Saturday, May 21, 2011

Day Ten

Friends: Its not until the second reel in "This Must Be the Place" when Sean Penn encounters David Bryne playing himself and tells him, "You are an artist, I was just a pop star," does this film reveal itself as more than a quirky portrayal of a morose aging big-time rock star a couple decades past his prime and becomes almost another "meditation on the meaning of life" similar to Malick's as Penn reunites with his dying father who he's been estranged from ever since he was a fifteen year old and started wearing eye-liner, and sets off on a mission to track down an Auschwitz prison guard who wronged his father.

The film abounds with great delights such as the scene with David Bryne after getting to see him perform one of his signature songs in concert. If it didn't go astray here and there it would be a contender for the Palm d'Or. Even so it was just the second film of the festival to make me go "wow" at a certain point, responding to its bold stokes such as did "We Need To Talk About Kevin."

Penn is a near horrific, pathetic site with shaggy long black hair which he is continually blowing at to get out of his face wearing eye liner and red lipstick and speaking in an effeminate voice. He lives in a stately mansion in Dublin with his wife, Frances McDormand, who beats him mercilessly at handball in their empty swimming pool and also volunteers for the fire brigand.

This is a film that resulted from Penn meeting the director Paolo Sorrentino of Italy at Cannes three years ago when Penn was the president of the jury and Sorrentino's film "Il Divo" won an award. Sorrentino directs with his usual flair a script rich in profundities and asides. The array of odd-ball encounters would make Jim Jarmusch proud--a tattoo artist, a gun-shop owner, a wealthy Texan obsessed by his pick-up truck, a Nazi-hunter and on and on. Penn at first seems a helpless, bumbling fool, but is in fact almost a sage. He is a remarkably original character. I can't wait to see this again.

Malcolm MacDowell also gave a most impressive performance a couple hours later on stage interviewed by Michel Ciment, the premier French intellectual film critic, interspersed with film clips. MacDowell's first film "If" won a prize at Cannes in 1969. It was that performance that caught Stanley Kubrick's eye and won him his career defining role in "A Clockwork Orange." After clips and conversation on "If" and his second film "Figures in a Landscape" by Joseph Losey co-starring Robert Shaw, Ciment said,"And that brings us to your third film "A Clockwork Orange."

"Not so, Michel," MacDowell interrupted; "I can't believe I caught you out. I had another film first that totally disappeared." Ciment was embarrassed but recovered saying, "We have a saying in France, skip the third act and get on to the fourth." That brought laughter and applause from the packed theater and a "Nicely done," from MacDowell.

For nearly two hours the two of them engaged in a warm and insightful dialogue. MacDowell was reminded of incidents unrelated to the subject at hand that he couldn't resist sharing. He brought gasps from the audience when he told of performing in a Pinter play with Olivier, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren directed by Michael Apted. "Olivier was electrifying," he said. "He's the only actor I've worked with who made my hair stand up."

He told of playing ping pong with Kubrick, the day's second incidence of ping pong, as I'd seen Penn bat the ball around in a small diner with a young guy with the cost of his meal as the stakes. It was another crowd-pleaser, as was Mac Dowell's anecdote. He said Kubrick called him back for two weeks of work after the shooting of "Clockwork" to do the voice overs. They'd take occasional breaks to play ping pong. A while later his agent told him that Kubrick never paid him for those additional two weeks of work. When MacDowell brought it up with Kubrick, he pulled a slide ruler out of his pocket and slid it back and forth finally saying, "I'll pay you for one week. The other we spent playing ping pong."

He cringed when Ciment said the next clip would be from "Time after Time" where he met his second wife Mary Steenburger. MacDowell said the marriage lasted seven years, but he got two beautiful children out of the marriage. It also began his period of exile in Hollywood so he could remain close to his children. Not only was it thrilling to be in on this conversation but also to be sitting one row behind and three seats over from Kubrick's wife Christiane and his brother-in-law, who made the definitive documentary on Kubrick ten years ago. When it played at Chicago's film festival, I introduced him and handled the Q and A afterwards. I didn't intrude to ask if he remembered me.

"Take Shelter," a two hour Russian film with just a page of dialogue provided the perfect space to reflect back on this pair of spectacular programs. This portrayal of a pig farm that employed women prisoners from a near by prison didn't need much concentration. Its most arresting scenes were those with huge wild boars that the farmers occasionally hunted, remembering being charged by one in my tent a couple of years ago here in France. A Hollywood producer was quoted in "Variety" saying that the wall paper was often more interesting than the characters in all too many of the films at Cannes. I was concentrating on the wall paper in this movie thinking how right he was.

Ralph and I made the long haul up to the most distant of the theaters to see the award winning film in the Critic's Weekly not knowing what it was. I hadn't seen any of them aside from the Israeli film "Slut," purposefully avoiding this sidebar of just a handful of films learning from past experience that there is usually only one of merit. A French film is a frequent winner. We were both hoping it would be "17 Girls" about 17 French teens who conspire to all get pregnant at the same time. And if not that then the documentary "Walk Away Renne" by Jonathan Cauette the director of "Tarnation," my favorite film from eight years ago.

This was his first film since, also about his relationship with his mental patient mother. It was my gravest mistake of the festival not to have seen this film when it played. Neither of my wishes were granted. "Take Shelter" was the winner, an American film about a 35-year old husband with an eight-year old deaf daughter. He begins to have nightmares of a hallucinatory nature that make him fear he is going insane as his mother did when he was ten years old. He also sees lightning storms and swarms of birds that no one else sees. He fears an apocalypse is coming and takes out a bank loan against his house to build a shelter. He is going insane. Both our reactions afterwards was that the other films truly must not have been very good if this film was the best of the lot.

I'd brought my bike up to the Miramar theater so I could make a quick ride the mile back to either the Debussy or the Arcades theaters for a final movie of the night depending on how long the award winner ran. It took Ralph twenty minutes longer to get to the Debussy, but just in time for the start of "Oslo, August 31st." This Norwegian feature started out as if it were a documentary with night time scenes of Oslo with random voice over comments. I wouldn't have minded at all if it had been a documentary, though this study of a young man just released from drug rehab was nearly so. This was the first movie to put Ralph fully to sleep. He admitted that trying to see as many films as we have is "hard work," though definitely work of a sort that he enjoys. The subject of this film was hardly original, but it was well worth seeing. I didn't notice the wall paper at all.

I haven't had time to comment on the Von Trier brou-ha-ha. I actually saw the press conference as it was being televised on the small televisions stationed all over the Palais corridor of screening rooms. It was a shockingly tepid press conference. This movie hadn't riled the critics at all, unlike "Antichrist" two years ago. It wasn't until the end of the press conference that Von Trier made an off-handed light-hearted comment about Hitler. When that mildly stirred the press corps with some chuckles he went on for some more laughs by tossing a jibe at Israel. He realized that these were both somewhat taboo subjects even for a provocateur such as him and might get him in trouble, so he immediately backed off.

It was a surprise to hear later what a huge story it had become, fanned by the press looking for some controversy. There were threats to pull his film from its final screening on Sunday. Thankfully they didn't go that far and I'll have a good shot to see it. It sounds as if it will take courage from the jury to give it any kind of award. They certainly won't be desperate to find worthy films this year.

Later, George

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