Monday, May 31, 2004

Biella, Italy


Friends: We just completed a weekend in Milano that would have been a dream two days for any of the Italian tifosi--the most devoted of cycling fans. Saturday we watched the final mountain stage of the Giro through the Dolomites on a pair of over-sized TVs under a tent with a hoard of the faithful in the city's main plaza, and then Sunday we were among the thousands that lined the finishing two-and-a-half mile loop of the course in the heart of Milan. The peloton rode the loop ten times after starting some 80 miles away.



Pink was everywhere, as that is the color of the leader's jersey, and is as synonymous with The Giro as yellow is with The Tour de France. The tent in the main plaza was even pink. Under the tent were various displays documenting the race since its first edition in 1909, five years after the Tour de France was established. Pantani's bike was there complete with his custom Il Pirata saddle, along with many other bikes and photos and front pages of newspapers from over the years. There were scrapbooks of yellow newspaper articles from the race's very beginning to the present. There was a collection of tributes written by school children proclaiming their love for the race and the racers, some quite touching. And there were souvenirs, including replica pink jerseys, for sale.



The place was mobbed. We stood for nearly an hour-and-a-half, crammed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of the devoted, watching raptly and reverently the racers go over one climb and then another. Surprising there was little audible response to the action. Everyone seemed too consumed by the extreme efforts of the racers to react. This was a crowd of cyclists, each and everyone of whom knew how deeply those racers were digging to pedal a bike up such inclines. They knew it took an ultimate, all-out effort. They all had been there and understood what a cathartic experience it was.

The only audible reaction from our mob was a wave of muttered condemnation when our counterparts along the steep mountain roads would get a little too enthusiastic and push or pat the back of a rider as he passed. There was no reaction, however, to the lunatics who would run at fell speed alongside the racers trying to exhort them on. Nor were there cheers or any reaction at the stage's conclusion. But just about everyone immediately dispersed. Only I and a couple of others lingered for the post race-analysis. I couldn't understand much, but I still wanted to see whatever replays there might be and the close-ups of the racers as they were interviewed and fulfilled their podium chores.


It was all most exalting, especially being in the presence of Milan's spectacular cathedral, one of the largest in the world, with dozens of jutting spires that must have been an influence on Gaudi's famed church in Barcelona. For blocks around the plaza there was no motorized traffic. It was a monumental pedestrian mall. It seemed as if a good portion of Milan's 1.3 million inhabitants were milling about these streets. It is a most spectacular city center.


As we biked into Milan Saturday morning, it seemed to be just another big city, but as we neared the center and started seeing one stately, block-long, five or six story building after another, it began taking on a most appealing flavor. The cathedral and plaza and the many traffic free arteries that spoked out from it proved conclusively that this is not just another big city. It has a distinctive character of its own.


Saturday evening we scouted out the course the race would follow just a few blocks from the city center and were surprised to see no evidence that a race would be taking place there the next day. But Sunday morning when we returned, crews were everywhere setting up barriers and stands and sponsorship tents. The racers didn't arrive into the city until after four p.m. for their final hour long promenade, and not too many of the tifosi arrived until an hour before the
racers did. By noon there weren't even 50 people staking out a spot against the fence at the finish line, unlike at Cannes where people were outside the Palais ten hours or more before the stars were to arrive.

I was a little worried about the lack of tifosi, but they came flocking by race time and were thick around the race course. If people didn't have pink to wear they could buy a pink t-shirt and hat for five euros as Jesse did. Jesse and I stood at a point on the course where we could see the racers twice within 30 seconds allowing us to see them a total of 20 times zipping past us at better than 25 miles per hour. There's not much one can distinguish as the racers fly past, so I switched my gaze from time-to-time to the tifosi and their gleeful expressions. We were nowhere near the finish line so we did not know who won the stage, but the victor of the overall race had been decided the day before, a 22-year old, Cunego, who is the latest great Italian hope, one of the youngest winners ever. A headline in the day's paper said "Tifosi is delirious," referring to Cunego's bright future. Pantani is the only Italian to have won the Tour de France in the past several decades. There has rarely even been an Italian threat. They're all hoping Cunego can be the next Armstrong.

We were back at the campground, six miles from Milan's center, by 6:30. We quickly took down our tents and packed up and were on our way out of town. One night was enough in a
sanctioned campground. A nearby disco played music until three a.m. Our sleep was also interrupted by a French couple arguing over who was responsible for losing the keys to their car. When we checked into the campground early Saturday afternoon we were harangued by an American ex-pat who claimed the US government had implanted a chip in his head years ago and had been trying to control him ever since. He said the IRS had stolen a million dollars from him and that he was never returning to the land of George Bush and we were insane to do so ourselves. He's been paying fourteen euros a night for months to live in a tent in this campground. We were relieved to get fifteen miles down the road and camp in a wooded area free of such mind-numbing distractions.


Tonight could be our last night in Italy and I won't be sorry to be leaving despite the elevated
regard, if not worship, of the bicycle here. There has been all too much traffic and its roads all too narrow, but by far the biggest headache has been its utterly stupefying road signs. There are far from enough and those that there are are often severely lacking in clarity or consistency, a marked contrast to those of France. There were stretches when we had to haul out Jesse's highly-detailed 150-page atlas of Italy's roads five or six times an hour. I just want to lose myself in the biking, and when its constantly interrupted by trying to figure out where I am or how to get to where I want to go, its not so much fun. We're lucky its been mostly sunny our eight days here, as we've constantly had to rely on the sun to determine which way to go. And the signs giving distance are rare and also woefully inconsistent. In one 40-minute stretch we saw six or seven signs all saying 23 kilometers to Como.


Billboards to stores will say they are five or ten minutes away, rather than the number of kilometers. The supermarket grub has also been frustrating. The supermarkets are as vast as those of France or the US, but there is a minimum of prepared food, just tons of ingredients. The Italians are as fond of eating as the French, but they are equally fond and proud of cooking. Anyone caught buying prepared food would be in danger of being excommunicated by the
Pope, or at least their mother-in-law. Only once have I found a can of spaghetti and it was thick in dust. My tent dinner has been chick peas with olives just about every night. The only other canned prepared food to be found is lentils. Only once have I seen baked beans and they were 1.6 euros. And the deli fare has been equally paltry. Its rare to even find potato salad and it is prohibitively expensive. So I am thrilled to be going back to France and its great variety of canned delicacies. The most direct route into France is through a seven-mile tunnel past Mount Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, though we haven't had it confirmed that bicyclists are allowed. The snow-covered Alps are in sight.


Later, George





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Friday, May 28, 2004

Lecco, Italy

Friends: The road along Lake Como is as perilous a road as I've biked and among the most scenic too, though I hardly had a moment to divert my attention from the road and traffic to appreciate its beauty. The road is largely carved into the mountainsides that plunge to the lake's shoreline. It has no shoulder for bicyclists and at times narrows to just one lane wide with minimal warning. The road is thronged with speeding sports cars, tour buses and trucks of near 18-wheeler proportions. There are small villages and villas of all sizes wall-to-wall around the lake, as high up as the terrain will allow.

For centuries it was acclaimed the most beautiful lake in the world. Aldous Huxley offered one of the first dissenting opinions back in the '30s when he ventured to Guatemala and laid eyes on Lake Atitlan. He declared it, "The most beautiful lake in the world, even more beautiful than Lake Como." It is an opinion I cannot dispute, having biked its shores as well a couple of times. Lake Atitlan too is surrounded my mountains, though they are conical and of the erupting variety. It is much less thickly populated than Lake Como, with just a handful of small villages dotting its shore. The women of each village wear colorful, matching, intricately embroidered blouses unique to their village.

