Questions Now That Cannes Is Over

It's time to reassess what the festival means to the international culture debate

The screens are dark, the auditoriums are empty, the red carpets at the Palais des Festivals are rolled up and stowed away. Another edition of the Cannes International Film Festival has come and gone, marking 49 years of art, commerce, and star-gazing in one of Europe's most glamorous seaside resorts.

Preparations have already begun for next year's event, which will celebrate a half-century of achievement. It's an excellent time to ask a couple of key questions: Have the functions and purposes of Cannes changed over the past five decades? Is the movie world better off because of it, or are its activities geared mainly toward insiders thinking more of their own careers than the public's cultural needs?

There are no easy answers. Turning to the second question first, it's impossible to separate the overall health of the cultural scene from the accomplishments of individuals who may define success in ways quite different from one another, or even from the bulk of moviegoers who make up their potential audience.

Director David Cronenberg was trounced by many viewers here for the sex-and-violence excesses of his new "Crash." Prior to the Cannes jury giving the film a closing-night prize for audacity and originality, Cronenberg told me he had no regrets about bringing it here because its artistic intentions had at least been acknowledged, if not applauded.

"Crash" novelist J.G. Ballard agreed, telling me he'd rather have his work debated than ignored. Robert Altman similarly called Cannes a good launching pad for his "Kansas City," less a standard melodrama than a moody exploration of American acquisitiveness against a background of traditional jazz.

"I could be directing 'Aliens 4' for a lot more money," Cronenberg noted, acknowledging that his brand of unsettling cinema will always be more seriously received in places like Cannes than on commercial theater screens. Some feel this demonstrates the irrelevance of Cannes to the interests of everyday movie fans. Yet if Cronenberg's next film proves a popular hit - still being planned, it's about an automobile designer and the racing-car circuit - momentum gained from this year's controversy will have helped get the project off the drawing board and on the screen.

Looking at the services provided by Cannes as cinema's most glamorous showcase, it's clear the festival's usefulness has undergone many changes over the decades. First conceived as a way of reintroducing European film to the world market after World War II, the event has served in recent years as a sort of motion-picture Mixmaster, blending European art movies and American blockbusters into programs called eclectic and challenging by some, dazed and confused by others.

Cannes took a decided turn toward the artistic end of the spectrum this year, in part because many desirable Hollywood productions simply weren't finished in time for the programming deadline. In retrospect, though, it seems obvious that high-profile entertainments like "Twister" or the imminent "Independence Day" would have been just as appropriate for the lineup as pictures that did appear here, such as "The Sunchaser," a Woody Harrelson adventure, or "Fargo," a quirky crime comedy.

Since the missing movies I've mentioned are clearly completed and on their way to US theaters, why didn't they appear on the Cannes roster? It's probably because Hollywood is reluctant to show the films in Europe at a time of year that's not conducive to box-office profits.

Americans eagerly patronize blockbusters in the warm-weather months, but Europeans don't patronize much of anything until the vacation season ends in early fall. Since the major US studios dodge any exposure for their films that won't translate into solid revenue, the current Cannes emphasis on artistic worth could have more to do with Hollywood stinginess than European high-mindedness.

Be this as it may, leaders of the French film industry still look to Cannes for insights that might bolster their competitiveness in a world market dominated by American interests. Filmed entertainment is the leading export item of the United States today, as a trade-paper reporter noted during a lunchtime discussion hosted by the festival and the Unifrance marketing organization. With its busy production schedule of between 100 and 150 films per year, France would love to see more of its offspring in US theaters.

Current strategies include more dubbing of English-language dialogue, as in the recent family film "Little Indian, Big City" and the comedy "The Visitors," coming soon.

But even as they scramble for more prominence in US multiplexes, French cinastes ironically claim that part of their current predicament is rooted in their past success.

Having established a tradition of originality and literacy in film, says Unifrance chief Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the French now see those qualities taken over by American independents who are forced by financial pressures to rely more on wit and imagination than expensive effects and high-end production values.

I asked Toscan du Plantier for an example, and he cited Quentin Tarantino's hugely successful "Pulp Fiction," which started its voyage to worldwide popularity at Cannes, drawing overflow crowds and winning the Golden Palm.

Is the boisterous "Pulp Fiction" really a direct heir of France's venerable art-film tradition? If so, perhaps both ends of the cinematic spectrum - the aesthetic end and the commercial end - need a major dose of rethinking by filmmakers, critics, and industry leaders alike. Nearing its golden anniversary, the busy and multifaceted Cannes filmfest still seems as productive a site for such rethinking as the cinema world has to offer.

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