2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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McBain Recommends
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Saturday, June 19, 2004
Stretching the Subtext: The Terminal

On the whole The Terminal is a fairly hokey, sometimes unbearable attempt at cuteness that is clearly a Hollywood-ization of a true story. That story- due to some complicated paperwork problems an Iranian man who landed in De Gaulle airport could neither leave to go home nor fly to his final destination in England-is transposed by Steven Spielberg to New York’s JFK airport with Tom Hanks as Victor Navorski. With Hank’s nationality changed to a fictitious “Krakozian” instead of Iranian, as well as arbitrary plot additions like a forced romance with flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Terminal seems pretty easy to dismiss as a serious film.

But surface appearances are not everything, and there is a distinct, if not direct, link between this film and Spielberg’s near masterpiece Minority Report that can be found in the subtle neo-fascism of a government controller future. Navorski is trapped in JFK not due to a paper snafu but from the fact that while in the air his home nation suddenly suffered a coup and is now engaged in civil war as a new government tries to assert its power. Krakozia therefore rescinds the use of its citizens’ passports and the U.S., having not yet recognized the country’s new government, fails to let its citizens into America. Thus Navorski is trapped in what would seem to be a vacuum within JFK, a vacuum between countries and settled lives, all kept under the watchful eye of the airport’s security chief Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci).

Aside from the obvious Twilight Zone quality of Navorski’s situation (one actually noted by Dixon in the film), eerie references abound in The Terminal that push the idea that Navorski isn’t so much amusingly stuck in an airport as he is carefully manipulated in a controlled and manufactured environment. Unintended intertexual references are the first to point in this direction. Dixon’s security center and especially the way he hovers around the airport’s camera feed constantly looking for legal indiscretions bares more than passing resemblance to the headquarters of the mind/thought police of Minority Report who determine the fate of so-called criminals that have done nothing more than contain the possibility or likelihood of future crime. An even more disturbing (albeit very loose) connection is that Tucci’s eye-glassed deadpan bureaucratic controller easily calls up the memory of his role as the ultimate deadpan administrator of them all, Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy.

The environment that Dixon restricts Navorski to is key to the film’s extra-narrative themes (its narrative themes being of the highly dismissible “be patient and wait it out” kind of simplicity). Kept out of hotels or first class relax areas like the Red Carpet Club, Navorski is “sequestered” to the International Lounge-a bizarre name for what amounts to an inside shopping mall that has no place to rest and only places to consume. Locked inside a glass cage with “views” of both New York (taxi cabs) and freedom in general (the constant coming and going of flights) Navorski is forced by Dixon to have access only to monolithic corporate storefronts-Starbucks, Borders, Burger King, etc. A security guard remarks to Navorski that the only thing to do in such a place is shop, and indeed that does seem the only possibility. In a bit of Kafka mixed with a Dick, Navorski is given food vouchers are turned into trash, finds employees talking in strange business-speak, people who don’t seem to notice him, and phonecard that he can’t use with a phone. The man is veritably forced to work for his money, “amusingly” finding creative but non-legitimate ways of scrounging a living like hording baggage carts to collect the financial reward. Once he is funneled into this system of control the mall of consumption is at his finger tips, and later the film goes so far as to push the well used flight stewardess-as-prostitute motif into new heights as Zeta-Jones appears as just another good to consume and dispose inside this area where politics are nonexistant and the only thing that's important is to keep consumers in and the world's loser out. The terminal becomes a little ant farm type experiment, with Dixon manipulating Navorski into a consumer mindset where he must work to live and must live for the hope that someday he will leave. Dixon actually has other priorities, seeing this frumpish Eastern European immigrant as useless and desires to get him off his hands as soon as possible, but the is a narrative requirement and does little to destroy the impact of this jail consisting of American brand name stores. (Navorksi’s forgoing sleep to teach himself English just so he can function in the shopping mall not only develops the evolution of the man into the mall's perfect consumer, but also weakly points The Terminal towards some kind of metaphor on immigration to America in general.)

