WHERE are the Americans?
That was a big question at this year's Cannes International Film Festival, which many found less international than usual.
True, the opening-night film was ``The Hudsucker Proxy'' by the very American team of Joel and Ethan Coen, and the closing-night attraction was ``Serial Mom'' by John Waters, who has yet to make a movie outside his native Baltimore.
But these aren't exactly blockbuster attractions, since they appeal more to auteur-conscious film fans than to gigantic mass audiences; and other United States pictures on the Cannes roster had a similar lack of old-fashioned Hollywood glitziness. ``They're quirky,'' an American film programmer told me, ``which is another way of saying minor.'' Some are also old news to US moviegoers, who've already seen them - or chosen not to - at their neighborhood multiplexes.
What caused the paucity of American productions? Not a vendetta against the American film industry, Cannes programmers insisted. It was just the result of ``a date problem,'' festival director Gilles Jacob told Variety, the show-business trade paper - since the movies expected to stir wide excitement this summer weren't ready when the Cannes scheduling deadline arrived.
This has fed a sneaking suspicion held by some observers that Hollywood studios don't really want their pictures unveiled at Cannes, at least if there's a graceful way to avoid it. Some industry executives feel festival exposure can brand a walloping mass-market entertainment as an art- theater specialty item, thereby putting a dent in its box-office potential.
Although festivals energetically refute this contention, there's evidence that appears to support it - from the failure of ``Miller's Crossing'' after a high-profile premiere at the New York film festival to the inauspicious reception of the Tom Cruise vehicle ``Far and Away'' and the Jane Fonda-Gregory Peck western ``Old Gringo'' at Cannes in recent years.
But those Cannes flops were bad movies, weren't they, probably destined to fall on their faces under any circumstances? Of course, says a veteran Hollywood observer I discussed this with - and that makes Hollywood all the more eager to cover its miscalculations by grasping at excuses. If they'd been marketed in the ``normal'' way, with no festival connections to confuse everyday audiences, these pictures would have been triumphant hits. Or so some studio bosses have convinced themselves, acquiring a lasting filmfest-phobia in the process.
All this notwithstanding, some American pictures were on the slate here, and they were certainly a varied lot - ranging from the honestly titled ``Pulp Fiction'' by Quentin Tarantino, winner of the festival's top prize, to the dignified ``Browning Version'' by Mike Figgis, a British production appearing under the Paramount Pictures banner. Along with a reasonably substantial list of American independent films appearing in the festival's sidebar events, they made the US a significant if not a dominant player in the Cannes sweepstakes.
One of the first US pictures to unspool here was an ideal attraction for the festival circuit: ``Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,'' directed by Alan Rudolph, a wildly uneven filmmaker who's happily at the top of his form in this offbeat drama. It was perfect for Cannes because it's full of Cannes-like situations, with recurring scenes of writers, celebrities, and assorted culture-vultures sitting around a large table and flinging artsy witticisms at one another.
The focus of the movie is journalist Dorothy Parker and the famous Algonquin Round Table, a gathering of self-styled savants that met regularly at a Manhattan hotel in the pre-World War II era. The picture shows how the group's members found one another amid the bustle of the New York social scene and coalesced into a close-knit club devoted mainly to celebrating the cleverness of its own conversations.
Rudolph takes obvious pleasure in re-creating the endless stream of memorable sayings that came from the Alonquin gang, but he also tries to get behind the myth, showing how the group's compulsively cutting wit often masked a loneliness bordering on despair. Parker herself is the most vivid and most pitiable character, an ever-more-cynical writer who sinks into a state of emotional isolation that no number of parties, drinks, and love affairs is able to vanquish.
Other major figures in the story include humorist Robert Benchley and playwright Charles MacArthur; minor characters range from Will Rogers and George S. Kaufman to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harpo Marx.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the leading role vigorously, using Parker's unique vocal patterns - forever sliding between a smart-alecky drawl and a jaded whine - to evince the character's mixture of powerful talent and self-involved petulance.
It's unfortunate that Leigh hasn't figured out more ways to modulate her performance, a problem that also weighs on her otherwise impressive work as the fast-talking reporter in ``The Hudsucker Proxy.'' As far as it goes, however, her impersonation of Parker unquestionably has the ring of truth. Not surprisingly, she told a gathering of Cannes journalists that she prepared it with great care, exhaustively studying recordings of Parker's actual voice.
``Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle'' was more enthusiastically received here by American critics than by their European colleagues, perhaps because its pithy dialogue must be understood in English to be fully appreciated. In any case, it's a movie with plenty of zip, likely to fare quite well - at least with the serious moviegoers best served by Cannes this year - when it opens in US theaters in the near future.