about Lone Star but also extremely helpful in sketching out a whole literary tradition of Latino/a, Chicano/a, and border-related narratives that Lone Star fans should explore.  This is especially valuable given the continued failures of U.S. publishers as well as U.S. university English departments to make Latino/a cultural production central and visible in their catalogs and courses.  Lastly, having taken in several wide-ranging movies in theaters with John over the years, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I was also curious for his thoughts about a few other films that played the Croisette twenty years ago.

ND: I know you teach Lone Star sometimes, but in which classes, and with what curricular or intellectual goals?

JAC: I’ve taught Lone Star in several different classes, including classes on border literature, interracial dynamics in American culture, and a course on the long cultural history of Manifest Destiny. I generally want students to come away understanding that Mexican Americans have a long history within the United States (i.e., that we’re not just recent immigrants), that Mexican American communities are not monolithic, and that the history of the US-Mexico border demonstrates how inextricable Mexican and American culture are from one another.

Are there particular subplots that seem to resonate most for your students? Or any that tend to confound them? (Spoilers ahead here, including That One.)

Among the pleasures of teaching Lone Star are students’ reactions to the revelation that Sam and Pilar are half-siblings. Reactions generally range from nervous tittering to outright revulsion, but what the narrative so deftly points out is the thin line between animosity and desire subtending racial politics. Also, Elizabeth Peña is luminous, QDEP. I find that being shaken out of neutral helps students begin to interrogate difficult ideas, and Lone Star does nothing if not shake.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #1: Hélène Zylberait

Film festivals are delicious even you experience them as a solo flyer, but they are also, crucially, a collective experience.  I've spent the last several weeks watching 55 movies that first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 and am still in the process of posting longer thoughts about them. But as I keep drafting my own reports, I have also been polling some friends who inhabit and contribute to "film culture" broadly construed, from a purposefully eclectic series of standpoints: as critics, as teachers, as programmers, as actors, as directors, as voracious consumers, and often as several of those things. This week, I'll roll out a series of these short interviews, so you'll get more takes on these 20-year-old movies than just my own... and so I, too, have the privilege of contemplating these films from a variety of perspectives.

First up in this series is my dear friend Hélène Zylberait, a programmer, scholar, translator, critic, journalist, and film-lover who has been variously centered in Paris and Berlin the last several years. We met through my partner Derek, who befriended Hélène during graduate school at Cornell; she left the same summer I arrived, but to my great happiness, we have crossed paths many, many, many times.  I always love talking to Hélène about movies, to include helping her think of good French substitutes, for reasons that will soon be obvious, for what Samuel Fuller means when he says, for example, "I wanted to make a film that really socked it to 'em!"  I love that she happens to mention In the Mood for Love and Dancer in the Dark in these responses; I doubt she remembers this, but those were the two movies Derek and I saw in gorgeous Parisian cinemas when we visited her for New Year's Eve in 2000 and rolled in the new millennium with her.  As has been true of every friend who has answered so far, Hélène confirmed some of what I guessed about her tastes and surprised me in other ways, which is the best kind of film buddy to have. I also hope you get an impression of how catholic and rangy her aesthetic tastes are, and agree with me that it's only fitting for our first Expert Witness to be French herself, and a frequent veteran of the Croisette.

(And if I may be so gauche: if you're looking for a brilliant English-to-French translator, especially but not only for movie-related books, look no further! I'll gladly put you in touch with my talented, eloquent friend.)

ND: First, let my readers know about some of the many jobs you've had related to film, and what kind of work you've done most recently.

HZ: As a life-long cinephile, my dream was always to somehow talk about movies. So far, thanks to incredible encounters, I have been able to work in different movie-related fields. I started out as a film journalist for various publications, and more specifically on Radio Nova in Paris. After a few years I got the opportunity to work in art-house movie theatres in Paris’s Latin Quarter as an assistant programmer and projects organizer before becoming head of distribution for Cine Classic (a company specializing in revivals). While researching and putting together programs for the Paris Holocaust Memorial, I met Christa Fuller, the widow of the great Samuel Fuller. I translated his amazing autobiography A Third Face, which got published in France in 2011 by Editions Allia. Since then, I have been working as both a translator and an interpreter for publishing houses, film producers, and distributors.