Keep in mind as well that in this information age-where Dixon keeps careful watch on Navorski by using the eye in the sky-and that Navorski only knows about his country’s “demise” through reports via a 24-hour TV news network that talk in a language he barely comprehends. Even Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum seeps into Spielberg’s bizarre mixture of cute hokum and quasi-paranoid picture of neo-America, where disoriented visitors are manipulated by the filtering/control of information through TV broadcasts by phantom news networks. Though probably unintended these details add up, like how the undistinguished masses of workers at the airport mall unite behind Navarski in his subverting of Dixon’s Homeland Security policies.

Oblique references to these themes as Cold War rhetoric-employees thinking Navarksi is part of a C.I.A. operation, Navarski’s generic Eastern European country and language, etc.-make it fairly clear that whatever the film has to say it is saying it without really having a clear point to make. The themes mostly hover between a textual and subtextual level but there is no doubt that they are orchestrated by Spielberg and not by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi’s conventional and gag-based script by. The fact that most of The Terminal’s subtext feels unintended and neither structured thematically, nor highly linked to the plot, nor even to character development (Hanks-always good natured-takes the whole thing in stride, which is no surprise given his unnaturally flawlessly good-hearted character) leaves one only with a handful of interesting ideas menacingly hovering in the background of an occasionally creative, sometimes funny, but usually mundane Hollywood film.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004
BROADWAY, THE GOLDEN AGE Showing at the Angelika in NYC, this documentary is pretty much a must see for lovers of theater and will probably be of zero interest to everyone else. I caught it at the Savannah Film Festival and, frankly, had low expectations. I am very averse to "those were the good ole days" themes and I hate talking heads documentaries. So I was very surprised at how much this simple film moved me. I was enthralled. I cried. I absolutely loved it. The "talking heads" here, Broadway legends, are all born storytellers. And as much as nostalgic sentiment usually makes me want to puke, I am now convinced that I am a much poorer person for never having seen a Laurette Taylor performance.

SECRET WINDOW There is not a cliche missing from this movie, which is really more comedy than thriller, but it still had me smiling most of the way through. Depp is great in a less showy performance than Pirates of the Caribbean, but just as finely calibrated. I've always liked Depp, even if I wouldn't see a film based solely on the fact that he was in it, but I now love him when he's funny. Hell, after this, I may even rent Chocolat. Secret Window, written and directed by David Koepp from a story by Stephen King, tells the story of a mystery writer (yes, he lives in a secluded cabin on a lake; yes, he's an alcoholic; yes, he has an ex-wife; yes, he has writer's block; yes, he has a doomed pet), stalked by John Turturro, who delivers his lines with much less finesse than Depp. The big surprise comes as no surprise, but that's not really the point. The point is to poke fun at familiar mystery conventions -- particularly those used by King. It's not a broad parody like Scary Movie (which is really not my taste in comedies); it relies on wry dialogue and quirky details. It won't make you laugh out loud, but there's nothing wrong with smiling. It's not a great movie and it could have used a couple of real surprises, but it was head and shoulders above Swimming Pool. All in all, a reasonably entertaining couple of hours.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Question of the Week

The Unofficial Milk Plus Canon, Part IV: 1985-1989

It's back...

Create a list of the Top 10 films released between 1985 and 1989, providing rationale for each choice

Remember, this question is open to all blog members and readers, so get your list in so your vote will count. Again, because of the variability of release dates, please use IMDB.com as your resource when it comes to a film's actual release date. I will be using the same scoring system as before, with your #1 movie being worth 10 points, your #2 movie being worth 9 points, and so on. Since this is only a game, please, please rank your movies so I don't have to figure out how to assign points.

Polling ends at 9pm CST on 6-24. Please have your lists submitted by then.


The Stepford Wives

I’ve never actually seen the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives (though it is now sitting near the bottom of my GreenCine queue), though the film is so ingrained in modern popular culture I can almost swear that I have. Say the word “Stepford” and everybody nods knowingly, so it probably seemed like a good idea at the time to take the film in a more comedic direction, to push it into the more satirical realm of Ira Levin’s source novel. Yeah, not so much. Whereas the original came out during a specific historical period, during the social upheaval engendered by the rise of feminism as a cultural-political force (among other similar movements), as well as a 70s popular culture revival of an idealized, fantasy version of Eisenhower’s America (i.e. Happy Days, Grease, etc.), the new version of The Stepford Wives supposedly comes out in the more enlightened times of “post-feminism.” (This historical confluence is probably the real reason for the first film’s reputation, since I can not find anyone, except for Ed Gonzalez, who thinks of the first film as “great.”) And like most examples of mass consumerist product designed under the banner of “post-feminism,” it’s a limpid specimen which pays lip service to the ideas of gender equality and anti-sexism, but in reality it has as many thoughts in its head as the titular androids. I was gummed to boredom by the toothless satire, and only the zingers of Paul Rudnick’s one-liners gave the film any life whatsoever.

