CANNES NOTEBOOK


"What's the Difference between a Duck?" and other Questions
By Grant Rosenberg

Midway through the documentary Searching for Debra Winger, Meg Ryan says to Rosanna Arquette something to the effect of no matter what, she can’t shake the "cutesy Meg Ryan romantic comedy image." Arquette, behind the camera, responds, "That’s because you’ve never showed your vagina onscreen." When the audience heard this line, we kind of chuckled, but one voice let out a guffaw. It was Sharon Stone, down in the front of the theater, who is both an interview subject for this documentary about film actresses over 40 and one who has shown her vagina.

It is hard to deny the thrill of being in a small theater with the likes of the Arquette sisters, Stone and others. It only added to the film’s intimacy and the viewer’s sense that we have come to know some of these people over the years. Arquette got a slew of notable actresses to sit and frankly discuss their experiences as mothers, wives and actresses in an industry that isn’t always kind to aging women. Interviews with Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Holly Hunter, Juliana Margulies, Martha Plimpton, Robin Wright Penn, etc., precede a conversation with Debra Winger, who until acting in a film her husband Arliss Howard directed last year, Big Bad Love, had dropped out of the film industry in disgust. We are fascinated by the movie and could listen to these women for twice as long as we do. We have seen many of these actresses interviewed over the years in polite, often inconsequential ways. Here they open up as I would have thought impossible given their often stated desire for their lives to remain private, particularly when discussing their marriages and children. Of course, it is difficult to muster sympathy for someone who says she feels guilty if she isn’t acting in a film but taking care of her family instead. It is the same old complaint, but it is still true: Those who spend years working hard to make a lucrative career in show business come off a bit tacky when they tell the minimum-wagers that they feel guilty spending too much time with their family instead of acting in a Hollywood movie. Please, darling, there is no shortage of actresses that will gladly take your million dollar paycheck, which you don’t need anyway, while you play with your kids. Life’s rough, isn’t it? However, there is much discussion of sexism in the industry and the double standards between the roles that men get well into middle age and those of women. This is just another example of Hollywood’s narrow-mindedness, and actresses fare better in Europe, it is pointed out, where older women are revered and respected and where there are many more interesting and complicated roles for those age groups. Arquette has put together some witty, articulate and funny commentaries from some of the best actresses. We are drawn in because we feel as if we know them, and we get insights we hadn’t expected.

Henri Behar and Michael Moore

Indeed, two of the best films in Cannes so far are documentaries, this one by Arquette and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Moore’s sad and entertaining film looks at the gun culture in the United States and compares it to other nations. Due to the much higher number of shootings in the United States. compared to other nations that share our same mass entertainment, he posits that our violence is somehow innate, that Americans have something in their cultural DNA that causes them always to be fighting. He attacks the culture of fear in the nation and puts much of the blame on the local television news. For proof of this, he points out that crime has dropped something like 20 percent in the last few years, while the reporting of it has jumped 600 percent.

At his press conference Moore spoke of the government’s role, using his usual logical, angry and funny wit to stir the pot:

In an American airport, there is a list of things you can’t bring on a plane, such as toenail clippers, knitting needles, crochet hooks, leaf blowers, Rustoleum … a whole list of nutty things. Dry ice, even. Did I miss the dry ice terrorist incident? But there are two things you can bring on a plane: a matchbook and a butane lighter. Now the one incident we know since September 11 was a guy who tried to light his shoes on fire. It’s the one thing that almost killed another 300 people. And I know you can light shoes on fire, because I was at a Motley Crue concert about ten years ago and this kid had puked on his own shoes and there must have been a high alcohol content in the puke because when he threw a match down, the shoes caught on fire. Anyway, so the two things you would think that would be banned on flights are matchbooks and butane lighters. But no! Why do you need them? You can’t smoke on the plane! I was saying this at the Washington, D.C., stop on my book tour, and afterwards a guy comes up and said he was a congressional aide on Capitol Hill. He said, "Actually, Mike, they were on the original FAA list. But the tobacco companies lobbied the Bush administration to have them removed." The tobacco companies are more important than our safety. Or is our safety really at stake? Is it actually a climate they need to create? From the book 1984 we always talk about Big Brother. But we forget the other part of the story. The Leader needed the permanent war in order to keep the people in a constant state of fear. And the people gave up their freedoms and liberties because they wanted to live. All smart right-wing leaders know this. What better way than use September 11 to string out a war on terrorism that Bush says will never end? I think it is a cover and I want my questions answered.

