Cannes Diary III: Grave Robbing

  • Share
  • Read Later
This was to be the day that high art met low trash on the Cote d'Azur, with two quirky North American directors offering analyses of death-love in the cult of showbiz. Today's prestige items: Gus Van Sant's Last Days, an imagining of the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, and Where the Truth Lies, Atom Egoyan's film of a murder case involving a comedy duo not unlike Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Because Van Sant, from the U.S., and Egoyan, the Canadian, are revered for their elaborate, eccentric visions, we figured we would not get simple tabloid tattle. We came expecting an upscale approach that would anatomize the tawdry headlines and view the sordid spectacle from a remote, ironic height. Art-film gossip is dish best served cold.

Well, forget it. The films were both busts. And, whatever the lofty intentions, they were exploitation films — I mean, they exploited an audience's lurid curiosity about the harm showbiz icons could inflict on themselves and others — and failed ones to boot.

Like Van Sant's Elephant, which traded off the Columbine shootings, Last Days is a pot of post-narrative sludge that hopes to attract an audience by alluding to a gruesome event, and turn a celebrity tragedy into an art film. "Although this film is inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain," Van Sant and his lawyers declare, "it is a work of fiction and the characters and events portrayed are also fictional." In other words, we're not paying anybody.

Michael Pitt (the young American in Bertolucci's The Believers) incarnates Blake, the Cobain character, as a stumbling junkie whose monologues are often incomprehensible; we got a hint of their meaning only by reading the French subtitles. He trudges through the woods, swats imagined flies, collapses against doors. One exasperated woman asks him, "Do you say, 'I'm sorry that I'm a rock-and-roll cliche'?" Van Sant and Pitt aren't sorry. They embrace the standard version of the pop star as lost boy, doomed poet; Blake is a rock Rimbaud. At the end he dies (as he is obliged to do) and ascends the wall of his room into rock-and-roll heaven — which makes Last Days something like the 43rd ghost movie in Cannes' first few days.

Occasionally these stoned tableaux are lightened by intrusions of real-world comedy: the visit of a Yellow Pages ad salesman to a stoned Blake; the door-to-door missionary zeal of two young Mormons. Ricky Jay provides a few moments of irrelevant coherence with his story of a magician named Chung Ling Su. But these interludes can't bring Last Days to life. The film is so studied and self-conscious that the audience can never concentrate on Blake; it can only watch the camera watching him.

Greater intellects than mine — say, the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman, an articulate champion of Van Sant's recent work — will make a case for this movie. But it's a mystery to me how following a young man as he mutters and meanders, or waiting for him to trudge up to and past the camera, advances movie art. This isn't the art of telling a story through picture; it's loitering with intent.

Where the Truth Lies can be quickly dismissed. There's piquancy in the plot (from a Rupert Holmes novel), about a blond corpse discovered in the hotel suite of a comedy team — smooth Vince Collins (Colin Firth) and manic Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) — and the efforts of a young journalist (Alison Lohmann) to solve the case. Such a tale, set in two periods, the glitzy 1950s and shaggy 70s, might have had some period effervescence. But the concoction here is flatter than a long-opened bottle of sham...poo.

Firth and Bacon never demonstrate camaraderie, let alone comic finesse. Lohmann plays the investigatrix as a decadent but dewy Nancy Drew. So convincing as a 14-year-old in the Ridley Scott Matchstick Men, she is incompetent here. And Egoyan shows that, when he's not pursuing his own fascinating demons, he's subpar as a director for hire.

But wait. We are obliged to swat another effort in the vandalism of the cinematic cemetery, Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This crime-laced comedy, narrated by Robert Downey, Jr., as a two-bit hood turned movie actor, is meant to be a parody of Hollywood action films, especially the ones produced by Joel Silver, who produced here. Running on the fumes of countless bad movies, Black concocts what might work at five mins. as a slam-tribute at a Joel Silver roast.

The film revels in its sadistic streak, with many murders and a snatch of testicular electroshock torture, all played for laughs — smirks, anyway. More than once, the Downey narrator says, "I apologize, that was a terrible scene." Apologies are not enough. I demand reparation. A memorial on the Washington Mall, in testament to the wasted hours and coarsened sensibilities suffered by audiences who have sat through movies like this, might be a start.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a demonstration — worse, a celebration — of the dead end Hollywood movies have hit. Fortunately, Cannes offered a palate cleanser, a detoxification, in the form of Stuart Samuels' documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. It focuses on six films — El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, The Harder They Come, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead — that earned cult status in the 70s through midnight screenings at venues like Ben Barenholtz's Elgin Theatre in Manhattan.

Samuels wrote an O.K. 1983 book on the subject. There was a much better one, by Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, which Samuels co-opts by having its authors carry his film's critical narrative. The rest is a brisk mix of clips and interviews with Barenholtz and other exhibitors, as well as five of the six films' directors. Midnight Movies is a pertinent, poignant reminder of an era when all sorts of weird wonders filled the screen, at all hours of the day and night — back when progressive directors went about breaking taboos, not surrendering to Hollywood's fondness for feeding on its own carcass. A look at the other picture on display today might convince you that we have truly entered the night of the living dead.