-To Each His Own Cinema (various, France) [5] [changed to 6 due to the Coens' 8, 8/12/09]

Honestly, how could a project like this ever receive more than a "mixed" grade, given the variable talent involved? Still, the advance word was correct -- these omnibus films are typically unwatchable fiascos or self-congratulatory circle-jerks (cf. Paris, je t'aime, Eros, Three... Extremes, and I'm actually kinder than most to the 9/11 film), and Chacun son cinéma succeeds simply by being okay more often than not. As a whole, certain things can be said about the project. Nostalgia for cinema as a projected, public phenomenon becomes largely conflated here with ardent Francophilia. Despite the project being dedicated to Fellini, tributes to Bresson, Godard, Truffaut, and Renoir (plus a coda courtesy of René Clair) go a long way to equating cinema as such with French cinema. There's a striking paucity of Hollywood memories. Only Lelouch acknowledges American cinema in a positive light, and Ruiz and Loach's ironic bitchslaps are the only other shorts that acknowledge it at all. I think this is fine (Todd McCarthy I'm not), but telling, in a year when Cannes mostly ignored the Iraq War and took the late-Vietnam route of mentally declaring the war (and the American Empire) "over." Also, it may not be fair to judge a project like this based on who it fails to include. There are always lots of logistical reasons for such things. But certain directors clearly benefit from being plugged into the Jacob / Fremaux / Rissient power-axis (Kontchalovsky, Cimino, Chen) when others might have done much more with those slots. I'm thinking Guy Maddin (hell, just project The Heart of the World on the side of a barn in Manitoba and call it a sequel), Godard (who no doubt turned them down, resulting in the project participants practically treating him like he was already dead), Almodóvar (who, like Wong, would have added some purely sensual pleasures), and especially Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo. Let's not even get into what Ernie Gehr or Ken Jacobs could have brought to the table. Finally, enough with the "what do blind people 'see' at the movies?" nonsense. It's patronizing.

 

The rundown:

 

Open-Air Cinema (Raymond Depardon) [6] A lovely little bit of documentary reportage, just carefully constructed angles and perspectives of an outdoor cinema in Egypt. Depardon's eye seldom fails, and as a kickoff to the film, his contribution is both plainspoken and resonant.

 

One Fine Day (Takeshi Kitano) [5] Maybe this would have made more sense in the context of one of his recent self-referential bonanzas, but here it just seemed like a slight comic misfire. A farmer buys a "farmer rate" ticket for Kids Return, the film keeps breaking and the projectionist (Kitano himself) struggles to fix it. More was needed to avoid the creeping sense of self-regard.

 

Three Minutes (Theo Angelopoulos) [5] A tribute to Mastroianni starring Jeanne Moreau, this film seems to be both an overly-literal love letter to classic Italian cinema and an unfunny in-joke on the impossibility of Mr. Long Take to accomplish anything in the specified time limit. Forgettable in the extreme.

 

In the Dark (Andréï Kontchalovsky) [7] Easily the biggest surprise for me, since I've never watched an entire Kontchalovsky film and had low expectations. But this is cute, a wry look at two ways of finding passion at the movie house, neither being as mutually exclusive as it might seem at first blush. Just a neat little comic doodad.

 

Diary of a Moviegoer (Nanni Moretti) [7] This is just Nanni being Nanni, and either you like it or you don't. I've found his direct-address diary shtick much more palatable in short doses, since his rapid-fire delivery obviates the cutesiness that eventually tanks his longer efforts. I'll admit, thinking about sharing cinema with your kids hit me where I live, and so I'm quite possibly overvaluing this short. But like The Opening Day of Close-Up, Diary zeroes in on Moretti's love of cinema and keeps his digressions tightly grounded, making for a wiser, less solipsistic bit of filmmaking.

