CANNES: THE UNDERSIDE - 2
Day 2: Not to put too fine a point on it, I'm f***ing sick of post-modern irony.
To mentally prepare you for the coming Cannes film festival in May, we continue Nick Roddick’s subversive columns from the daily editions of Moving Pictures at the 2002 Cannes film festival & market, an irreverent, insightful, sometimes cynical and always entertaining take on what Cannes is really – really! – like.
As most of you probably know, New Line is planning to remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The director is Michael Bay, who happens to be one of the original signatories of the campaign against movie violence. But hey, no contradiction there: according to New Line, the remake will take an ironical, post-modern approach to the story of Leatherface and his DIY power-tool activities.
Now before anyone - least of all Bob Shaye, the first studio head in two decades to greenlight on a gut reaction (Lord of the Rings) rather than run the numbers and say no - should think I am dissing New Line, let me say that I am sure TCM II will be a cracker of a movie. It's the post-modern-irony bit that bothers me.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I'm fucking sick of post-modern irony. Regular readers, of course, will recognise a mea culpa here. In their far-distant heyday, these columns were hotbeds of irony, fast-breeding reactors of post-modernism. It was de rigueur at the time. It was also good for a few cheap laughs.
Post-modern irony, at any rate as filtered through the distorting mirror of the entertainment industry, is the bit that allows you to say something and at the same time mock yourself for doing so. It goes, 'I don't really mean this - unless you want me to, in which case I do'. It's Kylie Minogue being sexy, Quentin Tarantino being butch. It's a faux commitment which enables you to stay cool and dry while pretending to plunge in and get hot and wet. It's also the opposite of genuine feeling and it's slowly killing the cinema.
I think it was Wim Wenders who grabbed the title I always wanted to use for a book: Emotion Pictures. There's a
non- post- modern irony lurking in there, since Wenders has spent an awful lot of his career being coolly ironic. But the concept remains a necessary one: the movies that we're emotional about, that we love - really, truly, love - are the ones that stay with us. What they no longer seem to do is stay in the cinemas.
I'm not saying they're my all-time favourites - nothing is ever likely to dislodge The Searchers and La régle du jeu. But, of the films that have won the Palme in the past decade, the ones I find myself wanting to see again - The Piano, Underground, The Son's Room - are the ones that have charged headlong and defenceless into the emotional heart of their subjects. For Jane Campion, that charge brought international acclaim. For Emir Kusturica, it brought pariah status because it wasn't correct to care deeply (or at all) about the things he cared about. For Nanni Moretti, it raised a few eyebrows because he had seemingly abandoned the post-modern irony of his diary films. Silly boy.
Of the winners whose video slick I don't care if I never see so much as the back of again, meanwhile, most are so busy winking knowingly at their audience I'm surprised they haven't gone blind. And at least one has gone on to be a substantial hit, with everyone citing the scene in which the kid gets his brains blown all over the back seat. Boy, did I laugh at that.
There are two movie traditions that have remained more or less constant throughout the years: the European one of blagging lots of public money to express your artistic soul; and the Hollywood one of spending megabucks to get back even more. But, at one stage at least, they both did so on the basis of what someone - an auteur or a producer or a studio head - thought was worth making.
Two years' research in the Warner Bros archives taught me that production chief Hal Walllis' business decisions in the Golden Age of the 1930s were ultimately based on aesthetic preferences, on a belief that the best possible movie on the subject in question would make the most possible money. If you were going to do it at all, the argument seemed to go, you might as well do it properly. Not any more.
Back in the glory days of the indies, one 'major' producer/sales agent (older readers will have no difficulty identifying him) would regularly advertise a new production with three major stars, none of whom had yet been even so much as casually approached. If the response to the ad was good, he'd pre-sell the film and start trying to get at least one of the stars. If there was no response to the ad, he'd re-advertise the movie with three more major stars (or one of the originals plus a couple of new ones), until he got the right mix to attract the buyers. Then (sometimes) he'd make the film. Sometimes (but not often) it would be released.
I used to think that was rather cute. But now I've seen it corporatised and I don't think it's that cute any more. Nowadays, with the studios, we have a vastly more sophisticated version of the same thing: the film and the stars remain the same, but the pitch is massaged until it works, in a kind of 'Simon Sez' of reality. This movie, the formula tacitly goes, is so bland, it won't be anything you won't like and is really whatever you want it to be. It's not a special effects saga: it's a warmly human story about growth and redemption. Or, if you prefer, it's a slam-bang shoot-em-up with no soppy girl bits. No risk.
"Life is what you make it, Alice"
As my great uncle Jimmy said to my grandmother the day she had her second leg amputated, "Life is what you make it, Alice."
And that bit, at least, isn't made up.
Published March 6, 2003
First published in Moving Pictures, May 16, 2002
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CANNES: THE UNDERSIDE 3
Nick Roddick taught film and theatre at Trinity College, Dublin; the
University of Manchester; and California State University, Long Beach,
before becoming a journalist in the early eighties. He was Films Editor of
Stills Magazine in London from 1983-4 and Editor of Cinema Papers in
Australia from 1985-6. From 1987-88, he was Editor of weekly trade paper
Screen International and, in 1990, founding Editor of Moving Pictures
International. Since 1993, he has been Editor of Preview, a bi-monthly
magazine on films in production. He is author of several books on the
British and American cinema, and currently runs Split Screen, a
Brighton-based publishing and consultancy company specialising in the
international film and television business.
CANNES: THE UNDERSIDE 1