Lake Como is much narrower than Atitlan, a y-shaped sliver that one could practically skip a stone across, not unlike the fjords of Norway. I'm almost surprised that a book on cycling Italy recommends biking its road, or at least without warning of the hazardous traffic. For me it was more dangerous than Bolivia's "Most Dangerous Road in the World." If I hadn't just replaced my front brake pads after wearing them out descending the 14% grade road from the chapel of the Madonna de Ghisallo, the Patron Saint of Bicyclists overlooking the lake, Jesse might be writing this email to you rather than me. I had to slam on my brakes, as my heart rocketed into my throat, on a descent, when a truck that had just passed me, slammed on his brakes to avoid an over-sized bus that had just come around a bend blocking the road. My front wheel just nudged the bumper of the truck as I came to a screeching stop, and as I cringed hoping there wasn't a vehicle behind me not paying attention. As beautiful as the vistas of the lake have been, I'm glad the thirty miles we cycled along its shores from the city of Como to Lecco are behind us, and we can continue on to Milan, thirty miles away. But tonight we will camp at what the local tourist office advertises as a free campground just a mile out of town along the lake. That is almost too good to be true, as it would be a challenge to camp wild tonight in this highly congested area. We were lucky to have found a forest last night ten miles before Como.

With luck tonight we'll enjoy our first shower since Cannes. Yesterday, Jesse had his baptismal bathing-in-a- river experience, or near baptism, as he could only force himself to go thigh deep into the cold river, doing his bathing by splashing water on his upper body. It was a legitimate swimming area on a gravel beach with a couple of hundred sun-bathers, though no one was wading more than ankle deep into the river. I've had plenty of experience with much colder water than this, and though I wasn't overly desperate for a washing, I still took a full plunge and felt most invigorated. It was nice not to be so sticky in the tent last night.

Another highlight for the day was for the first time coming upon a restaurant/bar with a television to watch the conclusion of that day's stage of the Giro d'Italia. It wasn't the religious experience I thought it might be, joined by a throng of exuberant fans breathlessly glued to the proceedings. Shockingly, the place we stopped in at late in the afternoon didn't have the race on its television--rather some music video that none of its patrons were paying any attention to. The bartender had to go in search of the remote control to change the station. When he finally switched the station to the race, hardly anyone in the place seemed to notice. This clearly was not a den of the tifosi--cycling fanatics. But I was thrilled to be watching the Giro even though I could understand not a word of the commentary other than the names of the racers. The 35-year old Russian veteran, Pavel Tonkov, former winner of the Giro, had broken away from his two breakaway companions and held everyone off for a dramatic win. At his age, every win could be his last.

It will be hard to experience a greater highlight though than our visit to the tiny Madonna de Ghisallo chapel--a storied shrine that every devotee of the bicycle owes it to himself to visit. It may be no larger than a hut, but it is a vast reservoir of cycling lore, tangible and not. Perched upon a small clearing some 1500 feet over Lake Como, it offers spectacular views of the lake and the snow-dappled Dolomites in the distance. It is a most demanding 5.4 mile climb from the lake, with two of those miles relatively flat. The year end classic Tour of Lombardy passes by it, a race that has drawn most of the cycling legends over the years.

Centuries ago in medieval times travelers adopted the Madonna as their patron saint after a traveler sought refuge in the small chapel when he was attacked by bandits. He saw the image of a saintly woman in the chapel and gave her credit for saving him. Later, cyclists took her as their guardian saint as well. Finally, in 1949 Pope Pius XII officially consecrated the Madonna de Ghisalla. A photo of his visit is among the many photographs in the small chapel adorned with a museum's worth of bicycling mementos--bikes ridden by Coppi and Merckx and Moser, autographed yellow jerseys from the Tour de France and pink ones from the leader of the Giro, some rainbow-striped world championship jerseys and others of note. Prominently displayed on an altar behind a locked gate was a photo of the recently deceased Marco Pantani in pink with arms upraised in a Christ-like pose. Sculptures of Gino Bartoli and Fausto Coppi, the most revered of Italian cyclists, flank the entrance to the chapel. There was a steady trickle of others paying homage to this shrine, though we were the only ones who arrived by bike in the hour-and-a-half we lingered on the premises. There is a vast cycling museum under construction on the grounds that will make this an even more alluring draw. A nearby shop sells postcards and drinks and snacks.

I was surprised not to have received a single horn toot as I climbed up to the Madonna, as a couple days before, nearly every car that passed me, on a much longer and equally challenging climb, recognized my efforts with a friendly toot, the most I have ever been accorded. It was another sign of the Italians' great fanaticism and fondness for the cyclist. It could be that since that climb was less twisty than the one to Ghisallo, my appearance didn't suddenly catch them by surprise, and seeing me well ahead, watching me spin my way up with vigor, clearly having the upper hand in my battle with the mountain, they had ample time to trigger their horn. Jesse, who is still trying to find his climbing legs, was lagging far, far behind on both climbs. He reported he did not receive a single toot. He will in time be floating up these mountains himself. He's still in his infancy as a touring cyclist, but he's already well beyond the stage of dreading climbs, unlike others I've toured with. He's actually eager to test himself on the most demanding of the Tour de France climbs before this trip is done. Me too.

Later, George

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Alba, Italy

Friends: Not every town in Italy has a bicycle store, though it certainly seemed so at first. We saw more in our first forty miles bicycling along the Mediterranean than we saw in 800 miles through France. And there were hoards of guys decked out in full racing attire pedaling the roads like they meant it, in pace lines and on their own. The Italians are known as the most passionate of bicycle racing fans. There was ample evidence to verify it.

It wasn't until we went searching for a bike store in the small town of Chiusauecchia did we learn that bike shops weren't as ubiquitous as we thought. We needed a bike shop to replace Jesse's front wheel. It had been bent beyond repair when a car coming around a blind corner at forty miles per hour slammed into it. Jesse was on the bike, but was miraculously spared injury. We were just starting our day, crossing an exit ramp from a highway. There were high bushes to our left, preventing us from seeing cars that might be preparing to exit. There wasn't much traffic on this road up from the coast. I went first, looking and listening. Jesse followed a few seconds later without pausing to verify that it was safe to proceed. The driver was evidently momentarily distracted by the odd sight of me on my loaded touring bike returning to the highway and was suddenly upon Jesse plowing into the front part of his bike without even braking, narrowly missing Jesse himself, very well sparing his life. The damage to the wheel and the bike would have been much more severe if it hadn't been protected by a pannier.

I was lucky not to have witnessed the horror of the collision. I just heard the thud of car into pannier. I slowly turned, not eager at all to see the likely sight of a fast spreading pool of blood and a comatose body. Instead, I was shocked to see Jesse arising from the pavement without a spot of blood or even a bruise. The driver came rushing over apologizing, but pointing out that we shouldn't have been entering the highway there. He was right, and we apologized ourselves. We were all in such a state of shock that we didn't take time to assess the damage to the bike and enlist the driver in getting us to a bike shop, before he had sped off. We were all simply relieved that Jesse was OK. His wheel was severely pretzeled, but after jumping on it and taking a truing wrench to it, we straightened it just enough so that it could spin unimpeded if we released the brakes and removed one of the brake pads.

As long as we didn't ride too fast, Jesse's rear brake provided enough braking power for us to safely putter to Chiusauecchia, two miles up the road. It was a slight climb, so we didn't have to worry about a descent generating unsafe speed. Though Chiusauecchia didn't have a bicycle shop, it had bicyclists. A kindly soul most graciously offered to lend us his front wheel so we could more safely bike back to Imperia, a large city six miles away. It was an astoundingly generous offer, but since we had hobbled two miles already without much difficulty, we knew we could manage a few more and wouldn't have the complication of returning his wheel. We were under no severe deadline to be anywhere, so the only stress we felt was recovering from the trauma of this near disaster. It didn't take us long to find a bike store in Imperia, and it had a comparable wheel to Jesse's old one.

The accident occurred on our first morning in Italy, two days ago. If not for that incident we would say that Italy has been perfection. Despite his ill-luck Jesse is loving Italy so much, he is expressing regret that he chose to learn French rather than Italian. The Italians are responding to us and our bikes with even greater fervor than I could have imagined. This morning when we came out of a grocery store two guys were huddled over our bikes, closely examining their every feature. They expressed a level of curiosity way beyond anything we had encountered in France. We are on our way to Milan for the final stage of Italy's version of the Tour de France, likewise a three-week grand tour of the country. But before that we will visit a chapel overlooking Lake Como devoted to bicycling's patron saint, the Madonna de Ghisallo. Could be she has already been looking out for us.

