Before he faced the Catholic protesters at the New York Film Festival premiere of "Dogma" earlier this week, director Kevin Smith had to face another sort of opposition.
At the post-"Dogma" press conference, he was asked about a quote of his in John Pierson's book, "Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes." In it,
Smith had said he saw no point in watching the classic works of great filmmakers. The questioner, nose held proudly in the air, asked Smith if his disdain for the masters of
cee-nay-ma was the reason "Dogma" reminded said questioner of "Animal House."
In a lifetime of going to the movies, talking about them and writing about them, I have never seen a more blatant example of film snobbery. To his credit, Smith answered this snoot in a far more gentlemanly manner than he deserved. Standing by the quote, he said that he wasn't going to pretend that he grew up watching "Jules and Jim" when in fact he was watching "shitty John Hughes movies." Smith wasn't boasting about what he hadn't seen, just not denying it. And of course, it would be completely false to what's so enjoyable about Kevin Smith's movies -- the raunch rendered with disarming sweetness -- if he were to talk of them in terms of the classics. What is he supposed to say? "Ah yes, in 'Chasing Amy' I modeled the fist-fucking discussion on a sequence from 'Stromboli'?"
Smith gave a good answer, but I doubt it placated the questioner. I would love to have asked the snob what he thought of when he listened to "Il Trovatore"? Is it possible to hear it without thinking of "A Night at the Opera"? American comedy fractures Culture with a capital "C." Can you imagine asking the Marx Brothers or Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks what they had taken from the cinema greats? The man had prefaced his question by saying that a film festival is supposed to encourage an appreciation of the great filmmakers. Fair enough. But his implicit suggestion -- that a movie like "Dogma," which is both a serious examination of faith and a succession of dick and fart jokes, had no place in a film festival -- shows a pretty narrow view of where movie art comes from. It's easy to imagine Jean-Luc Godard being asked in 1964 or 1965 if all he'd seen were gangster movies or sci-fi serials when the New York Film Festival showed his "Band of Outsiders" and "Alphaville."
But Godard is now enshrined among the great directors. And I longed to know where all these cinema devotees were Monday afternoon during the sparsely attended press screening of a film that explicitly pays homage to him, Lia Pool's "Emporte-moi" ("Set Me Free"). Heartfelt, daring in the most offhand manner and utterly original, this unheralded little Quebecois film turns out to be one of the two or three best entries in this year's Festival. A coming-of-age tale set in Montreal in 1963, "Emporte-moi" is the story of 14-year-old Hanna (the luminous Karine Vanasse in her movie debut), who charts a course through the turmoil of her troubled family life by taking as her role model actress Anna Karina in Godard's "Vivre Sa Vie" ("My Life to Live").
In the Godard film, Karina's Nana is a prostitute who proclaims that her free will keeps her spirit undefeated by ugliness. For Hanna, Nana's determination to keep "myself for myself" is a rock to cling to amid the tension of life with her Jewish father, an unemployed poet (Miki Manojlovic, in a heartrending performance), and her Catholic mother (Pascale Bussihres), the family's physically and spiritually exhausted breadwinner.
The glory of coming-of-age stories -- and "Emporte-moi" is one of the best the movies have given us -- is that they can bring back all the buried exhilaration and confusion of adolescence, both the feeling that the world is cracking open to spill its secrets and the fear that our comforting, familiar world has excluded us. You can read every bit of thrill and uncertainty on Vanasse's face, whether she's lying in bed listening to her parents' battles or sharing her first kiss with Laura (Charlotte Christeler), the young girl she meets at a basement dance.
The audience that attended the festival premiere of "Emporte-moi" on Wednesday night gave both it and Lia Pool a warm ovation that shamed the lukewarm reception the film got at the press screening. (A wider American audience will get to see "Emporte-moi" when it opens here early next year.) And the audience questions that followed were marked by the same genuine curiosity that has impressed me at the other public festival showings I've attended. People aren't embarrassed to raise their hands and admit that they didn't understand the purpose of a certain scene and ask if the director might expound on it. Maybe you have to have encountered a lot of the pretend erudition of movie know-it-alls to find that directness so refreshing. But it's as good a mark of any of what film festivals can encourage: the real hunger for knowledge and experience, which makes nonsense of the platitudes and sermonizing that encourage neither.