The film starts promisingly enough with the credit sequence, a montage of “you have to see it to believe it” 50s era clips depicting ridiculous seeming concepts of femininity, domesticity, and technological consumerism run amok. But then the film launches into its dominant conceptual framework with the introduction of Joanna Eberhard, Nicole Kidman’s character (in an uncharacteristically bad performance, at least in my opinion, characterized by shrieking, whispering, and looking incredulous), an all powerful TV network executive unveiling her new fall lineup of crass reality shows, which are all based on an opposition between men and women, with the women in firm control, and the men, well let’s just say were beyond Stiffed territory here. In the film, the men are uniformly milquetoasts, nerds, and losers (with the exception of the one flamboyantly gay character). This may seem like a neato gender inversion, but of course, the film shoves the main female characters into caricatures of the successful career woman=bad wife/bad mother, if not dour, emasculating harpies, and in a not surprising twist (SPOILERS), it is really a woman (a very crazy woman who once was a brain surgeon and geneticist, and now wants to make the world “perfect”) who is behind the sinister Men’s Association that is replacing the women of Stepford (END SPOILERS). Wait, sinister may be too strong a word, since the Men’s Association is more like an infantile frathouse, though Christopher Walken does his best with what he is given, and as usual, he’s great.

Pretty much the majority of the movie consists of watching the nonconformists of Stepford, all dyed in the wool Manhattanites, whose grousing about suburban life provides many of the film’s best jokes, slowly succumb to their partner’s machinations. However, the film does little with it’s “1950s as nightmare” premise other than gawk. Presumably, the threat of returning to some kind of weird, 1950s inspired fantasy is so far removed and incongruous from the average spectator’s experience, that simply pointing the camera at several doll-like women in floral dresses and floppy hats constitutes “satire.” You almost wish the filmmakers had had the guts to update the fantasy from the 1950s to something more contemporary and uncomfortable, and you could occasionally tell that the filmmakers were trying to go in that direction. For example, a couple of sights gags about the ubiquity of identical SUVs in Stepford, but that would be too biting. It’s much easier to simply laugh at something the average viewer is already programmed to interpret ironically.

It’s actually the last 30 minutes or so which completely torpedoes the movie. After playing one key sequence entirely straight and melodramatic, the film recreates what even I know to be the final scene of the original movie, before launching onto a clearly tacked on conclusion which involves setting everything right, redeeming Matthew Broderick’s character, and revealing the mysteries of Stepford through pages of endless exposition delivered by an over the top Glen Close. Other than one jolt, and one cool image, this ending is completely ridiculous, and let’s everyone off the hook while delivering the message that “perfection” is not everything, and that men could stand to be more, well manly, and women, more feminine. Yes, let’s compromise and everything will be just great! Kidman even remains a blonde at the end of the movie, though she compromises and keeps her same hair style. Yeah compromise! It's so easy. And the film tops it all off with the men of Stepford’s punishment (at least in a stereotypical case): feminization. Blech.


The Day After Tomorrow

During its tense opening moments I wasn't sure which way The Day After Tomorrow was headed. The disaster flic foreboding starts right away -- planetary temperatures go wonky, weather anomalies crop up, it's the literal calm before the storm. Yet there was also THE MESSAGE, lurking behind the effects like the classroom science nerd with his hand up. Global warming is, after all, unlike rogue comets and invading aliens; this is a very real, very topical, concern, and I thought maybe, just maybe, it was time to stop slurping the Moka-Java smoothie and listen to what was being said here.