 

The Electric Princess Movie House (Hou Hsiao-hsien) [7] This film is just beautiful and takes the assignment to the letter. Long, patient takes of patrons entering a rural movie theatre in what appears to be the 1960s, this small bit of purely formal filmmaking clarified for me what's been most interesting about Hou's recent work. His visual style has become more lush and refined, more amenable to light and color in a way that heightens the "pastness" of his period work without scuttling realism altogether. In a way, it's as though his early films were being remade by a muted Wong Kar-wai, the result being a kind of hovering magic of the everyday, a sense of electric wonder. Without the distractions of story, this aspect of Hou's style was much easier to identify and appreciate, so that in itself makes this film a notable success. Hou's deft elegy to Bresson (and the cinema he represented) is just an added grace note.

 

Darkness (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) [6] Displaying a bit of the softening humanism that tended to nudge L'Enfant away from greatness, this short begins promisingly enough, emphasizing the near-impenetrability of the all-black film image, its purity and inability to translate to non-celluloid media. We see a young man crawling through the seats, and arrive at the seat next to a young woman. Soon, a little morality play of missed signals emerges, two people brought into accidental connection by the final scene of Au hasard, Balthazar. Given the collision of aesthetic appreciation and criminality, this should have been right in the brothers' wheelhouse, but somehow it just felt too pat, and bringing one of the most sublime moments in all of cinema into the mix just didn't help matters any.

 

Anna (Alejandro González Iñárritu) [5] One of those" blind folks at the movies" shorts, and all the sillier since it focuses on a young woman (Luisa Williams) becoming overwhelmed at the climax of Contempt and fleeing the cinema for a smoke. Visually, AGI is trading on insultingly facile tropes (blind person crying; dark-dark becomes bright-light). It would all be utterly dismissible were it not for the director's good taste in collaborators. Williams (last seen in Day Night Day Night) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki provide the hackneyed scenario with all the class it can bear. They polish the turd real good.

 

Movie Night (Zhang Yimou) [7] The short form actually works to Zhang's advantage here, since he's treading on dangerous ground (the wide-eyed young boy and the magic of the movies) but the necessity of moving around and keeping his camera lithe and agile prevents the film from getting bogged down in sentimental claptrap. In fact, it helps to showcase the exacting formal control that makes Zhang great. Compositionally, it's like he's shooting one of his hinterland stories (Not One Less or The Road Home) with the approach he lavishes on his finest epics (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero). The result is a jewel-like miniature.

 

The Dybbuk of Haifa (Amos Gitai) [4] Just when I think I'm not going to watch any more Gitai films, they keep pulling me back in! An incoherent mishmash of shoddy superimpositions, this short blends 1936 Warsaw with 2006 Haifa, two movie houses under attack. The film concludes with the bombing of the Haifa cinema, Gitai's mannered reenactment of an actual terrorist attack. He moves his camera ever so gently to gawk at the bloody cheek of a young blonde girl. (Paging Mr. Daney.) Arguing against Gitai's political opportunism is pointless; his filmmaking doesn't merit serious discussion.

 

The Ladybug (Jane Campion) [4] Seemingly an allegory of Campion's own position in both this film and in Palme d'Or history as the only woman at the party, The Ladybug finds a gruff old male janitor poking with a stick at a carefree little ladybug who lives in one of the theatre's speakers. The soundtrack, presumably that of the film running in the background, has two women teasing man about being a "pussy" and not having the "balls" necessary to make love to a lady. Frivolous in the extreme, the film also fails to connect as any sort of indictment, since its blend of cheap mummery and doggerel would appear to justify any marginalization Campion feels post-Piano. Still, no matter how poorly the question is posed, its validity remains. Where are the women of Cannes? To cite only the most egregious example, the Hommes du Cannes seem to be the only people left anywhere who are unconvinced that Claire Denis is a major master. Puzzling.

