Friends: Rare does a film director put in an appearance at a market screening of his film. Its almost an insult that it hasn't been selected for one of the four competitive categories, and he has had to pay to have his film shown here. Its usually the money people, the producers, if anybody, that are there at such a screening, hoping to drudge up some distribution. So it was a surprise to see Paul Cox, the maverick, veteran Australian director greeting acquaintances in the second floor lobby of the Grey Hotel outside the 76-seat improvised theater where his latest, "Salvation" was about to play this afternoon.
He gave a brief introduction to the couple dozen of us in attendance, saying, "you are the smallest gathering I've ever had for a world premier of one of my films." But among us was the wife of someone once considered among the most powerful in the world of cinema and who does still carry some weight--Chaz Ebert. Husband Roger had been an enthusiastic supporter of Cox's last significant film, "Innocence," from 2000.
Like his younger countryman, Rolf de Heer, Cox specializes in exploring the psychosis of characters that is rarely seen in cinema. "Salvation" is no exception. Up for dissection here are a female televangelist and her elderly husband. They are both good-hearted and slightly perverse. Similar to his masterpiece "Man of Flowers," the husband is involved in a non-sexual relationship with a prostitute, a Russian immigrant who is beholden to her not so kindly pimp. Cox offers up his trademark unexpected twists and turns, but unfortunately he doesn't manage to draw very convincing performances from his cast. This was lukewarm fare from a former great talent who would seem to be past his prime. I was glad to have seen it, but unfortunately it's not something I can champion and look forward to seeing again.
I began my day playing catch up with Competition screenings I had previously been denied. I took a chance on getting into the much anticipated Dardennes brother's "Silence of Lorina" at nine. When that fell through I ventured over to the Star for Walter Salles' "Linha de Passe" at 9:30. I was second in line for non-buyers, who had precedence over all else. I doubted very much that 250 buyers would show up, so I patiently began by perusal of the day's three trade papers--"Variety," "Screen" and "Hollywood Reporter." I always first check the verdict of "Screen's" panel of 11 critics on the previous day's two Competition screenings, both of which I was going to see today. Salle's clocked in with a 2.7 average out of 4, second so far behind the 2.8 of the Turkish film "Three Monkeys." But "Service," my second film of the day, received one of the worst scores ever--a .6 with seven of the critics giving it a 0.
A common element or theme to many of the films so far has been survival--literal and figurative--characters living day-to-day struggling to scrape up rent or food money. "Linha de Passe" was an extreme case of survival for a mother and her four sons in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One son is a motorcycle courier who periodically begs his brother who works at a gas station to let him have a couple of gallons of gas and eventually has to turn to thievery to get by. Another brother is a talented soccer player, who if he wants a position on a team has to hand over a bribe equivalent to three months salary. The mother is about to lose her job as a cleaning lady soon before she is about to give birth to a fifth child by another unknown father. There are reports on television that buses are being attacked by desperate people and that over 10,000 people showed up to apply to be garbage men. An occasional panoramic view of this sprawling city of 20 million is perhaps the most disconcerting part of this film and unfortunately its most powerful commentary on the hell of Sao Paulo. None of the performances rise enough above the ordinary to call this film much more than average fare--something to respect, but nothing to acclaim.
I encountered Milos on my way to the maligned "Service." I thought he might try to talk me out of seeing it. All he said was that after 20 minutes I would have seen enough. He was right about that. Still I could appreciate the artistry of this Philippine feature about a porn theater. What made me want to leave early more than anything was the high decibel soundtrack of non-stop traffic bustling past the urban theater. The title of the movie applies to the service offered by prostitutes to the theater customers. There was explicit sex along with a thief being chased through the theater and a goat being chased out.
I also caught up with a surprisingly delightful little morsel from the Director's Fortnight--"Tony Manero" from Chile. Tony is the John Travolta character from "Saturday Night Fever." A 52- year old guy is obsessed with him, repeatedly going to see the movie and memorizing his lines, even though he speaks no English. He signs up to compete on a TV show for the best Tony impersonator. The impersonator more closely resembles an older Al Pacino from "Dog Day Afternoon" than Travolta, both in look and in personality. He is more crazed than is first revealed, not stopping at anything to get his way, even killing a couple of people along the way. I had no clue how dark this film would be.
My documentary for the day was "Gonzo: The Life and World of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson." With such a subject there was no way I wouldn't like this movie. The film offers rare archival footage of this crazed character from when he ran for sheriff in Aspen in the early '70s and when he was on "To Tell the Truth" shortly after he wrote his book on the Hell's Angels. Many friends comment on his life--Jann Wenner, Jimmy Buffet, Johnny Depp, George McGovern, Tom Wolfe, both his wives and his son. Thompson was definitely an extraordinary figure. He was such a prominent journalist in the '70s that when he was covering the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign more people wanted his autograph than Carter's. The documentary, however, is just standard fare. It doesn't rise above the genre as did yesterday's "Man on Wire." That's no reason not to see it, but it probably won't interest any of those who aren't interested in Thompson himself.
I concluded my day with a rehabbed print of "Lola Montes" from 1958, by Max Ophuls starring Peter Ustinov. This classic about a 19th century courtesan who has become a circus performer was a grand spectacular in its day. It is part of a circus performer theme that is also emerging among the films I have seen if you count Houdini and the high-wire walker as acts worthy of the circus. There was also a local circus in "Frozen," the Indian film. And there is an African circus film coming up.
The festival has reached its halfway point and everybody is awaiting a masterpiece. By this time last year we had already had three or four. I doubt it will be a masterpiece, but "Field of Stars", the bicycling movie, awaits me tomorrow.