But, of course, it's spring outside, and all serious issues get dropped faster than a homework assignment on a sunny day. Dennis Quaid -- the film's head science nerd -- yells to the Vice-President, "If we don't do something now it'll be too late!!", and, voila -- it is, indeed, too late. With dialogue that scintillating and credibility that shallow my brain instantly shut down for the remaining two hours. Who can concentrate on serious stuff when there's so many special effects to enjoy! I mean -- cyclones and floods, guys!

As you've likely figured out by now, that nonsense story about Republicans being put off by the film's message was nothing but good marketing. This is not a deep film with some added character subplots. Instead The Day After Tomorrow anchors itself around cliche-driven characters who use global warming as motivation to act even more cliched. It's all about father and son relationships, husband and wife issues, buddies bonding over a crisis, and, naturally -- because it's Hollywood -- a young couple discovering love. In this supposed 'message-film', it's all about how everyone feels rather than that problem of a disintegrating climate right outside the door. See if you can guess how all of the above relationships turn out. That's right -- how'd you know?

And therein lies my source of my grumbling -- The Day After Tomorrow turns out to be yet another BIG THEME movie with a cut-and-paste screenplay. All that's changed is the disaster. There's plenty of awe to be inspired by the degree of destruction rained down on the planet, the effects are monstrously big as all get-out and writer/director Roland Emmerich does his usual good job of pumping non-stop adrenaline. It's a two-hour Disney ride that doesn't disappoint.

But that's the extent of it -- a theme park ride. The Day After Tomorrow never bores, but it never enlightens, either. There's a "Wow!" every minute, but it's never followed with, "...I never thought of that!" For an issue as crucial as global warming, the audience walks out of this film remembering nothing but huge walls of water. All morsels of real information are pummeled beneath the waves. What can we do as individuals to fight global warming? What should we expect of our governments? Damned if I know after watching this film. Sorry...what was I saying...oh yeah -- cyclones and floods, guys!!

It's a shame, really. Disaster films don't have to be synonymous with mindless effects. The similarly-named The Day After was a 1983 made-for-TV movie about nuclear war that haunts me still and Titanic managed to recreate a palpable aura of history around a then-85-year-old event, despite the film's romantic shlockery.

I'd recommend The Day After Tomorrow as the fun summer flic it was intended to be. It's just too bad the day after tomorrow is about as long as you'll remember it.

Readjusting Perspective: Cannes Film Festival 2004

The general consensus was that the 2004 edition of Cannes represented a step back up after last year's rather miserable outing (although it certainly hadn't been the fiasco of mythic proportions exaggerated reports suggested). Indeed, there were less embarrassments on display - you could even catch one good movie per day, though only a couple of them in competition -, but that was the logical outcome of a more mainstream, less „risky“ programming policy: In his first year as sole artistic director, Thierry Frémaux had decided to move away even further from Cannes politique d'auteurs anciennes than in the previous year's half-assed attempt. (In a fabulous irony, it was one of the few exceptions that almost vindicated the new stance: Emir Kusturica's Life is Miracle mainly proved that you can achieve monotony via relentless hysteria.)
While this opening-up certainly made for a more lively program, it couldn't cover up the randomness of its criteria, most egregiously visible in a disappointing Hollywood lineup that even Berlin should think about twice before accepting it: The Coen's poor Ladykillers remake, even Shrek 2 in competition (while, as not quite unsubstantiated rumors had it, the new works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mike Leigh, Im Kwon-Taek and Jia Zhangke had been rejected), and films that would open in a minute in France (and already had in most other places) inexplicably occupying a bulk of out-of-competition-slots – including Wolfgang Petersens' lackluster epic Troy, jury president Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol.2, not to mention the Dawn of the Dead remake. Cannes has always been thriving on presenting an incomprehensibly selected mix of artistic experimentation and market lip-service, but with the scales now decidedly tipped in favor of the latter, the distinction of what might even be considered art was blurred more than ever (which also may have to do with many „critics“ no longer caring to make one, except maybe by walking out of challenging fare – Kent Jones aptly described the press reaction to Tropical Malady as „the symphony of flapping seats“). And that was already before the prices were announced.

