If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
The following article was originally published on May 25th, 2005.
CANNES, France -- Suddenly calm has descended on Cannes, like a movie without sound. The traffic has returned to sanity. Housewives stroll through the market, filling their wicker baskets with artichokes and lettuces. The awards will be announced tonight, but most of the buyers and sellers and big shots have already flown out of the Nice Airport, and the festival is left in the custody of its most faithful guests: The press, the cineastes, the paparazzi and the fans.
I have just had 24 hours I want to tell you all about. These hours explain why I come to Cannes, why all the confusion, expense and hassle, the staying up too late, the getting up too early, the computer meltdowns, the intestinal emergencies, the three or four movies a day, the endless debates about impenetrable plots, are all worth it. Why I love it.
Every morning we awake at seven and have cafe au lait in the little dining room of the Hotel Splendid, which has been owned for 30 years by Madame Annick Cagnet, who is so loyal to her customers that they must die before their rooms can be given away. We have pastry and fruit and then we hurry across the street to the Palais des Festivals for the 8:30 a.m. press screening of that night's official entry.
Yesterday the film was "Three Times," by the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien . You may not have heard of him, but forgive yourself; the entire movie distribution system of North America is devoted to maintaining a wall between you and Hou Hsiao-hsien. His film was magnificent. Like Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," which opened at the end of the year without a breath of advance notice and won the Oscar, "Three Times" has appeared at the end of the festival just in time to win the Palme d'Or. Or maybe not. It is just as great a film either way.
Three short stories. Each one starring the actress Shu Qi and the actor Chang Chen. In each, she is May and he is Chen. All three are about emotional lives and missed connections. In the first, set in 1966, May runs a billiard parlor and Chen is her admirer. In the second, set in 1911, May is a prostitute and Chen is an idealistic journalist who is her customer. In the third, set in 2005, they are confused modern young people, she with health problems, involved in two or three parallel romances which exist mostly on cell phones and text messages.
The film uses exquisite visual and tonal strategy. The 1911 story is told as a silent film, with a sad, distant piano on the sound track. The 2005 story is all noise. The 1966 film is all waiting. None brings the subject of romance up to the level of a plot; it is handled in terms of longing, loneliness, secret feelings, or the brutal carelessness of life. The film is wise, and heart-breaking.
There is a lunch at the Carlton Hotel's beach restaurant to promote two movies: Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking" and Phil Morrison's "Junebug." The first is an official selection about a broken-down cowboy star in search of a lost son; it stars Sam Shepard (who wrote it), Gabriel Mann as the son, Jessica Lange as his mother, Fairuza Balk as his girlfriend, and Sarah Polley as a waif with a secret. The second is...well, I slept through it. "I'm not going to BS you," I told Phil Morrison. "I fell asleep during the opening titles. It wasn't the film's fault. I got food poisoning the night before, and I was feeling like hell, and then my computer crashed and I was up all night trying to get it to work, and all I can say is, my wife Chaz thinks your film is lovely and I felt safe enough to slip that word into an article, because I did wake up once, and saw Scott Wilson saying, 'Now if I was a screwdriver, where would I be?' And he said it as only Scott Wilson could say it, as if he wanted to know with all of his heart and soul where that screwdriver was."
"I slept through the first film I saw here after I got off the plane," Morrison said. And in a moment we were deep in conversation about the redemptive power of film, and Morrison's belief that good ones can make you a better person and touch you spiritually, and my feeling that they can be a form of prayer. Without having even seen his film, I can tell you, because I feel it, that Phil Morrison has the heart of a great director.
"I was asked by a TV crew for my favorite moment in the cinema," he said, "and I mentioned a shot in Vincente Minnelli's 'The Clock.' An hour later, I walked into the Carlton, and there was Liza Minnelli, who may even have been conceived while her father and Judy Garland were making that movie."
The Carlton beach buffet was thrown open, and we loaded our plates with enormous piles of known and unknown foodstuffs. I sat down next to Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard, who lit up little cigars and talked about how Jessica Lange (Shepard's love of many years) would not rehearse her big angry scene because she wanted it to be fresh, and so it was quite a surprise for both of them when she slapped Shepard. "I was so amazed, I forgot to walk away," Shepard said, "and then she kicked me."
Wenders said he has been in the official competition at Cannes seven times, winning with "Paris, Texas." Some veteran directors enter their films out of competition, but we agreed that's the same as using birth control: It can be a lot of fun, but you don't have any babies. "Something should be at stake," he said. He added that Cannes was still "the great festival." Not Venice: "Every screening starts an hour late, they mix up the reels, it's a mess."
