DANIEL: First of all, Dub, I want to thank you for honoring my “no flats” policy for this festival wrap-up – I feel like the Palme d’Or calls for a little old-school glamour. As I wrote in my review of When Father Was Away on Business, the Palme d’Or award is similar to the Oscar in that it has attained a phony prestige over the years, and the winners tend to have a whiff of “importance.” Cannes juries favor small-scale human dramas over genre pictures, and the films that win usually take place against a sprawling cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment (side note: on the surface, at least, the 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, about Sri Lankan immigrants living in the Paris suburbs, fits this template).
“A sprawling cultural canvas” is actually a pretty apt summation of Paris, Texas, German director Wim Wenders’ romantic and slightly askew notion of the lonely American West of 1984. One of the things that struck me the most in Paris, Texas was the idea of the road as a lifeline – Travis (a haunted Harry Dean Stanton) starts in the desert with no memories and no voice, but his senses come back the more that he connects with the highway. It’s like a blood vein, and even an escape into the hills of the L.A. suburbs comes with a view of the artery, and the incessant sound of its roaring heart. What did you think of this outsider’s vision of Americana?
Well, I agree that it was slightly askew, in Wenders’ sometimes-brilliant (the German doctor in Mexico) and sometimes-not (Aurore Clement’s distractingly bad English) style of European playfulness. But Wenders is a very good filmmaker, and in Paris, Texas, he creates a wonderful visual framework for both distinguishing himself from and building upon his favorite westerns – The Searchers is the reference point that immediately comes to mind. However, it’s also tough for Wenders to successfully stretch his reverence for American sentimentality. The first half hour of the movie is brilliant and mesmerizing, but once the father-son reunion forms the center of the film, it becomes much less vital. Like its main character, the further from the desert the film gets, the more conventional it becomes (save for the scenes in the peep show, which you mentioned in your review), and the more it turns into something that has a road laid out for it.
Perhaps that’s why I liked Ballad of Narayama so much. Although it was based on a novel that had already been filmed, Imamura’s version feels more like an attack than an homage, wrought with ugly depictions of sex, family, society, and tradition. I have not seen the first version, but I know that about half of what we see in Imamura’s version could not have been shown in any film in 1958. The Cannes crowd, in addition to enjoying “sprawling cultural canvasses,” also loves to feel validated by films that borrow from and build on the history of cinema. How do you feel Narayama compares with the other films from our festival?
DANIEL: I think that Narayama is most similar to the other two films in the festival in that it examines a very specific time and place, entering an often overlooked culture while keeping the focus on its basic human drama. As you mentioned in your review, the framework of Narayama is not so far off from indigestible Hollywood treacle like Stepmom or My Life – a woman heroically prepares her extended family for life after her impending death – but the details of the pre-industrial, highly superstitious mountain village in which she exists give the story depth and flavor. Aside from a few dated 1980’s camera tricks, The Ballad of Narayama makes us feel as though we’ve been deposited into an extinct world that we never knew existed. If there is an outlier in this bunch, I think that it’s When Father Was Away On Business, which is the most explicitly topical film of the three films in our festival. Although it’s set in Sarajevo 1950, the film’s depiction of ordinary life in a dehumanizing totalitarian regime was highly relevant to audiences of 1985…what, if anything, do you think that is has to say to us now?
DUB: If there is one theme that both the Cannes jury and the Academy Awards love to love, it’s movies that depict life under tyranny. The same year that When Father Was Away won the Palme d’Or, it was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, losing out to The Official Story, another semi-biographical period piece about life under a terrible dictatorship. You can understand why juries are so quick to reward relevant political works – if we were to ever lose faith in the cinema’s power to shape our culture, then the art form itself would function as little more than, as Gene Siskel’s wife once remarked, “an excuse to eat candy in the dark.” There is a bit of symbiosis to films like When Father Was Away and the awards they receive. They validate each other.
That being said, there is no question that of the three films we watched for this festival, When Father Was Away was the least stylistically interesting. It is practically void of a visual personality, and relies on the somewhat grating narration of a six year old child to bring the audience up to speed. Personally, it has always been a turn-off for me when we see important historical events through the fuzzy and ignorant perspectives of children. Still, the content is interesting enough to avoid succumbing to truly nauseating crap like Life Is Beautiful, which was such a charmer in 1998 that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and, of course, Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
1) Paris, Texas (B+)
2) The Ballad of Narayama (B+)
1) The Ballad of Narayama (A-)
2) Paris, Texas (B+)
3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)
*The glorious Palme d’Or goes to… The Ballad of Narayama.
*The so-so Grand Prix goes to… Paris, Texas.
*The shameful Un Certain Regard goes to… When Father Was Away on Business.
For our June festival, we’ll be staying on the Palme d’Or theme by covering three films bythe Belgian sibling team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two-time winners of the Cannes top prize. Over the course of three weeks, we will be watching and reviewing their first 3 feature films – La Promesse (currently available on Hulu Plus), 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta, and The Son.
Fin…or is it?