May 26, 2006
At least once in every reviewer’s career a story is written to convince to readers – and, implicitly, various editors and bosses – that watching and writing about movies for a living is hardly the picnic everyone assumes it to be. Variations on the same theme are written by reporters assigned to beats in the sports, fashion, food and travel departments.
The spiel begins something like this, “I was at a party last night, when someone professing to be a film buff said, ‘You have the best job in the world.’ To which, I replied, ‘Well, I don’t know what you do professionally, but I’ll bet you’ve never been required to waste an afternoon watching ‘The Corpse Grinders’ and ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (or hundreds of other titles considered to be beneath contempt), let alone have intelligent opinions about them.”
The critic hopes readers will muster sufficient empathy for the unbearable gravity of his job to stop asking such wearisome questions. And, moreover, editors will look kindly on requests to cover such tough-duty assignments as Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festivals. Again, to be fair, the same whining can be heard from dyspeptic restaurant writers and sports columnists forced to bear witness to the annual folding of the Chicago Cubs and other hapless franchises.
Indeed, no job is considered to be perfect – or, even, pleasant – by those actually doing the work … no matter how loosely one construes the concept. Being handsomely paid to write about movies, however, is as close to “perfect” as most gigs get.
In my time as both an editor and reporter, I’ve not only grown weary of hearing such condescending appeals to the heartstrings of editors and readers, but I’ve also resorted to using them occasionally to bargain for better assignments. Hypocrisy, after all, is one of the most valuable implements in any journalist’s toolbox.
Of all the plum assignments in the profession, Cannes ranks right up there with the Super Bowl, World Series, coronations, papal visits to Tahiti and the Miss Nude Universe pageant. Once upon a time, the Academy Awards and national political conventions were looked upon with the same esteem, but now they’re mostly seen as pains in the ass. I mean, how often can one ask “Who designed your dress?” or “So, do you think you can win in November?” without pondering suicide?
Writers routinely complain about the challenges of covering Cannes, which include jacked-up prices for food and lodging, dogs in restaurants, the scarcity of party invitations, conversion rates and the body odors of critics not from North America. Long gone are the days when a Simon Sylva, Brigitte Bardot or Edy Williams could be counted on to the cut through the stacks of highbrow baloney simply with the flash of a breast … or two.
Then, there are the movies, not all of which are fit for human consumption.
In 2003, the usually charitable Roger Ebert – who’s covered Cannes as long and with as much enthusiasm as anyone – set a new standard for exasperation in the face of untenable pretentiousness. After squirming through Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” he declared it to be the worst movie in the history of the festival, even while acknowledging upfront that he hadn’t seen all of the entries. In response, the model/musician/actor/director called Ebert a “fat pig” and reportedly put a curse on the critic’s colon.
“I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV,” Ebert shot back. “It was more entertaining than ‘The Brown Bunny.’” (Months later, Ebert would revisit the film, and award Gallo’s editing decisions with a three-star review. Even so, the original exchange of barbs was remembered long after the film and Chloe Sevigny’s infamous BJ were forgotten.)
The Cannes festival, which isn’t open to the public, continues to fascinate for three disparate reasons. For buffs and critics, it serves as a coming-out party for new work by the world’s elite filmmakers; for industry types, it is a marketplace for movies ranging in quality from superb to abysmal; and, for publicists and fanzines, it represents yet another giant photo-op for stars, bimbos and corporate weasels. T’was ever thus.
In the increasingly distant past, journalists were required only to cover the movies, business and politics surrounding the festival, while paparazzi stalked the ingénues and wannabes who were most likely to doff their bikini tops. Now, however, the duties of the reporter and paparazzo have been merged, as if to more adequately serve those publications and TV newsmagazines desperate to profit from the celebrity meat market.
But, what else is new? Bread and circuses have always competed for the attention of international media. Until recently, American news outlets generally hovered above the madness, ignoring the more scandalous photos and playing down the gossip. Ever since the O.J. Simpson trial, when the New York Times began trading scoops with the National Enquirer, the usual standards of media decorum have ceased to exist.
Increased coverage of celebrity behavior by mainstream media outlets eventually begat more frequent opportunities for publicists to expose their lower-caste clients to a growing number of news sources. Before long, newspapers found they were competing not only with the newsmagazines for readers, but also with the tabs, cable networks and Internet sites that didn’t limit their appeal to “family audiences.”
It was a battle newspapers couldn’t possibly win, even after climbing on board the Internet bandwagon. Those readers who craved gossip, fashion and scandal could find it faster in a far more entertaining format on sites that occasionally strayed across the lines separating PG-, PG-13- and R-rated material. Thus empowered, celebrities and their corporate sponsors gave the media all it could it handle, with every pop-cultural trend, charity bash, reality show and awards ceremony dutifully accorded its 15 minutes of glory.
