Beyond the Multiplex

President Rudy? See "Giuliani Time" before you cast your vote. Plus: Au revoir -- I'm off to Cannes!

Published May 11, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Will canoodling with the beautiful people, pink fizzy drink in hand, destroy whatever vestige of indie integrity this column has left? Well, I don't know that I'll get to answer that question, exactly, but by this time next week I'll be filing my first dispatch from the Cannes Film Festival, simultaneously home to all that is most exciting and all that is most bogus about the movie world.

Can that excitement and that bogosity ever be separated? I don't think so. The film industry is a vast intercontinental spider web of spectacle, connecting the biggest and emptiest Hollywood production with the most gruesome straight-to-DVD gorefest, the most earnest political documentary and the most arduous European art film. The fact that this economy is grossly imbalanced, and that one aspect of it increasingly dominates the others, is a problem, and maybe even a fatal disorder. But the fact that all movies, and all other works of art, enter the world as commercial commodities -- in a state of original sin, so to speak -- is nothing new.

All film festivals try to do what Cannes has done for nearly 60 years, that is, capture the glamour of Hollywood and the aesthetic credibility of art film, and somehow synthesize a blend of the two. Most can't quite manage it, and no others, of course, can offer the fancy-schmancy environs of the French Riviera, which already possessed exactly the right combination of class and vulgarity.

Cannes programmers aren't even pandering, or being hypocrites, when they open the festival May 17 with the world premiere of Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code," and come back a few days later with something the millions of "Da Vinci Code" viewers will never hear about and never see, like Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film "Climates," or Chinese director Lou Ye's "Summer Palace." That's just what they do: The whole idea is to pack the cafes and bistros with overly serious people like me, hoping for artistic revelation, and also with entire families of tourists, hoping for an unscripted encounter with Tom Hanks. (Their odds of getting what they want may be no worse than mine.)

I'll preview the festival in depth next week, but there are a few obvious premieres everybody's excited about. Richard Linklater has, count 'em, two movies at Cannes, his narrative adaptation of Eric Schlosser's bestseller "Fast Food Nation" (in the main competition) and the animated drug saga "A Scanner Darkly" (in the sidebar competition, Un Certain Regard). Sofia Coppola will unveil her follow-up to "Lost in Translation," a film called "Marie Antoinette" that is actually about Marie Antoinette and stars Kirsten Dunst as the eponymous, guillotine-bound queen. (Hmm, is that a spoiler?) I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Even more exciting for the film-geek set, "Donnie Darko" auteur Richard Kelly will premiere "Southland Tales," his long-brewing crackpot-alyptic sci-fi saga, with a huge and exceedingly unlikely cast that includes the Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Kevin Smith, Janeane Garofalo and Wallace Shawn. There's also the usual roster of new films from semi-big international directors, including Pedro Almodóvar, Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros"), Aki Kaurismäki ("The Man Without a Past"), Nanni Moretti ("The Son's Room") and Ken Loach. Purely for the sake of journalism, I promise to go to as many parties as possible. Stay tuned.

The brief lull between the end of Tribeca and the beginning of Cannes brings us only a few rather small releases, which probably isn't a coincidence. My final verdict on Tribeca, by the way, which I feel confident is shared by others: Too many damn movies. A lot of dark and rich documentaries ("The Bridge," "Jonestown," "Jesus Camp," "The War Tapes"), but not nearly enough decent narrative films to justify a festival of that size. One of the great advantages of Cannes is that they've whittled down an entire year of new films to 61, and whether you like their selections or not, you can actually see most of them while still sleeping and eating meals.

This week brings us a noteworthy documentary attacking former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is clearly eyeing a 2008 presidential campaign, and an enjoyable, if entirely fluffy, bit of Gallic soap-opera romance, 21st century-style. For good measure, let's throw in a likable documentary on the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in America. Not exactly great cinema, but I felt very calm during the 57 minutes I was watching it, and God knows I'll need some of that inner peace in the weeks ahead. Bonjour, Winona! Ça marche? Comme t'est jolie!

"Giuliani Time": The rise and fall and rise of "America's mayor," with chapters yet unwritten
Kevin Keating's documentary "Giuliani Time" arrives right on time and right on message. With the former New York mayor clearly laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, it's time America learned about Rudy Giuliani's real record in the Big Apple. While Keating's agenda is clearly hostile, and Giuliani's political committee is eagerly trying to do counter-propaganda, this isn't a campaign of character assassination or innuendo, but rather a dutifully constructed biographical film about a tremendously skilled prosecutor and politician.

