Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
CANNES, France -- I have seen seven movies here since my last report, and together they will not gross as much as the popcorn sales for "The Matrix Reloaded" in one good-sized state--California, say. I moderated a panel of independent American directors Saturday, put together by the Independent Film Channel at the Variety Pavilion, and "The Matrix" loomed like a thundercloud over the table. As box office records were falling like so many clones of Agent Smith, here we were talking about retarded ice-fishermen in Wisconsin, and a Cleveland file clerk who inspired an underground comic book.
Is there no point to our enterprise? Should we simply go home and buy Warner Brothers stock? Complicating the matter: "The Matrix Reloaded" is not at all a bad movie, and indeed one of the directors on the panel observed that the Wachowski brothers had made it with real passion. This in the week when Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, attacked American movie critics because they disliked Eddie Murphy's "Daddy Day Care" while his children, ages 5 to 12, loved it. Obviously, critics whose taste is more demanding than that of the Neuharth children are indulging in snotty negativism.
The late C. P. Snow, a British scientist who wrote novels, defined two worlds of the 20th century--one humanist, the other rational. His task, as he saw it, was to bridge the gap between people who wrote novels and people who split atoms. Today the movie industry is split by the same divide. On the one hand, the "novelists," who make one-of-a-kind movies about people they find interesting. On the other hand, the "scientists," who combine box office formulas with high-tech special effects to create movies that function effortlessly to gross billions of dollars.
Allan Mindel comes down on the side of the hand-made films. The director of "Milwaukee, Minnesota" said he hates digital, he hates video, he hates special effects, he hates computerized editing, he wants to dig in up to his elbows in old-fashioned moviemaking techniques. He doesn't even own a CD player, he said, "except for the one that came in the car."
He was the traditionalist on the panel, the director of a film starring Troy Garity as the retarded ice fisherman who gets involved in a plot far, far too complicated to describe here--especially since Mindel also came out against critics who synopsize the plots. Somewhere in the middle was Gus Van Sant, who made "Good Will Hunting," which won nine nominations and two Oscars, and who also made "Gerry," that film where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck got lost in the desert and wandered, and wandered, and wandered--and that is the synopsis. Van Sant is here with an official selection, "Elephant," an HBO film that paints a stark and unforgiving portrait of two students who carry out a massacre at their high school. Van Sant could see the point in studio pictures and anti-studio pictures, all depending on the needs of the director for each individual film.
The conversation tilted back and forth between mediums and messages: Celluloid vs. video, indie films vs. blockbusters. Ross McElwee, whose "Sherman's March" (1986) is one of the most praised of American documentaries, is at Cannes with "Bright Leaves," his new film about tobacco. Like all his films, it is autobiographical; an ancestor developed Bull Durham leaves. Despite his low budgets, he said, he shoots on film--and then curses his decision during the laborious steps in editing and lab work, until finally, when he sees the completed print, "I say, oh, yeah, now I remember why I work in film."
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who are at Cannes with their Sundance winner "American Splendor," used both film and video in their biopic about Harvey Pekar, the file clerk and comic-book hero who was a regular on the Letterman show in the 1980s, until he pushed Dave a little too far.
The film combines fictional footage, shot on film, in which Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis play Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, with video doc footage in which Pekar and Brabner play themselves. The contrast between the two looks was useful, Berman said, in making the fictional and doc parts look apart from each other.
Jean-Francois Pouliot, the Montreal-born director of "Le Grande Seduction," said there was a reason for that: Video and film send different kinds of messages to our minds, and film seems to be a record of the past while video feels as if it is happening right now.
Kenneth Bowser was on the panel representing his doc "Easy Rider, Raging Bulls," about the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when directors were given a free rein at the studios, and a golden age of American cinema was the result. Could such a day come back again?
The directors doubted it, but pointed out that festivals like Sundance testify to the strength of indie films, which are easier to make in the age of video, although Allan Mindel doesn't like the way they look. Even Mindel, however, conceded that there was sometimes a place for video, mentioning Richard Linklater's "Tape" and Ethan Hawke's "Chelsea Walls" as works that would have been impossible on film.
As the panel broke up, hopeful would-be filmmakers surged toward the table to press their screenplays into the hands of these directors who might want to film them. Gus Van Sant has a couple under his arm as he left.
There is always room for hope. Just the day before, I interviewed Campbell Scott in a Q&A session at the American Pavilion, and he recalled how the script for Dylan Kidd's "Roger Dodger" (2002) came into his hands. This was a film that Scott starred in and co-produced, and Kidd directed. And how did they meet? Kidd was a waiter at the time, Scott was dining at his table, and Kidd asked him to read the screenplay. Actors are routinely advised never to read scripts that do not arrive via agencies, because of the danger of plagiarism suits. But there was something about the way Kidd presented himself and described the story, Scott said, that convinced him to ignore the conventional advice and read the thing. Now that could make a movie.
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