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Festival de Cannes 2016: The Spin

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Image Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

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The 2016 Cannes Film Festival ended Sunday, May 22nd. Cannes is the glitziest, most distinguished, and most important film festival in the world. Past winners of the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor, include cinematic luminaries Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Luis Buñuel. In the Marché, the festival’s film market, producers strike multi-million dollar deals for production or international distribution rights. Cannes is a closed festival. All participants are industry insiders. It is a world of controlled anarchy and strict hierarchy. Inside the Palais des Festivals, the six story modernist convention center on the world famous palm-lined Promenade de la Croisette, along the Mediterranean, world famous filmmakers and A-list celebrities walk the red carpet of the Grand Théâtre Lumière in the trendiest  Parisian couture. Others jostle for position. By the way, the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière invented the cinematograph and directed the first real motion picture. There are five different levels of color-coded press passes. For the press, access to screenings, as well as staff courtesy, is dependent on color of their badge. Throughout the day and the night parties abound, champagne flows, and deals are finalized. Cannes is one of the largest film markets in the world.

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This year there were twenty-one films in the official selection. These films vied for the Palme d’Or. Un Certain Regard, a competition that seeks to present “original and different” works, runs parallel to the official selection. This year Un Certain Regard exhibited eighteen films from twelve different countries including Finland, Israel, and Singapore.

The third competition is Cinéfondation created in 1998 to highlight the works of film school students. Eighteen films representing fifteen different countries were selected out of 2300 entries! Other parallel competitions include the International Critics’ Week and the Director’s Fortnight.

The International Critic’s Week was founded in 1961 by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics. Critic’s Week exhibits director’s first or second feature films. Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Last Tango in Paris”) and Wong Kar-Wai (“Chungking Express”) were both recognized at Critic’s Week. The International Critic’s Week competition remains a launch pad for new and important filmmakers.

The Director’s Fortnight is an independent sidebar founded in 1969 by the French Director’s Guild. Interestingly, its founding was a reaction to the cancellation of Cannes in 1968 due to the student riots in Paris.

The Director’s Fortnight was launched in solidarity with Henri Langlois, the influential film archivist whose groundbreaking work at the Cinémathèque Française was a key influence on the French New Wave and Auteur Theory. His dismissal from the directorship of the Cinémathèque by de Gaulle’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, was one of many precipitating factors of the 1968 student movement. The most audacious and outré films are shown at the Director’s Fortnight.

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Henri Langlois.  (Image Credit: Alchetron)

There are also films shown out of competition. This usually includes big budget Hollywood productions screened at Cannes to generate hype. This year Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG”, Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys”, and Woody Allen’s “Café Society” were all shown out of competition.

Cannes also runs a sidebar of classic restorations. Some of this years highlights include William Friedkin’s underseen “Sorcerer” (1977), a remake of Henri George Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953), Mario Bava’s “Planet of Vampires” (1965) which current Palme d’Or nominee Nicholas Winding Refn claims Ridley Scott ripped off for “Alien” (1979), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s oneiric masterpiece “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953).

Additionally, each evening the festival will screen a movie outdoors at Cinéma de la Plage. Access to Cinéma de la Plage is free and open to the public. This year each film screening is preceded by a concert showcasing a classic Warner Brothers film score. A much-hyped restoration of Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) sadly has been canceled due to inclement weather.

Cannes Film Festival: A History

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Leni Riefenstahl and Dino Alfieri, Minister of Popular Culture, in Venice, 1938.  (Image Credit: La Bienhale)

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The Cannes Film Festival was not always the glitziest festival on the block. In the early 1930s the preeminent film festival in the world was The Venice Film Festival. At the time, Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini. While the Venice Film Festival began awarding prizes in 1934, the prizes were not chosen by a jury. Instead they were awarded by the president of the festival, Mussolini ally Luciano De Feo, in accordance with the National Institute For Educational Cinema. As the bond between Mussolini and Hitler strengthened, the winners of the Mussolini Cup, Venice’s highest honor, became more politicized. In 1938 Leni Riefenstahl won for her four-hour documentary “Olympia”. Italian and German films dominated the festival.

Reacting to this, French writer Philippe Erlanger proposed the creation of a new festival in 1937 – A festival that would rival Venice, and feature the works of French, English, and American filmmakers. Jean Zay, the French Minister of National Education, supported by the British and American film industries, created the Cannes Film Festival in 1939. Then war broke out. The first Cannes film festival was held seven years later in 1946.

The festival, held in the Casino de Cannes, exhibited such important films as David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” (1945) and Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” (1945). Every film in the official selection was awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, the precursor to the Palme d’Or. Budgetary shortfalls in the postwar period led to the cancellation of the 1948 and 1951 festivals. The original Palais des Festivals was built in 1949 and celebrated with a particularly splashy festival in which Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” took the highest honors. If you haven’t seen “The Third Man”, you should!

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Brigitte Bardot shows off on the beach (1953).  (Image Credit: Pininterest)

Festival de CannesThe Daily Express

British actress Simone Silva posing topless with the American star Robert Mitchum during the Cannes film festival in 1954

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Starting in 1953 the Cannes Jury became multinational, not just French as it had been since 1946. In 1955 the Palme d’Or was introduced. The palm design by jeweler Lucienne Lazon was based on the crest of the city. The first winner of the Palme d’Or was American Delbert Mann for “Marty” (1955). The fifties and sixties were a time of rapid growth for the festival, introducing the Marché du film and the parallel competitions.

As mentioned earlier, Cannes was canceled May 18th, 1968, nine days into the festival. In solidarity with Henri Langlois, who they believed to be unfairly dismissed from the Cinémathèque that he founded, Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and others attempted to halt the festival by hanging curtains over the screen in the Palais during the premiere of “Peppermint Frappé”. Although their protest was unsuccessful, by the next day enough filmmakers had withdrawn their films and enough jury members stepped down that the festival had no choice but to shut down.

 

In the early days of the film festival there was tendency to screen the same directors representing the same nations year after year. This was because at the time it was the countries that selected the films, much like the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. The original programmer of the Director’s Fortnight, Pierre-Henri Deleau, remembers, “Now, it’s ‘the Cannes Film Festival presents,’ but back then, it was ‘the USSR presents’ or ‘Great Britain presents’ — it was always the same directors coming from every country.”

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This changed in 1972 when film critic Robert Fevre Le Bret was named festival president. He created two committees (there are now three) within the festival to decide which films would be selected.

The second major change that Le Bret introduced was to change the composition of the jury from academics and government officials to filmmakers and celebrities. This led to the Cannes’ aura of ‘Hollywood on the Mediterranean’.

Nevertheless, the festival is less about celebrity than pure cinema. The festival’s mission is, “to draw attention to and raise the profile of films with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level.”

Over a hundred films are screened during the two weeks of Cannes. Though the Crown jewel of the Cannes Film Festival is the Official Selection, where new works of the world’s greatest directors (and sometimes lesser directors who don’t seem to belong) are screened for the first time. Let’s take a look at this year’s Official Selection.

The 2016 Official Selection

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“American Honey” – Andrea Arnold (UK, US)

“American Honey” is the first American-set film for talented British helmer Andrea Arnold, one of the three female directors in the Official Selection. After her start as a dancer and television presenter in England, Arnold attended the AFI conservatory. Her short film “Wasp”, the story of a struggling single mother, won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Her films are penetrating studies of the lower classes, usually focused on gender dynamics.

Arnold’s most famous film is “Fishtank” (2009) starring Michael Fassbender. It is the story of an angry teenager who has a sexual relationship her mother’s boyfriend. Lead actress Katie Jarvis had no prior acting experience, which in Arnold’s hands creates a heightened sense of realism.

Arnold reuses this technique in her current film, “American Honey,” casting newcomer Sasha Lane in the lead role of Star opposite Shia LaBeouf (the toast of Cannes for his performance) and Riley Keough (“The Girlfriend Experience”), who happens to be Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.

“American Honey” relates the story of a teenage girl who joins a traveling magazine sales crew in Middle America. Early reviews have been mixed, praising the acting and the diegetic iPod mixes that lend the film the aura of a nouveau musical; however, many criticize the length and lack of plot.

Guy Lodge of Variety writes that “Be it in the grimy towers of an Essex council estate, the wind-whipped moors of Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire or, now, the truck stops and fleapit motels lining America’s highways, finding love in a hopeless place… is something of a recurring theme in the British director’s work.” He calls the film “Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical.” . Late in the film, a truck driver asks Star about her dreams of a better life. Barbara Scharres of RogerEbert.com interjects, “…my dream was for “American Honey” to be over.”

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“Aquarius” – Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil)

Mendonça Filho began his career as a film critic before directing his first short in 1997. He directed his first feature “Neighboring Sounds” in 2013. Mendonça Filho has a recurring interest in the middle class and urban sprawl. “Neighboring Sounds” is in the neorealist tradition, a cinematic tradition that links all the way back to “Rome, Open City” exhibited at the first Cannes Film Festival (Developed in Italy, neorealist films are shot on location, use non-professional actors, and generally focus on the working classes).

The film is a mostly plotless story of the effect of the intrusion of a private security firm on a crime-ridden middle class neighborhood in Brazil. “Neighboring Sounds” is shot from the perspective of various members of the community and naturalistically explores the yin/yang oppression’s of crime and surveillance. Weaving together a dozen characters, Mendonça Filho uses expressive tracking shots in his 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a detailed sound design to create an elaborate socio-economic study.

Filho’s new film, “Aquarius” stars well-known Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, best known in the U.S. for Héctor Babenco’s “Kiss of The Spider Woman” (1985). In “Aquarius”, Braga plays an aging sexually frustrated music critic fighting a property company planning to demolish her elegant apartment.

While the film is ostensibly a very strong character study of this not all together likeable woman (as a lady of means she is acutely aware of class distinctions), Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian notes that on a macro-level it is a “metaphor for Brazil, with the cronyism, corruption and cynicism in its highest reaches.”

