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McNamara takes turn in hot seat

CANNES, France--Three conversations at Cannes: When Errol Morris first showed Robert McNamara the Interro-tron, the former defense secretary balked. "What's THAT?" he asked the famed documentarian. Morris explained that his device linked two video cameras and two video screens so that he and his subjects can look each other in the eye while talking. In most video interviews, the subject is looking to the side of the camera. With the Interrotron, he is looking straight down the barrel--making eye contact with the viewer.

McNamara had agreed to a one-hour interview with Morris, whose subjects over the years have included the metaphysician Stephen Hawking, as well as lion tamers, pet cemetery operators, electric chair inventors, Death Row inmates, wild turkey hunters in Florida, a student of the naked mole rat and an autistic woman who designed most of the cattle chutes in America.

Morris knew within the first five minutes, he says, that he wanted to do a feature film about McNamara. Eventually McNamara grew to accept the Interro-tron, and in Morris' startling and persuasive new film, "The Fog of War," he looks us straight in the eye as he re-evaluates his role in the Vietnam War.

It is an extraordinary performance, from a man who at 85 still skis and climbs mountains, and takes no guff from Morris. He talks about his realization that the war was unwinnable, about a private memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson, about whether he resigned or LBJ fired him. "When I raised that question with Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post," he recalls, "she told me, 'Of course you were fired.' "

Morris is one of the most distinctive filmmakers in America, a man who combines documentary subjects with haunting, rhythmic graphics and, in his later films, otherworldly scores by Philip Glass. "A Fog of War" is a presentation of a man's thoughts, memories and conscience, all woven together into a tapestry of realism and regret.

After the Cannes premiere of the movie, I joined Morris at dinner with James Blight, a professor in international relations at Brown University, and his wife, Janet Lang. They are close friends of McNamara, who lives in Aspen, Colo.

"Bob had a lot of doubts about making this film," Blight said. "He wondered if he would be left to hang out to dry by Morris. He'd never seen one of Errol's films before. It took a lot of nerve."

Yes, but the gamble was worth it because instead of a dry talking-head documentary, Morris has captured the man himself, a man who held enormous power and responsibility, tried to exercise it well and was clear-eyed enough to see that Vietnam was not winnable.

Morris is an intellectual with a touch of mysticism, a man whose approach to facts sometimes seems musical, as if he wants them to bow and sway to inner rhythms. His motto, he told me, is from the novelist Harry Crews, who wrote, "I want more this, not more of this."

***

Gus Van Sant's official entry, "Elephant," has drawn praise from European critics but scathing reviews from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. It has been called anti-American and irresponsible, but also fearless and strong. It is clearly inspired by the Columbine murders, and follows two teenage shooters through their last day on earth, but it identifies no causes and delivers no messages.

"I want the audience to make its own observations and draw its own conclusions," Van Sant told me one morning over Perrier at the beach. "Who knows why those boys acted as they did? The police have dozens of hours of tapes they made, but have never released them. Maybe then we will find some answers. I think Todd McCarthy the Variety critic was bothered by the style, but shifted that to questions about how such a thing could happen. That's like saying he has no thoughts of his own on the matter. Since he obviously does, he is really commenting on my approach and not the events."

Van Sant also drew criticisms, many of them passionate, after his previous film, "Gerry," which starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in the story of two men who get lost in the desert, and walk, and walk, and walk, without benefit of a bottled Hollywood plot to rescue them and lend meaning to their wandering.

That kind of experiment is more interesting, Van Sant said, than conventional studio pictures. His early films, such as "Drugstore Cowboy," lived in the indie world, and then he had a great success with "Good Will Hunting," which made him a lot of money and defined him for the first time as bankable in studio terms.

"I came to realize since I had no need to make a lot of money, I should make films I find interesting, regardless of their outcome and audience. Cheap films, unencumbered by enormous salaries."

"Elephant" uses high school students from Van Sant's home town of Portland, Ore., and looks professional in a cold, sharp-edged, glossy way, but it's "interesting," in his terms, because it simply regards events based on that tragic day, without trying to explain them.

***

Most people at Cannes have never heard of Harvey Pekar; his wife, Joyce Brabner, and their adopted daughter Danielle Batone. But to comic book fans, Pekar is famous for chronicling the story of his life, bringing unexpected drama and poignancy to the existence of a man who worked all his life as a government file clerk. And now Cannes knows him, too, because of "American Splendor," a film by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini that combines a fictional story starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis with real-life footage of Pekar, Brabner and Batone.

The film is not in competition, because it won at Sundance in January, but many feel it's the best film they've seen here, and a much better standard bearer for American cinema than Vincent Gallo's booed and derided official entry "The Brown Bunny."

Within 10 seconds of sitting down to talk to the three "real" characters, you realize that what you see is what you get. Pekar is exactly as he appears in the comics and movie--sardonic, doubtful, wary, protective, insecure. He confides that he was once offered a talk show by Fox, but didn't want to risk his government pension after 30 years.

Joyce and Danielle do a lot of the talking. When Harvey observes that money from the movie will pay for the 15-year-old's education, Danielle confides that she wants to study movies but doesn't want to be an actress because then she might be unemployable over 40. Instead, she says, she wants to work behind the scenes. More longevity that way. Harvey nods approvingly.

Harvey was a famous guest on David Letterman's show in the 1980s, until he was bounced for insisting on ranting about General Electric's ownership of NBC. He only did the show, he says, to help sales of his comic books. "And it didn't sell any books, so why was I bothering?"

The stupidest question she's been asked, Joyce said, is whether when she married Harvey 20 years ago this week she knew she would be sharing a stage with him at the Cannes Film Festival. "I just tell them, of course I did."

Some readers of the American Splendor comic books over the years have doubted that Pekar was really a government file clerk in Cleveland. The movie shows him at work, and at his retirement party. "He's grade G-4," Joyce said. "G-2 is minimum wage. Isn't that something, after 30 years as a file clerk?" Yes, but it got them to Cannes.

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