Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Palme dour

The 60th Cannes International Film Festival has come and gone. My only hope now is that I might actually attend the festival during its eighth decade. One can dream. While Galway doesn’t have a venue quite as imposing as the Palais or a walkway quite as glamorous as La Croisette, it does at least have a film festival (here called a fleadh) on the banks of the Corrib that is more accessible than that one (there called un festival) on the Côte d’Azur.

Once again I “attended” the Cannes festival virtually. That, of course, is just a hip way of saying that I read a lot about it. As I described two years ago, I have been in the habit of reading reporters’ blogs about the festival. This year The New York Times’s two critics at the festival, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott (no relation), eschewed, perhaps inevitably, the blog thing for doing a series of audio podcasts. This certainly gave us listeners a sense of immediacy that you cannot get by reading words. We heard their voices, their enthusiasm, the clatter of dishes in trendy cafés or restaurants, and the easy banter between festival personages and the cream of American film critics. Perhaps even more importantly, we finally found out exactly how to pronounce “Manohla Dargis.”

What is next? Video podcasts? I have to say that I get a certain sense about what being at the festival must like thanks to having visited Cannes (during one of its 50-week non-festival interregnums) myself, as well as following the festival coverage as closely as I can. But the element that is always missing is the visual. If there is extended television coverage of the festival that is available to me, I have not yet come across it. Rather, every year no matter what channel I am watching (whether American, Irish, British or Spanish), we get the same snippets of glamorous stars on the red carpet on opening night, snippets of glamorous stars on the red carpet on the night of the big Hollywood premiere (this year Ocean’s Thirteen) and snippets of glamorous stars on the red carpet on closing night. The French channel I get (TV5) had those same snippets, but at least they also did a few end-of-the-news-broadcast superficial interviews from Cannes with glamorous stars like Catherine Deneuve and Diane Kruger.

As usual, the big prizes were more or less in line with French and international critics’ tastes, i.e. the more depressing the better. The Palme d’Or went to Romanian director Cristian Mungiu for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which dealt with abortion and life under Ceausescu dictatorship. The Grand Prix went to Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, about a woman whose child has died. And another Romanian, Cristian Nemescu, won the highest prize in the Un Certain Regard festival sidebar for California Dreamin’, about the war in Kosovo. He was not there to accept it since he died last year in a car crash at the age of 27.

The state Irish broadcaster can be relied on to give coverage of the festival awards—if someone from Ireland wins something, as happened last year when Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (an English filmmaker’s look at the birth of the modern Irish nation) took the Palme d’Or. It happened again this year when Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage took the Art et Essai prize, which is awarded by the International Confederation of Arthouse Cinemas. Garage was not part of the festival’s main competition but was included in a side program called the Quinzaine, or Director’s Fortnight. My ears did a double-take when the robotic RTÉ news reader pronounced the title the way an American would (stress on the second syllable of “garage”) rather than the normal Irish way, with the stress on the first syllable. Honest to gosh, in honor of the French venue, she had made the title a French word. I suppose it was a way to inject a bit of glamour into a title that is, frankly, not very evocative of glamour.

Abrahamson’s movie, which was written by Mark O’Halloran (the pair’s previous effort was the sleeper drama/comedy Adam & Paul), is one of a couple in the festival that (not to sound full of myself or anything) echoes my personal life. You see, my father-in-law is garage man (as was, so it happens, my own grandfather), so I know a bit about the topic. In the film, comedian Pat Shortt plays a rather simple man who works in a garage in rural Ireland. In other words, he is playing my brother-in-law. I am well aware of the myriad dramatic implications of the situation, so I cannot wait to see what the filmmakers have done with this goldmine of narrative possibility. Will this be a tale of which a relative or neighbor will be called to stand in at the garage so that our hero can go move the cattle? Or will the dramatic conflict arise with an argument with the delivery man over the wholesale price of the petrol? Or will the plot turn on the question of whether the protagonist will miss the funeral of a close relative on the chance of getting a 20-euro petrol sale? I can’t wait to find out.

