Smile Politely

Cher’s autograph

Tao Te Ching, verse 21

Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.

The 65th Cannes International Film Festival opened this week.  I can smell it: sand and suntan oil, the perfume of supermodels lingering in elevators, the oxygen rush in the flower-bedecked Palais, endless free espresso shots at the Brazilian film market, the creamed spinach at the townie restaurant down the side street, wild strawberries and thyme on the Provencal hillside, the ooze of Camembert, the sweaty crush of paparazzi…

But I’m not there. Last time I was there, my late professor Edwin Jahiel was still going annually, boiling spaghetti on a hot plate in a cheap hostel to save money. He stuck it out. It is addictive, I suppose, but I quit decades ago. For one thing, the impossible-to-catch movies suddenly became accessible thanks to technology. The “unobtainable text” of film could be owned and watched at leisure, key scenes repeated over and over. For another, no one around here cares too much about international film art.

Eugene Hernandez blogged just today about the ten top films he looked forward to seeing at Cannes this year. Number one was Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’ new film, Post Tenebras Lux. That would probably be on the top of my list, too. One of my many complaints about Ebertfest is the way it ignores Latin American cinema year after year, in deference to African films, which often seem so narratively similar as to lack interest. 

See, you’re bored already. There are also new movies in or out of competition at Cannes by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Portugal’s João Pedro Rodgrigues. The thought of new movies by these great directors (who, curiously, all happen to be gay) makes me dizzy and drooling with anticipation. But I just shelve the titles in my brain and wait till they turn up in a year or two, streaming on Netflix or released by Criterion. 

In the years I wrote about such movies at Cannes, no one here could see them anyway. Maybe some would surface years later, long after my reviews had lined the bottoms of terrariums. So why be the first on the block? Patience is a virtue and saves on air miles. 

The access is wonderful at Cannes, particularly if you enjoy bumping elbows with celebrity. But every year? Year after year? I’ve dropped so many names from those days, from Stephen King (translated French for him) to Pete Townsend (sat in front of him at Quadrophenia) to Roman Polanski (chatted with him in the hotel hallway) and on and on, people stopped believing me.

I did see Antonioni once at the festival, before he died. That doesn’t excite too many people. All you have to say to me is Red Desert and I start drooling again. Monica Vitti may be the worst actress ever, but I never get tired of seeing her walk through the fog in that pea green coat.

When I wrote about movies with regularity for Variety and Film Culture and other publications, I preferred to write about avant-garde art movies, non-narrative movies for the most part. I once undertook to differentiate and describe the complete works of “nonobjective” filmmaker Jordan Belson, whose spiritual, meditative films were the model for the Stargate sequence in 2001.  Now, that was a challenge. Belson died last year on the anniversary of 9/11. He was 85.

I once talked to experimental film masters Stan Brakhage and James Broughton (also now both deceased, so this is starting to get frighteningly morbid) at the Montreal Film Festival as we walked out of a screening together. They thought I was a filmmaker, too. I told them, no, I didn’t make films, but I wrote about the kinds of films they made.

They were aghast.  The only thing worse — with less visibility or importance in the entire world of art cinema — than actually making art cinema was writing about art cinema. Yet this has rather been my autobiographical crucible. I have chosen to write the esoteric and strange, sometimes in secret, more often for free than not. I am tempted by the balm of recognition, but take greater comfort in anonymity. I do not harbor fantasies that the many volumes of unseen, abstruse autobiographical poetry lining my closets will resurface, Moby Dick-like, after I’m dust. The idea bothers me. My work either should be cremated along with me or buried long enough to be considered hieroglyphics in some future era when the English language is dead.

The invisible and the forgotten are fine with me, perhaps because in a very real way the present and the eternal strike me as one and the same. I read Stephen King’s recent time-travel novel, 11/22/63, about the attempt to go back in time to stop Kennedy’s assassination. Apart from King’s incessant vulgarity and faux-folksy dialogue, it is an enjoyable enough read, but I take issue with King’s idea of time-travel. It doesn’t seem realistic. 

I argued with someone about time travel recently. I contended that the time travel, so-called, in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was the more realistic method, because all the ages — La Belle Epoque, the Roaring Twenties, 21st Century — coexist simultaneously, whereas King (and most science fiction writers) tell tales of  “going back in time” as though time were as chronological as a wristwatch.

You can’t go back in time. Science does not support the idea of time’s linearity. Only fiction does. Only our story-inventing brains imagine that. Actually, never mind all of this. Let’s wrap up.  What should I do?  File this in the closet with the other self-absorbed pages? Or send it off to Smile Politely as next week’s space filler?

Before I decide, a couple of last things. One, in all those years making the pilgrimage to Cannes (which Andre Bazin called a monastic institution dedicated to the “holy worship of a common transcendent reality”), I never once considered asking anyone for an autograph.  I did, however, obtain the autograph of Cher, when she was still with Sonny and the duo were performing in Chicago. After their concert, they were wandering through Old Town just as I happened to pass.  I ripped a poster off a nearby fence and they both graciously signed their names on the back for me.

Later that same year, a coach at North Park College where I was a freshman slammed me up against the lockers and told me to get a haircut. Sort of a Mitt Romney bullying moment, more typical in those days but not eradicated today, either. 

OK, mailing it in. This turned out to be something like a Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie, where the story is hard to discern, where the point is not immediately clear, and where the ending can pull the rug right out from under you.

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