Later, George

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Cannes #11

Friends: The films are done, and I'm sorry to report I was denied seeing "Fahrenheit 911" for lack of formal attire. Since it won the Palm d'Or, its final screening was at prime time today, rescheduled from its original five p.m. slot, and as eager as I was to see it, I wasn't so desperate as to go scrambling for a penguin suit. All the men parading around at night as if they are headed to a state dinner is quite hilarious. May I never be one of them.

Moore has clearly been the star of this festival receiving hearty applause at his every appearance. He was the only dignitary to receive applause as he walked up the red carpet to the Awards Ceremony from the audience in the theater I was seated in watching the proceedings on a big screen. It was actually more applause than he received when he won the Palm d'Or, as it was such a surprise and not considered worthy of the Palm d'Or. Everyone is delighted to laud him for his anti-Bush politics, but few are willing to acknowledge his polemic as a film for the ages or to anoint him as an auteur. There was quite a huddle of us afterward trying to figure out how it could have happened. The jury had quite a time defending itself in today`s press conference.

Rumors had been rampant that Tarantino loved the Korean film "Old Boy", which won second prize, that also had few enthusiastic supporters. Tarantino would have loved to have given it the top prize, but his jury stood up to him on that one. Since they could get no consensus on anything else, they just copped out and decided to thumb their nose at Bush. The headline in Sunday's newspaper agreed--"Cannes: la Palme d'Or qui defie Bush." There were no great quarrels with any of the other awards except for the special mention that the Thai film "Tropical Malady" received. It was the only award that the audience booed. In the jury press conference Tarantino admitted there wasn't consensus on the jury for it, but that there had been a couple of people on the jury who had great passion for it, and the rest of the jury decided that if anyone could so enthusiastically embrace such a film, especially when it is the jury president, they'd go along with it. Then Tarantino looked around at his fellow jurists and asked, "Isn't that so." It was several moments before anyone else would speak and acknowledge himself to be the other consenting member of this unpopular choice.

Even though I maxed out at 60 films, the most I've ever managed to see at a film festival, this is one of the rare festivals I've attended where there hasn't been at least one film that I'm going home wildly enthusiast about, that I will be telling everyone they must see. I saw plenty of good films that I'm very happy to have seen and can highly recommend, but unfortunately, for your sake as well as my own, I do not have an ultimate film to exalt over. The closest I came to such exaltation was the American "Tarnation". "The Edukators" started out as such a film, but it lapsed into just a very good film, rather than a great film. Close behind were "Clean"
and "Moolaade." "Whisky" and "In Casablanca the Angels Don't Fly" were a cut below. The best of the young-women-in-distress movies were "Brodeuses" and "Or". And then a pair of French movies by established directors--"Look at Me" and "Right Now." I'll also fondly recall the French thriller "Hook" and the Mexican "Duck Season".

It was a surprise not to have seen something truly great, but an even bigger surprise to discover how easy it was to navigate this mammoth festival that dwarfs all others. I feared it would be something to endure like Sundance, battling the hoards desperate to get into the next "must see." But there was none of that frenzy and mania here. The film-goers were very orderly and professional. I had been warned that cell phones would be constantly going off in screenings and that I'd be distracted by people leaving prematurely. There was a minimum of phone ringing and those walking out generally were justified. Even before the festival was half over I began looking forward to returning, knowing that I'd learned many tricks and short cuts to make it even more enjoyable the next time. I nodded off in fewer films here than in any week or longer festival I have attended, further testimony to the quality of films and the minimum of hassle I had to endure.

And now I am thrilled to have the open road ahead of me so I can return to my true passion--that of the bike.

Later, George

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Cannes #10

Friends: It is Saturday morning and I could have a final sensational weekend of film-going ahead of me, as today the 20 films in the Un Certain Regard section are being rescreened, and tomorrow everything in Competition. I've seen about half of each category, but there are five or six each day that I'm very glad to have the opportunity to see, including the much talked about "Fahrenheit 911." I was lucky to see "Cronicas" already this morning, an Ecuadorean film starring John Leguzomo. Leguzomo plays an Geraldo Rivera type character investigating a mass murder in Ecuador. This was another fine film from a small country in South America that isn't known for its cinema, just as "Whisky" from Uruguay. But in contrast to the extreme understatement of "Whisky", this was much more charged, opening with a near lynching, once again showing man's bestial nature.

The weekend's schedule wasn't announced until late last night, otherwise I might not have stayed out late watching the Egyptian film "Alexdrie...New York" from master and former Cannes tributee Youssef Chahine. It would have been wiser to have gotten to bed before midnight so I'd be good and strong for this home stretch, which includes the Awards Ceremony
tonight. I'd don't have the attire to attend, but it is being simulcast in the Bunuel, the second largest theater here. Chahine's homage to himself ran over two hours and started late as the Un Certain Regard awards preceded it. The Sengelese film "Moolade" won first prize, no surprise, but second prize going to the "Whisky" was a bit of a surprise, though it would have been my choice. The jury president said "Moolade" was a unanimous choice of the six person jury, a real rarity he said among film fest juries.

Before "Alexdrie...New York" I saw the South African documentary "John Boorman and the TRC," about a soon to be released Boorman film "Country of My Skull" on The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with victims of apartheid. It will star Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche. It recreates hearings where perpetrators of crimes have to apologize face to face to the victims or relatives of the victims. There is more of man's bestiality on parade here, as former police officers tell of torture (pulling out tongues and cutting off hands) along with the all too graphic details of their murders. Boorman invariably tackles subjects of note and this is no exception.

I can also report on the Kazakhstan film "Schizo" about a teen-aged boy who is a tad schizophrenic, thus his nickname and film's title. And there is more brutality here, something I can't seem to escape from since that outrageous, but very artful, Italian documentary on World War I that started my day yesterday. Bare-fisted, no holds-barred fighting in a ring is the prime entertainment in the small city this film is set in. There is significant money at stake
in these fights and Schizo, with some conniving, manages to come away with a hunk of it, getting him into trouble. There are tender moments, somewhat balancing the roughness and toughness. This was a commendable effort from the young woman director Guka Omarova.

Later, George

Friday, May 21, 2004

Cannes #9

Friends: I was interviewed yesterday by Patrick McGavin for a feature he's writing for Chicago's "Reader", and it had nothing to do with the several movie websites, including greencine.com, that have been picking up my comments and quoting me as "George the Cyclist". Patrick has been attending this festival, and many others around the world, for years, and has noticed that Cannes, more than any other festival, seems to attract people of an obsessive nature. He thinks that bicycling 800 miles to watch movies all day for two weeks puts me in that category, along with all the maniacal wheelers-and-dealers that pervade this place trying to buy and sell and distribute and get movies made. I've luckily been sheltered from such ilk by sticking to the safe and serene world of the big dark rooms with the dancing images. Movies may not be the true nature of what's going on here, but I don't mind my ignorant bliss. As with Godard's offering to this year's festival, "Our Music," which is divided into Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, the Heaven segment of his movie and the Heaven part of the Film Festival, its movies, is just the tip and the smallest part of it.

The market screening of "Our Music" at the Star Theater wasn't even a quarter full. It was less
obtuse than the usual Godard fare, but just as pedantic. It opened with his version of Hell, one
clip after another of battle scenes from the world of cinema. Purgatory was original footage of his own, which included himself and an assortment of characters including a couple of Native Americans haranguing an old guy stooped over a desk. Another character asks, "Why haven't revolutions been started by the most humane people." "Because they start libraries." Heaven was some nature footage that ended after barely five minutes.

Then it was another film about teen-aged girls, or at least a couple of 20-year olds that were
teen-agers at heart, in "Venus and Fleur" by Emmanuel Mouret of France. Venus is a flighty, free-spirited, quite attractive Russian girl and Fleur a repressed, dour, but intelligent, French girl. They both have unfulfilled longings, though they are not so desperately depressed as all the other teen-aged girls who have had their traumas portrayed here. They are boy crazy and can't seem to attract any despite flinging themselves at boys on the beach, contrary to expectations and reality. Despite begging reality, this was entertaining and not without a message.

Then it was another French movie, "Lightweight," by Jean-Pierre Ameris, about an amateur boxer who works at a funeral home and has an unlikely Asian girl friend, who he acknowledges is too good for him. He drinks too much and is always fucking up and then flees from the carnage. I was looking forward to a movie of athletic endeavor, as I'm looking forward to getting back to it myself, but there was little of that and what there was wasn't inspiring in the least. This movie just muddled along and is thoroughly sabotaged by a disastrously incongruous ending, though even altering that couldn't save it.

