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Class of '94 gets their due at Cannes

CANNES, France -- Every year they come here to the Riviera, the new class of young American filmmakers, hoping for lightning to strike. Ever since Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" arrived at Cannes in 1967 as a motorcycle film and returned to the United States as an art film, Cannes has provided a sort of festival within a festival, of first and early films by young Yankee hopefuls.

It's as if the festival confers an artistic and critical legitimacy on these new films, which typically have low budgets and no stars. The rewards can be instantaneous. The screening of Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" launched his career eight years ago. A few years later, Jim Jarmusch was put on the map with "Stranger Than Paradise." Three years ago, John Singleton came to Cannes as an unknown 23-year-old who had made "Boyz N the Hood," and left in a blaze of glory. Last year, the Hughes brothers had the same experience with "Menace II Society."

Few Cannes launchings have been more spectacular than Quentin Tarantino's, and his saga reflects the kind of rags-to-riches legend that Cannes loves. Five years ago, he was an obscure video store clerk with a screenplay under his arm. But Tarantino was also a fast-talking super-salesman who convinced such stars as Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen to appear in his movie, a low-budget crime melodrama named "Reservoir Dogs." The movie played here in the Director's Fortnight. Tarantino became an overnight star, and the Cannes launching helped "Dogs" become a box-office hit - not only in America but also in England and France, where it is still playing.

This year, Tarantino returned to Cannes with "Pulp Fiction," made on a big budget ($12 million) by his cash-and-carry standards. Violent, lurid, clev er and funny, it was the kind of film that ordinarily wins audiences and divides juries. But not this year, when "Pulp Fiction" confounded all predictions and won the Palme d'Or, the grand prize that is as important in Europe as an Oscar is at home.

So there was Quentin Tarantino, still in his 20s, standing on the stage of the Palais des Festival, surrounded by tuxedos and gowns, wearing a sport coat and an open-neck shirt because he had not exactly anticipated he would need a tux for this year's awards ceremony.

Fortunes can allegedly be made at the casinos of the Riviera, but who has had a better roll of the dice than Tarantino? Five years ago, he was renting videos. Two years ago, he was happy to have lunch on the beach with a visiting journalist (who picked up the tab). This year, Tarantino's agents at William Morris invited the American press to take a $60 cab ride to interview Tarantino where he was staying, at the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes ($1,500 a night, cash only). Who knows? By 1995, he may even own a tux. The next breakthrough

If Lee, Jarmusch, Singleton, the Hughes brothers and Tarantino had it happen to them, who will be next? This year, I saw seven American independent films by first- or second-time directors (and one from the Taiwan-based director of "The Wedding Banquet," which, since it was set in New York, qualifies him for dual cinematic citizenship). There were also films by established indie filmmakers such as Charles Burnett ("The Glass Shield"), Atom Egoyan ("Exotica") and Hal Hartley ("Amateur").

Choosing just from the newcomers, I'd say the biggest splash this year was made by "Fresh," an extraordinary film by Boaz Yakin. It is, like many other U.S. indie films, a grim story about life in the city, and yet completely original. Its hero, a 12-year-old black boy who is used as a drug runner, is probably the single most intelligent character in any movie I saw here this year, and he sets into motion a plot so brilliantly executed that it is halfway over before we in the audience even realize what he is doing. Three separate lives

The youth, nicknamed Fresh, is played by Sean Nelson as a solemn-faced child old beyond his years. His life falls into three parts, which he keeps separate: He lives with an aunt who takes care of 10 children. He visits his father (Samuel L. Jackson), a chess hustler who lectures him on the strategies of life. And he works for a drug dealer (Giancarlo Esposito), who takes a fatherly pride in him and tells him he's so smart and cool that "someday, you gonna be the man."

But that is not, finally, what Fresh wants. Yakin has made a film that in its own intense way is as anti-drug as any I've seen. And he has created one of the most original and unforgettable characters in recent American films. For him, it represents a new start: "In my early 20s, I was doing hack work in Hollywood," he told me. That included the screenplays for "The Punisher" and "The Rookie" (1990), one of Clint Eastwood's less successful films. "I moved out and went to Paris, thinking I'd write a novel. Then I started writing this screenplay . . . ."

Another discovery this year is Darnell Martin, a high-spirited, articulate graduate of Sarah Lawrence and the New York University film school, who returned to the block where she grew up in the Bronx to make "I Like It Like That."

The film stars Lauren Velez as a Puerto Rican wife and mother who, after 10 years of marriage, finds her life changing in an unexpected way. Happily, if tempestuously, married, she needs to raise money after her husband is arrested for stealing a stereo.

A coincidence leads her to get a job with a record producer (Griffin Dunne), and she finds she is good at it. At the same time, she has to negotiate a crisis in her marriage caused by mutual jealousies and misunderstandings with her husband.