The premiere of the film was met with a standing ovation that lasted ten minutes. Both there and at his press conference, Europeans treated Moore as not just a respected filmmaker but as a "good American." Here he is treated as an American who has "seen the light," as if he was just rescued from a cult. An Italian journalist praised him while asking why there weren’t more Americans like him, to which he claimed, yes, there are millions like me.

***

The audiences at Cannes are a fickle bunch. If a film does not please someone, he or she just walks out, usually muttering about a waste of time, because not only did they see a film they didn’t like, but they most likely missed another film to do so. When all the seats for a film I had planned to see were filled, I went across the street to a screening of Hotel, part of the Cannes market, for those without distribution deals. This was a mistake. The movie is from Mike Figgis, and like his previous film Timecode, it features a group of famous actors who put together a story and film it with video cameras. Here he continues occasionally to use quadrants, dividing the screen into four views of simultaneous action, some within the same room, allowing the audience to choose where to fix their gaze.

I have enjoyed most of the Figgis films I have seen, particularly Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs and Timecode. Of his films that I have not seen, I’ve read that they are criticized for being pretentious and obscure. I can only imagine they don’t hold a candle to this festival of masturbatory dreck. Hotel is an exercise in indulgence, made even more interesting by its cast of celebrities who seem to be reveling in its freeform artiness when really they should be ashamed of themselves. Salma Hayek, Lucy Lui, Valeria Golino, Burt Reynolds, Julian Sands, Chiara Mastroianni, Saffron Burrows, David Schwimmer, John Malkovich (whom I like very much, but admittedly his style and demeanor fit perfectly in this unengaging, obscure intellectual hooey). Despite all this, the film was almost worth sitting through just to see a goateed David Schwimmer spewing the word "fuck" several times, like a sitcom star who doesn’t get to say it out loud very often, and snorting like a wild boar not once but twice.

And I haven’t even mentioned the plot. Briefly: a group of actors go to Venice to do a "Dogma" version of The Duchess of Malfi, right there in St. Mark’s Square. This means they have to deal with tourists walking around in what would be the 15th century and not change a thing because hey, this is dogma, and they must abide by its rules. Needless to say, creating a period piece following the dogma rules is not an easy task, and clearly Figgis sees the whole dogma enterprise as a bunch of pretentious rubbish, which would be fine if his own film didn’t take the trophy for ridiculous filmmaking. There is much talk about art and acting, with blurry, strobed slow motion effects. There are betrayals, shootings, lesbian sex that tops Mulholland Drive (and shot to look suspiciously like Madonna’s Justify My Love video), as well as hetero-sex with a comatose man. In the first five minutes, the Malkovich character (inexplicably having a candlelight dinner with a group of friends—separated from them by a jail cell, though still at the same table) tells a story about his grandfather, who on his deathbed seemed to think that the answer to everything could be found in the answer to the riddle, "What’s the difference between a duck?" Halfway through the film, more than half the audience had left, mostly those in charge of acquiring films for distribution companies, and those that remained—groaning and laughing on occasion—seemed to stay out of morbid curiosity, simply to be completely informed for later, whence we go forth and mock. Or maybe to find out the difference between a duck, which we never do, and should have known we wouldn’t.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Punchdrunk Love, starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. It is the opposite of Anderson's last two films, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, both in length and number of characters. Where those are complicated, this is simple. "I wanted to make a romantic comedy and particularly wanted to work with Adam and Emily. Those were the three things. The fourth was to try and make a 90-minute movie. To try and save everybody a little bit of time in their day." (Sandler, with his sheepishness was quite effusive and telling in this role.) At the entertaining press conference, Sandler was asked if his role in Punchdrunk Love was like Jim Carrey’s turn to serious roles. Sandler said, "I never thought about a departure from anything. I saw this kid’s movies and I loved them and he wanted to work together and I was more than excited to do it. When we first met we clicked as two guys talking. He said, 'Let’s do something you’ve never done before and I’ve never done before,’ and I said okay." When asked why he chose Sandler, Anderson said, "He makes me laugh. I love him. I absolutely think he is the greatest. I love his movies, watching him. He walks very funny, his head is kind of funny. And his ears are a little bit funny. I haven’t seen him naked, but that might be funny." After the laughter died down, Sandler replied, "To be absolutely honest with you all, naked is not so bad." If Punchdrunk Love is a romantic comedy, it is the most honest one I’ve seen, and the Meg Ryan persona has no place here. This film, which is romantic and comedic, is so much more. Yes, two people who don’t seem prepared for a relationship find one. But Anderson doesn’t shy away from the loneliness, rage and violence that are usually reserved for characters in other movies.