Fairuza Balk and Gabriel Mann joined the table. She can look so fierce and so often plays characters on the edge that it was a surprise to learn not only that her career began in "Return to Oz," but that she is warm and funny. She said she saw "Paris, Texas" when she was a child, and became obsessed with it; after "Wings of Desire," she dreamed of working with Wenders. Mann said his parents took him to art movies and gave him great books to read, and he grew up "like any teenager, idolizing Wenders." Not like every teenager, I suggested. You realize, talking with young professionals like these, that although Paris Hilton can grab all the headlines at Cannes, it takes intelligence and substance to stay alive as an actor. "You don't set out to be in a Wim Wenders film," Mann said, "but if you get there, wow." Balk said she tries as a strategy to work with good directors: "I've been in a couple of doozies, but mostly I've been lucky."
After lunch, I walked down to the Bazin screening room in the Palais for a preview of "Chromophobia," an official selection directed by Martha Fiennes, in which the characters deal with government fraud, bulemia, cancer, breast augmentation, adultery, illegal stock transactions, children out of wedlock, journalistic sensationalism, killing animals as a sport and personal betrayal, and the stories all somehow resolve themselves in an ending that can be scored by Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It's not a boring film.
Soon it was time to put on our formal clothing and walk down the Croisette to the official dinner honoring Morgan Freeman, who was being given the Medal of the Cannes Film Festival. Gilles Jacob, the president of the festival, hosts an official dinner every night at the Carlton, and we have been to more than a few, including the one where we discovered that a trick of the room's architectural dome allowed us to hear every word being said at a table across the room, all of it sounding like malicious gossip, although unfortunately not in a language we understood.
Morgan Freeman is some kind of a man. Tall and courtly, and filled with an appreciation of the moment. He introduced us to his wife, Myrna, and they sat down next to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning journalist, who is on the official jury. Over at our table we were with another jury member, the great John Woo, whose work has forever changed the way action films look. He was with his daughter Angeles, who has worked with him for four years and will be a great director, he said. She was named for the city of Los Angeles. I told him that both children of the director Ang Lee were born in my home town of Champaign-Urbana, but that perhaps it is best they were not named after it.
On my right, Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Classics, told me that Harvey Weinstein has apologized to him "for all the terrible things I've done to you in the past." His anger, Harvey explained, was caused by undiagnosed diabetes and a day-long diet of M&Ms. Now that he has his disease under control, he has been able to lose weight and be a nicer person.
Seated on the left of my wife was the famous William Morris agent Cassian Elwes, who told Chaz that Harvey Weinstein had called him up and apologized for his bad behavior in the past, explaining about the M&Ms and saying that he was going to be a better person from now on. "What I really want to know," Barker said, "is what terrible things Harvey has done to me. I couldn't think of anything. If I ever find out, I'll probably be really mad at him."
We walked home along the Croisette, running into the director Alexander Payne ("Sideways"), the head of the jury for the category named Un Certain Regard; only the French would consider it a compliment to hold a film in "a certain regard." He told us his jury had selected "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," by Cristi Puiu of Romania, as its prize winner. Payne's next stop: The jury at Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic, in July. "Then back to making movies."
Saturday morning we could sleep as late as we wanted. I woke up at 7 a.m. and was definitely up for good. You know the feeling. I walked down through the Cannes marketplace, past the onions and radishes, the baskets of flowers and groaning boards of cheese, the sausage man and the herb lady, and then I strolled down around the harbor until I found a restaurant serving breakfast.
Tom Luddy was already at a table. He is the co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival and knows everyone and everything about film. Soon the next table was occupied by the French film critic Michel Ciment, who also knows everyone and everything, and holds strong opinions about them.
"The Hou Hsiao-hsien has changed everything," Ciment said. "It is a great film, and this morning it has the top score in the critics' voting. It just might win. I love the way he has such a delicate touch, knowing just how to place everything without ever being obvious or doing one unnecessary thing." He mentioned seven or eight of his other favorite films by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Ciment knows everything, but he is so nice about it, and he always talks as if he assumes you know it all, too.
Luddy said his friend Werner Herzog has left for Thailand to scout locations for a fiction film based on his documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," about a German who joined the American army, was taken captive by the Viet Cong, escaped, and walked to freedom through hundreds of miles of jungles filled with tigers, snakes, fevers and chills. We agreed that the Herzogs are the nobility of the film world, the Quixotes who never lose faith. His latest doc, "Grizzly Man," is a big success here and may be a box office winner; it incorporates video footage taken by a man who lived every summer with the grizzly bears of Alaska, coming to no harm for years, until he was eaten.
Then I walked back around the harbor to the Hotel Splendid, the sun bright now in the eastern sky, the flags flying brilliantly on top of the Palais. I joined Chaz in the breakfast room and we chatted with Madame Cagnet, who introduced her new puppy. "I thought I was finished with dogs," she says, "until I saw this one." We made friends with the puppy. Richard Pena, the director of the New York Film Festival, was at the next table. "Didn't you love the Hou Hsiao-hsien?" he said.
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