CANNES, FRANCE — From the lowliest movie critic to the mightiest studio mogul, folks arriving at the Cannes International Film Festival face the same two questions that occur to people mulling over choices at their local multiplex. What's hot? And what's not?
The festival's programmers ask the same things as they preview new pictures and select the lineup for their event. Since festival exposure can enhance a film's prospects for getting into neighborhood theaters in the United States and elsewhere, their choices help determine what moviegoers will be viewing in weeks and months to come.
In recent years, the tendency at Cannes and other big filmfests has been to highlight Hollywood productions garlanded with star names and glitzy production values. Less elitist than skeptics may think, Cannes has eagerly showcased blockbusters like "Basic Instinct" and "Thelma and Louise."
But this year the trend has changed - away from Hollywood-style glitter and back to pictures on a more human scale, made by directors who value personal expression over high-impact showmanship.
As a result, this year's program is being greeted as a return to the "auteur" moviemaking - celebrating vision and imagination rather than glitz and glamour - that helped establish Cannes as a world-class festival nearly half a century ago. Also being emphasized are pictures that reflect the moods of the individual nations that produced them.
Given all this, the ideal programming item for Cannes '96 is a film combining artistic originality with a clear national voice and just enough star-power to make it marketable. That's a good way to describe two films from the US that unspooled during the first weekend, signaling their interest in the specifics of American life right from their titles.
The more eagerly awaited of the two was "Kansas City," directed by Robert Altman and featuring high-profile talents like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, and Harry Belafonte. Drawn on a less sweeping canvas than recent Altman movies like "Short Cuts" and "Ready to Wear," the new film tells a pair of stories that dovetail near the end.
One deals with a low-life white man named Johnny who tries to rob an African-American tourist, but messes up the job and finds himself in the dangerous hands of a black wheeler-dealer so slippery that his nickname is Seldom Seen. The other shows a bungled effort by Johnny's wife to kidnap the spouse of a presidential adviser so the influential man will pull some strings and get Johnny out of harm's way.
This material could easily have graced a shadowy "film noir" of the '40s, but in Altman's adventurous hands it seems as fresh as the sweet jumping-and-jiving jazz music that cascades from the soundtrack. "Kansas City" is no classic like "MASH" or masterpiece like "Nashville," but it should prove popular when it reaches the multiplex circuit.
John Sayles, another American filmmaker with an independent voice, opened the closely watched Director's Fortnight series with "Lone Star," featuring Kris Kristofferson in an offbeat variation on the traditional western. The story takes place in a Texas community coming to grips with multicultural challenges touched off by its mixed population of Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American residents.
The action begins when a skeleton is discovered in the nearby desert, renewing old arguments about whatever happened to a macho sheriff who once ruled the county with a violent - and racially bigoted - hand. Key characters include a progressive Latina schoolteacher, an Army-base commander with emotional problems, and the town's current sheriff, whose father may have played a central role in long-past events.
"Lone Star" has a surprise ending that I can't reveal without spoiling the picture, but which has strong sexual overtones that probably account for the movie's R rating. Filmgoers should take this warning seriously.
Apart from that, "Lone Star" deserves respect for at least two of its concerns. One is its recognition of how public controversies often overlap with private grudges rooted in family histories.
The other is its interest in contemporary arguments about cultural values in education, as reflected in debates over the treatment of history in materials used by public schools. Although it's not a dominating theme of the movie, contention over educational priorities gets more attention here than in any film I've seen since "Mr. Holland's Opus" opened several months ago, drawing a clear connection between Sayles's filmmaking and the real world in which he lives and works.
*'Kansas City' will head for US theaters on Aug. 16. 'Lone Star' will be shown June 10 as the opening-night attraction in this year's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York, and will open commercially on June 21.