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America finds political voice in France (southland tales mention)

Saturday 27 May 2006, by Webmaster

Many U.S. films talk politics at Cannes festival Filmmakers find an eager audience

Cannes, France-When Sofia Coppola told the world press following the screening of her new movie Marie Antoinette that "I’m not commenting on French politics or any politics," she sounded the least American of just about any American filmmaker here at the 59th annual Cannes Film Festival. And you certainly couldn’t blame the journalists who kept pressing her anyway. Here in Cannes, talking politics has become the American way.

If anything, you couldn’t get most American filmmakers to stop talking about politics, either on or off screen. Richard Linklater talked about politics after screening Fast Food Nation. John Cameron Mitchell talked politics after Shortbus. The Mexican-born but U.S.-residing Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu got political following Babel, and Richard Kelly did the same following Southland Tales.

Even the almost-president Al Gore showed up to talk environmental politics after his global-warming bell-ringer An Inconvenient Truth.

And what these people tended to talk about, which is what’s ailing America these six years into the 21st century, tended to go down like chilled rosÚ here on the sunny Riviera.

Bear in mind that not only does Cannes have a long history of mixing politics and culture - recall that this was the event that was shut down in May 1968 as the result of a filmmaker-led protest - it’s the same festival that granted top laurels to Michael Moore for firing shots back across the Atlantic with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.

But if there’s a built-in receptivity to political talk here (especially of the left-wing nature, despite the fact that this is the hardest right region in the country), it’s only become more acute and particularized in the Bush era. And that’s why Cannes loves Americans who criticize America: they’re not only viewed as redemptively subversive artists, they reinforce the entrenched liberal conviction here that what ails America ails the entire world.

Typical is the exchange I had with a German journalist while we waited for Coppola to show up and disavow any political intent in Marie Antoinette. (Yet even she admitted the movie’s depiction of an apolitical ruling class might have contemporary political application.)

Like a lot of European journalists, he had loved Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, which fictionalizes Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction bestseller by depicting an ensemble group of characters variously caught up in the cycle of consumption and exploitation hinged on the multi-billion-dollar hamburger industry. In the process it also takes on illegal immigration, corporate corruption and animal rights.

A movie that has seriously divided response among U.S. critics (some of whom have called the movie propagandistic, unconvincing and na´ve), Fast Food Nation struck this fellow as a sure-fire hit in Germany and other European countries, "especially now that we’re all being polluted by the same food."

The same could be said for Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s cheeky (so to speak) movie about several New York characters indulging in graphically depicted extreme sexual activity as a means of escaping their own essential loneliness. (A theme, incidentally, that Inarritu also addresses in one of the multiple narrative strands of Babel.)

Featuring an instantly buzz-worthy moment in which "The Star-Spangled Banner" figures audaciously in a three-way homosexual tryst, the movie played very big with European journalists who were thrilled to hear Mitchell insist that the movie’s not about sex but the epidemic "fear of sex" in what he called "a puritanical era."

While Richard Kelly’s massively ambitious but incoherent Southland Tales went down as disastrously as the high-tech government mega-zeppelin destroyed in an act of domestic terrorism at the film’s climax, the filmmaker’s intentions nevertheless flew. He claimed the movie was an amalgamation of a number of issues that signified a sickness in his homeland, and that perhaps the film’s confusing nature was rooted in "complex problems." While the excuse failed to win favour for the movie, it did buy some sympathy for its maker.

Inarritu, whose movie was much more fervently praised than Kelly’s (and is considered by many to be a strong Palme d’Or contender), was also lauded for his intention to make a powerful emotional experience from a set of abstract global problems.

"This is the first film I’ve seen," one journalist told him during the movie’s press conference, "that puts a human face on globalization."

If Southland Tales collapses beneath the weight of its own world-historical ambitions, it’s partly because Kelly takes on more - terrorism, the Patriot Act, the media, incipient state fascism, celebrity, etc. - than the script can comfortably bear.

But what’s interesting is how the ensemble, multi-tiered narrative structure he adopts is common to so many American-made movies about national disease. Fast Food Nation (which has been disparagingly described as "Traffic with meat") tackles the same strategy, as do Shortbus and Babel. Even An Inconvenient Truth does something similar in documentary format: While focusing on Gore’s powerful slideshow about impending environmental disaster, it also tries for the longest and widest view possible. It even opens with the first photograph ever taken of the entire planet from space.

While most of these filmmakers were inevitably asked if they thought movies had the power to change the world - and most inevitably declined to answer the question - it would seem a more reasonable thing to wonder if the world was changing the movies.

The fact is, and it’s something both Mitchell and Linklater alluded to in their conferences, there is something going on, and it’s art playing out its most useful and maybe even primal social function: Even at a time when standing up and being heard seems more difficult than ever, the creative imagination can’t help but cry out in protest. As is perhaps nowhere more clear than at a film festival, it’s the way we cry out in the dark.