Longtime Giuliani critics, like the Rev. Al Sharpton or New York Civil Liberties Union head Norman Siegel, are given no more screen time than, say, Manhattan Institute head Myron Magnet (whose Ben Franklin hairstyle is just as excellent as his name), to a large extent the intellectual driving force behind Giuliani's social policies. Keating's central source is the great New York muckraking journalist Wayne Barrett (recently ousted by the Village Voice's new regime), a Giuliani biographer who knows the former mayor well and who both admires and dislikes him, in roughly equal measure.

This makes for a highly effective mode of argumentation. Even those who are likely to support Giuliani's core policies -- stringent cuts in government services, an unforgiving focus on petty street crime and "quality of life" offenses, and tax cuts for rich individuals and big corporations -- may be disturbed by what they see in "Giuliani Time." Before the mayor was miraculously reinvented on and after Sept. 11, 2001, he had increasingly become seen in New York as a petty tyrant, driven by instinctive racial animosity, a Grinch-like lack of sympathy for those who are poor or struggling and a quasi-totalitarian mania for order.

I should say right here that I can claim no objectivity or neutrality when it comes to Rudy Giuliani. I lived in New York throughout his mayoralty, and as a white, middle-class Manhattanite, I arguably benefited from his obsession with cleaning out the central city and his regressive economic policies. On the other hand, my wife is a political activist who fought the Giuliani administration on many issues, including its long and devoted effort to sell off neighborhood community gardens to real estate developers. (She is also a plaintiff in a suit against the city, relating to police treatment of nonviolent demonstrators during the Giuliani era.)

Certain ugly episodes, like Giuliani's bizarre campaign to punish the Brooklyn Museum for an art exhibit he didn't like, are well known even to outlanders. Not everyone may know that the offending work, Chris Ofili's sexually explicit portrait of the Virgin Mary, done partly in elephant dung, is not in fact meant to be insulting or irreverent. Furthermore, this was hardly an isolated instance. Giuliani had a strange fixation with controlling and censoring art, pushing a case about whether the city could regulate street artists all the way to the United States Supreme Court. As any 1-800 lawyer out of a subway-car ad could have told him, it was an open-and-shut First Amendment case, and even the current court refused to hear it.

Other events, like the brutal sexual abuse inflicted on Abner Louima or the police killing of Amadou Diallo (an unarmed man shot down in a hail of 41 bullets), also made national headlines. Again, it's difficult to convey the atmosphere of mutual incomprehension around these tragedies: Rather than expressing concern and compassion, Giuliani became threatened, defensive, Nixonian. He seemed incapable of grasping that many black New Yorkers felt that he had given police free rein to harass them, beat them and even kill them if it brought the crime rate down another few points. Giuliani may or may not be a racist, but he was raised in an all-white Long Island suburb and plays to primal, almost atavistic big-city fears. The fact that he could be elected not once but twice while totally antagonizing the black population and essentially telling the rest of us that those people were the problem is, as Barrett notes, almost unbelievable.

For my money, the most important political argument in "Giuliani Time" is that Giuliani's cosmetic reforms had little to do with crime reduction, and a lot to do with making rich and middle-class white people in Manhattan and the brownstone neighborhoods of Brooklyn feel better about the city. Under the previous mayor, David Dinkins, crime had dropped sharply for three years before Giuliani took office in 1994. But Dinkins is a black liberal Democrat, so to this day, many people cling to the superstitious belief (argued vociferously by Giuliani during their '93 campaign) that he hated cops and coddled criminals. In fact, Dinkins had hired thousands of new police and introduced a street-level anti-crime campaign. (Some social scientists will tell you that crime rates are more a function of economic and demographic curves than anything mayors ever do, but that's another story.)

Of course, Giuliani's current national reputation rests on one event and one alone, and I'll just admit it: With the president hopping from air base to air base in scared-bunny mode, and the vice president plotting dark deeds down in Coup Central or whatever, Giuliani was the only grown-up human authority figure available on Sept. 11. For every American, and especially every New Yorker, he was a reassuring presence. No one doubts his spine or the force of his convictions, but "Giuliani Time" argues that taking the full measure of this man's dark and paradoxical character involves more than his courage and leadership on one painful day.

Republicans are openly pondering whether Giuliani can save them from a 2008 apocalypse. As Keating's film makes clear, his candidacy may pose as many political problems as solutions. Giuliani is a pro-choice, pro-immigration Catholic, and Barrett suggests that he covered up his father's colorful past as a Brooklyn mobster. Today's Southern-based, heavily Protestant Republican Party may not be eager to embrace all that, and perhaps we should be grateful. After all, a whole lot of New Yorkers were content with the central bargain Giuliani offered them: We'll get the panhandler off your corner, the homeless people out of the park and the graffiti off the subway. Just don't ask us how we did it.

