Connections over convictions

The best of American film not even represented on the Croisette

CANNES — From the evidence of this year’s entries, the Cannes Film Festival has an American Problem. Although pictures by American directors have been all over town, sprinkled proportionately throughout the festival’s several sections (except for the Critics Week), the unmistakable impression at fest’s end is that the best of current American cinema hasn’t been on view here, and that something is therefore askew with the selection process.

Focusing on studio fare first, Hollywood would have been superbly represented on the Croisette had “The Truman Show,” “Bulworth” and “He Got Game,” been flying the flag rather than “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the only competition title from a studio. They are widely held to be the three most impressive films from the majors thus far in 1998.

Knowing how Cannes works, it’s easy to guess that the latter was picked more because it insured the presence of star Johnny Depp and a name director, Terry Gilliam, than on the quality of the picture, which was roundly booed by critics.

But Depp was here last year with his ill-fated directorial debut, “The Brave,” still unreleased and itself one of the most dubious Cannes selections of all time. And it’s hard to imagine that the fest would not have been thrilled at the sight of Jim Carrey, Warren Beatty and Denzel Washington ascending the red carpet.

Plus, Peter Weir and Spike Lee, directors of “Truman” and “Game,” respectively, have histories with the festival going back to the beginnings of their careers.

Gilles Jacob has said that Paramount turned down his request for “The Truman Show,” which is technically true. But an insider said that, in fact, the studio and filmmakers initially wanted to take it to Cannes, submitted it relatively early in the selection process, and then waited for weeks for confirmation of its participation.

This holding pattern gave the studio time to have second thoughts about spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to take the film to Cannes.

The decision not to go was relayed to Jacob after the official invitation was finally made. And, the decision was apparently motivated in part by an opinion widely held in Hollywood that major studio pictures have almost no chance of winning a top prize with Cannes juries because they don’t need them the way independents and international art films do.

From the Hollywood point of view, “L.A. Confidential” was by far the best film in competition last year but won nothing, so if you take such an exceptional film to Cannes and still come back empty-handed, what’s the point of going?

The case of “Bulworth” is more complex, and its absence in Cannes probably has as much to do with Beatty’s anxiety over the film’s reception as it may with the festival not pursuing it sufficiently (Jacob never got to see it).

Robert Redford, another big star with a new directorial offering, has been to Cannes twice before and simply didn’t want to go through the mill once again with “The Horse Whisperer.” Apparently, for unknown reasons, “He Got Game” was never even considered by the festival.

The bottom line, however, is that “The Truman Show” now seems all but certain to be heading for the Venice Film Festival, which is going after Beatty’s and Lee’s pictures as well.

As for the other competition titles, Hal Hartley’s “Henry Fool” was a questionable entry because it had been previously shown in Toronto, a breach of a Cannes rule that Jacob defended on the false premise that the version shown here was substantially different; in fact, the Toronto and Cannes cuts are very similar, with the new edition only five or six minutes shorter.

U.S. directors with films independently financed by foreign companies, Lodge Kerrigan and Todd Haynes, weighed in with fest-worthy pictures — “Claire Dolan” and “Velvet Goldmine,” respectively — while John Turturro’s “Illuminata” only seemed more like a European film than an American one.

Out of competition in the official selection, everyone can understand why “Primary Colors” and “Godzilla” are here, but no one could fathom what “Blues Brothers 2000” and “Goodbye Lover” were doing at a fest as distinguished as Cannes.

Worst of all, however, were the American picks in Un Certain Regard. Selection of Paul Auster’s “Lulu on the Bridge,” about which no one could be found with much good to say, can only be explained by the writer’s exalted reputation in Europe and alliances he may have formed while serving on the jury last year.

Even more of a flop was Stanley Tucci’s “The Impostors,” a shipboard ’30s-style farce that sinks faster than the real Titanic. Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” and Jake Kasdan’s “Zero Effect” were old news to U.S. visitors here.

But most confounding of all was Ken Yunome’s numbing, three-hour “Island, Alicia,” a would-be art film that had viewers streaming out in droves. That fest programmers could have plucked this ponderous drama out of obscurity from among the hundreds of other American indies available is one of the mysteries of the fest.

For its part, the Directors Fortnight did a bit better, premiering Todd Solondz’s provocative, darkly funny new film “Happiness,” in addition to two prominent Sundance titles, “Slam,” which was rapturously received by audiences, and “High Art,” which was less warmly received in Cannes. Final American entry, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” had yet to be seen as of this writing.

The Critics Week, which presented a weak lineup this year, took the view that there were no American films worth showing at all.

What all this variable programming suggests is that the screening and selection process of American pictures for Cannes could use some fine tuning. Selectors for the various Cannes sections could be heard to complain both publicly and privately that there are just too many American independents, that the deluge of entries from the U.S. puts an enormous strain on their capacity to view the films rationally and pick them judiciously.

So what to do? Jacob rightly dismissed an idea to stage a separate sidebar of American indies, a la the French-only Cinemas en France section. One idea recently floated was to exclude any American films from Cannes consideration if they have appeared anywhere in the U.S. up to, and including, Sundance in January.

This would certainly serve to reduce the viewing load, but would also mean putting restrictive rules on American films that do not apply in any other country. What’s more, such a regulation would have denied Cannes quite a few strong titles of recent vintage, beginning with the Palme d’Or-winning “sex, lies & videotape.”

It would seem fair, however, to eliminate any American film that premiered domestically the previous year, which would have counted out “Henry Fool” and “The Apostle” at this year’s Cannes.

Furthermore, some advance weeding out would be helpful. Reps from major North American festivals — Sundance, Toronto, Montreal, New York, San Francisco, Telluride, et. al. — routinely scour the world looking for possible titles. Cannes does little of this, not even sending anyone to Sundance, which thereby increases the viewing load in Paris later on when prints are sent there. In relation to what ended up in Un Certain Regard this year, for example, Cannes would have been much better off with two strong titles from Sundance, the director prize-winning “Pi” and “Gods and Monsters,” the latter of which turned up here in the market.

For the last two years, Jacob has skipped making his former annual trip to Hollywood to scout titles, a decision that can’t help exacerbate the Hollywood studio’s sense of isolation from Cannes.

It is admittedly very hard to keep abreast of everything happening in American independent cinema today; every year, it’s reported that submissions to Sundance are up 20% or more.

But this fact should compel Cannes to follow the scene more closely, and not remain a remote grande dame.