 

Artaud Double Bill (Atom Egoyan) [8] Hands-down the best of the lot, Egoyan's film captures both the shifting modes of spectatorial attention and the alternate modes of sensuality that new technologies introduce into the filmgoing experience. Two people botch a rendezvous at the movies; one goes to see The Passion of Joan of Arc, the other The Adjuster. Egoyan cuts between viewers at the trial scene of Dreyer's film and the porn censorship screening sequence of his own, as the two watchers text-message each other and eventually send screen-captures to one another as part of a long-distance erotics of images and ideas. Leave it to Egoyan to kick nostalgia to the curb and actually consider what all those obnoxious new devices (many of which seem poised to replace cinema as such) may add to the unique phenomenon of the collective light bath. Well done.

 

The Foundry (Aki Kaurismäki) [6] What can you say? It's just Aki being Aki, with striking camera set-ups in the titular factory and jumpsuited workers trotting off to a makeshift cinema in the back at quitting time. What do they watch? That's the punch line, and it's cute. Aggressively slight, but I find surface pleasures in everything the man does.

 

Upsurge (Olivier Assayas) [4] Much like his contribution of Paris, je t'aime, Assayas's effort here seems designed to thwart the project, showing recreation as an opportunity for urban crime and multiethnic confusion. But there's no chance for legibility, much less development, and the indistinct camera-stylo mode he now favors just adds to the murk.

 

47 Years Later (Youssef Chahine) [1] I am finding it harder and harder to defend Chahine these days. His films have become self-important in inverse-proportion to their competence, and now here he is gloating about being recognized as a world-class cineaste, ironically failing to comprehend that the 40th Anniversary Prize was most likely a bone thrown to an old hanger-on, akin to an Honorary Doctorate. An all-round embarrassment, and a sign of the grave shortcomings of the festival system's need to anoint a Great Director from nearly every nation on earth (cf. Gitai).

 

It's a Dream (Tsai Ming-liang) [7] Pretty much accomplishing in three minutes what it took Goodbye, Dragon Inn a languid hour-plus to conjure, Tsai keeps it simple, reminiscing about his childhood trips to the movies and paying homage to loved ones long gone. Like a beloved grandmother, then, the cinema as such as a long lost object of cathexis, ever slipping away. The final shot is sublime.

 

Occupations (Lars von Trier) [6] Might've gone up to 7 were it not for LvT's ill-advised decision to muddy the waters by staging his encounter during a screening of Manderlay. (What gives with the auto-screenings? See also Egoyan, Kitano.) Along with Cronenberg, von Trier is the only filmmaker to embrace violence as a possible response to the threat of cinema's end. (Wonder what Haneke might've done.) It's funny, and notable for being a skit in a sea of Grand Statements.

 

The Gift (Raoul Ruiz) [5] Ruiz is one of those filmmakers the Cannes team hasn't given up on, even as the rest of the world has moved on. In this instance, good for them. Sadly, this isn't Ruiz at his best, what with yet another blind spectator and some sub-Borgesian hooey about a primitive tribe who took the gift of cinema and remade it in their own obscure, hand-carved way. It seems to be a sidelong tribute to Buñuel, but this is one of the few entries that probably required quite a bit more than three minutes to make an argument for its existence.

 

The Cinema Around the Corner (Claude Lelouch) [5] Perfectly inoffensive trifle. Unsurprisingly, Lelouch takes the swoony nostalgic end of the pool and dives off the high board. That the result is cute rather than saccharine speaks to the wonders of the three-minute rule. If you detest all things middlebrow, you may use this film to time the cooking of a perfect hard-boiled egg. Enjoy!

 

First Kiss (Gus Van Sant) [3] As with his stupid Paris je t'aime contribution (although this one's worse), Van Sant cannot do anything these days without duration at his disposal. What we get is a perfume commercial in a movie house, not to mention one of the weirdest representations of heterosexual desire ever committed to film. This in itself would make it worthwhile if I thought it were more than a happy accident.