The festival is clearly winding down with less than 100 screenings to choose from on this Friday and the laptops removed from the "Variety" media center. Jesse and I had virtually no other choice than to start the day off with "Oh, Uomo" by Angela Ricci Lucchi of Italy. This was a documentary entirely of footage of casualties from World War I. It was the most gruesome movie that either Jesse or I have ever seen. There was one sequence of guys whose faces had
been deformed by injuries that I couldn't look at for more than a moment or two. But the worst was a couple minute operation on an eyeball that had people wincing and groaning throughout the theater. It made the legendary Dali-Bunuel avant-guard collaboration look like a cartoon. I was regretting I'd had any breakfast. Still, this was a seminal film we were both happy to have seen.

After "Clean", the latest from France's Olivier Assayas, I have seen nine of the 18 films in
Competition, or actually ten of the 19, as the wine documentary was belatedly added to the Competition category for some curious reason. "The Edukators" remains my favorite, and "Clean" ranks second. Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte are both superlative with performances that could warrant tributes at Telluride this year. Cheung is battling heroin addiction and is
trying to win back the son she lost after her rock star husband died of a heroin overdose that she was implicated in. She serves a six-month prison sentence for possession. Nolte is her wise father-in-law who has custody of her son. Both are very reasonable and rational in contrast to the usual assortment of unstable, neurotics that are film fodder. We can all only hope age brings each of us the understanding and compassion that Nolte exhibits. Cheung is equally admirable.

The much anticipated and slightly delayed "2046" played last night, but only for those with formal attire or press passes. I hope to see it and the rest of the Competition films I passed on in the next two days when there is little else to choose from. The awards will be announced Saturday. Sunday, the final day of the fest, will feature a screening of "Kill Bill," Volumes One and Two back-to-back at 10:45 a.m. to be introduced by Tarantino. There will be an intermission, but the end credits to One and the opening credits to Two will be expunged.

Later, George

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Cannes #8


Friends: This festival is so huge, there are three English publications ("Hollywood Reporter," "Variety" and "Screen") offering a free daily issue devoted to festival news with reviews, interviews and schedules. I had been partial to "Variety" since it is my Internet outlet, but I now turn to "Screen" first after discovering they have a one sentence blurb on most of each day's screenings. It hasn't altered any of my choices, but it does help me when I have options. If I were a Chowhound, I might have changed today's plan of attack with the discovery of another movie about a chef playing in the market. It is "Hungry Hearts" from the U.S. "Screen" says, "An up-and-coming chef caters a party for four women, only to discover they have a shocking surprise in store for him."

For the first time an usher had to find me a seat in the Palais for the afternoon screening of the Competition film "Exils" by Tony Gatlif of Algeria. That is the one venue that requires tickets/invitations, so there should have been seating enough. There are always people hovering around the Palais with signs asking for "invitations" or asking verbally. From my own experience outside Wrigley Field looking for extra invitations/tickets I know there all always some to be found and always empty seats in the ball park, so I was quite taken aback when I started hiking up to the distant reaches of the Palais and didn't see any vacancies.

"Exils" was another of those Competition films that was long on style and short on substance. Its the simple tale of a very photogenic Algerian couple in their 20s living in Paris who decide to return to their homeland. They travel overland through Spain and then by boat across the Mediterraen. Gatlif directed the acclaimed, rousing musical "Latcho Drum" some ten years ago, and this film too is rich with rousing music. That's about all it has going for it.

I next took my chances on the Philippine film "The Woman of Breakwater" by Mario O'Hare over at the Director's Fortnight. Philippine films tend to be overblown melodramas that have no place in film festivals except to draw the Filipino community. This film was no exception, even though the producer promised "realism" and so did the film's pre-credit announcement--"41% of Filipinos live below the poverty line. These are some of their stories." It was an hour before the aisle I was sitting in the middle of had cleared out so I could escape without stepping over anyone.

Next up was a rare film from Uruguay, "Whisky" by Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll. This was great film fest fare, and a film that is not likely to be seen anywhere but at a film festival. It is the simple story of two brothers getting together for the first time in years. The older 60-year old has to enlist the help of his 48-year old assistant from his sock making factory to masquerade as his wife. The boss is very cold and distant and has nothing more than a professional relationship with this most taciturn and submissive woman. The younger brother is much more successful and flamboyant than his older brother, singing at karaoke bars and telling jokes. The woman has never had so much attention lavished upon her as she receives during their weekend together, but she remains her taciturn self. This was a perfectly cast and executed movie that was a fine finish to the day.

Since the much anticipated "2046" was in transit from Bangkok, as Kar-Wai Wong went to the deadline and beyond with his finishing touches, I was free to attend the French Canadian "CQ2" (Seek You Too) at 8:30 this morning instead. I figured I made the right choice when I saw none other than jury president Quentin Tarantino slink stoop-shouldered and unaccompanied into the Bunuel Theater. He's been seen quite frequently with Sofia Coppola, but not this early. There was no applause as he entered, so I wasn't entirely sure it was him until I heard his distinctive voice ask, "Is that an empty seat?" as he made his way down the third row. He knows the importance of being as close to the center when gazing at the screen.

When the movie opened in a woman's prison I thought that explained why Tarantino was there, but the prison scenes are over quick. Instead, the movie turned into another of those featuring a teen-aged girl in turmoil. This one was 17, about to turn 18. She was more rebellious and out-of-control and confused and unrealistic than any of the others so far portrayed here. As the Australian girl in "Somersault," she flees her mother and is trying to make it on her own. She attaches herself to a 35-year old woman dance instructor who's just been released from prison. The script withholds the reason she was in prison as long as it can for no other reason than to try to keep our attention. That is the least of the faults of this unadulterated mess that had one fatal plot flaw after another. This early audience didn't bother to boo, though it should have. But neither was there a single clap, almost as damning a reaction.

After the screening I grabbed the three daily publications and high-tailed it to an eleven o'clock screening half a mile away. The blurb on "Strange Crime" by Roberto Ando in the Critic's Weekly sector said, "A writer attends his step-son's wedding in Capri and meets another woman." This was an Italian film, so I should have known it would turn into another movie about a successful 50-year old man having an affair with a woman less than half his age, as I had been subjected to twice already this past week. At least this one developed some more intrigue than "when will his wife find out and how will she react." Daniel Auteuil plays a successful writer who is a bit of a libertine. He writes under a pen name and may have some plagiarism in his past. A couple of woman try to blackmail him. I looked for Kathleen Turner, who is on the jury here, in the audience, as it was such a movie that launched her career. Maybe if I hadn't been scarred by those two earlier Italian films about old men and their mistresses I would be more enthusiastic about this film, but it seemed like more standard fare with not that much of a twist.

For the first time we are under threat of rain today, forcing me to add a rain coat to my pack, which is just added camouflage for my bike pump and tools when the bag is inspected.

Later, George

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Cannes #7

Friends: The Fest is more than half over and with the end in sight, I'm growing ever more obsessive about seeing films. For the second day in a row I squeezed in a sixth film. At six a day I could see all 1,275 films in 213 days rather than 255 at five a day. Th extra film prevented me from making my daily visit to one of the two supermarkets, Champion and Monoprix, that are just a few blocks from the Palais, where I can grab some quick deli fare rather than patronizing the more expensive kiosks dispensing paninis.

There are no rules against eating in the screenings, at least yet, though I seem to be the only one doing it. There are no concession stands in the theaters, not even offering cola or Evian. I try to be as discreet as possible when eating, and even have a favorite secluded nook in the last row of the Palais up in the stratosphere, where I can have a picnic of tabouli and potato salad and cheese roll and quiche without disturbing anyone. Still, I fear the day when signs go up forbidding eating or even bringing food into these theaters. That'd be the end of Ebert at Cannes. I doubt he would countenance being patted down for Raisinettes whenever he wanted to see a movie.