"Giuliani Time" opens May 12 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York, May 26 in Boston and Washington, and June 16 in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: "Russian Dolls" offers a zany, cheerful fantasy of love, European style; "Refuge" offers the path to Enlightenment, briskly
We all need romantic piffle in our lives from time to time, especially when the flowers bloom in spring, tra la. If your taste in piffle runs to the relentlessly cute European-postcard version, then you could do a lot worse than French director Cédric Klapisch's latest film, "Russian Dolls." It's a sequel to his 2002 international hit, "L'Auberge Espagnole," which gathered a pan-European cast of adorable 20-somethings in a Barcelona apartment and set them loose to break hearts and make wry faces at each other. Since Klapisch's only real subject, ever, is young people facing the crazy but marvelous vagaries of love, no previous experience with the characters, nor much translation, is required.

As in the previous film, Klapisch's winsome and perplexed hero is a young writer named Xavier (Romain Duris, of "The Beat That My Heart Skipped"), who's approaching 30, ghost-writing celebrity bios and trying to break into film and TV. While crafting romances of his own, he drives off all the right girls and pursues all the wrong ones. (Ah, l'amour!) We whiz around with Xavier from Paris to London to St. Petersburg to Moscow, by way of Klapisch's determinedly whimsical editing; he's one of those directors who makes you wish Final Cut had never been invented.

Xavier's petulant, self-involved ex Martine (Audrey Tautou) tries to crawl back in his bed, but only manages to scare off the highly cute Senegalese girl he's summoned the courage to ask out -- while he's buying a dress for Martine from her. Booted from his apartment, Xavier crashes with his lesbian gal-pal Isabelle (Cécile De France) and, as in "L'Auberge Espagnole," the sexual tension between them is played only for lightweight laughs. Meanwhile, William (Kevin Bishop), a lumpy Cockney boor in the last film, confounds everyone by finding true love with a lovely Russian ballerina named, so help me, Natasha (Evguenya Obraztsova). What else could she be named? It's just that kind of movie.

All of this goes past painlessly enough. Duris is a reliable, agreeable screen presence, and the girls are cute in that wispy, nonaggressive Euro manner. Even Klapisch's hopelessly goofy fantasy sequences -- Martine as a fairy princess, explaining her history of serial monogamy to her little boy; Xavier's visions of himself as a shameless performing animal -- don't get in the way. Things get a bit slower and goopier when Xavier is faced with a choice between William's English-rose sister, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), and Celia (Lucy Gordon), the jet-setting 24-year-old supermodel whose autobiography he's ghosting. One of these is so clearly the Right Girl -- you get one guess -- that you may begin to wonder why you're spending two hours of your life watching this idiot sort that out.

As long as Klapisch keeps his characters pinballing each other from one Euro-capital to the next, "Russian Dolls" remains fun and charming, without ever seeming remotely serious or meaningful. In some ways this kind of European pop film is better than its American equivalent; it offers a more mature view of sexuality, and a rueful perspective on young romance and its inevitable aftermath that you'd never find in Hollywood. Then again, it lacks the clear construction, chocolate coating and misty-eyed payoff of a classic love story. Chacun à son piffle. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York. Other cities may follow.)

John Halpern's hourlong mini-feature "Refuge" could also be called "Tibetan Buddhism for Dummies," but that means it's pitched at about my level. At times it does feel like an infomercial for the burgeoning practice of Western Buddhism, but at its best it displays that faith's propensity for self-criticism (one of the qualities that's made Buddhist practice so appealing to Western intellectuals). Halpern's premise is that as exiled Tibetan spiritual leaders have sought material refuge in the West, overstressed Americans and Europeans have found refuge in the faith and philosophy they brought with them. In the process, an intriguing, unfinished new synthesis of East and West has been created.

Mostly, Halpern offers a talking-head parade that ranges from the Dalai Lama to Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, with a lot of Buddhist monks and teachers, Tibetan and Western alike, along the way. Somehow, "Refuge" remains a calm and reassuring picture, but never an incurious one. He's not afraid to explore the sexual and financial scandals that have affected some Buddhist ventures in the West, or the tendency of some overly enthusiastic Western practitioners to focus on the ritual elements of Buddhist worship and to breed an isolated, cultlike atmosphere.

This is a charming, informative and sometimes quietly humorous exploration of an influential movement often rendered in clichés by its adherents and enemies alike. When Halpern asks two aging Tibetan monks who run a traditional monastery in rural upstate New York about their American refuge, at first they talk admiringly about freedom of speech and religion. Then one admits that, well, they kind of like having TV, phones and the Internet too. The path to Enlightenment, after all, is one you must find for yourself. Plays with the 27-minute interview film "Talking With the Dalai Lama." (Opens May 12 at the Quad Cinema in New York; other cities may follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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