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“Elle” – Paul Verhoeven (France)

Paul Verhoeven is one of my absolute favorite directors. Verhoeven is Dutch, and he holds masters degrees in mathematics and physics. He started his career in television; his breakthrough in the Netherlands came in 1969 with the TV movie “Floris”, which starred Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner). Rutger Hauer would become Verhoeven’s long time leading man, until their falling out in 1985. His international breakthrough was in 1973 with “Turkish Delight”, his second theatrically released film. The film starred Hauer as a passionate artist who enters into a destructive carnal relationship with a young woman from a socially conservative family. With its extremely explicit sex scenes, it has been compared to “The Last Tango in Paris”. It was extremely popular in the Netherlands, 26% of Dutch people saw it in the theater. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. “Soldier of Orange” about the Dutch resistance in World War 2 was released in 1979 increasing Verhoeven’s international fame.

He followed up with “Spetters” (1980) and “The Fourth Man” (1984).   These two films pushed sex and violence to the limit allowed in the Netherlands. In 1985 Verhoeven relocated to Hollywood.

His first film was the under seen “Flesh & Blood” (1985), again starring Hauer. In Hollywood he earned a reputation as a big budget action director with three straight major hits – “Robocop” (1987), “Total Recall” (1990), and “Basic Instinct” (1992), cementing his status as an A-lister and a master of special effects.

His next film, “Showgirls”, the first ever widely released NC-17 film, was a commercial and critical failure. The film, a Las Vegas set send-up of “All About Eve” (1950), won a Razzie for worst film. Verhoeven was the first director to ever pick up his own Razzie.

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After rebounding with “Starship Troopers” (1997) and “Hollow Man” (2000) he returned to the Netherlands. He released “Black Book”, his first Dutch film in over twenty years, in 2006. “Elle”, shot in France, is his first film since “Black Book”. “Elle” is a rape revenge film.

The critics’ response has been rapturous. Which is somewhat unsettling because they usually run about ten years behind Verhoeven. The Guardian writes “Elle” is “an outrageous black comedy, volatile and deadly.” Variety calls “Elle” “perhaps the greatest of Verhoeven’s storied career.” Sony, the home of all of his American films, has scooped up the North American rights.

“From the Land of the Moon” ­– Nicole Garcia (France)

This is Algerian-born Nicole Garcia’s third film in the Cannes Film Festival. Her first was “The Adversary” in 2002.  “The Adversary” is a true crime story, based on the life of Jean-Claude Romand, who posed as a medical doctor for almost twenty years before murdering his family.

Garcia has been acting in cinema since the late 1960s. She is an actor’s director consistently eliciting compelling performances. Her newest, “From the Land of The Moon”, derives from a long tradition of very French tearjearkers. In this film a sickly and overly dramatic young woman (she follows “Wuthering Heights” a little too closely) enters into a loveless marriage, is sent away to a spa for treatment and relaxation, and of course starts an affair with a charismatic stranger.

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Critics agree that the movie is sappy and overstated. Her film cannot be saved by strong continental filmmaking and “a performance of tremulous commitment” by French star Marion Cotillard (“Inception”). Jessica King of Variety slaps it with the ultimate put down for a European art film, writing ““From the Land of the Moon”… is as syrupy a confection as ever dripped from the pen of Nicholas Sparks.”

“Graduation” – Cristian Mungiu (Romania)

Mungiu won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for the film “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”. He directed his first feature in 2002. He is currently Romania’s most important filmmaker. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” is the story of two students attempting to arrange an abortion in the waning years of the Ceausescu regime.

The film was hailed for its minimalism and rigorous formality, realistic yet willing to break the fourth wall. Mungiu stylistically utilized seamless long takes without ever becoming distractingly self-conscious. Variety notes that he has “an astonishing ear for natural dialogue.” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” really is one of the best films to win Cannes in the twenty-first century. I mean it. It’s worth renting.

His new film, “Graduation”, tells the story of doctor who makes a corrupt deal with a local official in hopes of landing his daughter a scholarship to Cambridge. Jonathan Romney of Film Comment called it a “raining stones movie” in which a series of bad things happen to the characters no matter what choice they make.

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While critics are mostly positive about the film, it is neither formally adventurous nor particularly narrative innovative. The film is yet another in a long line of stories examining moral compromise in what Romney calls “an endemically corrupt society.” He argues that the film’s problem is that Mungiu made the subtext of “social disillusionment” too overt.

“The Handmaiden” – Park Chan-Wook (South Korea)

Park Chan-Wook is one my favorite directors. He is arguably South Korea’s most famous director. In 2003 he won the Grand Prix (second prize) at Cannes for his nightmarish formalist and transgressive masterpiece: “Oldboy”.

Chan-Wook started his career as a critic and released his first feature the little seen “The Moon is… the Sun’s Dream” in 1992. He continued to work as a critic until his breakthrough film, “Joint Security Area” in 2000. “JSA” was the highest grossing film ever in South Korea.

The narrative concerns an incident in the demilitarized zone. “Joint Security Area” unfolds in “Rashoman” style flashbacks, finally revealing a truth that is at once simpler, more human, and more harrowing than anything the protagonist (a female military inspector) could imagine.

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He followed “JSA” with the independently produced “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), the first of his vengeance trilogy. The film follows a deaf factory worker who is coerced to kidnap his wealthy boss’ daughter by his militantly leftist girlfriend. The accidental death of the young girl sets off a cycle of extreme violence. In particular an act of electrocution is one of the most realistically portrayed and emotionally taxing scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a movie.

“Oldboy”, released the next year was his international breakthrough. The story of man who is kidnapped and trapped in a room for fifteen years, “Oldboy” is astonishingly graphic in its violence and sex. Yet, as Roger Ebert notes, “”Oldboy” is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.”

Park completed his vengeance trilogy with “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”, a dark, somewhat comical film, which while another masterwork of technical craft, is in my opinion not as memorable as his earlier films.

In 2009 he released a gruesome yet lyrical film called “Thirst”, about a priest who becomes a carnally obsessed vampire after volunteering to test a vaccine for a deadly disease. Park described the film, very loosely based on Thérése Raquin by Émile Zola, as an illicit love story.

After directing a film in the United States with far less creative control than he was used to, Park returned to South Korea and to Cannes with the “Handmaiden”. Park has loosely adapted Sarah Waters popular lesbian themed Victorian set novel Fingersmith to Japanese occupied Korea. In the 1930’s a conman wants to marry a fragile heiress in order to steal her money. He convinces a female pickpocket to become her maid in order to win her confidence. What he doesn’t count on is that the two women develop a strong relationship.

Critics are extremely positive. Variety calls “The Handmaiden” “Sybaritic, cruel and luridly mesmerizing.” Much is made of the heiress’ sexually aberrant uncle and his collection of classic Japanese pornography. Critics suggest the character recalls the cruelty of the pinku eiga erotic films of the 1970’s.

Benjamin Lee, of The Guardian, writes “There’s explicit sex but more importantly, there’s longing, affection and intimacy.” I can’t wait. This was one of five Cannes films picked up by Amazon, so there’s a guaranteed stateside release.   (By the way, see “Night Fishing”, his short shot on an iphone 4.)

I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach (UK)

79 year old leftist social realist Ken Loach has been directing since the 1960s. He won the Palme d’Or in 2006 for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, about the Irish War for Independence, starring Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later”). He has stated he wanted to explore how Irish independence was a social movement rather than a nationalist movement.

I can’t argue that’s its not a well made film but like everything he’s done it’s ideology first. Social realism is like caviar, you either like it or you don’t. Some people like it because you’re supposed to. Tim Luckhurst of The Times summed up “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” best, calling it a “poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence.” Luckhurst then compared Loach to Leni Riefenstahl, another talented director who had to fit all stories to an ideology. It’s called propaganda.

Loach is back at Cannes with “I, Daniel Blake” about a joiner who gets sick and needs state assistance. It seems the overwhelming critical view is, ‘well it’s a Ken Loach film’. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian calls it a “welfare state polemic.”

“It’s Only the End of The World” – Xavier Dolan (France)

That brings us to what may be the opposite of a social realist – French Canadian Xavier Dolan. A director who would use the entirety of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ for a montage sequence.

Dolan is only 27 years old and this is second film in the Official Selection at Cannes, his fourth film in the festival overall! He was successful child actor, and he self-financed his first feature, “I Killed my Mother”, in 2009. While it’s puerile and could charitably be called uneven, it does show a striking talent.

His breakthrough was “Mommy” (Do we see an obsession here?) in 2014, which shared the jury prize with Godard’s playful 3D movie “Goodbye to Language”. “Mommy” is the very intense story of a single mother and her violent son. The film was shot in the rarely used and extremely oppressive 1:1 aspect ratio, a perfect square.   It is oppressive because it is so narrow. You are stuck right there with the characters. There is no escape to the negative space at the sides of the frame. There is no negative space. This heightens the intensity.

Late in the film, in a moment of pure joy the aspect ratio widens to 1.85:1. The boy literally grabs onto the sides of the frame and pulls it open. This moment is both a crescendo and a release.

Dolan is back at Cannes with “It’s Only the End of The World” about a terminally ill writer who returns home after a long absence to announce his impending death to his family. The film based on an extremely talky play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, and has an all star cast including Gaspard Ulliel (so good in “Hannibal Rising” and “Saint Laurant”), Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux (who in a controversial move in 2014 shared the Palme d’Or with her director for the extremely sexually explicit “Blue is the Warmest Color” [I think now that time has passed, it should be stated that the center-piece sex scene really is porn], and Vincent Cassel (“Eastern Promises”).

Reviews have been mixed but generally not kind. It’s been observed that silences speak louder than the generally vacuous dialogue. Vanity Fair posits that “It’s Only the End of the World” is “the most disappointing film at Cannes.” Peter Bradshaw, on the other hand, writes, “The claustrophobia of family has rarely been so well- wrought as in [this] highly stylized…drama.”

“Julieta” – Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)

Pedro Almodóvar is the high priest of gay Spanish cinema. Almodóvar is self-taught because Franco closed the National School of Cinema in Madrid. After working for a telephone company for thirteen years he made his first film, “Pepi, Luci, Bom”, in 1980. The film was well known for its campiness and explicit sexuality, which became trademarks of his signature brand of filmmaking.

His major critical success came in 1989 with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” The film was inspired by ‘woman’s film’ directors like George Cukor, but far more explicit. The film is about a woman who becomes hysterical when her married boyfriend leaves her. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

The prolific director’s first Academy award win came in 1999 for “All About My Mother”. This film was a melodrama (an Almodóvar specialty) about a woman dealing with the death of her son. This is not to say that the film is not comedic, it is heavily occupied with sick sex jokes mainly revolving around transgenderism.