 

Cinéma Erotique (Roman Polanski) [4] At the Cannes press conference for this omnibus, Polanski jeered at the journalists for not asking better questions, and blamed the Internet for the low level of discourse in film criticism. Funny, then, that Polanski's contribution is a cheap gag (you can see it coming from a mile away) that actually insults the proud legacy of the Emmanuelle films. Hey, Roman! It's the Internet!!!! YR FILM SUXXX!!!;)

 

No Translation Needed (Michael Cimino) [2] No review needed. (Was this a pathetic attempt at taking the piss out of Wenders? Or just a way for Cimino to mention himself in the same breath as Godard, just to see if anybody didn't laugh?)

 

At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World (David Cronenberg) [6] A single-shot concept piece, Cronenberg's entry might've benefited had he opted to forgo the rather obvious jabs at TV and late-capitalist media. The impact is severely blunted. Nevertheless, placing the extinction of cinema and the Jewish people adjacent to one another is both provocative and, in its own way, Godardian -- the only piece in the whole collection that implicitly speaks back to the Histoire(s).

 

I travelled 9000 km to give it to you (Wong Kar-wai) [7] Like his Eros short but without the time to develop some silly conceit, 9000 km just gives the faithful their dose of Wongkery: the glowing crimsons, the step-printing, the attention to skin surface. Granted, putting it in a movie theatre was just a convenience (they could have been in a car wash, really), but sometimes just doing what you do is enough.

 

Where Is My Romeo (Abbas Kiarostami) [4] Probably the shallowest of Kiarostami's recent examinations of Iranian womanhood, here he gives us close-ups of women crying at a screening of Romeo and Juliet. It's not modular enough to serve as a formalist taxonomy, and too limp a premise to reveal anything noteworthy anthropologically. It's not a horrible effort, but it's certainly a lazy one.

 

The Last Dating Show (Bille August) [5] Admit it: you forget about August's very existence too, right? Well, he does his best Mira Nair impression here, speaking directly to the recent controversies in Denmark regarding Islam but copping out, turning it into one nebbish's heartwarming quest to get laid. What's rather remarkable (although not in a good way) is that virtually all the characters' motivations and basic traits seem to reverse at the midpoint of the film. In three minutes!

 

Awkward (Elia Suleiman) [6] Here's another filmmaker whose stylistic approach requires greater leeway that the three-minute format can provide. Suleiman's Tatiesque physical set-ups take a second or two to register, and it's to the man's credit that at this chop-chop pace demanded by the assignment he still manages to come up with several striking moments (the wet cellphone in particular). Granted, this represents no new ground for Suleiman, and arguably finds him even further in navel-gazing mode, but then I suppose that comfort zone helped him obviate other difficulties posed by the format.

 

Sole Meeting (Manoel de Oliveira) [6] The only entry that pretty much finds an end-run around the assignment, Sole Meeting starts out in a movie theatre, yes, but soon simply becomes the silent actualité that the patrons in the film are watching. And it's clever, even if I found Oliveira's point somewhat unclear. The film depicts a meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Pope John XXIII (MdO stalwart Michel Piccoli is a hoot as Khrushchev) and a discussion of "Comrade Pope's" influence on the Catholic faithful. The punch line is simple enough, although elegant the more you think about it; what else, after all, unites the seemingly incommensurable Communist Party with the Vatican, aside from the fact that both were usually run by old, fat, white autocrats?

 

5557 Miles from Cannes (Walter Salles) [7] Let me state once again for the record, I have no use whatsoever for Salles as a feature filmmaker. But as with his poignant short for Paris, je t'aime, Salles' contribution here shines like a beacon of understatement and grace. It's really just a musical routine by a Brazilian rap-comedy duo Castanha e Caju ("Chestnut and Cashew"), with the guys playing tambourines, doing the Dozens and dropping a lot of serious pseudo-science about the Cannes Film Festival, all in front of a rundown movie house in the hinterlands showing The 400 Blows. These guys have never been to Cannes, but like me, they've learned a lot about it. How? "On the Internet."