Tarantino's jury, in what was obviously a chaotic folly of compromise, opted for an arbitrary shower of prizes, some of them beyond puzzling - best director for Tony Gatlif??? Indeed the first announcement on award night pretty much summed it all up: Irma P. Hall shared the Jury Prize for her acting in Ladykillers – maybe really the best thing about this heartless movie, but certainly not enough to make it interesting – with Apichtapong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, unquestionably the aesthetically most daring and advanced film competing for the Golden Palm. Still, the mystifying nature of most decisions was easily overlooked, it seems, once the Palme D'Or had been announced, since it went to the film that almost everybody could agree upon, though hardly for its artistic merits: When Michael Moore's sloppy anti-Bush doc Fahrenheit 9/11, the biggest hype of the fest, also triumphed, the new Cannes policy of anything goes had come full circle.
A slight improvement over Moore's previous documentaries – he's giving himself less onscreen time for grandstanding, though his off-commentary ensures that you won't have to pass on being amused despite some devastating material on display -, Fahrenheit 9/11 is another haphazardly organized television special that ends up in cinemas because there's no room for it in a homogenized US media landscape. At least that's what Moore's film leads you to believe. (And even if his excerpts from the blatantly one-sided war news coverage by the big US TV stations should not be representative – as a European I can hardly tell -, they're shocking enough as it is.) This also points to one of the general problems with Moore's films: Despite their obvious patriotism it's hard to tell whether their success abroad isn't just the result of feeding on anti-American clichés. Indeed the many inconsistencies of Moore's cheap shot and scattershot polemic show similarities to Bush's own dubious methods – which is probably what Jean-Luc Godard was getting at when he announced at his press conference (admittedly not having seen Fahrenheit) that Moore was actually helping Bush.
Such objections mattered little, as Fahrenheit 9/11 was the film of the moment, coming right on the heels of Abu Grahib, not to mention the headlines reporting the US bombing of an Iraqi wedding two days before the prizes were announced. And of course Moore, master of publicity, had played up the US distribution angle just in time, and was seemingly omni-present at the festival (the media courted accordingly). As if that hadn't been enough, the Cannes programmers upped the hype ante, by purposefully scheduling the press screenings of the fest's most-awaited film (and pre-certified controversy) in the two smallest venues – at the same time. Such stunts aside, one couldn't help feeling a certain sympathy for Moore's agit-prop intervention: Even if he's making a show of it, he's at least taking an overdue mainstream stand. When I conceded that while insisting on the film's many glaring deficits to a respected US colleague right after the screening, he responded with: „You're probably right, but at this point I'm willing to accept anything that helps to drive Bush out of office.“
Whether Fahrenheit 9/11 will be able to do so remains to be seen: Moore's usual, desultory line of argument is unlikely to convert any Republicans, but its obvious aim is to agitate „unpolitical“ persons, especially amongst the disenfranchised: In that spirit Moore even manages to show some of them and their sad fates without the usual condescension. That's welcome, but it certainly doesn't make Fahrenheit 9/11 a work of art. Which is what the jury claimed, actually adding that this wasn't a political decision. Patently ridiculous, of course, but then again, so have been many Cannes decisions during the years, though this may be the first that the main prize is bestowed on a film with a self-set expiration date about five months after its world premiere. (Although every critic pretends to believe that the jury might actually make a „good decision“ - whatever that may be - beforehand, of course the opposite is the case, so the result can hardly qualify as a surprise. That the international film critic's association FIPRESCI also gave its award to Moore's film is a lot more distressing.)

