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Minds of mavericks get press massage

There are few places in the world where journalists from around the world get to talk with important people about BIG THEMES. Davos, Switzerland, is one of them; Cannes, specifically the Palais press conferences with film directors, is another.

Monday was a particularly fruitful day as two of the most provocative auteurs working today — Lars von Trier and David Cronenberg — were on hand for back-to-back sessions with the international press.

Where else can one hear in a single question references to, and a supposed relationship between, the Philadelphia mob and the American Civil War?

Or where else can you hear an actor suggest that most of the journalists present wouldn’t even be in the room, (or have a job, as I took it to mean), if there wasn’t such ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples everywhere, (as I took it to mean).

Somehow, in other words, a level of portentousness creeps into these rituals, even when the journalists are largely a skeptical lot, and even when the talent on stage are, well, quite talented people, and often quite articulate.

“I’ve had a lot of good advice of what not to say at this press confab,” the self-appointed provocateur Von Trier volunteered at one point, though it’s hard to imagine what that was since he did touch on just about everything.

First and foremost, America and how that country is, in the iconoclastic Dane’s view, “sitting on the world.”

“America is a good subject because it has to do with a lot of our lives. America fills 60% of my brain and I’m not happy about that. I am an American,” he explained. (This last bit was somewhat puzzling since he’s never set foot on U.S. soil. But then again, his in-competish movie, “Manderlay,” is essentially an allegory on the effects of slavery, so realism, I guess, doesn’t really come into it.)

He did offhandedly call Bush an asshole, but then again that’s the view of practically everyone in Europe. (It really is hard to provoke when just about everyone shares your view.)

Several questioners, and indeed African actor Isaach de Bankole suggested that Europe too had its darker “slavery” issues to deal with. “I’d love to see Europe, and France, dealing with colonialism,” he hazarded. Polite applause for this one.

Similarly for Danny Glover’s impassioned response to the query “Why are there no films about slavery in the U.S.?”

(Had the journalist never seen “Amistad” or “Glory” — could there be a single person on the planet who hadn’t seen “Roots”?)

Anyway, Glover stressed that the global dominance of one culture (the U.S., naturellement) was unfairly shaping the discourse. “We have no framework, no way of talking about the aftermath of slavery…”

And he did have a point: Some 70% of blacks still go to segregated schools; there are more black men in prison than in college. Not to mention all those Arabs being force-fed democracy in Iraq. As I said, it was a lot like Davos.

Apolitical pic

Cronenberg’s film meanwhile is much less overtly political and more centered on that other cinematic mainstay — sex and violence.

Not surprisingly perhaps, most of the questions at this confab were psychological in thrust, and were aimed at the pic’s star Viggo Mortensen and to a lesser extent William Hurt, who has a crucial cameo.

Actors do tend to get overly solemn when they describe the mysteries of a film set and their admiration for the helmer of the moment.

“Cronenberg gives the actor the right to play the role … so you do everything to support his vision,” Hurt said.

“It’s rare that you have such a director. It was a family effort — you did feel quite safe to fall on your face,” Mortensen added.

The self-deprecating Cronenberg tended to bring things back down a notch, a sign that he probably was fun to work with.

Viggo, he quipped, wasn’t, contrary to the press materials, his first choice for the role. It was Brad Pitt.

To a question which involved — well, the only words I really could single out were “contagion” and “darkness” — Cronenberg riffed on sex and violence as “like bacon and eggs” to cinema.

How socially responsible is it, he was asked, to show such graphic violence? Though to his mind a “wearing and wellworn chestnut,” the director politely obliged: “My responsibility is to the art form, to the film itself. Do people act violently because of what they see on screen? If so, the world would already be depopulated.”

If these two filmmakers have anything in common, it might be described as abhorrence of political correctness. That probably helps make their movies intriguing, if not automatically or entirely “successful.”

Obviously, it would have been politically incorrect to bring up a subject as gauche as commercial prospects in such a forum. So no one did.

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