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Making Waves at Cannes

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 1998



CANNES, FRANCE

There was a time," said Hollywood director Mike Nichols at the beginning of the 51st Cannes filmfest, "when the question about a movie was, 'Is it good?' - not, 'How did it do on the first weekend?' "

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Mr. Nichols was responding to a question about his latest picture, Primary Colors, which racked up unspectacular box-office returns before traveling to Cannes as the opening-night attraction.

But he was clearly thinking about the movie slated for closing night, Godzilla, an outlandishly lowbrow choice even for a filmfest that prides itself on celebrating cinema's commercial as well as artistic sides.

"I could understand it if this were a giant lizard that reads Tolstoy," said filmmaker Terry Gilliam later, "but this is just a giant lizard that's bigger than the other giant lizards!"

Despite such grumbling, few were really puzzled by the festival's decision to end with such a money-minded offering. Back in the United States, the Sony studio was slithering its high-tech monster into multiplexes on a Tuesday night so the "first weekend" would actually be several days long, thus aiming for big profits before word of mouth could circulate about the picture's actual quality.

While industry observers enjoy tsk-tsking such tactics, they feel a certain admiration too. Filmmaking, as Woody Allen once noted, is the only art that uses big money as one of its creative tools. Cannes insiders are keenly aware of this, even though they reserve the loudest applause for movies that stretch the imaginations of their viewers as well as the pocketbooks of their producers.

Indeed, some of the biggest American waves were generated at Cannes, the premier 12-day film festival that concluded Sunday, by the independent pictures that arrived in surprisingly large numbers. These films perhaps reflect the impact of recent Oscar races, where "indies" like "The English Patient" and "The Full Monty" boosted their once-overlooked breed to new levels of fame.

No distributor places more trust in indies than Miramax, which unveiled three major releases here, all due soon in American theaters. The most family-friendly is The Mighty, based on a children's book about two boys - one physically challenged, one mentally slow. They cook up a fantasy life based on the knights of the Round Table, finding a new sense of purpose by helping the downtrodden and fighting neighborhood bullies. Sharon Stone and Kieran Culkin star.

Controversy struck another Miramax film, Life Is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni, a popular Italian comedian. He plays a Jewish waiter who enters a Nazi concentration camp with his five-year-old son, convincing the child that the whole experience is an elaborate game that everybody's playing just for fun.

Some found this story a distasteful trivialization of history, suggesting the Holocaust could be survived by anyone with pluck, innocence, and a doting dad. Others found it an upbeat fable - it garnered a top prize from the Cannes jury - and some predict it will be a major Oscar contender. Audiences can cast their box-office ballots in a few weeks.

High-energy trip

Unconventional in different ways is Velvet Goldmine, a high-energy trip through the glittery "glam-rock" scene that captivated pop fans in the early 1970s. Directed by Todd Haynes, whose movies include the brilliant "Safe," the Miramax movie stars Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale in a story combining "Citizen Kane"-type biographical drama with MTV-style visuals. Reviewers gave it mixed responses, but its trendy subject could make it a major hit with young moviegoers.