I resumed my movie-going after yesterday afternoon's Internet break with "The Heart is Deceitful...Above All Things" by Asia Argento of the U.S. The title is a quote from the book of Jeremiah. The movie centers on a young boy of the same name whose sexy and sex-obsessed mother is continually abandoning him when she runs off with one deadbeat after another. This ought to have been a very disturbing and heart-rending movie, but the only thing disturbing about it was that it wasn't. His mother gives a very engaging and energetic performance and the kid is good as well along with much of the supporting cast, making it very watchable, but far
from essential viewing, not even for the Peter Fonda cameo as a Bible-thumping fanatic or the kid's rendition of the Sex Pistol's song about the anti-Christ.

The Critic's Week screenings are the only ones here preceded by a short. Usually I can do without them, but the short preceding "Calvaire" allowed me to arrive late and not miss the feature. "Calvaire" was the first film by French director Fabrice du Welz and stars the husband from "With a Friend Like Harry." This was another thriller, though it unintentionally trespassed on sci-fi, as the story is so far-fetched its almost as if we've entered into a twilight zone that makes the world of "Deliverance" seem g-rated. This was the first movie I've attended that was booed, and with good reason.

I had 15 minutes to get from one end of the Festival to the other for the Godard film "Our Music." The mobs outside the Palais hoping to see Tom Hanks and the Coen Brothers promenading into "The Ladykillers" clogged the boulevard, forcing me to walk and delaying me just enough to come within 15 people of getting in. The crowds weren't entirely to blame, however. My entry was also delayed by Godard's crawl up the blue carpet of the Debussy Theater for all the photographs, as no one was allowed entry as that went on. There were still five minutes until the screening was to start, but it was slow going as this was one of the theaters where all bags are searched and bodies scanned, severely slowing the seating process. Screenings always start promptly, and there is no seating once the screening starts, whether there are empty seats or not, which Jesse reported there were plenty of. Jesse was in long before me, as this was the highlight of the festival for him, seeing Godard in person. Godard is, of course, God to Jesse, former film student he is. We'll see if that's still the case when he turns 30.

Without having to endure Godard, I was free to make another choice. There wasn't too much at this eight o'clock hour that would fit before my ten o'clock screening, so I settled on "Trans-American Killer," something I shouldn't admit to. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds. I was hoping by some miracle it might be that rare gem as "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer" was, which had similar intentions of appealing to the late-night cable crowd, but greatly transcended them. No miracle here. It wasn't even a road movie. The "trans" in the title referred to trans-sexual and there is no travel. It takes place entirely in Las Vegas and the first flurry of the killer's victims are strippers so there is plenty of T & A. The movie succeeded in being exactly what it wanted to be, and for me it was just another part of this colossal movie circus.

I ended the evening with an Australian film--"Somersault" by first time director Cate
Shortland
. This was another of the slew of films featuring a teen-aged girl. This one was a 16-year old who understands her sexual power over men. When her mother catches her smooching with the mother's boy friend, the girl runs away to an Australian ski town. It is the end of the ski season and work is hard to come by. She uses her sexuality to find a place to stay her first night, but she doesn't always get what she wants. Her struggles are well-told, and once again it was a pleasure to watch something other than the one-dimensional portrayal of teens that Hollywood inflicts upon us.

Jesse and I stopped off for a post-midnight panini along the beach on our ride home, as he too had neglected his eating during the day in favor of movies. That may have contributed to our late start this morning--not until 8:05 with a 8:30 screening to get to the competition screening of Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries" about Che. We made it to the Palais in a record twelve minutes, but were once again thwarted by the inspection process. Everyone in line could have easily filed in if we didn't have to be gone over. For the first time I witnessed some testiness from a crowd as we crushed forward. Jesse and I were within 15 people of getting in when "complet" was announced. It was no great loss as this film had already played at Sundance and would be coming to America soon enough.

I zipped over to the Arcade for a market screening of something called "The Last Tunnel." Other than its running time, I knew nothing about it. So when I was told the print hadn't shown up, I had nothing to be disappointed about. Then it was over to festival central with its couple dozen screening rooms where I could surely find something. I was attracted by the title "Out on a Limb." There was a mob at the entrance to the theater, but they were all there for "The Edukators" in the adjoining theater. It was gladdening to see the interest.

The handout for "Out On a Limb" amended the title with "A man for all seasonings." This South African production was a black comedy about a TV chef who has just been fired from his job, but gets caught up in a hostage situation by a couple of bumbling crooks. It becomes big news, giving the chef a chance to revive his career. When the crooks want to call it off, he won't let them until all the attention from the case enables his agent to book him on Oprah. His agent has already gotten him a new and better show and other deals, but he wants more. The film had the bumbling start of typical market fare--just another film by people who haven't mastered the art of film-making--but after the initial simmer, once the plot starts cooking, I was hooked. For the first time in the festival I was laughing audibly, and so were the other 20 or so people in the screening. This film made my day, and the day had only started.

I had plenty of time to reflect back on it as I day-dreamed my way through "Marseille" by Angela Schanel of Germany. All that kept me in the theater was watching the people stream out wondering if I'd be the last one there. Not everyone left, and many of those who stayed may have stayed just so they could boo it, though not very vociferously. No need to recount this drab story of a young German woman who swaps apartments with someone in Marseille to go live there for a spell and then return to Germany to resume her life and then return to Marseille.

So much for my afternoon break. Back to the movies, George

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Cannes #6

Friends: At last count, Variety says there are 1,275 films slated to be screened here, 40% of which are in English. I've been averaging five per day through the first six days of this twelve day fest. If I keep it up, I will have seen 60, not even 5% of the grand total. It would take me 255 days, or eight months, to see them all at this rate. I snuck in an extra yesterday, thanks to an 83-minute film that left me a 97 minute gap between films. I couldn't have managed it without my bicycle however.

The 83-minute film was "Hotel" by Jessica Haussner of Austrian. It was my second Austrian offering of the day after the stellar "The Edukators." That was a hard act to match, and though this Un Certain Regard offering showed early promise, it fell short of expectations. It had the creepy premise of a young woman going to work and live in an isolated hotel in the mountains. Her predecessor had mysteriously disappeared, and no one wanted to talk about it. An older maid tells her she ought to quit the place before its too late. When the director introduced the film she warned us, "When the film is over, if you have some questions, don't worry, that's normal." The film does end abruptly, but I didn't have any real questions other than, couldn't she have made it more interesting. I don't object to understatement, but with more assurance than this young director possessed. It was the first movie of the festival that had me nodding off, my less than six hours of sleep a night since the fest started finally catching up to me.

That didn't inspire, though, from taking a break before the next screening. Instead, I bolted over to the Arcade four-plex three blocks away for the market screening of the New Zealand film "Fracture" by Larry Parr. I knew absolutely nothing about this film other than it was 90 minutes long, meaning I'd have to leave it with ten minutes to go to make a 7:30 screening half a mile away. Having spent a couple months bicycling both the North and South islands of New
Zealand
I have a fondness for the place and am always happy to revisit it on the big screen, an opportunity I hadn't had since "Whale Rider."

"Fracture" was based on a best-selling crime novel about some guy who was in deep shit after having bungled a burglary. He's not the only one wallowing in shit. The info pack that was distributed at the door identified many of the people involved with it as having worked on "Lord of the Rings," no big surprise this being a Kiwi production. As Billy Crystal kept reminding us on Oscar night, just about every one of the country's three million inhabitants worked on the film. These people knew what they are doing. This was a genuine movie, not something I could say of every market screening I've seen. The movie was compared to "Lantana," an exceptional Australian movie that played Telluride a couple of years ago. That's a high standard that "Fracture" couldn't match, but it was still a good enough film to keep the 60 or so audience members in their seats, the first market screening I'd attended that no one walked out of. It has no commercial possibilities beyond New Zealand and Australia, but it is right on the cusp of being film fest fare. For a fest that wants a New Zealand entry, this would not disappoint.

I showed up five minutes before "A Vot' Bon Coeur" was to start at the Director's Fortnight, the only theater I've been turned away from so far, but was able to walk right into this 7:30 screening. If I hadn't been able to, I could have zipped over to a nearby eight p.m. screening. I was regretting that that hadn't been my fate. This French film by the white-haired and mustachioed Paul Vecchiali was his story of trying to make a movie and get funding from the French government. He brought some 15 members of his cast on stage, about their only compensation for their efforts, as none received anything monetarily. There is a flimsy story of some mute Robin Hood figure on roller blades handing out wads and paper bags full of money to the indigent interwoven with his laments of trying to make a movie and having his characters occasionally break into song. It strained to be whimsical without much success.

