Lost in the suck zone: It’s art vs. commerce

CANNES — There’s a perverse irony in the fact that “Twister’s” record-smashing debut occurred in the middle of this year’s Cannes film festival. Only here at Cannes would conversation ricochet back and forth between the latest achievements of Hohsen Makhmalhaf, the David Lean of Iran, and the $41 million weekend gross of a tornado movie, the special-effects mavens’ version of “Gone With the Wind.” It seemed as if the “Twister” opening was pre-ordained to underscore the increasing polarization of the movie business. Hollywood is wrapped up in its blockbusters, which continue to demonstrate an uncanny ability to attract enormous global audiences. Cannes continues to obsess about the art as well as the commerce of cinema. Indeed, government support of the 50-year-old event is predicated on this emphasis. It should come as no surprise therefore, that a Hollywood presence was absent at Cannes this year, perhaps more than any time in the past. There was an abundance of agents and attorneys along the Croisette, even a sprinkling of midlevel executives, but the big Hollywood bashes were missing and there was no Eastwood or Redford pushing his picture, as in 1988. Dustin Hoffman dropped by, but only to showcase his new career as a producer of modestly budgeted independent films. John Malkovich ambled through, but his purpose was to announce his new calling as a director of independent films.

BUT ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS not holding court at the Hotel Du Cap, and Mario Kassar’s ritualistic news conferences did not happen. It was as though everyone had finally recognized that the business of Hollywood was in a different orbit from the business of Cannes, and vice versa. Not that this was causing great despair. Just as “Twister” made Hollywood ecstatic, so too the lofty artistic standards exhibited by many films at Cannes this year seemed to energize fest film buffs and even curmudgeonly critics. Cannes is perhaps the one place on Earth where spirited debate still breaks out about whether Thomas Hardy might have admired “Jude,” or whether the Japanese model in Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book” was really believable, spending all that time to scrawl words across the naked bodies of her boyfriends. They’ll also argue about whether the ubiquitous Harvey Weinstein really spent $1 million to acquire U.S. rights to “Ridicule,” rather than the $700,000 suggested by Miramax spokesmen. The bottom line is that most people here feel they understand “Ridicule” and “Jude,” but don’t really understand “Twister”– either how it was made or why audiences respond so overwhelmingly to its “suck zone.””That’s a different world ,” said one young U.S. director. “And I fear it’s a world that’s starting to pollute the independent film world that I inhabit.” His concern is that overseas audiences, like those in the U.S., will come to think of filmgoing as a sort of theme-park event, a special-effects odyssey devoid of personal point of view. Perhaps one reason why the critics at Cannes seem to be such a happy lot this year is that the festival increasingly represents an escape into a stylized cinema where films embrace strong personal stories that vividly reflect their ethnicity. To be sure, there are also many movies that are simply bad — even bad imitations of Hollywood product — but the winners this year seemed to overwhelm the losers.

INDEED, THOSE U.S. COMPANIES that avowedly specialize in niche pictures demonstrated a vigorous appetite last week to acquire U.S. rights to the best and most accessible of these entries. A few of these companies had been expressing interest in producing such projects on their own, but after surveying some of the initial results, a few may already be concluding that it’s better strategy to buy ’em rather than make ’em. By contrast, several European players, like J&M (which is financing Malkovich’s initial directing efforts), have concluded that it makes more sense to produce niche product than to compete in a voraciousacquisitions market. All of which raises the question of whether, over time, U.S. niche product may become more dependent on European funding and nurturing while Hollywood continues its unchallenged hegemony over the popcorn pictures. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Cannes Festival, and its genteel organizers will be extending the olive branch all the more vigorously to Hollywood. A few big stars, perhaps a world premiere, would do much to salute the durability of this singular event. At the same time it might also disguise the underlying reality of the global film scene: namely, that it is not one party but two, and they are growing increasingly distanced from one another.

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