In 2009 he screened his third film in the Official Selection of the Cannes film festival – “Broken Embraces”. Another melodrama, the films has been commended for its use of music, and features an acclaimed turn from A-list Spanish actress Penelope Cruz (“Vanilla Sky”).

After a departure into psychological terror, Almodóvar returned to his roots in campy comedy with 2013’s “I’m So Excited”. The film, set almost entirely on an airplane, garnered mixed reviews.

Almodóvar returns to Cannes with “Julieta”, his twentieth feature, an adaptation of three Alice Munro stories. The film tells the story of “Julieta”, whose daughter runs away. As she searches for her daughter she begins to realize she doesn’t really know the girl, and worse their relationship may be meaningless.

Critics have been mixed in their reaction to this ‘woman’s film’. While there is general agreement that the film is well acted, well directed, and even elegant, Eric Kohn at Indiewire calls the film “conventional”, an unusual criticism for an Almodóvar joint. The Telegraph was more in line with the usual critical refrains for one of Almodóvar’s movies, calling it a “guilt-soaked pleasure”, nonetheless Peter Bradshaw asserting a fractured narrative, stamped “Julieta” “a minor work”.

“The Last Face” – Sean Penn (US)

Oh! To be a celebrity! Sean Penn as a director, even at his best, has never been in the league of the other directors in the Official Selection. Yet, he slides in on name recognition alone. He can make a good film – “The Pledge” (2001), “The Crossing Guard” (1995). If he sticks with hardboiled B material, he’s capable. When he tries harder (“Into the Wild”) he still can be decent. Now it seems that if he tries to make a grand statement film, like “Out of Africa” (1985) for the NGO years, he ends up pretentious and cloying, and falling flat on his face.

It seems like working with Terrance Malick may have been the worst thing that ever happened to him. And talking about Sean Penn, gee wiz, that’s saying a lot. It looks like the two main things he took away from his Malick experience (arguably one of cinema’s great poets) is that grass blowing in the wind is arty, and a lack of establishing shots is lyrical. Uh, no. If you are anything less than one of cinema’s great masters, you are just going to confuse the audience, and a confused audience is an angry audience. Just look at the critical reaction to this would be opus about aid workers in Africa starring Charlize Theron. First the film was savaged on Twitter:

“An extended Band Aid video, shoddily assembled to be screened at galas filled with the guilty elite sipping champagne while frowning at close-ups of tearful orphans.”

“I joined in the booing for my first time today for ‘The Last Face.’ It was so bad that I laughed [out] loud at times.”

“”THE LAST FACE”: A transcendently bad movie about aid workers and African suffering. But to its credit, the romance is actually worse.”

Then came the actual reviews.

From the Guardian:

“The warning signs arrive from the very first frame that we’re in for a rough ride, with text on-screen likening the “impossible brutality” of the conflict in Africa to that of the love between a man and a woman. “

AND

“Nothing about the film comes close to authenticity and it’s largely down to Penn’s remarkably amateurish direction. He makes the odd stylistic choice to play with focus throughout, attaching a mistiness to certain shots that gives it the feel of a first-time student film.”

THEN THERE’S VARIETY:

“’The Last Face’ is Sean Penn’s version of an Angelina Jolie movie: It keeps advertising its compassion, yet it’s really a drama about two beautiful movie stars trying to save the world.”

“There are no establishing shots, so the handheld vérité stuff leaves the spatial dynamics of each setting a bit vague, and the whole film is stitched together by voiceover, with Wren and Miguel [the two main characters] pouring out their overly mournful thoughts to us.”

THIS IS A TOTAL BOMB.

“Loving” – Jeff Nichols (US)

Jeff Nichols is a real honest to goodness Southern Director. He’s from Little Rock, Arkansas. His first three movies “Shotgun Stories” (2007), “Take Shelter” (2011), and “Mud” (2012) were all terrific. Real Southern Grotesques that got all the little details right. You should run out and rent each and every one. Then he slipped. “Midnight Special” (2016) was supposed to be an homage to John Carpenter. It’s basically a loose remake of “Starman” (1984) with a kid instead of Jeff Bridges, except Nichols is no longer particularly interested in plot, only tone. He’s admitted as much.Well, it didn’t work, without a carefully coiled narrative, audience interest dies out, and the third act is extremely anticlimactic.

Now Nichols wants awards. So he’s gone and made a movie about the civil rights court case Loving v. Virginia. But it’s a movie without passion. Because he doesn’t care. It’s all just about tone. While the movie is a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination because of February ‘s big racial kerfuffle, critical reaction was surprisingly mixed.

Vanity Fair claims that Loving’s “avoidance of sappiness combined with its “terseness and sparse characterizations” made it appear somewhat lacking in heft.” Nonetheless, Focus Features has snapped up the rights.

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The Brown Bunny poster. (Image Credit: La.curbed.com)

“Ma’ Rosa” – Brillante Mendoza (Philippines)

Brillante Mendoza is the greatest Filipino director. “Ma’ Rosa” is his third film to compete for the Palme d’Or. His films have neo-realist narratives but oneiric atmospheres. Director Quentin Tarantino can be counted among the fans of Mendoza’s “Kinatay” (2009), which won the directing prize at Cannes.

Tarantino applauded Mendoza’s unusual directing style. “Kinatay” is less interested in narrative and Hitchcockian suspense, than capturing the natural and chaotic human response to violence. Writing around major events can be called a Mendoza trademark.

On the other hand, Roger Ebert hated the film calling it worse than Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny.” Interestingly, in 2003 when “The Brown Bunny” (2003) premiered at Cannes, Ebert called it the worst film he had ever seen at the festival. In retaliation Vincent Gallo called Ebert “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader”, and placed a voodoo hex on the critic. A recut of “The Brown Bunny” is worth seeing if you’re not offended by a graphic unsimulated blowjob.

Mendoza’s new film, “Ma’ Rosa”, is a vérité examination of extreme poverty and police corruption in the Philippines. It has garnered mixed to positive reviews. Mike D’Angelo of the AV Club calls it a rare misstep for Mendoza and complains about the muddy visuals, which, in his opinion, may be the least of the film’s problems. “Not that a sharper image would much improve this chaotic portrait of police corruption, which seeks to engender empathy for small-time drug dealers by demonstrating that the cops who arrest them are even worse.”

The general consensus is that the film’s chief problem is its failure to give the audience a reason to care about any of the grim happenings.

“The Neon Demon” – Nicholas Winding Refn (US)

Nicholas Winding Refn has once again divided the Cannes audiences. I’m sure he’s absolutely gleeful. There were boos, there were jeers, there were screams of profanity, there were walkouts, and even a smattering of applause. The Danish director’s last film at Cannes, “Only God Forgives” (2013), was widely booed and for good reason. The would-be Muay Thai epic was a nonsensical wallow in extreme depravity. He is capable of better. Remarkably, Refn is colorblind, so he splashes the frame with hot pink and fluorescent colors.

Discussing Refn’s newest, “The Neon Demon”, Cliff Martinez, who composed the film’s synth score, tantalizingly states, “the first half resembles a melodrama like “Valley of the Dolls”, and the second half is like the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”.”

The film stars the very talented Elle Fanning as a young model. Newly arrived to Los Angeles, she discovers the other models are vampiric and prey on her youthful vitality. So, it looks like Refn has served up another outré transgression. His films at their best can be a shock to the system.

It looks like he’s already gotten the tabloids and the mainstream media all riled up. I’ve already seen headlines about LESBIAN NECROPHILIA! Not surprisingly critic opinion is divided. Over at the Hollywood Reporter, chief critic Todd McCarthey huffs that the Neon Demon is “a stultifyingly vapid, ponderously paced allegorical critique of the modeling world whose seethingly jealous inhabitants can’t wait to literally chew each other up and spit each other out” that will only appeal to “jaded scenesters”.

Across the pond, the Telegraph loved it. Their headline blares “The Neon Demon’s jaw dropping depravity leaves Cannes reeling.” They continue, “Refn just keeps pushing, and eventually lands on a sequence so jaw-dropping – almost certainly a sly, glossy-magazine refashioning of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s groundbreaking surrealist short “Un Chien Andalou” – that all you can do is howl or cheer.”

The Neon Demon hits theaters at the end of June courtesy of Amazon.

“Paterson” – Jim Jarmusch (US)

Jim Jarmusch is American independent cinema. The man almost single handedly created the downtown New York indie scene. Forget my other recommendations. (No, not really. Just bear with me) If you haven’t seen “The Third Man”. That’s still your first choice. Otherwise, run out and watch “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Mystery Train”. They’re that good. Really.

A little background. After being thrown out of Northwestern, Jarmusch attended Columbia, hoping to become a poet. He spent almost a year in France, mostly attending the Cinémathèque Française, where he learned the same way Godard and Truffaut did, back when they skipped school to watch films. The Cinémathèque would show the complete filmography of a director. Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray were favorites of the Cinémathèque. Jarmusch would later work as Ray’s assistant while attending Tisch. While Ray enjoyed Jarmusch’s independent streak, the school did not and refused to grant him a diploma.

While at NYU, Jarmusch became ensconced in the Downtown punk culture and became a regular at CBGB’s. Jarmusch’s first major film “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984) was also his critical breakthrough. It won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The low budget black and white film is the story of two guys and girl as they travel down to Florida.

His films are instantly recognizable. Jarmusch is an auteur (A French theory I doubt he puts much stock in). His films vary from prison film, to western, to ghetto samurai film, to vampire film. They all share that ineffable Jarmusch deadpan.

His new film “Paterson” stars Adam Driver (“Star Wars: Episode VII”) as a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver named Paterson, who is a secret poet. The reviews all point to it being another super hip Jarmusch flick.

While no one is calling for it to get the Palme d’Or, they’re all pretty positive. The Guardian tags the film “A quiet delight”, which really sums up most Jarmusch films.

“Personal Shopper” – Olivier Assayas (France)

“Personal Shopper” was the first film to be booed at Cannes this year. At the press screening anyway. The international film press can be very obnoxious. The premiere screening, with industry professionals, and the usual rich folk in attendance, was supposedly much smoother, but all signs point to “Personal Shopper”, Olivier Assayas’ first horror film, being very divisive.

