The Cannes filmfest is an influential media event, reminding the world that cinema and video, its technological neighbor, are today's dominant forms of mass communication and expression.
Cannes never tires of celebrating this fact, and its recently ended 50th-anniversary program was no exception. Ironically, though, many of the individual movies on view took an opposite approach - portraying various media, including film and video themselves, as dubious and even negative influences on contemporary life.
Since many of these pictures will be playing on American screens before long, it's important to note the messages they'll be carrying to audiences.
There's no way to tell yet whether moviegoers, constantly bombarded by Hollywood's promotional machine, will become more media-critical when they see these films in local theaters. But it seems certain that the climate is changing among filmmakers themselves, who are becoming more inclined to question the roles played by media in cheapening our cultural environment.
The trend got under way on opening night at Cannes when The Fifth Element made its European debut. Since then the picture has excelled at the American box office, underscoring Cannes's importance as a bellwether of new directions in the global film industry.
Although the hero of Luc Besson's movie is Bruce Willis as a cabdriver saving Earth from extraterrestrial doom, its most attention-grabbing secondary character is a futuristic TV personality who floods the story with flamboyant behavior that makes today's trash television look tame. His antics are a savage parody of current tendencies in popular entertainment.
TV also takes a beating in L.A. Confidential, due in the United States later this year. It focuses on a police officer (Guy Pearce) who believes he can enforce the law without sacrificing personal integrity. It's uncertain how much he can rely on a colleague (Kevin Spacey) whose priorities are swayed by his role as adviser to a fact-based television show. More complications come from a camera-snapping journalist (Danny DeVito) who sets up the sleazy situations his scandal-sheet then luridly exposes.
Two pictures took movie violence as their primary theme. The End of Violence, filmed in Los Angeles by German director Wim Wenders, centers on a Hollywood producer (Bill Pullman) who's unprepared for violence in his life even though he's long exploited it in his movies.
Wenders's message loses its impact amid convoluted plot twists, but the same can't be said of Funny Games, in which Austrian director Michael Hanneke shows a middle-class family being terrorized by two sadistic men. What might have been a tale of gratuitous horror is transformed by several moments when the villains address the audience directly, prompting us to examine our motives for watching such repellent stuff.
Other media-critical films included Welcome to Sarajevo, with Woody Harrelson as a TV journalist, and The Blackout by Abel Ferrara, with Matthew Modine as a Hollywood filmmaker. The Ice Storm, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, hints that mindless TV-gazing may hinder youngsters from avoiding the moral lapses of their parents.
Television gets its most ferocious attack in Assassin(s) by French director Matthieu Kassovitz, who climaxes his bloody tale - about an aging killer and two young apprentices - with a satirical sitcom episode that plays horrific gore against an uproarious laugh track. Kassovitz's point about the evil influence of TV violence is clear, although it would carry more weight if the scene weren't such an obvious imitation of Oliver Stone's media parody in "Natural Born Killers."
Two other films broadened the festival's media criticism in an important way, recalling that books and periodicals are also media, and that arguments over mass-media influence started long before modern technologies entered the fray.
Mrs Brown, about Queen Victoria and an eccentric Scotsman who became her confidant when she was widowed, pays considerable attention to the way newspapers and magazines steered public opinion and swayed the behavior of everyone from royal advisers to the monarch herself. It's no wonder the movie ends with Victoria's private diary being spirited away by a loyal aide - before some publication like Punch gets hold of it.
Delving farther into the past is Destiny, which helped Egyptian director Youssef Chahine garner the festival's official 50th Anniversary Prize for his distinguished career. Its hero is Averroes, the 12th-century philosopher who challenged Islam to recognize the value of human reasoning along with sacred traditions. Fundamentalists fumed and the caliph ordered his books destroyed, whereupon his family and friends made secret copies and smuggled them beyond the theocracy's control.
Chahine's movie is an old-fashioned historical epic, full of picturesque settings and acting that's more earnest than convincing. What makes it stirring is the fact that Chahine's own country, Egypt, is one of many nations currently wracked by struggles between fundamentalist religion and more secular outlooks.
Coming from a different nation, "Destiny" might appear to be an outdated "costume picture" with only nostalgic value. Coming from a dedicated Egyptian filmmaker with the courage to take a public stand on a turbulent social issue, it emerges as a daring and progressive picture with keen insight into how centuries-old media controversies keep resonating in the contemporary world.