In another first, the unisono pre-festival favorite, Wong Kar-wai's 2046, arrived late: In the last minute official schedules had to be readjusted, and the mood for love died pretty fast – many remarked that no other director would have gotten away with that (which may indeed be true). Little surprise then, that the reactions were rather mixed: Wong's visually intoxicating, dramatically very loose assemblage of ravishing moments of romantic longing suggests that in the 5 years of work he got completely lost in his own œuvre. The lush color-coding and the central character are from in In the Mood For Love: Tony Leung has now become a melancholy cynic and writer of futuristic martial arts and porn, inbetween he has doomed trysts with a number of beauties, most notably Zhang Ziyi (much better here than in Zhang Yimou's out-of-competition martial arts picture-postcard House of Flying Daggers), while Gong Li plays the role Maggie Cheung had in the earlier feature – Maggie herself providing a „special guest apperance“, though nobody seemed quite sure if she was actually in the film afterwards. (In the meantime people lucky enough to see 2046 twice have believably assured that she's shortly seen twice in a doorway in the opening reel.) That gives a sense of the beyond-Lynchian auto-vertigo Wong tries to convey in 2046: It's as if his entire body of work had been refracted after a few cups too many of the wine of forgetfulness from his Ashes of Time, resulting in an exquisite, almost fetishistic and labyrinthine portrayal of eternal loss. Many thought that 2046 was still unfinished – like Fahrenheit 9/11, by the way, which Moore said he „might update in light of recent developements“ before its general release. But whereas in Moore's film I often had the feeling he was just randomly throwing things onscreen that could have been presented more profitably in coherent manner (its the core of his unabashedly populist aesthetic, always going for the emotion, not the intellect), in 2046 the kaleidoscopic approach makes thematic sense. Wong's admittedly solipstistic meta-masterpiece would have been a logical choice to top-honor the welcome expanded Asian competition presence, while continuing the time-honored Cannes tradition of awarding the palm for a filmmaker's career rather than the specific film. (The autoerotic relationship of 2046 to Wong's earlier works would have added a meta-twist to the scenario.)
Rather, Tarantino's professed favorite, Park Chan-wook's dark Korean revenge thriller Oldboy, ended up with the Grand Jury Prize: Its flashiness is fun (it's very obviously based on a comic, yet that shows in often unusual ways), but ultimately there's little to justify the increasingly baroque, if not to say ludicrous plot turns – by the end the relentless stylistic amping-up barely manages to conceal the lack of real substance. (More successful was Paolo Sorrentino's equally inconsequential Italian competition entry, The Consequences of Love, with its tongue-in-cheek mix of De Palma-showboating and Pittigrilli sarcasm – probably it also helped that it was shorter.) The acting awards went to Maggie Cheung for her subdued performance in Olivier Assayas' impressive melodrama Clean (a minor work by the director's standards, but still one of the four or five best films competing) and 14-year old Japanese Yuuya Yagira for Hirokazu Kore Eda's drama about neglected children, Nobody Knows, a remarkable attempt at de-sentimentalizing a dubious true story-premise that would have been even more effective if the effort had included the elimination of a gratuitously repeated sparse-yet-touching guitar riff on the soundtrack. (More subtle in conveying a different kind of despair was another Asian entry, Wong Sang-Soo's elliptical Woman is the Future of Man.)

Still, it was Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul who only went away with a minor prize, but must be filed in the category of the few current filmmakers who try to affect major changes in the language of cinema. In many ways his Tropical Malady feels like a companion piece to the predecessor Blissfully Yours, this time delicately charting a gay love story before the viewer is transported – once again midway and more or less without announcement - into the jungle. Whereas the second half of Blissfully Yours was all languor, sex and afternoon heat, this time it's night, myth and vision: A rich soundtrack provides a sensual, almost hallucinatory you-are-there experience, while miraculously trees begin to glow in the dark, one protagonist stalks a shimmering green tiger-ghost, monkeys give advice (in subtitles) and the fable gradually reveals itself as dark mirror of the first hour's happy romance (and as one of the mythic stories regularly being told to the lovers). Playful and enigmatic like all of Weerasethakul's films, Tropical Malady is busy proposing a quizzical strategy of constantly questioning modes of narration underneath its beguiling, sometimes transcendentally tranquilized surface, off-handedly, yet self-consciously blending fantasy and faux-documentary elements, primitivism and postmodern reflexivity: another mysterious object on Weerasethakul's way towards a new, strange, progressive cinema.
The only other comparable attempts came from Argentinia: Lisandro Alonso's terrific Los muertos applies the careful, unhurried borderline doc/fiction-approach of his debut La libertad to the tale of an ex-convict returning home, blending mythical allusion with mesmerizing attention to daily ritual – having just premiered at the Buenos Aires Film Festival (probably the best fest for a critic to attend, its pronounced cinephile direction was something already sorely missed only two weeks later on the Riviera), Los muertos was relegated to the „Quinzaine des realisateurs“ sidebar, along with the fascinating Sundance avant-favorite Tarnation and a heartfelt tribute to Manila's disenfranchised: Mario O'Hara's Woman of Breakwater is occasionally hampered by a few Felliniesque touches too many, but its fireworks scene – the moment when you realize that history will bulldoze over these people while they're standing in awe and watching it happen – moved me more than anything in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Back in competition, it was the second feature of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, La niña santa, which represented another outstanding attempt at modernization, conceiving a narrative through gradual accumulation of detail rather than a straightforward proposal: In its center there's the relationship between a religiously obsessed teenager and a doctor with paedophile urges, but its black comedy unfolds (almost imperceptibly) as byproduct of labyrinthine unveilings of family relations, obscurely intertwined character motivations and a casually conceived, yet thick and pertinent network of metaphors – many of the film's defiantly off-kilter framed scenes take place at a medical conference for eye, ear and throat specialists, allowing for a lot of playful parallels to the communication hiccups between characters, among them an unexpected rendition of „O sole mio“ on a theremin. Less striking than her debut La ciénaga, Martel's second film nevertheless was one of the few that had earned its place in competition.