The other film that struck close to home was Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light, which shared the festival’s Jury Prize with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis. Reygada’s last movie, Battle in Heaven, opened with an unflinching and extreme close-up of act of fellatio and then still managed to go on to be mostly boring. His subject this time is a community of Mennonites in northern Mexico. You simply could not think of a more unlikely follow-up to the previous film.

My mother’s people were Mennonites, and she grew up as a member of our town’s Mennonite Brethren Church. To me the Mennonite church was as preeminent and established as any of the other Christian churches, e.g. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, various flavors of Baptist, etc. So I was surprised when I went away to university and found a lot of my new friends had never heard of Mennonites. Only then did I start to realize that my forebears were part of a worldwide grouping of sects that tended to be found in isolated enclaves in many countries throughout the world. Founded by a former Dutch priest, the Mennonites separated from the Catholic Church in what was called the Anabaptist movement and the Radical Reformation (as distinct from the Protestant Reformation associated with Martin Luther) in the 16th century. Better known than the Mennonites are the Amish, who split from the Mennonites in the 17th century. Adherents of pacifism and non-violence, Mennonites have had a history characterized by persecution and migration. This often had to do with local jealousy over the German-speaking communities’ frequently superior farming methods or the fact that the Mennonites refused to be conscripted into any nation’s army. My own people’s route took them from the Netherlands to Prussia to Catherine the Great’s Russia to Kansas and finally California. Other groups wound up in some 50 other countries, including Canada and Mexico. The congregations range from those who adhere to traditional dress and practices, similar to the Amish, to those who have assimilated with changing times. Consistent with their tradition, they have distinguished themselves in the area of voluntary disaster relief assistance and involvement in worldwide peace and social justice issues under the auspices of the U.S.-based Mennonite Central Committee.

My mother eventually left the church because of its then strict disapproval of such popular culture activities as dancing and going to the cinema. Cinema has repaid the favor by largely ignoring the Mennonite community. The only reference I can remember to them in a Hollywood movie was in Peter Weir’s 1985 flick Witness, in which investigator Harrison Ford winds up hiding out in Amish country. At one point, young widow Kelly McGillis points out how worldly their Mennonite neighbors are because “they have refrigerators.” The only other reference I could find after an exhaustive three-minute search was in the 1991 supernatural thriller Warlock, in which witch-hunter Richard E. Grant pursues Julian Sands from 1691 Boston to modern-day Los Angeles. A supporting character is listed as simply “Mennonite.”

After Reygada’s rather ugly previous film, which obsessed on Mexican-style Catholicism, one can only wonder how he will treat Mexico’s Mennonites. Dargis gushed over the movie, although other critics weren’t so kind. She wrote that the film’s characters’ “gentle, intimate relationships with one another, with the natural world and with God seem to light them from within.” She added, “That the filmmaker shares their world and its sense of grace without cynicism is in itself a small miracle.” Sounds promising, but we shall see.

So did listening to all those podcasts really make me feel as though I were in Cannes myself? A little bit. But mostly, it pointed up why some journalists were meant to write and others were meant to be on-air personalities. It also completed the work of the critics’ blogs in totally destroying any mystique these writers had for us mere readers. Somehow in my mind, I’ve always assumed that big-shot critics at the major publications in New York would talk and act with the bearing and force and eloquence of, say, George Sanders in All About Eve. Instead, Dargis and Scott (no relation) sounded like, well, Americans star-struck to be on the French Riviera. Dargis started out going on about the sense of “community” she felt being around so many other film critics. Scott’s interview with the Coen brothers was interesting, but mainly because the Coens are interesting. Many of the other interviews came off as canned p.r. stuff on behalf of the festival. And the wrap-up was mostly the usual stuff that film snobs always say, about how it’s a shame that more people aren’t watching foreign art films instead of dreck from Hollywood. The pair then proceeded to lambaste the American movie-going public because the U.S. is one of about three countries where the movies screened were something like 95 percent domestic. In other words, all other countries are much more open-minded than the Yanks because they watch a lot more foreign films.

Hey, guys? Did it occur to you that maybe the reason that all those other countries watch so many non-domestic movies is because they are watching the same ones that the Americans are, i.e. American movies?

-S.L., 31 May 2007

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