 

War In Peace (Wim Wenders) [4] A well-intentioned but rather shallow affair, Wenders' contribution shows a video-film gathering in the Congo, one of the first since the end of decades-long civil unrest. (The assembled get together to watch Black Hawk Down.) Really little more than a touristic glimpse at pie-eyed African youth drinking in the Wonder of Cinema™, the film has its heart in the right place, but its head somewhere darker and less sanitary.

 

Zhanxiao Village (Chen Kaige) [3] Joining Wenders in Hasbeen Corner, Chen's entry provides all the cloying Cinema Paradiso excesses you'd expect from a project like this. In retrospect it's rather amazing so many directors managed to avoid the cute-kid-in-the-sticks pitfalls endemic to the West's celebration of the power of its own media. I guess the humanist trope du jour was the blindness thing. (Thank Christ Majid Majidi wasn't asked to contribute! He'd have no doubt made it a two-fer.) Anyway, Chen shows adorable little village kids hooking a 16mm projector up to their bikes and pedaling away to keep the magic of the movies alive. Insipid.

 

Happy Ending (Ken Loach) [7] Loach and Laverty are in uncharacteristic comic mode here, giving us a boy and his dad in a queue trying to decide what to see at the multiplex. The fake films are just wretched-sounding enough to be plausible titles in development, but apart from the snide 57-screens-and-nothing-on swipe at the industry, Loach hammers home a deeper truth. The movies began as a working class entertainment. (Bourgeois "respectability" came a bit later, via Griffith's Victorian moralism.) What do the movies have to say to working people today?

 

[The DVD package and the TIFF screening do not include the Coen brothers' short. Instead, they feature an entry delivered too late for inclusion at Cannes.]

 

Absurda (David Lynch) [4] This little semi-animated scribble from Lynch actually looks a bit more like an undergraduate film student's homage to the master's work, since it zeroes in on a few of his key devices (the fragmentation of dreams; obscure vision; a fixed camera gaze rendered surreal through manipulations on the soundtrack) without ever really becoming a coherent artistic statement. It just feels like surrealism as "anything goes," the sort of lazy misapprehension that viewers can draw from Lynch's films at first glance. Absurda doesn't even seem like an outtake from Inland Empire so much as a half-baked leftover, something Lynch really didn't care about at all. Something that's going for "dreamlike" shouldn't look like you did it in your sleep. [Absurda can be seen here.]

 

[7/12/09: Almost a year later, the Coens' short has arrived on the Internets. Worth the wait!]

 

World Cinema (Joel and Ethan Coen) [8] What starts out looking all the world like a joke at the expense of both a know-it-all movie hipster (Grant Heslov) and a Stetson-wearing good ol' boy (Josh Brolin, virtually recreating NCFOM's Llewellen Moss) becomes something far greater. The cowpoke walks up to the ticket booth of Santa Monica's Aero Theatre at midday and has to choose between the twin cinema's two offerings: a restored Rules of the Game and Ceylan's Climates. There is culture-clash as the two men talk past each other a bit, but more importantly, there is communication, and in the end, "Llewellen" "enjoy[s] the hell out of Climates," a film that by his lights has "a lot of truth in it." It's funny, of course, but what we're seeing in this lovely short is a rare moment of unguarded sincerity from the brothers. This is their love letter to cinema, of course, but more to the point, it's a testament to their faith that movies can bridge cultural divides, reach out and touch people in unexpected ways. (And I think it's significant that it was Climates and not the Renoir that bowled the guy over. It's the brothers professing their belief that great cinema is still happening.) They're telling us why they do what they do, by using film's fantastical potential to stage a perfect moment of its ideal reception. And Brooke Smith? She's just dessert. Beautiful. [World Cinema can be seen here.]