Assayas began his career writing for France’s most influential film journal, Cahier du Cinéma. This journal founded by André Bazin has a history of critics turned filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Assayas started directing shorts in the late 1970s, but did not have a critical breakthrough until 1994’s “Cold Water” was accepted into Un Certain Regard. The rock music saturated film about two rebellious teenagers in love was a good fit for the trends of new 90’s world cinema.

Two years later he was back at Cannes with the well-received “Irma Vep” (1996) that examined the French film industry from the point of view of a Chinese actress played by Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung. Assayas’ films no matter the genre, be it action thriller (Asia Argento vehicle “Boarding Gate”, 2007), five and half hour bio-pic (“Carlos”, 2010) or youthful nostalgia (“Something in the Air”, 2012) always continue to explore the formal radicalism of the French New Wave.

As the New York Times writes, “Assayas has emerged as a mainstay of what might be called the middle generation of post-New Wave French auteurs — filmmakers who still labor in the shadow of a heroic band of ancient young rebels”. His new film, Personal Shopper, is his second straight film in the Official Selection, following “Clouds of Sils Maria”, a back stage drama.

The two films share a star – American Kristen Stewart. In “Personal Shopper”, Stewart plays the put-upon assistant of a demanding fashion designer. She is also a medium. The film follows her efforts to contact her dead brother.

As I said before, the film is divisive. Over at The Hollywood Reporter Todd McCarthey who hasn’t especially liked anything from the year’s festival, (he’s on record saying that Cannes has been weak this year), calls Personal Shopper an “aggravatingly empty would-be suspense piece [with] a vapid, undeveloped screenplay.” He continues, “…this is spooky hokum from start to finish, not the sort of thing art house followers have ever expected from the intellectually venturesome Assayas.”

On the other hand, Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian gives the film five stars. He gushes “With his reckless, audacious Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas has brought excitement to the festival.”

The Salesman – Asghar Farhadi (Iran)

Asghar Farhadi is one of Iran’s best and most important directors. He is also one of the few of the Iranian masters who actually shoots most of his films in Iran. Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami has long since abandoned shooting in Iran, filming his last two films in France and Japan respectively.

So far, unlike his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Farhadi has escaped both prison time and filmmaking bans. This is because of his subtlety with subtext. He did get in trouble for voicing support for those involved with the Green Revolution in 2009, but was luckily given a public condemnation rather than a filmmaking ban.

His first feature was the neorealist “Dancing in the Dust” in 2003. His breakthrough came with “About Elly” in 2013. The film concerning the disappearance of a young woman on a beach retreat was compared to Antonioni’s “L’Avventura”, which has a similar narrative. A film of true depth, “About Elly” shows just how much a filmmaker can get away with subtextually, when cloaking their film in genre trappings. “About Elly” won the Silver Bear at Venice.

His 2013 film “The Past” was his first film shot outside of Iran. His new film, “The Salesman”, is ostensibly a revenge film about a man searching Tehran for his wife’s attacker, but the early word from critics is that it’s much more than a thriller.

Over at Variety, Owen Gleiberman writes, “In “The Salesman,” the psychology of vengeance is almost metaphysical in its complexity.”

In a still highly positive review Deborah Young for the Hollywood Reporter compares it unfavorably to his earlier film “A Separation”, writing “…here the gears are not so hidden and a sense of contrived drama leads to some tedious sections. But all is forgiven when the final punches are delivered in a knock-out finale that leaves the viewer tense and breathless.”

Staying Vertical – Alain Guiraudie (France)

Alain Guiraudie has been on the edges of French cinema since directing his first film in 2001. His debut, “That Old Dream that Moves”, won Prix Jean Vigo, a prize for stylistically original first films. He claims Georges Bataille, the transgressive literary figure, as a major influence.

Bataille, a philosopher by trade, was best known for the pornographic 1928 novella “Story of the Eye”, about a teenage couple attempting to push the boundaries of perversity. Keanu Reeves is a well known fan of the book. Bataille was a major influence on post-structuralist film theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, which may explain his influence on Guiraudie.

Guiraudie’s breakthrough was in 2013 with “Stranger by The Lake”, a thriller, which premiered in Un Certain Regard. Village Voice critic Melissa Anderson wrote regarding “Stranger by the Lake”, that Guiraudie’s “…attention to the anarchic pull of lust, simultaneously celebrated and reproved here, is sharper than ever.”

American writer Brett Easton Ellis was even more effusive, “Alain Guiraudie’s STRANGER BY THE LAKE [sic] is the most interesting, provocative and unsettling European movie to open in the US in over a year.” Guiraudie’s new film, “Staying Vertical” has not been anywhere near as well received.

Variety writes that ““Staying Vertical,” is a film that defies common sense in a way that audiences will not take kindly to.”

The Hollywood Reporter was a bit kinder, reporting that “Arthouse audiences who are only familiar with “Stranger” might initially be thrown, as that film’s suspense element and single location made for a much more compact and easily readable package. But more adventurous viewers will nonetheless be charmed by this delightful oddity”

“Sieranevada” – Cristi Puiu (Romania)

Of the two Romanian directors in this year’s selection – Christian Mungiu and Christi Puiu – Puiu is definitely the more stylistically adventurous. Puiu released his first film, “Stuff and Dough”, in 2001. It competed in the Cannes Director’s Fortnight. His second and third films, both screened at Cannes, are his first and second entries in what he expects to be a six film series called “Six Stories from Outside Bucharest”. The first is a dark comedy, the second a crime film. Both were critical darlings and commercial disappointments.

His films tend to be long. His newest, “Sieranevada”, is a few minutes shy of three hours. The film, about a family gathering after a terrorist attack, is not part of the fore mentioned series.

Critics have compared the film’s content to that of a stage play, yet Puiu’s formal playfulness enlivens what is at its core a conventional family funeral drama. Peter Bradshaw calls the film “claustrophobic, intense and alienated – often brilliant, sometimes slightly redundant.”

Peter Debruge of Variety says the film will reward patient viewers, a euphemism for saying that “the vast majority of moviegoers would be bored silly by being locked up in a Romanian apartment for three hours, watching as characters whose names and connections to one another are barely given shuffle from room to room, alternately avoiding and stirring trouble.”

Trailer for Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension”.  An example of ‘New French Extremity.”

“Slack Bay” – Bruno Dumont (France)

Bruno Dumont is one of cinema’s ultimate misanthropes. His films may vary from realism to surrealism, but they always contain images of graphic violence and degradation, usually filmed in oppressive close-ups. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Dumont hates his audience. It is no wonder that he cites “Saló” director Pier Paolo Pasoloni as an influence. “Salo” may be the most punishingly sadistic film ever made.

Many critics group Dumont in a relatively new genre called New French Extremity, along with Gaspar Noé and François Ozon. Critic James Quandt, of Artforum describes New French Extremity as “Bava as much as Bataille, “Saló” no less than Sade [the New French Extremity directors] seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”

While hyperbolic this is a good description of this filmmaker’s intent. Dumont’s breakthrough film “Flandres” (2006) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. “Slack Bay” is his first film to compete for the Palme d’Or. It is also his second comedy after “Li’l Quinquin” (2014).

Many critics feel that “Slack Bay” is weird for weird’s sake. It is a loose lightly plotted film exploring class differences in a small town. Variety writes that the film is “…a nice alternative to the griminess of Dumont’s previous regional portraits, even if he has yet to perfect this loony new tone.”

Many critics find his tone just too self-consciously wacky. Talia Soghomonian of Collider complains “The cartoonish characters may seem endearing at first, but their idiosyncrasies soon become tiresome and all humor is lost.”

“Toni Erdmann” – Maren Ade (Germany)

“Toni Erdmann” has been tipped by many critics to be the favorite for the Palme d’Or. Maren Ade broke through to international audiences with her first professionally produced film, “Everyone Else”, in 2009. The film won the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is a break up movie, but not in the American style, it’s chasing truth, and thus catches all manner of unpleasant behavior.

The AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo beautifully describes Ade’s directing style, she “begins with a fairly simple dynamic and then proceeds to tease out every possible facet, taking her characters to truly unexpected places and ending on a note of disarming irresolution.” Her newest film “Toni Erdmann” follows that dynamic. The film is long, clocking in at over two and a half hours, but, nonetheless has been hailed as a vivid comedy.

Guy Lodge at Variety enthuses that the film is “A stunningly singular third feature by German writer-director Maren Ade that transports the intricately magnified human observation of her previous work to a rich, unexpected comic realm.

The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t quite as effusive, writing “…here is the world’s first genuinely funny, 162-minute German comedy of embarrassment.”

“The Unknown Girl” – The Dardenne Brothers (Belgium)

It seems like the Dardenne Brothers may have finally missed. Since bursting onto the international film stage with “The Promise” (1996), The Dardenne Brothers have arguably become Belgium’s strongest and most famous filmmakers.

The Dardennes are cinemas most singular portrayers of working class naturalism. Their films “Rosetta” (1999) and “The Child” (2005) have both won the Palme d’Or. They tend to cast unknown actors to enhance expressive naturalism. In “Two Days, One Night” (2014) they cast Marion Cotillard. The film was hailed as naturalistic and humanistic.

They return to Cannes with “The Unknown Girl”, which critics deem a minor work and a rare misfire. Guy Lodge of Variety explains, it may be a minor work and not particularly surprising, but “what we get is largely exemplary: a simple but urgent objective threaded with needling observations of social imbalance, a camera that gazes with steady intent into story-bearing faces, and an especially riveting example of one in their gifted, toughly tranquil leading [ladies], actress Adèle Haenel.”

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian disagrees. He writes that “The Unknown Girl” is an, “odd, dramatically stilted and passionless quasi-procedural concerning a mysterious death; it depends on a series of unconvincing, and in fact borderline-preposterous, encounters and features a bafflingly inert performance from Adèle Haenel, whose usual spark appears to have been doused by self-consciousness.”

Director Ken Loach, Palme d'Or award winner for his film "I, Daniel Blake", reacts during the closing ceremony of the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes

Director Ken Loach (L), Palme d’Or award winner for his film “I, Daniel Blake”, reacts next to actor Mel Gibson (C) and Director George Miller, Jury President of the 69th Cannes Film Festival, during the closing ceremony of the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, May 22, 2016. (Image Credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)

AND THE AWARDS GO TO…

“Mad Max” director Dr. George Miller led the 2016 Festival de Cannes Jury. His former leading man, Mel Gibson, presented the awards.