Fairly early at Cannes in 1996, Secrets & LiesFargo, and Breaking the Waves emerged as the three films to beat for the Palme.  The eventual awards confirmed them as the perceived cream of that year's crop.  Had you been on the jury, divvying prizes among that trio, which would you have championed for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?

At the time, I would have probably championed Fargo. I remember vividly seeing it at the movie theatre and being impressed by the mix of genres that is so perfectly crafted here: thriller, comedy, gruesome yet kind of funny moments, like the foot getting forced inside the mincer or whatever it was. I also thought Frances MacDormand was at her absolute best, along with Blood Simple, which I saw around that time in a brand new print. These characters, everyday people caught in an inextricable situation, both touched and scared me. 

Do you have briefer thoughts about the other two films in that trio?  As I recall, you aren't the biggest von Trier fan....

I think Lars von Trier is probably one of the most talented directors alive. I really do. All his body of work is groundbreaking and disturbing. That being said, again, at the time, I thought Breaking the Waves was a misogynist film. In retrospect, I was maybe too young when I saw the film (I was then 20) and I probably took the whole story too literally. I was angry at all the characters, hence at the director. Although I was a huge fan of Europa and The Kingdom, this film left me with nothing but rage and sadness. Which is probably a good sign! I only recently reunited with Lars von Trier through Melancholia, which is, to me, one of the best films ever made about depression.

I remember being very moved by Secrets & Lies. I saw it again a year or two ago and I was struck by how bright and powerful it is. The performances by Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste add a layer of social consciousness to this intimate story in such a way that anyone can relate to it. Still today, it is my favorite of Leigh’s, along with Naked.

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Monday, May 09, 2016

Cannes 1996: Day 1: May 9

Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (IMDB) begins with a dolled-up and pissed-off 18th-century Frenchman striding through the gilded hallways of a fellow aristocrat's estate. Having cornered the elderly, incapacitated owner in his opulent bedroom, he pulls out his penis in close-up and pisses all over this vieux monsieur's silk vestments and ruffled shirts. That's the movie in a nutshell: extravagant finery, mounted for maximal oohs and ahhs from the art house crowd, inclined to abrupt and wicked assaults on itself and its audience. That's also the Cannes Film Festival for you, a fussy, self-fashioned pinnacle of artistry and glamour, barely concealing its lip-smacking hunger for controversy, vulgarity, grandiosity, and humiliation.  Opening Night is frequently an occasion for dire catharsis, as some lumbering commercial calculation like The Da Vinci Code or some beige flash in the middlebrow pan like Blindness gets trotted out to the global cinemarati. They, in turn, gnash their incisors on these stale appetizers before the real haute cuisine starts arriving the following morning.

By the standards of Cannes openers, Ridicule is a substantially above-average achievement. That is to say, it's a perfectly fine movie, engaging throughout, impressive in several passages, shaky in a few others. Styled as a kind of homegrown Dangerous Liaisons (Fanny Ardant's final shot owes an all-but-explicit debt to Glenn Close's indelible signoff as Merteuil), Ridicule handily seduces the wigs-and-bustles audience while baring a sharper-than-usual set of teeth. The critique of royal decadence—moral, verbal, sexual, monetary, gustatory, political—is nothing new in itself, but the stakes ramify outward from Versailles in unique and memorable ways. Beyond just vanquishing rivals and chasing tail, though he manages plenty of both, naïve protagonist Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (demonlover's Charles Berling) is mastering the art of weaponized badinage for a specific purpose, which palpably fascinates the filmmakers.  He wants to rid his swampy village of mosquito-borne illness and thus needs palace financing for a complex engineering scheme that will rehabilitate public health and local ecology.

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