My finale for the night, however, was a barn-burner--an exceptional French psychological
thriller
in the league of "With a Friend Like Harry" and "Read My Lips", other recent French entries in this genre. The French title was "Je Suis Un Assasin," though its English title is "Hook". It was directed by Thomas Vincent. The movie begins with two crime novelists, one wildly successful and the other unknown, meeting on a train. The successful one is in the middle of a divorce that is costing him half his income and also costing him his inspiration. He proposes that the other writer murder his wife and in compensation he will publish his next novel under his name and split the huge profits, a kingly ransom for the unknown writer. He says, since they specialize in crime novels, they would know how to get away with the crime and sites statistics that would encourage this. It was only the second movie of the 30 I've seen, "The Edukators" the other, that had my stomach knotted in tension. This is something to look forward to.

I began Tuesday with an Israeli film, "Or" by Keren Yedaya. Or is the 18-year old daughter of a
prostitute who is less than fully functional. The daughter supports them collecting bottles and working as a dish-washer. She is at least the third young woman lead character of the festival struggling nobly against her circumstances. She tries to prevent her mother from working her trade and is greatly upset when she returns home to find her with a john. This was the first film I've seen that didn't have English sub-titles along with the French, but I discovered my French was good enough to comprehend enough of the French sub-titles to follow this straight forward
story. It wasn't a bad way at all to start the day. I saw it in the Bunuel Theater, in the Palais
complex of 25 or so mini-screening rooms for market fare, so I could stick my head in for 15 minutes of "The Playmate and the Pitcher." The 40-seat theater was empty. Up on the tiny screen a young man was hobbling in a hospital with a walker accompanied by a woman who looked to be his mother. She said, "You'll soon be well enough to play again." I needed to see no more. Usually there is someone at the entrance to market screenings passing out brochures, but whoever was involved with this had long ago abandoned the post, either to go jump in the nearby ocean or find the nearest saloon, even though it wasn't even 10:30 in the morning.

Then it was from the smallest of venues to the largest for the Competition screening of "Tropical
Malady"
by Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. If I hadn't bicycled through regions this film took place in a year-and-a-half ago I would have been thoroughly bored. Instead, I was only marginally bored, especially during the final half hour, as one of the characters meanders and crawls though a dense jungle during the day and night while he is haunted by ghosts and a shaman who can turn himself into a tiger. There won't be any awards for this film.

Sorry I can't report on Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" that played yesterday and received a 20-minute standing ovation. I'm holding off to see it at the end of the festival when all 18 of the Competition films are replayed and when there won't be much of anything else to see. I'm told I can't count on the English digital translation for the Competition films on the last day of the festival, so I have been restricting myself to Competition films so far that are in any language other than French or English. I was somewhat heartened, however, by being able to get the gist of today's Israeli film without any English translation. When the sub-titles have been in German or Dutch or Greek or Finnish, when I've attended film festivals in those countries, I have been totally lost.

Five-and-a-half days to go and still going strong.

Later, George

Monday, May 17, 2004

Cannes #5

Friends: The red-carpeted steps up the Palais for yesterday afternoon's screening of the Argentinian film "The Holy Girl" by Lucretia Martel were lined with the Swiss Army Guard of this festival, a purely ornamental security force as that at the Vatican, but adding to the pageantry of this event for the head-craning, camera-toting throngs all us lucky "invitation" holders had to wade through. There were no stars in the cast of this movie, but there are enough on the premises, that the masses are always hoping they might catch a glimpse of one merely going to a movie.

It was a balmy Sunday afternoon and celebrity-spotting was in full force. And since the
3,000 or so of us who would fill the theater all had to promenade up the red carpet, the blue-blazored official security force we all had to funnel past were taking their job very seriously this day, enforcing the stated policy of: "The use of an invitation implies a correct form of dress and behavior while climbing the steps and when inside the Palais. It also means you agree to maybe being photographed and/or filmed." Cannes is the festival with a dress code, though we aren't obligated to sign anything saying we'll comply with it, nor is it very well-defined nor very strictly enforced. Jesse, for the first time, was denied entrance for wearing a t-shirt, jeans and green tennis shoes. The guards cited each item of apparel as a violation, though all around him people were entering with not very dissimilar items of dress. As for the t-shirt, the gestapo added it wasn't clean. Not even Jesse's fluent French could get him past the pair of guards who objected to his attire, the same attire he has been wearing the entire festival. He's accustomed to being treated as a second-class citizen in Philadelphia by security guards where he works as a bicycle messenger, but never with such disrespect as here, he said. He did try another entrance and was let in.

I wouldn't have minded to have been denied entrance myself to Martel's awkward tale of a love triangle between a mother, her teen-aged daughter and a well-respected local doctor. The mother, of course, doesn't know its a love triangle and the doctor knows he's blundered and needs to end his relations with the girl. There was no applause whatsoever from the balcony after this Competition film, a rarity. There was just mere polite, perfunctory applause down below from those surrounding the seats of the director and cast.

From there it was a mad dash to the 7:30 screening of "The Woodsman", an American feature by first-time director Nicole Kassel that many were turned away from at its first screening this morning over at the Director's Fortnight. This film premiered at Sundance and already has a U.S. distributor, Newmarket, those brave folks who brought us "Donnie Darko" and Mel Gibson's lash-fest, so I could have held off on it knowing it would have a States-side opening, but it starred Kevin Bacon, who also starred in the lone film that Hollywood has granted us on bicycle messengers--"Quicksilver" from 1986--so I'm always partial to anything he is in. And I don't hold "Quicksilver" against him, just its makers. If it had only been half as good as "Breaking Away," it could have inspired a whole new genre of films. There's not a western that couldn't be remade as a bicycle messenger film. Here it is, nearly two decades after that lamebrain fiasco, and Hollywood has yet to recover from its first hapless portrayal of the world of bicycle messengering. We're well overdue for another.

Bacon was on stage to introduce "The Woodsman," along with the director and producers and co-star Benjamin Bratt and his wife Kyra Sedgwick, who is his love interest in this story of a pedophile recently released from prison after serving twelve years for fondling young girls. It was a sensitive, honest portrayal of a conflicted soul. Bacon, who also produced the film, does not disappoint. Too bad he didn't have a bike to commute to his job in the sawmill, rather than having to take the bus, or relying on occasional rides from Kyra.

My final and fifth film for the day was back at the large Debussy theater. The photographers,
official and unofficial, were out in force, as this Italian film, "Don't Move," starred Penelope Cruz and director Sergio Castellitto, latest Italian heart-throb. I'd be a big fan of Castellitto if I'd
had the opportunity of seeing his portrayal of Fausto Coppi, the legendary Italian cyclist, in his biopic that came out three or four years ago. Word was that the cycling sequences weren't very authentic. Unfortunately, the film never played much beyond the Italian frontier. Even if I had seen "Grande Fausto, II," I doubt I would have had much tolerance for this movie, the second Italian film in two days dwelling upon a well-to-do Italian and his young, working class mistress. Cruz plays his gawky love-interest. I absolutely didn't need to see this movie. I stuck it out until past midnight to see how much applause it would reap--beaucoup actually, as spot lights shined on Cruz and Castellitto in their seats just a couple rows from me. Almodovar was there along side them in their reserved row, about eight rows back from the screen. And the photographers were still there outside the theater awaiting their departure.

Sheryl Crowe is scheduled to sing at a closing night party. I may be tempted to stake that out myself in hopes that Lance may be accompanying her. According to cyclingnews.com he spent Wednesday and Thursday about 150 miles from here training on L'Alpe d'Huez, the most crucial stage of this year's Tour de France.

I began today with an 8:30 a.m. competition screening of the Austrian film "The Edukators" by Hans Weingartner. It opens with a well-to-do family of four returning to their mansion to discover it ransacked. The teen-aged boy is disappointed to find the stereo missing and the mother crestfallen that her porcelain soldiers are gone. The stereo, however, turns up in the refrigerator and the soldiers in the toilet. Then they discover a note --"Your days of plenty are numbered"--signed, "The Edukators." The "Edukators" are a pair of idealistic young men.
Sometimes the message they leave is "You have too much money." Where this movie was headed I knew not, but I was looking forward to the ride. Once again, I'll resist plot details, though I'm sure your average reviewer will spill all too many. At one point I feared the movie was going to lapse into mere rhetoric, but the action resumes and does not disappoint in the least. It would easily be my choice for the Palm d'Dor, but since it has none of the cinematic originality that juries here prefer to acknowledge, as in last year's "Elephant," or "Humanite" from a few years ago, it has little chance of winning top honors.