Palme d’Honneur – Jean-Pierre Léaud.

The honorary award was bestowed upon this 72 year old actor in recognition of his performance as the charismatic Antoine Doinel, the lead role in François Truffaut’s debut, “The 400 Blows” (1959). [It took them long enough!]

Screenplay – Asghar Farhadi “The Salesman”.

Actress – Jaclyn Jose “Ma’ Rosa”

This was one of the jury’s many surprise choices. Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s film seemed to be lost in the shuffle with very little critical support. Cannes juries tend to be quite independent, rarely following critical consensus. Nevertheless, this is a surprising nod considering the high caliber performances from better-known actresses Kristin Stewart and Isabelle Huppert. Jury member Mads Mikkelsen explains, “We found (Jaclyn Jose) to be a wonderful leading actress, a master of her skills.”

Actor – Shahab Hosseini “The Salesman”

Hosseini went through an emotional wringer in Farhadi’s intense thriller.

Director – (Tie) Olivier Assayas, “Personal Shopper”, and Cristian Mungiu, “Graduation”

Ties are not especially unusual at Cannes. While “Personal Shopper” was booed at its press screening, Assayas is a Cannes favorite and risky decisive films tend to do well with the Director’s honors.

[The next three prizes are for third, runner-up, and best picture]

 Jury Prize: Andrea Arnold, “American Honey”

I had a feeling the jury prize was going either to this or “The Handmaiden”. “American Honey” is a big risky messy film. This is the kind of film the Jury prize was made for. “American Honey” is just the type of broad-spectrum effervescent filmmaking that makes a great consensus choice.

Grand Prix:  Xavier Dolan, “It’s Only the End of the World”

Boos erupted in the theater when it was announced that the runner-up prize was going to Dolan’s heavily derided very talky homecoming story. Dolan claims that “It’s Only the End of the World” is his best film. Not many agree.

Palme d’Or: Ken Loach, “I, Daniel Blake”

Score one for social realism. Kidding. Call this the sentimental pick. Ken Loach is about to turn eighty. This may be his last film. He has been one of the world’s most consistent directors since bursting onto the international scene with “Kes” in 1969. While reviews were highly positive “I, Daniel Blake” traveled under the radar, because critics were distracted by its flashier brethren. Word from Cannes is that during the initial screening of “I, Daniel Blake” there was not a dry eye in the room.

002-catherine-deneuve-and-marcello-mastroianni-theredlist

Catherine Deneuve & Marcello Mastroianni. (Image Credit: The Red List)

Now that the awards show is over, the festival-goers, champagne flutes in hand, cross the Promenade de la Croisette, lie on the beach, board yachts, sip cocktails, and deliberate on the inanity of the jury’s decisions.

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Filmmaker, film historian, political scientist, philosopher, and gentleman.

CadreCinematique

Mourning Filmstruck

The death of Filmstruck is the latest symptom of our rapidly devolving film culture: This is a look at what we’ve lost, and what lies ahead.

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Filmstruck logo
Image Credit: Filmstruck

The demise of Filmstruck is a major loss to the world of cinema. If you were to log on to film Twittertm – that specialist ghetto of cinephiles (“or what you’d call film buffs” as Matthew remarks early in the late Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) you would realize that many of us are in mourning for a rapidly depleting film culture.

Across the country, most Americans do not have access to an art house theater, and it’s even less likely that they would have access to a repertory theater. Those in New York City can pick their poison between the Metrograph and Film Forum and Village Quad Cinema. Heck they’ve even got the NiteHawk in Williamsburg. Those in LA have the New Beverly. Most of us, however, are just plain out of luck.

Two years ago Filmstruck seemed like the solution. A collaboration between Warner Brothers and the Criterion Collection, Filmstruck was a hand-curated outfit that seemed like film school on a Roku. From Rohmer to Ozu, Sembene to Akerman – world cinema was at your fingertips. You want to spend 83 minutes with Alma from Persona? Sure can. You could check in with Guido Anselmi or Sam Spade or Mabel Longhetti or any of several versions of Orpheus by just pressing a button…and now it’s gone.

A Half Remembered Dream Factory

Claudia Cardinale in Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2Francinex/Cineriz

Claudia Cardinale in Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2

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Every day we seem to forget more of our history. Hollywood is no exception. Often they seem to be leading the way. Hollywood has always been America’s dream factory, and there are some real talented and nice people out there – people who care desperately about movies.

Yet, because of the vagaries of corporate America, and the rush to the all-mighty dollar that capitalism surely compels, Hollywood has become a system that is ruled by puffed-up Harvard MBA’s in slick two-button suits looking for ten percent profit on the next remake.

Now, I don’t really have anything against these people, it’s just that many of them don’t really know or give a lick about the classic days of the industry, the history of world cinema, or even current world cinema beyond their own distribution pacts. They only worry whether their new one hundred million dollar piece of content is going to be allowed to play in China, and whether it will allay some its substantial budget with international pre-sales.

In turn, we have the creation of these monster conglomerates through very big mergers such as Disney buying Fox, or in our case AT&T buying Time Warner, which has led directly to AT&T shutting down Filmstruck.

See, they want to invest only in core businesses that will generate substantial return. This makes complete sense from a business perspective. Except, in the olden days of Hollywood the guys that ran the place, like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, saw the picture business as more than just a profit machine. They understood they were creating a product that was intangible – a motion picture, not a widget.

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Sure, they were interested in making money, they damn well weren’t commies, but at the same time they were making something near Art and they were passionate about it.

Cinema Homogenized

Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Broken BlossomsD. W. Griffith

Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms

There was a time when it felt like cinema could change the world. In his review of The Dreamers (to circle back), Roger Ebert reminisces that back in ’68, Chicagoans were lined up on the sidewalk in the rain to see Godard’s Weekend. Imagine that now? Wouldn’t happen.

AT&T closed Filmstruck because they believed it was niche. Great cinema like Casablanca and King Kong, The Seven Samurai and Weekend, which all those people lined up for all those years ago, is now just niche content.

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Keye Luke: An American Son

What’s the use of going to a movie theater if movies are just content no different from a YouTube video? Hollywood has forgotten its heroes. Cinema seems to have forgotten what cinema is all about – stories that move us or elucidate the world around us – or even sometimes elucidate feelings or emotions so deep-seated they would never stir without that silver-screen mirror.

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Agnes Varda's HappinessAgnès Varda

Agnes Varda’s Happiness

The last three movies I watched on Filmstruck were the creepy Japanese ghost story Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959), the vibrantly alive magical realist bossa nova-driven romance Black Orpheus (1959), and Mikio Naruse’s masterful Floating Clouds (1955). Maybe my feeling towards Filmstruck and cinema itself is like Naruse’s lovers’ warmer brighter past in French Indochina – a deeply romantic paradise to which we can never return.

I certainly hope that’s not the case. I hope the future of cinema and the future of repertory streaming services spreads out before us like a mighty bounty.

To ensure this, we all have do our part. Watch movies. Buy movies.  All movies.  Become cine-literate in everything. Especially the classics.

(Article Continues Below...)

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Preservation in the Post-Filmstruck Era

Lourdes de Oliveira in Marcel Camus' Black OrpheusDispat Films/Gemma/Tupan Filmes

Lourdes de Oliveira in Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus

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What’s next? The terrific physical media company The Criterion Collection is starting their own streaming channel. Will it succeed? Only if enough of us are interested in preserving our globe’s sometimes shared, sometimes divergent cultural heritage.

Mikio Naruse's Autumn Has Already StartedMikio Naruse

Mikio Naruse’s Autumn Has Already Started

Films are doorways into past and future worlds. These stories have shaped us, and allowed a plethora of fascinating cultures to share their preoccupations, hopes, and fears with other, sometimes very different people, in every far-flung nook and cranny of this astonishing world.  These dreams, stories, and feelings are too important to be allowed to just fade away.

Please preserve them.

Write to David B. Sporn at dsporn@tgnreview.com

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Keye Luke: An American Son

Following an in-depth look at American actor/playwright, the late Sam Shephard; Cadrecinematique examines another American film icon, Keye Luke.

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Chinese-American actor Keye Luke
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, two of early Hollywood’s biggest Asian American movie stars, wound down their careers portraying Zen masters on the popular TV series “Kung Fu”. Almost fifty years had passed since anti-miscegenation laws had prohibited Asian actors from playing romantic leading roles opposite white women, and Luke and Ahn were once again playing Asian stereotypes in support of a white actor in yellowface. As playwright Frank Chin[1] asks, “From Fu Manchu to ‘Kung Fu’ – Is that progress?”

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However, unlike Frank Chin, Keye Luke was genuinely satisfied with his Hollywood career and what he viewed as the transitioning representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1985 Luke stated that he was satisfied with the progress of Asian representations:

“The Chinese laundryman and the Japanese gardener may still be with us, but most Chinese and Japanese now find themselves in the mainstream of American life.”

Keye Luke was not the first Asian star in Hollywood. Sessue Hayakawa, a favorite actor of Cecil B. DeMille, roared to stardom in 1915. Hayakawa’s performances, like those of other Asian American actors of the early studio era, were valued for their intrinsic otherness. Hollywood played up the exoticism of American born Asian actors such as Anna May Wong who was cast as the proverbial ‘Dragon Lady’ in such films as Daughter of the Dragon (1931).

Keye Luke, although an actor of the same generation, never embraced these stereotypes. Throughout his studio era film career Luke always remained a distinctly American presence. In a career that spanned sixty years and over a hundred films, Keye Luke transitioned from playing brash young Americans to more traditional Hollywood representations of Chinese. This implies that identity is conceived through binary oppositions. One can only be Chinese or American. Keye Luke believed progress in the cinematic portrayal of Chinese and other ethnic groups would be incremental.

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Towards the end of his life Keye Luke remarked that no role was ever more satisfying than his role in  “Kung Fu”; he was finally able to share Chinese philosophy with the general American public. Keye Luke transcended the dichotomy of being trapped between two dissonant cultures. He remains the exuberant boy next door and the kindly paternal sage for a society in which identity is not solely conceived through race.