The movie is directed at a fever pitch. Everyone seems to be talking at once, and Martin's camera plunges joyously into the center of a neighborhood and a family where emotions are freely displayed. Martin, who got early experience as an assistant cameraman for Spike Lee, has made a film about sex and marriage that is funny and true because it casts aside most notions of eroticism and sees its issues as mostly involving ego and pride. Cost-effective

Kevin Smith's "Clerks" should win this year's Rock-Bottom Prize, given for the film made with the least money. Every year, someone seems able to make a movie for less than the cost of a car; Robert Rodriguez made "El Mariachi" for $8,000, and Matty Rich made "Straight Out of Brooklyn" for about $26,000 - which is more or less what "Clerks" cost.

Smith, like Tarantino, was working as a clerk in a convenience and video store when he decided to direct a movie. Unlike Tarantino, he didn't move locations. He shot the film in the store while continuing to work there, and it's a grungy, black and white comedy about two friends who pass the time in boring jobs and look in wonder at the strange customers their business brings them.

The year's most difficult, uncompromising film was Lodge Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven," about a schizophrenic who returns to his hometown, looking for his lost daughter. Peter Greene, in the central role, works with Kerrigan's screenplay to create an honest, unblinking portrait of mental illness. There is a moment when he rips at his fingernails, driven by madness and perhaps by the hope that the pain will clear his mind. The film has proven too intense for some viewers, but it asks the question: Can any more palatable film really tell the truth about this subject?

Kayo Hatta's "Picture Bride" was directed by a third-generation Japanese-American from Hawaii, who based parts of her characters on her grandmothers. The leads, played by Youki Kudoh and Akira Takayama, are a young woman and man who have exchanged photos leading to her journey from Japan to Hawaii to marry him.

Life in Hawaii is far from what she expected; she works backbreaking hours in the cane fields, and her "picture husband" is older and not so handsome as in his photograph. But an understanding grows between them, as the film re-creates their lives. There is a solemn subtext: Long after slavery was abolished in the South, this form of labor in Hawaii was in some ways little different. Story continuation

Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" was one of the best-received U.S. indie films of 1990, with its portrait of the social lives, romances and rivalries of prep school students in Manhattan. His second film, "Barcelona," could be a continuation of the same stories. One of his characters works in the Barcelona office of a U.S. company; his cousin, a young Navy officer, visits him while doing advance work for the fleet's shore leave. The two young men hang out with young Spanish yuppies, party, fall in and out of love with local women, and talk deeply and amusingly about the meanings of their lives. Stillman is an interesting case, a young director whose outlook is essentially conservative; "Barcelona's" portrait of two white-collar careerists is a reminder that the characters in most other American independent films live marginal or rebellious lives.

"Suture," by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, was one of the more intriguing films at Cannes this year, a thriller about a man who hopes to stage an "accident" that will produce a body that can be mistaken as his own. All very well, but the two men are played by a black actor and a white actor. "We look exactly alike," one comments, and the plot proceeds exactly as if they do. But the displacement caused by their obviously different appearances adds an odd spin to the whole story; It's like a thriller with a missing link.

Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" is not an American independent film; how could it be, since it's set entirely in Taiwan? But it's included here because Lee's "The Wedding Banquet" was one of last year's biggest hits on the U.S. art house circuit, and because the English-language remake rights to this film were snapped up by the Goldwyn Co. What I hope is that the subtitled Taiwanese version also gets a chance to play, since this is a warmhearted, charming film.

The story involves a widower who is a master chef, and so in love with food that the meals he prepares at work are only a warmup for the elaborate banquets he makes at home for his three beloved daughters. Two are grown and have jobs; the third is still in school. All have romantic problems, which we follow along with the uneasy father. And then there is another romance, involving the father, that turns out to be a little more surprising than we expect. Multiple metaphors

Apart from its other pleasures, "Eat Drink Man Woman" has the most luscious food seen on the screen since "Babette's Feast." And food becomes a metaphor for other issues: The father feeds his daughters so lavishly, perhaps, because he communicates better with his cuisine than in conversation.

Early in this year's festival, most of the directors mentioned in this article joined me for a panel discussion at the American Pavilion. Also on the panel were two veteran indie filmmakers: Alan Rudolph and John Waters, whose "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Serial Mom" were official entries. The room was jammed with an audience that included at least a few would-be filmmakers sharing the same goal: to be on next year's panel.

The message for them seemed to be: Nobody is looking for first-time filmmakers, and nobody is volunteering to finance their films. You have to go ahead and somehow make it happen for yourself. One audience member said, "We've spent $20,000 to produce a promotional trailer for a film we want to make, but now we're not sure what to do with it."

Kevin Smith, the former convenience store clerk, made short work of that one: "For that amount of money," he said, "you should have just gone ahead and started making your movie."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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