At Cannes with Nicole, Arnold, and Harvey Pekar?
Forget the celebrities. The real star of this year's film festival is an Ohio man who had to borrow his tuxedo from a neighbor.
CANNES, FRANCE — Nicole Kidman is here. Arnold Schwarzenegger is here. Keanu Reeves and Penelope Cruz are here.
You might not know it, but Harvey Pekar is here, too. And in his own low-profile way, he's as noteworthy as they are.
For years he's been the writer and main character of underground comic strips enjoyed by connoisseurs of the genre. This hasn't made him rich or famous - he worked as a full-time file clerk until retiring recently, for reasons of health and age. But it's earned the respect of commix masters like R. Crumb and Alan Moore, two of the celebrated artists who've illustrated his stories.
It also drew the attention of two directors who thought "American Splendor," his series of autobiographical comic books, would make a terrific movie.
They went ahead and made it, casting Paul Giamatti as Mr. Pekar, who also appears in the picture as himself.
This explains why Pekar, a quintessential common man without a glitzy bone in his body, is spending this week at the world's most glitz-crazy film festival.
"It's kinda nerve-racking," he said over an orange juice on the sun-drenched terrace of the Grand Hotel, where the movie's producer (HBO Films) was ushering him through a round of interviews he agreed to do as part of the picture's promotion.
"All the luxury here," he continued in his mumbling but convivial voice, "it seems kinda immoral, you know? The giant yachts and stuff like that. I feel kind of weird and out of place in a wealthy resort environment like this.... I guess I have holdover class feelings."
In fact, Pekar, who's expected to make the rounds at the parties, had to borrow his tuxedo "off a guy who lives a few blocks from me in my [Cleveland] neighborhood." He adds, "HBO bought me a suit. They've been very nice to me."
I talked with Pekar as the festival was approaching its midpoint, and in ways it was the most enjoyable conversation I'd had since I arrived. Mostly it was the pleasure of hearing someone tell it like it is. I've never thought of Cannes as "kinda nerve-racking" before. But when you look at this annual movie pilgrimage through the eyes of an exemplary outsider who's devoted his life to low-key cultural commentary, you start to suspect that "weird and out of place" is a very appropriate way to feel.
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So who did show up? So far, 2003 hasn't proven a particularly high-flying year for the global film community. Many predicted smaller attendance at Cannes than usual, citing fears about SARS and tensions between the US and France over the Iraq war.
Unofficial estimates do suggest that the international star-gazers strolling down the seaside Croisette are less numerous than usual. But plenty of celebrities did show up, including actress Meg Ryan and director Steven Soderbergh, members of the jury that will hand out prizes Sunday night.
"Nobody said anything to me about not coming," said Mr. Soderbergh at the jury's opening-day press conference, implying that fears of American absenteeism were greatly exaggerated.
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"Quiet" has been the headline for this year's festival. There's been little buzz about newly formed studios, trends in style or subject matter, or quantum leaps in production by rising film industries.
That said, Cannes continues to exert strong influence on movie exhibition around the world.
The growing prominence of documentaries is a case in point. Last year's Cannes lineup included the first nonfiction film to make the official competition in decades. That sounds like an esoteric fact until you realize the title was "Bowling for Columbine," and its special prize was the first step in a success story that includes worldwide grosses of more than $44 million to date.
Several documentaries are being shown out of competition, including "The Soul of a Man," a portrait of three blues singers by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. Documentary buffs are especially excited about "The Fog of War," about Robert McNamara, Defense secretary during the Vietnam War. It was directed by Errol Morris, who may parlay Cannes success into a bigger box office than he achieved with "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control."
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Crowding aside the celebrities on the red carpet are individuals hoping to score career breakthroughs by charming the horde of international observers here. Some are actors from Europe and Asia who've landed roles in American movies that could make them big Hollywood stars.
An example is Italian Monica Bellucci, who didn't make a major splash opposite Bruce Willis in "Tears of the Sun," but could do just that with her turn as the seductive computer program Persephone in "The Matrix Reloaded," which had its world première at the festival.
Not missing a trick, she emceed the festival's splashy kickoff ceremony.
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It's the not-so-famous faces that tend to give the festival much of its energy.
At a Cannes dinner a few years ago, I met a man who'd come to pitch an invention he claimed would revolutionize movie subtitling: Instead of appearing at the bottom of the screen, subtitles would appear right next to actors' mouths, changing color and typeface according to the emotions of the scene. This struck me then (and still strikes me now) as one of the worst ideas I've ever heard.
All the same, I couldn't help admiring the conviction of my dinner companion, who sincerely believed his product would make the movie world a better, more entertaining place.
Cannes wouldn't stay in business long if idiosyncratic entrepreneurs like this took over. But it would be a far duller festival if the studio moguls drove away the Harvey Pekars and subtitle revolutionizers and took sole title to the place.
These movies were among the most talked-about pictures during the first half of the Cannes festival:
American Splendor, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. This dramatic comedy tells the real-life story of Harvey Pekar, the writer and main character of the underground-commix series of the same title. He's played by Paul Giamatti, but the real Mr. Pekar also appears in the picture as himself, and there's an animated version of him as well. The film has similarities to "Adaptation" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," but its canny blend of fiction, documentary, and cinematic magic is one of a kind. Opens Aug. 15.
Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier. The director of "Dancer in the Dark" and "Breaking the Waves" continues to court controversy. His new opus, thought to be a front-runner for the festival's Palme d'Or prize, was shot entirely on a theatrical stage, where a sense of existential isolation surrounds the main character - a woman (Nicole Kidman) hiding from danger in an "Our Town"-type village - and the perfidious Heartland Americans who take her in. Some spectators found it a profoundly philosophical fable, others a stridently anti-American rant. Almost nobody left without a strong opinion. Opens this fall.
Elephant, directed by Gus Van Sant. After the experimental "Gerry," the director of "Good Will Hunting" takes further artistic risks in this compassionate yet tough-minded account of a high school shooting. The title refers to a metaphorical elephant in the living room of American life that nobody dares talk about despite its inescapable presence. Divisions between fact and fiction, realism and lyricism, and politics and poetry melt away as Mr. Van Sant's camera moves through its suburban environment like a watchful, invisible guest. Opening TBA.
Off the Map, directed by Campbell Scott. The talented actor makes his directorial debut with the adventures of a New Mexico family - dad Sam Elliott, mom Joan Allen, and a preteen daughter - who've stopped filing tax returns because there's nothing to declare. Enter an IRS agent who arrives to audit them, stays to befriend them, and becomes a different person before the story ends. Human values come first in this engagingly low-key tale. Opening TBA.
Swimming Pool, directed by François Ozon. Charlotte Rampling continues her amazing comeback - launched partly by "Under the Sand," an Ozon drama of three years ago - with her sensitive portrayal of an English mystery writer who stumbles into a web of enigmas while writing her new novel in a borrowed French country house. Charles Dance plays her publisher and Ozon regular Ludivine Sagnier is excellent as his unstable daughter. Where does the heroine's creativity leave off and reality begin? That's the mystery the film's audience is left to solve. Opens on July 2.