Keye Luke in "Daughter of the Dragon"Red List

Promotional still for “Daughter of the Dragon” (1931)

Keye Luke: An All-American Boy

Keye Luke was born in Guangzhou, China in 1904, but grew up in Seattle. Luke studied architecture at the University of Washington, dropping out in order to work, after the death of his father. A gifted artist, his first job was designing sheet music covers for a local Seattle music shop. He soon moved to Los Angeles and began working as a newspaper illustrator. His illustrations were highly praised. In a 1928 Los Angeles Times article[2] written by art editor Arthur Miller; Lawrence Binyon, the director of prints and drawings for the British Museum, was quoted as saying,

“I expect that in vitality of line, Mr. Keye Luke altogether surpasses Beardsley… but I confess I fear for the future of this young artist if he remains in the West… I would like to see him back in China bringing new life and inspiration to Chinese art.”

Although critics hold Luke in high regard, few publishers had hired him as an illustrator for Western stories.  Miller would ask a question of Luke’s art that holds true regarding his work in film,

“Can oriental and occidental art be blended successfully? It remains for Keye Luke, perhaps, to be the proving ground for or against this question.”

During Luke’s time in Los Angeles he also painted several murals in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1930, after returning to Seattle to paint murals for department stores, he was hired by Fox West Coast to draw artwork for their theater chain. Soon he was moved to the publicity department where he ironically drew illustrations for early Charlie Chan films. In 1931 he moved to RKO where he drew advertising art and billboards. At RKO he illustrated the press-book for King Kong.

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Keye Luke illustrating - Silver ScenesSilver Scenes

In 1933, Lou Brock, an RKO producer, was packaging a sequel to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger vehicle Flying Down to Rio[3], and wanted Luke to play a love interest for Anna May Wong. Keye Luke remembers turning to Brock and saying, “Lou, I am an artist not an actor.”[4] In a 1934 interview with the LA Times, Luke admits being immediately hooked on the idea of becoming an actor. He believed that his performances could have a positive effect on the Chinese American experience,

“This is something that I suppose -that I hope-I’ve always been headed for…I think I can accomplish much more as an actor than as an artist, because of the wider reach of the medium. I want to play good, representative types, so as to help clear up the debris of misunderstanding and misconception of the Chinese which Americans may have, and vice versa. And I want to be a real credit to the industry…”[5]

Brock did cast Luke in a series of short subjects. Luke’s eloquent command of the English language led to being cast in The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo and his future Charlie Chan co-star Warner Oland. Luke recalls that doors suddenly started opening for him,

“The thing that helped me so much was that all my former advertising bosses and so on opened doors for me. And the newspaper columnists – like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Jimmy Starr – they gave me lots of publicity because I had done artwork for their columns.”

Number One Son

After filming The Painted Veil he was called by one of his former publicity bosses at Fox, who said,

“Come out here and we’ll see what we can do now that you’re a Cantonese ham.”

Luke headed down to the older Fox studio on Western Avenue, and was greeted by Jim Ryan, a casting director, who said,

“Keye, do you know we’re going to put a Number One Son in the Charlie Chan pictures and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play it.”

Keye Luke & The Charlie Chan FamilyCharlie Chan Family

This meeting was his big break. Fox signed him to a contract. Luke would work opposite Warner Orland in eight Charlie Chan films. Warner Oland’s worsening alcoholism and failing health prompted him to leave a ninth Charlie Chan collaboration which was re-written as a Mr. Moto film albeit with Keye Luke’s Lee Chan playing a large role.

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Luke subsequently left the Charlie Chan series when the title role was recast. He respected Warner Oland, and over the course of their eight films together, the Swede had become his mentor.  He jumped from Fox to Monogram where he starred in the low budget serials The Green Hornet and The Phantom of Chinatown.

A Chinese Andy Hardy

After those serials ended, Monogram cast him as a supporting character in a series of comedies built around their star Frankie Darro. The success of the Darro pictures prompted MGM to sign Luke and cast him as a young All-American intern in the Dr. Kildare films. His character, Dr. Lee Wong How, is a revival of Luke’s Son Number One star image – brash, enormously positive, and sweet. He also appeared as Dr. Lee in Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, which is fitting because Lee Chan’s all American relationship with Charlie Chan parallels Andy’s relationship with his father, Judge Hardy.

 

Keye Luke in "Doctor Gillespie's Criminal Case"IMDB

Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943)

The Dr. Kildare series ended in 1947 with Dark Delusion. Luke returned to Monogram and was cast once again as Lee Chan, playing opposite Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, who was six months younger than Luke. The film roles began to dry up for the youthful looking, but middle-aged actor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Luke shifted to television work and voice acting; although, in 1958 he performed on Broadway in The Flower Drum Song to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s that he experienced a career resurgence.

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Kung-Fu

Keye Luke in "Kung Fu""Kung Fu"/Pintrest

“Kung Fu” (1972)

Keye Luke was cast as Master Po in “Kung Fu” which ran from 1972-1975. The show was extremely popular and his character was a pop-culture sensation. For the first time in his career, Keye Luke’s visage was adorning lunchboxes.

In 1984 Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante cast Luke as the wise Grandfather, Mr. Wing in Gremlins. His last role was as the sage herbalist in Woody Allen’s Alice. In effect, Son Number One became Charlie Chan. Keye Luke, who played highly energetic All American characters for the first half of his career, ended his career by playing a series of traditional (some would argue stereotypical) Chinese characters.

Keye Luke in "Gremlins" (1984)"Gremlins"/Scifist

“Gremlins” (1984)

Just as these old men sought to teach Confucianism and natural order to their students, Keye Luke sought to share Eastern philosophy with mainstream America. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke contends that he was never happier than when performing these traditional roles,

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“I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue. It worked for me on every level.”[6]

The Binary

Within the Chinese-American community Keye Luke’s career is divisive. He is recognized as the Chinese-American actor best known to American audiences. As a contract actor in the studio era he played many different types of characters. Many Chinese-Americans lauded him as a man who broke through a racist system and demonstrated that Chinese-Americans were little different from any other Americans.

“I have played many…. characters in the mainstream. Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles — lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.”

However, some Asian-American scholars have demeaned him for appeasing institutional racism. Television scholar Darryl Hamamoto decries that:

“With few exceptions, Keye Luke’s outstanding career was predicated upon his ability to portray the stock array of Asian domestic servants, laundrymen, mystics, gangsters, and enemy soldiers.”[7]

While it is true that Luke has played stock characters over the course of his long and varied career, the Chinese launderer in Manhandled and an evil communist soldier in The Bamboo Prison as examples, these excursions do little to diminish the distinctive American-ness of his star image for the first thirty years of his career. Hamamoto is correct to label Luke’s television output as more problematic. During the 1960s Luke was forced to play an array of stock Asian characters. These roles were all that were available to a middle-aged Chinese American actor at that point in Hollywood’s history.

Keye Luke and Anna May WongTumblr

Keye Luke & Anna May Wong (c. 1937)

Focusing on these roles is to ignore Luke’s achievements. For the majority of his career he played characters “lawyers, doctors, businessman,” that were strong role models for young Chinese Americans.

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Allan Luke, Keye’s nephew and a theorist studying multi-literacy linguistics at Queensland University of Technology understands Hamamoto’s position but defends his uncle,

“…my Uncle was no dupe, no sellout, no Uncle Tom, no Banana… He was many things. He was a mirror. He was a prism. …And perhaps like so many migrants – he was an actor… he worked to survive in good faith, within and through a fundamentally racist medium.”[8]

The Charlie Chan films are not inherently racist. Charlie Chan is a character of the highest ideals. He is intelligent, resourceful, respected, and modest. He is a family man and shares a strong bond with his eldest son. He is also played by a white man. This did not bother Keye Luke. He understood this type of casting was a commonplace at that time. To Keye Luke, what was important was the portrayal of the Chinese ethic.

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In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke was asked about his opinion on yellowface in classical Hollywood films. He replied,

“I didn’t see anything odd about it at the time and I still don’t. Acting is an art that transcends race and color. When I came to Hollywood there were only a few Chinese here and no other Orientals.”

A Real American Icon

The Son Number One character was first introduced in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Paris. Lee Chan does not appear until almost twenty minutes into the film. After investigating a crime scene, Charlie Chan returns to his room. The door, which he left he open, has been locked. He unlocks the door and hears a sound from the bathroom. He pulls out his gun, and in his stereotypical manner says, “Come out, please.” A man comes out, a towel covering his head. Keye Luke finishes drying his hair and pulls away the towel. He looks up at his father and smiles, and immediately begins speaking in an upbeat unaccented machine-gun Hechtian cadence,

“Hello pop! What’s the matter? Did I scare you?”

The character is unlike any other in Hollywood film of the time. He is Chinese sans otherness. As soon as he speaks, the surprised audience pictures a sort of Andy Hardy-esque teenager. The proverbial boy-next-door. Ethnicity is transcended.

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To Hear, One Has Only to Listen

At the end of his career Keye Luke began playing sage older men, similar to Charlie Chan[9]. The two most famous of these traditional characters are Master Po from “Kung-Fu” and the Grandfather in Gremlins. Both characters allowed Luke to channel Eastern philosophy to the American masses. A famous scene in “Kung Fu” revolves around Caine (David Carradine) meeting the blind master for the first time. As they talk, Master Po asks Caine if he can hear the grasshopper at his feet. Caine responds, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” Luke responds, “Young man, how is it that you cannot?” Luke was satisfied that this type of dialogue conveyed aspects of Chinese philosophy.

Critics like Frank Chin disagree, “The more brilliantly meaningless the lines, the more wooden, stilted and archaic the English, the more Chinese they (Americans) think it is.” It is pointless to argue whether these lines themselves have meaning. On the screen, infused with Luke’s warmth and humanity, “To hear, one has only to listen,” can inform a generation, no matter if it was written by a Confucian master or a Hollywood hack.

Keye Luke in a USA sweaterTumblr

Towards the end of his life, Keye Luke was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, directly across from Grauman’s Chinese theater, which he helped design more than sixty years earlier.

Keye Luke belonged to the first generation of Asian-American actors. However, he stood out. Within a racist industry, Luke created a purely American star-image.

Keye Luke should not be demeaned for the demands of the studio system.  He should be remembered for opening the door for a generation of actors that will never have to endure classical stereotyping and institutional racism.