The last movie I have to report on before returning to the fray is "Woman Is the Future of Man" by Hong Sangsoo from South Korea, also in Competition. This was another movie about the lusting male. It ranged from light to not so light encounters. It was ho-hum, not very significant fare, especially compared to "The Edukators," a truly heartening film commenting on the times. I'd love to see it along side Michael Moore, who'd be heartily cheering the young men and their determination to stand up to the "capitalistic dictatorship." I'd especially like to see his reaction when one character says, "My father told me, if you're not a liberal when you're under 30 you don't have a heart, but if you're still a liberal after 30, you don't have a brain."

Later, George

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Cannes #4

Friends: Another feature of Cannes that distinguishes it from any other film festival I've attended is that screenings are often punctuated by an outburst of applause when a character makes a political statement that someone in the audience agrees with. It happened again in yesterday afternoon's magnificent "Moolaade" by the Senegelese master Ousmane Sembene, when one of the woman villagers comments, "It takes more than balls to be a man." There were numerous occasions worthy of applause in this powerful tale about women rebelling against female castration in their extremely male-dominated society. This was one of those movies that fully endorse the life I have chosen--traveling the world by bike, allowing me to submerge myself into cultures different than my own. I just love to plop down in such environments, from Laos to Bolivia, that I've passed through on my bike, and observe the daily life in such places. We certainly learn much about the people of this small village. I'll be happy to relive this movie again, whether on the screen or in real life.

I had to walk my bike through the worst mob so far of the fest swarming around the Palais for a glimpse of the stars who provided the voices for "Shrek 2." There was a goodly crowd, though only of fest-goers, also awaiting the screening of the Italian film "The Scent of Blood" by Mario Martone at the Director's Fortnight. Jesse and I were among the last to be seated and ended up in the last row of the balcony, which wasn't all bad, as it enabled us to exit fast to get to the
next screening. We stayed to the bitter end of this cliched portrayal of a 50-year old guy with a mistress and a wife who he magnanimously allows to have a lover as well. Of course, he becomes jealous of her latest lover and is much tormented. This was a big "So What," the European version of Hollywood product.

We were lucky to be turned away from the next screening at the Director's Fortnight, as we were rewarded by the best performance of the festival so far in the French feature "Brodeuses" by Eleonore Faucher over at the Critic's Weekly. There was more emotional impact in a single quiver of the eye of the sensational 17-year old actress who played Claire than in all the utterances and posturings of the Italians in their lust-fest. Claire is four-and-a-half months
pregnant, living on her own, working in a supermarket, and has told no one about her pregnancy. She's taunted by her co-workers for becoming fat. She's fiercely independent, but sullen and uncertain and virtually friendless, though she finally finds one in an initially cold woman she starts doing some embroidering for, something she is truly gifted at.

We had an exhilarating ride back to the campground after midnight, negotiating the still lingering throngs of people, enabling us to put our messengering skills to use. Jesse led the way. He's come a long way since we met working at the Telluride Film Festival two-and-a-half years ago. Jesse was between his junior and senior years at CMU in Pittsburgh and hadn't been on a bike in five or six years. He was inspired by my life as a bicyclist to buy a bike when he
returned to school and now he rides like a fiend. He's strong, fearless, has great instincts and pedals as smoothly as a Tour de France vet. Not only did he take up the messenger life in Philadelphia, where his girl friend is getting her doctorate, when he graduated, he's now conquering foreign lands on his bike. The world awaits him. He took one small step to start riding that anyone can take. It is a great joy to see how enthusiastically he is embracing the
bicycle touring life that I've been able to introduce him to on this trip. Since he was a film major at CMU, he's in hog heaven here.

This Sunday morning there were more bicyclists than usual out pedaling along the coast as I zipped in for my first screening while Jesse slept in, and I felt no great urge to join them. This is day five of the festival and I am into full movie-going mode. My legs hardly twitch at all any more wanting to be out riding. In another week we'll we able to resume the pedaling, but for now there are movies to be seen and after yesterday's good batch I'm eager for more.

Today led off with another film featuring a young girl, this one a 12-year old Lebanese girl in the
French production "Maarek Hob" by Danielle Arbid that takes place in 1982 Beirut in war time. Her father has deep gambling debts that imperil his life and her mother is almost as dominated by him as the African women in "Moolaade," though she has none of the strength of
the African women to stand up to him. They live with the girl's autocratic Aunt, who slaps and berates their slave of a servant girl, who the 12-year old tries to defend. But she lives in a very selfish environment and falls prey to it herself. This was another very touching and worthwhile film.

Next was "In Casablanca the Angels Don't Fly" by Mohammed Asli of Morocco, a place I made a circuit of on my bicycle. I was continually reminded of my month-and-a-half there by all the small nuances of life in Morocco this film portrayed from the pouring of tea to bathing in the bath houses. This was the heart-rending tale of a man working in a restaurant in Casablanca while his wife and children remain in their small mountain village. It was a sad, but noble tale worthy of any film festival, as good as anything I've seen so far.

I'd love to rave on about these films, but there are too many movies out there awaiting me and often the less one knows about a film going into it, the better. You already know more than I've known about most of what I've seen. Next up is an Argentinian film by Lucrecia Martel, whose first film, "La Cienaga" (The Swamp), played the festival circuit in 2001 to much acclaim. It is in competition here and that is all I know about it.

Later, George

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Cannes #3

Friends: I spoke a little too soon in yesterday's report about the ease of getting into screenings. Twice yesterday I heard the dreaded "complet" (sold-out), and both times when I was within 15 people of getting in at the Director's Fortnight. It was Friday night, bringing with it an extra surge of attendees. The first time I heard that heart-plunging word was after I made the fatal mistake, that Helen had warned me about, of getting in the wrong line. One has three choices at the Director's Fortnight theater. I was in the line for people with market passes, as I have, but I missed the small print that it was only market pass holders who were buyers. I won't make that mistake again.

Fortunately, I had a back up and just walked three blocks over to the Critic's Weekly theater for a screening half an hour later at 5:30. It was the Mexican film "Duck Season" by Fernando Eimbcke. The man who introduced it said that "Amores Peros" had previously screened in the Critic's Weekly. If it bore any resemblance to a popular Mexican film it was the road movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien" of a pair of teen-aged boys who go off to the coast with an older woman. This too was a movie about a couple of teens, though it was anything but a road movie. It takes place in a middle class apartment. The teens are a couple of bored, somewhat rebellious 14-year olds who like to play video games. They order a pizza and refuse to pay for it because it was eleven seconds late. The 35-year old dufus of a delivery boy simply refuses to leave until he's paid. There's also a 16-year old girl from another apartment in the kitchen cooking, because the stove in her apartment is broken. She's the older woman of this film. She teaches one of the boys to kiss. Many in the audience gave up on the film before it had a chance to develop some poignancy, as the acting seems at first inept and the black-and-white stock seems cheap and shoddy. I was sorry to have to leave ten minutes before it ended to dash back to a Director's Fortnight screening at 7:30.

I was in line 20 minutes before it was to start, but once again was thwarted just short of gaining
admittance. That wasn't entirely bad, as it gave me the opportunity to see the only film in the festival with bicycle in its title--"Fish Without a Bicycle," an American feature by Brian Austin Green that had played at the Philadelphia, Phoenix, DIY and Palm Beach Film Festivals earlier this year. That wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement, as none are particularly noteworthy festivals. I wasn't expecting another "Triplettes of Belleville," launched here last year, but one never knows. Nor was I heartened by its description of being a female "Swingers." There were about 25 of us in the 70-seat market theater at the Palais. The director and one of the female stars introduced it. It began with a narrative by the 25-year old woman lead lamenting her life just as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" began. After an hour without a sign of any bicycling, just a woman learning that she didn't necessarily need a man in her life, I slipped out to make sure I got in to the ten p.m. Director's Fortnight screening. I could have opted for a ten p.m. screening of Benoit Jacquiot's latest in Un Certain Regard, but that theater requires having my bag searched and my body scanned, unlike the Director's Fortnight. Its no big deal, and its so perfunctory that no one has dug deep enough into my bag to discover my bike pump, but its still an intrusion that I prefer to avoid. There are quite a few enforcers present, guarding the theaters. It is a bit irksome, though I don't mind at all the packs of gendarmes on the street, as they are good insurance against anyone tampering with my bike.