Something that, for mysterious reasons (maybe not so mysterious of you consider that a new, populist Cannes hardly could have wanted an African winner) was denied to Senegalese master Ousmane Sèmbene, whose Moolaadè was the (more or less uncontested) winner of the second-tier „Un certain regard“ section: A truly uplifting anti-circumcision tract (it was one of the popular favorites) in from of a community portrayal emphasizing the social structures, it displays the sincerity, clarity of expression and refined style that is characteristic of many late works by great filmmakers. Opposing the naturalist dogma that looms over much of current African festival cinema, with his near-Brechtian, yet improbably self-evident mise en scène, the 81-year old director also embraces what's usually portrayed as the globalizing enemy by his younger colleagues: radio and television, harbingers of westernization function as means of self-education in Moolaadè, helping to bring down an inhuman tradition in its rousing finale. The extraordinarily moving last cut replaces the image of the 150-year old ostrich egg on top of the small town's mosque with that of a TV antenna.
Together with Godard and Raymond Depardon, both showing new works out of competition, Sembène formed the troika of old masters whose films, all presented early in the festival, threatened to overshadow the Palme contenders. (The situation wasn't exactly mitigated by the fact that the best genre film by far in Cannes didn't make the cut, either: Breaking News, a no-frills action thriller by Johnnie To, whose sense of proportion and superior use of space outclassed all the real and supposed entertainments served up as roughly half the amount of competition mincemeat.) Godard's Notre musique, another essay about the relationship between images, war and history, is probably his most concise film in years, though not devoid of trademark cryptic and comic grace notes, moving from a characteristic opening montage of „hell“ through the roughly hour-long „purgatory“ center-piece (where, amongst other things, Godard himself gives a master class on cinema in Sarajevo, chiding – or admiring? - Hawks' inability to distinguish between men and women) before arriving in a „paradise“ guarded by US marines.
More upfront and clear, but no less complex was Depardon's 10e chambre – Instants d'audiences, a logical extension of his earlier justice doc Delits flagrants (1994): In the predecessor he showed the short one-on-one interviews conducted by a deputy prosecutor in Paris' Palace of Justice with petty criminals Caught in the Act (as the English title puts it). The deputy prosecutor can let the accused go free – or order him before a court dealing with misdemeanors: That's where 10e chambre takes place, the judge presiding being none other than Mme Michele Bernard-Raquin, who was one of the deputy prosecutors in Delits flagrants (and helped Depardon in getting the necessary special permission to shoot which partially explains the timespan between the films). Using four fixed camera setups, showing judge, delinquent and the attorneys for defense and prosecution (and enabling him to do perfectly timed reaction shots), Depardon presents the very different interactions between the law's representatives and the accused with his usual uncanny ability to capture gestures and glances that reveal the innermost workings of the individuals on display. 10e chambre starts off deceptively funny - it also works as a riveting entertainment, but doesn't let you off the hook easily -, then quickly transforms into an inquiry on the nature of justice, (social) performance, humanity and lots of other grand issues that paradoxically come into focus thanks to patiently observing what at first glance seem to be everyday matters. Readjusting the skewered perspective of Cannes with its hard-won, unbiased, patient and curious humanism, 10e chambre was probably the greatest film of the festival.