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Write to David Sporn at dsporn@tgnreview.com

[1] Frank Chin. “Kung Fu is Unfair to Chinese” The New York Times

[2] Arthur Miller. “ROMANCE WEAVES AURA AROUND WORK OF YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN ARTIST” Dec 16, 1928

[3] The Sequel to be called Ho for Shanghai never materialized. Brock was fired off the project after studio in-fighting.

[4] Ken Hanke. Charlie Chan at The Movies. History, Filmography, and Criticism

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[5] Los Angeles Times July 22nd 1934

[6] The New York Times. Keye Luke, Actor, Is Dead at 86; ‘No. 1 Son’ and ‘Kung Fu’ Master

[7] Darryl Hamamoto. Monitored Peril

[8] Allan Luke. “Another Ethnic Autobiography”

[9] In 1972 Keye Luke voiced Charlie Chan in “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” an animated series by Hanna and Barbera. He fittingly became the first person of Chinese descent to portray the character.

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Sam Shepard – America Personified

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Sam Shepard
Image Credit: WikiCommons

 “Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head.  It moves us into an area of mystery…” – Sam Shepard, 1975

Since I was a little boy I always believed that Sam Shepard embodied the American Dream.  You could see it in his eyes – the rugged individualism of Western Manifest Destiny that made this nation great.  Maybe that’s because I first glimpsed the man in Philip Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) as Chuck Yeager, the most famous of America’s test pilots.  And to every kid that grew up watching ‘The Right Stuff’, test pilots were modern America’s cowboys – great adventurous men that lived and worked outside the normal bounds and rules of our conventional society.

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test pilot the fergunson theater

The Right Stuff

In the ‘The Right Stuff’, Sam Shepard – tall, lanky, and blessed with those all-American looks that somehow always seem to skip the coasts – is introduced in the desert, silhouetted in front of a giant Western sun.  He stands solemnly (do real heroes stand any other way?) in the back row of a small funeral for a nameless fallen test pilot.

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After an establishing close-up of Yeager, we next see him on horseback, again first glimpsed in silhouette, watching Glamorous Glennis, bearing an expression that conveys fear, amusement, and a religious fascination with his craft, all hidden under a mask of placid calm.  Sam Shepard’s Yeager is a man of preternatural calm.  He speaks with that curt profane Western poetry that has all but disappeared from the States.  Maybe it never left the desert.

The man is a myth; we never really learn that much about Yeager, we only learn the legend.  Sometimes legends are enough. Shepard, like Yeager, is bigger than life, way bigger.  No matter! In this case learning a few of the facts will do little to diminish the legend.

Western Beginnings

Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1943.  Fort Sheridan was a military outpost in the affluent North Shore suburbs of Chicago.  His mother was a school teacher, a Chicagoan by birth.  His father, a bomber pilot in the US military, was stationed in Italy when Shepard was born.

The family moved around constantly, finally finding a stable home in Duarte, California when Shepard was still young.  At the time Duarte was a town of about 13,000 people. Although not far from Pasadena, Duarte was an agriculture town thick with avocado groves.

Shepard had a difficult relationship with his father, and described him as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic”.  (On a side note – Shepard’s description of his father is a great example of his poetic, near perfect, use of language in a concise and pithy manner that excises that loquacious East-Coast blather.  Second side note, years later, Shepard would have his own troubles with drink, culminating in two well-publicized drunk driving arrests in 2009 and 2015.) I’ll allow Shepard to further describe his father thusly –

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“He had a tough life – had to support his mother and brother at a very young age when his dad’s farm collapsed.  You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one.  My father was full of terrifying anger.”

From a young age, Shepard’s passions ran towards the outdoors.  He excelled at rugged athletic pursuits that one would expect from such a prime example of square-jawed Americana.  In 1961, he enrolled in Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California to study agriculture.  In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, Shepard described a life-changing moment in his college experience –

“I happened to get into a literature class, I don’t know how exactly, with a lot of guys from that area whom I had never had any contact with; for lack of a better word they were beatniks.  They lived in this big old house and one of them was a painter and they were smoking a lot of dope out there, and they had stuff lying around like Beckett plays, Jackson Pollock reproductions, which I’d never heard of.  That was the first encounter I had with Beckett, with jazz, abstract expressionism.  And then I just left.”

Shortly after dropping out of college, Shepard joined Bishop’s Company Repertory Players, a small religiously oriented traveling theater company.  They traveled the country by bus, mainly playing church groups.  They performed Christopher Fry plays. Fry’s a great playwright, a favorite of Margaret Thatcher, but a far cry from Beckett and theatrical abstraction.

Shepard escaped the company during a stopover in New York City.  The young performer was now alone in an unfamiliar and indifferent metropolis.

Portrait of an Artist

sam shepard two wikipedia

By happenstance, Charles Mingus III, the son of jazz bassist Charles Mingus, was living in Greenwich Village, and had attended Duarte High School with Shepard.  Shepard crashed with Mingus, who got him a job as a busboy at the Village Gate, the famous nightclub.

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Living and working in Greenwich Village, Shepard found himself in the center of the emerging experimental theater scene.  Not surprisingly, the majority of the staff at the Village Gate were aspiring actors.

During his off-hours, Shepard watched plays at the newly opened Caffe Cino, the focal point for the off-off-Broadway movement, which was characterized by a complete rejection of the tenants of commercial theater.

Soon Sam Shepard began writing.  His early plays fused the style of Becket with the Western-working-man mores that Shepard had absorbed.

Diary of a Radical Conformist

Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Village Gate, who was attempting to open his own theater, managed to produce Shepard’s short play ‘The Cowboys’.  Few attended and the critics were ruthless.  Nonetheless, young Shepard kept writing.

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By 1965 he caught the interest of Edward Albee, the writer of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’.  Albee called Shepard “…one of the most exciting individual talents”.  His plays were interesting failures.  Short, hip, and bizarre, written over the course of long drug-fuelled nights.  He was not yet a fully formed talent, but there was clearly intelligence, wit, and more importantly originality in his writing.

This originality lead to six Obie Awards over the next three years.  In 1967, he finally released his first full length play – ‘La Turista’.  The play is mildly autobiographical; he explains to the Guardian, that it was based on a vacation to Mexico with his girlfriend,

“We were holed up in a tiny sweltering motel room in the Yucatan in a semi delirious state of severe dysentery.”

I Remember You Well in the Chelsea Hotel

Shepard Patty Smith The New Yorker

Shepard with Patti Smith

1967 was a big year for Sam Shepard, for he also met his first wife, actress O-Lan Johnson.  After getting her pregnant, he married her in 1969.  Their son is named after Jesse James.

The late sixties were a whirlwind of action for the young writer.  He hung out at the Chelsea Hotel, the archetypal rock+roll+drug+sex+anything living space of the era – a habitual hangout (hookup spot) for Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, among others – basically the East Coast version of the Château Marmont.

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He drummed in the rock band The Holy Modal Rounders, had an affair with rock legend Patti Smith, who performed with him in a play they co-authored called ‘Cowboy Mouth‘ which they wrote over the course of two nights shoving the typewriter back and forth between them.

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They were both known as hellraisers who had seriously self-destructive impulses, and inflicted quite a bit of abuse on one another.  Shepard was quite open with his wife about the affair, as he said, “it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs”.

Quick story: Shepard and Smith decided to get a self-proclaimed gypsy and professional muse named Vali Myers to tattoo them, as they were being filmed by experimental filmmaker Sandy Daley.  Vali gave him a crescent moon between his thumb and index finger, Smith was left with a lightening bolt on her knee.

As destructive as their relation was, Shepard and Smith remained close friends for the rest of his life.  She wrote a touching and lyrical encomium for him in The New Yorker.  Her piece is entitled ‘My Buddy.  Shepherd also wrote for Kenneth Tynan’s (the mostly eminent critic and William F. Buckley JR adversary) sex play ‘Oh! Calcutta!

Cinema of Dislocation

Zabriskie Point Pintrest

Zabriski Point

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During this time, Sam Shepard was approached by film director Michelangelo Antonioni (one of the three gods of European art cinema, along with Igmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Antonioni directed ‘La Notte’ which starred Jeanne Moraeu who died on the same day as Shepard, which may be a cosmic coincidence of sorts, but I digress…) to write ‘Zabriskie Point’ which was to become Antonioni’s first American film. The maestro was struggling with his own early drafts.  Shepard did not enjoy the experience nor did he enjoy screenwriting in general, as he recounts to the Village Voice,

“I hate it…It’s never just working on a film. It has to do with studios, with pleasing certain people, cutting things down and re-writing.  It’s not a writer’s medium…the writer is just superfluous.”

Shepard wrote a couple drafts, the basis for the narrative then left the project,

“I didn’t know how to continue with what Antonioni wanted.  He wanted political repartee and I just didn’t know how.  Plus I was 24 and just wasted by the experience.  It was like a nightmare.”

He even loathed becoming a sought after screenwriter.  Neither the promise of money nor Hollywood fame could lure him.  Shepard subsequently retreated as quickly as he could back into the world of playwriting.

“…You get these scripts showing up in the mail.  Can you do this one? Can you do that one?  Twenty thousand for this one and 30 thousand for that one.  It’s like an open auction… I find it exhausting; not only exhausting – debilitating.

Nonetheless, he would later write the script for German director Wim Wender‘s appropriately lauded ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) starring the great Harry Dean Stanton as a wandering amnesic.

Paris Texas Another Magazine

Nastassja Kinski Paris, Texas

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Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa viewed cinema as the greatest of the arts because it combines all the other arts.  Shepard would have rejected that – he believed the same was true with theater.

“…It seems to me theatre contains all the other arts.  You can put anything in that space – painting, film, dance, music, it can all be contained.  Whereas in other arts everything is narrowed down, a spatial art like theatre is unlimited…I’m really interested in the three dimensional aspect, with human performers performing for other live human beings.”

Exhausted by his destructive and anarchic life in New York City, Sam Shepard moved his family to London.  He continued to write, producing several plays during this period.  Notably, Shepard directed Bob Hoskins in an original production in the West End.

Nonetheless, he spent much of his time gambling and dealing with mounting depression. He finally decided to return to the way of life that had always served him best, so he and his family moved to a ranch in California.  In his interview with The Guardian, Shepard remembers,

“It suddenly occurred to me that I was mainly avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which was the family. I was a little afraid of it, particularly in relation to my old man and all of that emotion…”

The Old Homestead

It was on the ranch that Shepard wrote his most famous plays.  The second play of his Family Trilogy – ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize.  The play examined the Carter-led economic slow-down of the late Seventies and the destructive breakdown of the nuclear family in rural America.

