How much of a selection can a selection be?

April 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

What an odd feeling it is, being disappointed by the very thing you are excited about. This phenomenon occurred to me when I scanned this week’s press release which revealed the films officially selected for Cannes 2014.

More so than any in recent memory, this year’s selection – particularly the films In Competition – seems overwhelmingly dominated by those directed by ‘name auteurs’, the kind whose auteur status may have in fact been nurtured or at least solidified by festivals such as Cannes; the irony of this being that, while I may appear skeptical of this year’s selection by the tone of my words, I don’t know that I have salivated this freely in response to a list of festival films (at least one released by Cannes), nor have I been familiar with as many directors in main competition as I am this year. Aside from 3 or 4 names that barely ring a bell, most of these individuals I can say with certainty are capital E established directors, the type fledgling filmmakers in every nook and crevice hope to one day be. Even newcomers to the Cannes main competition line-up like Xavier Dolan and Bennett Miller are either highly-regarded mainstream artists with critical heft or protégés of the festival itself, Dolan having cut his teeth at least twice in Un Certain Regard. As for the rest…the mere inclusion of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and a seemingly MIA-until-now Mike Leigh is enough to flood my mouth with anticipatory secretions. Add to this the newest works from The Dardennes, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello whose last Cannes entry ‘The House of Tolerance’ I found to be nothing short of magnificent, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Naomi Kawase, Ken Loach, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Abderrahmane Sissako (one of the few African filmmakers of international renown and himself not a newcomer to Cannes)… even Tommy Lee Jones who won big at Cannes a few years back with ‘The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada’…add these and you have a murderer’s row that will pique the interest of any serious cinephile with an internet connection. Lest I fail to mention it, a crown prince of French and indeed world cinema, Jean Luc Godard, will present his newest film in competition as well. Which is where the trouble begins.

There seems to be a general expectation that the newest works by the most renowned directors must have their premieres at the most renowned film festivals. There are certain online publications that shall remain nameless due to my general appreciation of them, publications that nonetheless broadcast and enforce such expectations. When updating their readerships about upcoming releases for filmmakers of note, there is often a line of two speculating where and when these films might premiere. Speculation is one thing, but when phrases such as (and I paraphrase) “so and so film will receive a main competition slot at Cannes” are thrown around months before a festival lineup is even aired and before a frame of the film has even been made public, the air begins to smell a little foul. There is being speculative, and there is being just plain presumptuous. Following the announcement of the official selection, Thierry Fremaux fielded questions from the press and the first of these were silly enough to inquire about the absence of Malick and Kusturica in the lineup. It turns out, according to Fremaux at least, that these filmmakers did not feel their work was quite yet fit for presentation, but even if the final edits were ready to screen, why should anybody expect that a movie should find its way into competition simply by virtue of being a Malick picture? Perhaps individuals responsible for such presumptive statements have informants on their payroll, or maybe they simply believe that there are filmmakers so flawless, so creamy that they will float to the top in all circumstances. And while it would to some extent puzzle – perhaps even irk – the film community if a Cannes competition lineup featured no ‘big’ names, there is something worth questioning in the expectation that the newest film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan or the Dardennes must surely be good enough to make the cut; and I cite these filmmakers because, unless I am mistaken, neither party has in the last decade had a new feature not premiere at Cannes. Now my personal opinion is that Ceylan is hurtling towards arguable pantheon-level greatness with his modest filmography to date, but humour me this for a moment. If, by some stroke of cosmic madness Ceylan’s ‘Winter Sleep’ and all other new works by renowned filmmakers were utterly devoid of artistic merit, were utter goat turds, would they be left off in preference of films by lesser known, less sexy artists whose names would not draw nearly as much interest from film lovers and the film press? I suspect that in this fantastical situation I have created, a festival committee – for fear of losing the publicity a festival like Cannes or Venice banks on – would not only invite a host of A-list celebrities to grace their carpets, but that the selection committee would take chances on bad films by essentially good filmmakers, hoping they have a ‘Vertigo’ on their hands (a film essentially ahead of its time) or that, at the very least, the press will have a field day trashing a name director’s turd of a picture. Am I saying that a selection would throw filmmakers under the bus in order to maintain their festival’s profile? I’m saying I don’t know that they wouldn’t, and that – if they did – that it would be knowingly malicious.

Now – to be a stick in the mud of my own complaint – is there perhaps a reason why the same names keep appearing at festivals such as Cannes, hogging the artistic limelight? Is it because these filmmakers make buddy-buddy with Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob and don’t forget to send Christmas cards? Is it because the film community – like any community – is ever so resistant to those on the fringes, only welcoming a few at a time into its core? Or are these artists well renowned because they truly are the best of the best of the best of the best? Considering thousands of films are submitted each year in the hopes of landing a slot somewhere in the official selection, I’d say that all three of the above are at work to one degree of another.

But on the other hand, Cannes is an institution with the sovereign right to elevate those films it deems worthy of elevation. There are those who question what right festivals have to select a handful of films and ignore a vast majority. To these folk I say, “What right don’t they have? This is what a selection is.” As much as I appreciate their frustration (and mine at times), the simple truth is that each festival, each panel of selectors, is ultimately taking part in the act of ranking art according to its own (the respective festival’s own, that is) value system however steeped in superficiality or artistic integrity, and unless they are tasked with ranking numbers 1 through 2000 in order of numerical value, it is hard to argue against the selection of a film versus the non-selection of another film. If anything, the fact that these festivals don’t seem to surreptitiously suggest that their choice is the capital C choice, unlike some academies that brand films ‘Best Picture’ without much of a relativity clause, sucks the wind from the sails of those who argue against the objective merit of the films that tend to be selected for festivals. The answer is that there is no pretence of objectivity, only the belief that the opinions of those selecting films are as much in service of cinema as the opinions of those who will be ultimately bestowing golden statuettes and ribbon-tied scrolls at said festival’s conclusion. At the very least, the best film at Locarno is the best film at Locarno, and simply that.

So, having argued for the right of festival committees to select whatever films that they so desire, can I then blame the film press for being aware of these committees’ predilections and patterns? If Festival A showcases all the big names while Festival C focuses on small scale films by cinematic underdogs, can one be blamed for knowing that SXSW will almost certainly not be screening Haneke’s next film and that, likewise, Alex Ross Perry isn’t that likely to bag a spot on the Croisette in place of Kore-eda? I suppose the game of presumption and expectation will continue as long as some festivals remain dedicated to bringing you the newest films from the best directors you have heard of.

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