I was first in line at 9:15 back at the Director's Fortnight, a little more than a half mile bike ride along the beach from the Palais. A divided four lane road runs along the beach, but two lanes of it are closed to motorized traffic during the festival. There are a few others besides Jesse and I pedaling from theater to theater with passes dangling from their necks, though I doubt any of them biked from Paris to the festival.

There was no need for me to arrive so early, as the theater wasn't even three-fourths full. I'm not sure if that was a commentary on the interest in the film or people opting for a Friday night party. The film was "Bitter Dream," the first film by a 30-year old Iranian mathematician, Mousen Armiryoussefi. I thought I saw Kirostami in the audience, or at least I hoped so, as he is partially to blame for all these Iranians thinking they can just point a camera at people being themselves and think they have a movie. The subjects of this yawner were those who wash
corpses before they are buried, and those who dig the graves. It was the first movie that sent my mind wandering, allowing me to reflect back on the ten-day, 800-mile ride Jesse and I had through rural France to get here, and also to start looking forward to our continued travels on to Italy and beyond after the festival ends in nine days. My interest in the film was perked when the elderly grave digger asked for someone's bike as payment, even though he didn't know how
to ride a bike. He said he could learn, but the client was too smart to give up his bike, offering his watch instead.

There was no hot water back at the campground when I returned after midnight, nor this morning either. The cold shower this morning wasn't as cold as some of the dips I took in the rivers of Finland on my ride from Helsinski up to the Midnight Sun Film Festival north of the Arctic Circle a few years ago, but still something I hope not to have to repeat during our stay here, although its a good way to wake up in the morning.

"Shrek 2" was the competition film playing at the Palais this morning, so we could opt for "Tarnation," an American film by Jonathan Caouette in the Director's Fortnight that was produced by Gus van Sant. We'd already heard good things about it, and they were merited. It was the first extraordinary, or at least, out of the ordinary, film, I have seen here, and
probably on the lowest of budgets of anything, including those in the Market. Word is that Caouette's initial out of pocket expense was $250. It is the narrative of a young man telling of his mother's tortured life and his own. It is a phenomenal weaving of snap shots and video footage, often in an experimental nature, that works. As with last night's Mexican film, I at first feared this was going to be a dud, but it turned into a near masterpiece.

We followed that up with the South Korean film "Old Boy" by Park Chan-Wook. It was another of those stylish films in Competition that was an attention-holder, but not a grabber. Jury President Tarantino will like the teeth being yanked out with the reverse end of a hammer and someone cutting off a tongue with a pair of scissors, but the gangster genre doesn't do much to enthuse me.

Back to the movies, George

Friday, May 14, 2004

Cannes #2

Friends: This festival is surprisingly shaping up to be the most user-friendly and stress-free of the many festivals I've attended. Unlike other European festivals I can attest to (Berlin, Rotterdam, Midnight Sun and Thessaloniki) I don't have to be careful to make sure a screening has English subtitles, as there are English electronic subtitles below the screen along with the French subtitles superimposed on all the non-French films.

Despite the huge numbers of us here, I have be able to see everything I've wanted and without having to line up a long time ahead of time, as one must do at Sundance and often at Toronto. Most of the screenings have been near capacity, but I have yet to be in one with people scrounging for a place to sit. I've been relegated to the balcony more often then I'd prefer, but that's a minor quibble. It is also most pleasant not to have to go to a box office first thing in the
morning, as at Berlin, Rotterdam and Thessaloniki, to acquire tickets for the day. The weather is warm, with sun-bathers on the beach, but not in the water. And there's not much of a wait for the Internet.

Now I just need to see a great film or two. That will come, as the festival is just amping up. I've
seen eleven films so far in 48 hours and all but those first market screenings have been worthwhile. My first screening in the Un Certain Regard category was Abbas Kirostami's documentary "10 on 10." It was essentially a film essay, as he speaks to the camera for 74 minutes as he drives around Tehran, just like many of his characters in his feature films have done, visiting the sites of some of his movies. His commentary was only broken by occasional snippets from his films "ABC Africa" and "10." He spoke in Fahrsi. The film had an English voice over and French subtitles. It is essential viewing for those who appreciate this former Palm d'Or winner's work. Kirostami was introduced by Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director of the festival and occasional Telluride attendee. Kirostami didn't say anything other than thanks for coming. He received an ovation after the film, but there was no Q&A, as there would have been at most other festivals.

I followed this up with another documentary, "Salvador Allende" by Patricio Guzman, also introduced by Fremaux, the only films of those I've seen that have been introduced. He spoke in French and English with Kirostami, but only French here, other than one quick English aside. This too was a personal film with Guzman narrating the story of Allende, Chile's populist president who was overthrown by the CIA in the '70s. His key subject is the former U.S. ambassador to Chile at the time, who fully acknowledged that Nixon and Kissinger wanted to unseat Allende, but expresses no remorse for their meddling. That's how the world operates, the powerful looking out for their own interests at all costs, he implies. Nixon didn't even want Allende to take office, as he had clearly aligned himself with Castro and referred to the US as enemy number one. This film will go well with two other films here, "The Motorcycle Diaries," about Che, and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911." The film received a prolonged ovation, mostly over its message, not necessarily over how well done it was.

I ended my evening with the Swiss film "Bienvenue en Suisse" by Lea Fazer, a farce, much of whose humor an American audience would not get. This was European commercial fare. It was not quite lame-brained, but close to it. There was plenty of yodeling, but no lederhausen. It let out close to midnight. With the first screening the next day at 8:30, we high-tailed it back to the camp ground in less than 15 minutes. We had to use a special card to open the gate, which is closed from eight a.m. to eight p.m. So the gate was locked when we left this morning as well.

We tried a different bakery this morning on our way in, but it was no cheaper than yesterday's. The lady in front of us asked for, "Un baguette, s'il vous plait," just as if we were in France. As we zipped past the Palais to lock up our bikes I spotted Milos from Facets for the first time on his way to the same screening and exchanged a quick greeting.

Today's first screening, Emir Kusturica's "Life Is A Miracle," had a slightly earlier starting time as it was two-and-a-half hours long. This was a farce of a different sort than last night's light fare. This had the same rollicking energy but with more at stake than a two million Swiss franc inheritance. It takes place in Bosnia in 1992 as war spills over into a remote village. A lovesick donkey wants to commit suicide and a cat and dog flare up at each other. As usual, Kusturica is more bent on entertainment than enlightenment. Not even the loud um-pah-pah score could keep the woman next to me from continually nodding off.

The day's second film in the Palais, "Mondovino," a documentary on the wine industry by Joanthan Nossiter, was also two-and-a-half hours long, though it felt as if it were five hours long. People began dribbling out of it after half an hour, though for those who are devoted to the beverage, such as Jesse, it wasn't long enough. Nossitor interviews wine growers and conniusseurs from all over the world--France, Napa Valley, Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Two of his featured subjects are a French wine consultant and the American critic Robert Parker, who has been awarded the French Legion of Honor and whose nose is insured for one million dollars. The director didn't shy away from showing the egotism and smallness of his many subjects, catching them in various unguarded moments. He includes a farting dog and servants interrupting interviews and a husband sniping at a wife and all sorts of other extraneous detail, implying we are not to take these people all that seriously, and though at least one grower asserts that people who pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine aren't snobs, maybe they and those who provide it for them are. The director's tone and message waver from giving these people respect and credence to occasional stabs in the back. He had many interesting subjects and could have made a very riveting documentary focusing on any one of them or seriously tightening the film. Jesse thinks its great, I thought it was an interesting failure.

That's my Internet break for the day. Now it's off to the nearby Director's Fortnight for my next three films.

Later, George