Thus, the various controversies swirling around the “The Da Vinci Code” were allowed to overshadow everything else happening during the first three days of Cannes. After agreeing to host the U.S. premiere of “M:I-3,” the Tribeca festival became the personal playground for a hyperactive Tom Cruise.
Sundance has been so corrupted by the international party crowd – and, of course, the paparazzi who attend its every craving — even Robert Redford was prompted to question the motives of those who make the annual trek up the mountain. Toronto puts lots of movies on display, but its significance to Hollywood studios and distributors now lies primarily in the proximity of so many reporters willing to scribble down anything a celebrity says in the five minutes of interview time normally accorded them by publicists. While fans and critics are allowed to feast on the quality and diversity of the films on display, others now find Toronto to be one giant roundtable session, interrupted occasionally by screenings of Hollywood’s holiday fare.
From my vantage point, several thousands of miles away from the French Riviera, the only sound emerging from Cannes is a loud, “boooooo….,” or so we’ve been led to believe. The attention of all 4,000 of the assembled journalists not only was on the stars’ obligatory parade down the red carpet, as is typical, but also on the consensus opinion of the assembled critics as to both its commercial and artistic prospects.
In years past, reviews of such decidedly populist fare as “The Da Vinci Code” would have been left to second-string critics back home, while the A-team surveyed films in competition. That worked pretty well, except on the rare occasions when that person would throw in a clunker, as was the case when the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas gave “Godzilla” and “Pearl Harbor” their only unqualified rave reviews (and, not so incidentally, pull quotes from a non-junket whore).
Today, of course, editors are so desperate for pop-culture appeal they’ll consider doing things that would have been considered insane only three or four years ago. The L.A. Times put Kenneth Turan’s tepid review of “The Da Vinci Code” on Page 1 of Section 1, alongside a piece on the negative response it received. Better, the paper should have reserved the space for an investigative piece on how easy it’s become for studio publicists to persuade editors that their movies are more worthy of prominent coverage than indies, documentaries and foreign flicks that invariably are more favorably reviewed by their critics.
What could the editors have thought when their readers ignored the critics’ slams and went to see the movie, anyway? Or, conversely, when audiences decided that mostly positive reviews weren’t sufficient reason to attend “M:I-3.” (It scored 66 vs. 46 for “Da Vinci” on the Metacritic scale).
The media also fixated on another high-profile American film, ““Marie Antoinette,” if only because the name Coppola was attached to it … in this case, Sophia. The stories emanating from the screenings concerned themselves more with the differences in accents between American and Gallic boo-birds, than the movie itself. The festival served as the French premiere of the lavish period drama, while American audiences will have to wait until October to add their Bronx cheers (or curse the French, once again, for their anti-American sentiments).
This left hardly any room for stories about more diverse fare in competition. If it weren’t for Brad Pitt deciding to stay in Africa to be with a very pregnant Angelina Jolie, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel” would have barely made a dent in press coverage. This, despite speculation it is a front-runner for Palme d’Or. If it weren’t being promoted by a former vice president of the United States, no documentary about global warming would find the same traction among the media as did “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The entertainment press also reported criticism of President Bush by Iñárritu and “Shortbus” director John Cameron Mitchell, whose film includes a rendition of the National Anthem during a gay-sex scene. As far as I can tell, that’s all that’s been going on at Cannes.
If all that’s required of their reporters is to report the obvious – and, of course, most film-festival favorites never find distribution here — why do newspaper editors, especially, continue to expend so much manpower and money to cover an event of so little consequence to their readership? Even the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, whose presence is warranted by their demographics, could be accused of piling-on by assigning too many reporters to cover too little news.
As it is, almost every reporter at Cannes ends up covering the same events, with exactly the same quotes and observations as everyone else, no matter the size of the publication. Criticism and discovery have become far less important to their employers than copycat coverage of the celebrity du jour.
It helps explain the unsavory trend toward replacing seasoned movie critics at important newspapers with personnel not schooled in the cinema. (Note to editors: “young” is not synonymous with “hip” and truly “hip” reporters rarely last very long in the fuddy-duddy world of mainstream journalism.)
Absent any intelligent discussion of the films and artists displaying their wares at Cannes, the festival is no more noteworthy that those in Seattle, Las Vegas and Palm Springs, all of which trot out their own fair share of stars. It’s the movies that made Cannes important – OK, the movies and those forbidden boob shots – and they should cast a larger shadow than the purveyors of hype. Otherwise, soon, the party will be over for everyone. – G.D.