U.S. indies have golden touch in 90s

Soderbergh, Lynch, Coens at forefront of trend

Originally ran March 24, 1997
HOLLYWOOD – With the stunning hat trick scored by American independent filmmakers between 1989 and 1991, when Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, & videotape,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” walked off with three successive Palmes d’Or, a transition was put in motion in Cannes, one that saw a movement from filmmakers who had been represented there for years to new names and countries that had not often figured in the competition.

The year 1990, for instance, saw the farewell to Cannes — and to cinema — of Fellini, as well as late works by Kurosawa and Godard. As the decade began slowly coming into focus, it became clear that the sort of shameless foreign sales and video-driven hucksterism typified in the 1980s by Cannon Films was on the wane, with attention turning to classier, more serious films that broadened the definition of an “arthouse film,” and demonstrated that a convergence of high-quality work and international commercial success could be more than a fluke. Who could have guessed in advance that such diverse and, on paper at least, difficult films as “The Piano,””Farewell My Concubine,””Secrets & Lies” and Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, just for starters, would enjoy such outstanding worldwide box office careers? As often as not in the 1990s, it is the most rapturously received artistic hits that also stand the best chance of making a commercial breakthrough.

As far as the general public is concerned, Cannes in the 1990s has been most visible as the place where Madonna showed up for her gala screening in a bra and panties, where a blown-up Arnold Schwarzenegger towered over the harbor before deflating, and where Quentin Tarantino became a household name. Internationally, Cannes now receives far more media coverage than ever, with rafts of critics, reporters, photographers and, especially, video newscasters crowding into every event. But the decade has thus far been without significant controversies or scandals. Ruffled feathers over awards going to such rough and racy films as “Pulp Fiction” and “Crash” is about as good as it’s gotten lately.

The year 1990, when “Wild at Heart” prevailed with the jury, was an off year compared to 1991, when “Barton Fink” won an unprece-dented three top awards in a festival also distinguished by Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse,” Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique,” von Trier’s “Zentropa,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Toto Le Heros,” “Boyz N the Hood,” “The Adjuster” and, unavoidably, Madonna, who created a media crush of staggering proportions when she turned up in lingerie for the Palais premiere of “Truth or Dare” (or “In Bed With Madonna,” as it was known in Europe) and was hounded by press at every moment of the day and night.

The only traditional European “art” film to win the Palme in the 1990s, Bille August’s “The Best Intentions,” did so in 1992, when “The Player,” “Howards End,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Bad Lieutenant,” “Bob Roberts” and, at the other end of the spectrum, “Basic Instinct” stirred up commotion on the Croisette. It was also the year that the Directors’ Fortnight moved into its new theater in the basement of the Noga Hilton, and that “Strictly Ballroom,” at its debut midnight screening, set off by far the longest and most raucous ovation-cum-celebration I have ever witnessed for a film in Cannes or anywhere else, more than 10 minutes.

The entries in 1993 were strong at the top, with “The Piano” and “Concubine” leading a pack that included “Naked,” “King of the Hill” and “Raining Stones” in the competition and “The Scent of Green Papaya,” “The Snapper” and “Latcho Drom” elsewhere. Beyond that, however, pickings were a bit thin. Quentin Tarantino came, saw and conquered the following year with “Pulp Fiction,” with Clint Eastwood famously heading up the jury, but there were distinguished and ultra-serious contributions by Kieslowski with “Red,” Zhang Yimou with “To Live,” Kiarostami with “Through the Olive Trees,” Nikita Mikhalkov with “Burnt By the Sun” and Atom Egoyan with “Exotica” in the competition. Andre Techine’s “Wild Reeds” snuck into Un Certain Regard to knock out those who were still around to see it on the final weekend, while “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Muriel’s Wedding” were the popular hits of the Directors Fortnight.

Euro seriousness returned with a vengeance in 1995, as Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” and Theo Angelopoulos’ “Ulysses’ Gaze” domi-nated the competition. But then, not surprisingly for a three-hour film about the fracturing of Yugoslavia, the Palme d’Or-winning “Underground” had trouble finding a U.S. distributor. Such other competition titles as “Land and Freedom,” “Shanghai Triad,” “Hate,” “Kids” and “Dead Man” divided viewers, leaving a vacuum that many thought might have been filled by awards to “To Die For” and “The Usual Suspects” if only they had been entered in the competition, rather than outside it. “Salaam Cinema” from Iran was the hit of Un Certain Regard, while another Iranian entry, “The White Balloon,” along with Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” provoked the most enthusiasm in the Directors’ Fortnight.

In 1996, the three films that by year’s end led the voting with all the American film critics groups — “Secrets & Lies,” “Fargo” and “Breaking the Waves” — were arguably the top three films in the competition in Cannes. The liveliest alternative film of the summer, “Trainspotting,” was presented out of competition, but there was pleasure to be found in Un Certain Regard with “Gabbeh,” “The Pillow Book,” “Love Serenade,” “Irma Vep” and New Wave veteran Eric Rohmer’s “A Summer’s Tale,” while the Directors’ Fortnight delivered Sergei Bodrov’s “Prisoner of the Mountains.”

If there is a tendency here, beyond the fact that three of the last four Palme d’Or winners have been produced by the enterprising French company Ciby 2000, it is toward “art” films that have found, or could plausibly locate, a popular public; with certain exceptions, the films that get the critics and cognoscenti talking are increasingly the ones that go on to an extended life beyond the festival and limited arthouse circuit. This development has implications that can cut both ways, positively and negatively, for filmmakers everywhere, but at least it suggests a vitality in the contemporary cinema for a certain kind of picture, films with the particular taste and character of the places where they are made and the people who made them, which find a way to speak to audiences beyond the elite.