It’s not an easy play to watch or read, but it is de rigueur.  Shepard has the ability not only to document, but also to explore, understand, and codify American malaise with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.

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I saw ‘Buried Child‘ performed in college; it shook me on both an artistic and political level.  The New York Times quite elegantly describes Shepard’s plays of this era as having a “style that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy.”

The Silver Screen

Days of Heaven Pintrest

“Days of Heaven”

In 1978 Hollywood called once again. Director Terrence Malick (the hermetic poet laureate of American film) cast Shepard in his western ‘Days of Heaven’, the long-awaited follow-up to Malick’s masterful debut ‘Badlands’ (1973).  Shepard played a dying farmer swindled by Richard Gere’s duplicitous seasonal laborer.

Both the film and Shepard’s performance received raves.  Overnight, Shepard was in demand as a Hollywood actor.  Predictably he turned down parts left and right; he couldn’t adjust to his new life.

Sam Shepard returned to the screen in 1980, just as he was finishing his play ‘True West’. ‘True West’ is considered his second masterpiece.  The late seventies through the early eighties were peak years for Shepard’s writing.  His second Hollywood film was called ‘Resurrection’ and was a star vehicle for Ellen Burstyn.  Although Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award, the film quickly retreated from the public consciousness.

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Shepard acted in supporting roles in smaller dramas until 1983 when he accepted the role he was born to play – Chuck Yeager in ‘The Right Stuff’.  While the film was not initially a hit, it received rave reviews from critics and earned Shepard an Academy Award nomination for best Supporting Actor for his iconic high-flying performance.  The film, as you know, is a favorite of this author.

Shepard subsequently appeared in such diverse films as ‘Steel Magnolias’ (1989), ‘All The Pretty Horses’ (2000), ‘The Notebook’ (2004), and most memorably in Ridley Scott’sBlack Hawk Down’ (2001) in an impactful performance as another great American, Major General William F. Garrison.

The Family Trilogy and a Lover’s Quarrel

Fool for Love New York Times

Sam Rockwell in ‘Fool for Love’

True West’ which is the final play in Shepard’s Family Trilogy, and a thematic sequel to ‘Buried Child’ was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The play examines the fractured relationship between a Hollywood screenwriter and his small-time criminal brother.

After a disastrous first-run at the Public Theater in New York City, which the author boycotted, the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago rehabilitated the play’s reputation in a version directed by and starring Gary Sinise.

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Shepard followed ‘True West’ in 1984 with ‘Fool for Love’, considered by many to be his last truly great play.  The play follows two young quarreling lovers in a motel in the Mojave Desert.

The following year, ‘Fool for Love’ was adapted into a middling feature film directed by Robert Altman with Shepard, himself, miscast as the lead opposite Kim Basinger. Altman’s film captures little of the manic energy of the stage play.

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That American Spirit

Sam Shepard Jessica Lange Pintrest

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange

 

1984 marked the end of Shepard’s first marriage.  He had been having an affair with actress Jessica Lange for two years.  Lange remembers that he had…

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“…that wildness, that typically American wildness, a no-restraints outlaw quality…When we were together we were so wild – drinking, getting into fights, walking down the freeway trying to get away – I mean, just really wild stuff.  He left his wife and we drove to New Mexico; and that’s where we settled…He’s a great man, a natural man, which is rare.  I’ve known a lot of men. And you know I’ve had romances with what you’d call famous men, and none compares to Sam in terms of maleness.”

In many ways she describes both the Sam Shepard that we see on the screen, and the man that emanates from the pages of his plays – individualistic, rugged, masculine, whip smart, charming, and imperfect.

Shepard could never reconcile his film stardom and play writing.  He became truly famous because of his winsome features and laconic tone, while his passion never captured the mainstream.  Inside the matinee idol was a shaggy dog experimental playwright.

In the end he was both the embodiment of the rugged Western hero, and a blissfully drugged out Greenwich Village artist writing off-kilter subversions that most audiences will never watch.

Maybe that’s the real American Dream.

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Jeanne Moreau – Living is Risking

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Image Credit: EchoWallPapers

Jeannne Moreau, the icon of French cinema, never believed in nostalgia. In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, she asked, “Nostalgia for what? Nostalgia is when you want things to stay the same. I know so many people staying in the same place. And I think, my God, look at them! They’re dead before they die…Living is risking.”

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How often we allow what was once dangerous and spry to become entombed in the wax museum of pop culture nostalgia.  Moreau, witty – propulsive – anti-establishment (anti every single establishment, including anti-establishment posturing) to the very end, escaped this ignominious fate because she never stopped moving.

Jeanne Moreau – A Beginning

Moreau, in many ways the archetypal French actress and a great bastion of cinematic Continentalism, was actually half English. Her English mother was a dancer Folies Bergère in Paris, France’s most famous music hall. Moreau dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to pursue her interest in theater; she later joined the Conservatoire de Paris, a long-running music and drama school that opened amidst The Reign of Terror.

Jeanne Moreau’s father, a Parisian restaurateur, openly scorned the theater, possibly because of his own troubled relationship with his wife, attempted to disabuse the girl of her career choice, often violently. Nonetheless, the young Moreau persisted. By the mid-1950’s Moreau was a star of the stage, and firmly entrenched in French high culture. Cinema, at the time, lacked the cultural luster of legitimate theater.

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A Breakthrough

Elevator to the Gallows

“Elevator to the Gallows” (1958)

Moreau had begun acting in mainstream cinema as early as 1952, however it would be her pioneering anti-establishment work with director Louis Malle that would cement her status.

In 1958 she would star in his ‘Elevator to the Gallows’, a jazzy thriller shot on location – a rarity for French cinema – and an important precursor to the rule breaking looseness of the forthcoming New Wave. Importantly, Malle used little make-up on his star, which at the time was a massive break with the established rules of glamour shooting.

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Sam Shepard - America Personified

Malle revealed what he referred to as her “essential qualities”, the idiosyncratic beauty of her slightly asymmetrical face, and the modern sexuality that would define her, along with Goddard’s muse Anna Karina, as the feminine face of La Nouvelle Vague.

The Supreme Court & Jeanne Moreau

The Lovers

“The Lovers” (1959)

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Jeanne Moreau would again team with Louis Malle for her next film the controversial ‘The Lovers’ (1959). The story of a married woman’s relationship with a younger man, ‘The Lovers’ was the catalyst for a groundbreaking US Supreme Court case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, when the film was banned in Ohio.

In a famous concurrence, Justice Stewart memorably declared:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

Jules and Jim

“Jules and Jim” (1962)

Her most famous role was in 1962 in François Truffaut’s ‘Jules and Jim’ as Catherine, the centerpiece of the ill-fated love triangle. Her performance embodies one the actress’s greatest traits, her internal bipolarism. Namely the push-pull between light and dark, happiness and sadness, smoldering sexuality and repressed ennui.

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During this era she fashioned indelible performances in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’sLa Notte’ (1961), and Luis Buñuel’s ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ (1964). ‘La Notte’ is the second part of Antonioni’s dislocation trilogy. The film charts the disintegrating marriage of a couple ensconced in the rarefied, almost hermetically sealed world of high art. ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ is Buñuel at his most bitingly satirical, and features one of Moreau’s most complex performances as a maid who might not be so different from her vicious bourgeoisie employers. She also appeared in four films directed by Orson Welles, a close friend of hers.

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Later Career

Her career faced a downturn in the Seventies and continued to slide in the 1980’s. Nonetheless she continued to seek out new and edgy experiences, including experimenting with directing. A small but pivotal role in Luc Besson’s ‘Nikita’ (1990) proves that she lost none of her poise in the years since her heyday.

La Notte

“La Notte” (1961)

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Jeanne Moreau – a Grande Dame of French Cinema

 

Jeanne Moreau

In a 2001 interview, Jeanne Moreau was asked about her image as a Grande Dame of French Cinema. The actress replied in her smoky resonant voice, “That’s what they say because of longevity. As soon as an actress is past 40, they call her a grande dame. ‘Oh God, she’s still alive!’”

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Moreau was still alive, still moving, and still always ready to work – to amaze – to shock – and to never look back.

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The Updated Complete Halloween Guide to the Horror Film

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George HerrimanGeorge Herriman

Halloween is upon us. The eve of All Hallows’ Day. The sky is overcast. The leaves, adorned with burnt autumnal hues, fall from the trees.  Neighborhoods are strewn with pumpkins, skeletons, and plastic graves. Soon the children will scour the streets. In our mass-market post-modern world kids only issue idle threats. Trick or Treat once literal. No more.

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It is no longer Samhain, Halloween’s Celtic precursor that marked the end of the harvest. Pre-Tenth Century, the Celts believed that Samhain was a liminal time – a time when our world and the Otherworld merged. The spirits of the dead were among us. To survive the winter we would have to please them. In the days of Samhain, fear was the key to survival.

Today, fear is escape. Horror is a sensation genre. It is not purely intellectual. The viewer has a visceral reaction. The hairs stand on the back of his neck as his date gropes for his hand. Horror toys with our most primitive coping mechanisms – our survival instinct – our id.


Orpheum TheaterPintrest

As a mirror to our world, the horror genre is superior to all other forms of narrative cinema. The horror genre has always possessed a sense of freedom in its approach to political or sociological concerns. Horror, which has always been viewed as a base genre – a genre that only titillates and excites – has the ability to dissect society through stories that at first glance seem far separated from every day life.

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1950’s horror films focused on fears of the Cold War and atomic power; fears embodied by gigantic irradiated monsters and soul snatching pods. In the 1960’s, horror films focused on alienated youth.

A decade later, the televised carnage of the Vietnam War led to the desensitization and the sadism of such films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972). The slasher craze that began in the 1980s was considered by many societal critics to be archconservative in nature, while others, including genre luminary John Carpenter, viewed the cinematic killers as the personification of a constrictive society bearing down upon and repressing the average suburban teenager. Nevertheless, the majority dismissed them as bloody, exploitive, and even possibly dangerous.

In Scream 4, actress Kristen Bell says, “There’s something really scary about a guy with a knife who just… snaps.” This is exactly the point. There’s something out there in the dark. Something you don’t understand. And there’s no escape.

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