Documentaries in the Shadows in Cannes

by Todd McCarthy
May 20, 2010 3:21 AM
5 Comments
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The more I think about the second-class status of documentaries at Cannes and other European festivals, the more I appreciate the way Sundance has always fought to give them equal footing every January.

To his credit, Cannes selection chief Thierry Fremaux has been more open to documentaries (as well as to animation) than were his predecessors, especially if they come from Michael Moore or focus on some globe-threatening calamity--ideally both. This year, six documentaries have been shown out of competition in the official selection, and most of them are political, designed to expose or illuminate appalling, alarming and scary situations in ways that represent a call to action. Unsurprisingly, most of us in Cannes, needing always to race to the latest films by auteurs of every rank, don't manage to see many of the docs on the ground here, figuring they can wait.

One exception was Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job." There could not be a film more timely or relevant to why the world is in the shape it's in right now than this meticulously constructed analysis of the financial mess of the past couple of years. It's an arcane and complicated subject, but one that Ferguson, whose longstanding ties to the financial world enabled him to enlist so many key players to explain things, does an outstanding job in laying out so that lay viewers can generally follow it. Due to be released by Sony Classics in the fall, the film will certainly play the major festivals and be made as widely available as possible, even if Joe Public will predictably sidestep this golden opportunity to learn something pertinent in favor of watching almost anything else.

Discussing the film with some locals here, I was surprised to learn that Ferguson's outstanding previous documentary "No End in Sight," which so precisely detailed how the United States bungled in Iraq and was nominated for an Oscar, is utterly unknown in France, even to the most knowledgeable critics. I'd have thought that the French, in particular, would gobble up a film that so thoroughly enumerated American missteps after the invasion, but it seems not to have made a dent here. One explanation is that there are so many local news shows and documentaries on television that the French feel no need for American counterparts. I got a big laugh when one of the few French critics to actually see "Inside Job" at Cannes, Jean Roy of l'Humanite, gave it a mediocre one star rating; you'd imagine that an old lefty from France's erstwhile communist paper would appreciate a film that so thoroughly dissects the wayward behavior of Wall Street and the shortcomings of capitalism, but he must have his perverse reasons why not.

Given the dearth of strong competing entries as well as the scarcity of American pictures this year, it would have been a great boost both to Cannes and the film to include "Inside Job" in the competition. If subject matter is part of the criterion by which documentaries are judged, then few others could be more worthy. Stylistically, "Inside Job" surprised me only by Ferguson's occasional use of the sort of hyped-up techniques and "urgent" music that he so studiously avoided in "No End in Sight." It's agit-prop, after a fashion, in the way the previous film was not, a call for action on the part of the citizenry and for reform from a government he rightly sees as having rewarded the culprits largely responsible for the mess in the first place.

I haven't seen any of the other political documentaries yet, but I did catch a couple of film buff interest in the Cannes Classics sidebar. "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff" is a rich, colorful account of a rich, colorful career. The subject may not have been a household name, but Cardiff was one of the great color cinematographers the movies have ever known, a man who entered the industry as a child and worked until not long before his death last year at 91 (another testament to my view that cinematographers enjoy the greatest longevity of anyone in the film business). Best known, perhaps, for his sublime work for Powell and Pressburger on "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes," he also shot many big international films during the 1950s ("The Barefoot Contessa," "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," "War and Peace," "The Vikings") and directed more than a dozen films beginning with the very fine "Sons and Lovers" in 1960. Director Craig McCall worked on the project for 12 years and the project is enriched by this, as there are interview subjects--Charlton Heston, for one--who have since passed away. It's an opulent production, enhanced by splendid-looking film clips (although perhaps snippets from he now-restored version of "Pandora" could be substituted for the muddy looking shots on view currently) and Cardiff's own 16mm home movies, which he took on his many exotic location shoots. The "life" part of the film's title is scarcely deserved, as there is essentially nothing here about anything but the work, but it's entirely satisfying otherwise.

I interviewed Cardiff in Los Angeles back in the mid-1980s, just after he had finished traipsing around the Mexican jungle with Sylvester Stallone on the second "Rambo" entry, and was completely taken with the man. As the documentary makes evident, he was a wonderful raconteur and I highly recommend his autobiography, which he can be seen signing at Cannes' English language bookshop in the picture. The memory does trigger one regret of my own, however. I have always been a huge fan of British Technicolour cinematography (which differs from the Hollywood variety in more than spelling, as Martin Scorsese explains in the docmentary), exemplified by Cardiff, Christopher Challis (also in the film), Freddie Young, Oswald Morris and others. When my colleagues and I made the documentary "Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography," it pained me that budget restrictions prevented us from going to the U.K. to interview these greats, who were all still alive at the time we shot in 1990-91. When an audience member at a London Film Festival screening complained about this to me during a q&a, my response was to challenge him to make a film strictly about British cinematographers, who easily could have filled a 90-minute doc on their own. "Cameraman" at least fills part of the gap.

"Gilles Jacob--Citizen Cannes," a 50-minute documentary about the longtime king of the croisette, is an effervescent delight, an affectionate tribute to the elegant and erudite gentleman who guided the Cannes Film Festival through some of its greatest years, beginning in 1978. Jacob is an entertaining talker, revealing bits of behind-the-scenes gossip (although, as in his recent memoir, not too much), something of his thinking and philosophy about the festival and certain details about his background (many will probably not know that, as a Jewish family, the Jacobs had to hide during World War II, which they did in a rural seminary).

Director Serge Le Peron mixes fabulous archival footage of Cannes through the years with comments from Jacob and a host of pals, including a genial Claude Chabrol (born two days after his friend), Claude Lelouch (home movies of him playing tennis with Jacob reveal the latter to be an excellent player), Wim Wenders, Alain Sarde, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, Pedro Almodovar, Ken Loach, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes and Pierre Rissient. Most transfixing, however, is black-and-white footage of a young and newly married Jacob appearing in 1957 on a TV quiz show called "The Jackpot" in which he fielded film buff questions. Unsurprisingly, Jacob ran the table, getting every answer right; in the end, by correctly naming the separate directors of Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny" trilogy, Jacob won the jackpot. He no doubt still would against almost any competition.

5 Comments

  • nigol | May 22, 2010 12:54 PMReply

    Thank you dear Todd for such well written reviews.

    nigol Bezjian

  • Andrew Lang | May 21, 2010 5:50 AMReply

    I just read Jean Roy's review of "Inside Job" in L'Humanite and he does indeed dislike the film for the reasons I suspected. He writes of "A deluge of figures, definitions, graphics, didactic commentary, shocking interviews..."

  • Andrew Lang | May 21, 2010 5:40 AMReply

    You mention your surprise that Charles Ferguson's work is unknown in France. But the situation actually cuts both ways. How familiar are American audiences and critics with the work of the French masters of documentary: Jean Rouch, Raymond Depardon, Claire Simon and Patricio Guzman (a Chilean but living in Paris)?

    Also I think your surprise at the French critic not liking "Inside Job" has an explanation: Such films are important, but they are hardly cinematic. Most of their content could just as easily be transmitted in a book or magazine article. (I am here defining "cinematic" along Hitchcock's terms) I can see how a cinema purest would not be excited by such a style.

  • Stewart | May 21, 2010 2:48 AMReply

    Yeah, but SFIFF doesn't have journalists in slapflights and celebrities kept apart by security ... SFIFF has only outstanding films.

  • Hilary | May 20, 2010 10:00 AMReply

    Anyone who has paid any attention to the San Francisco International Film Festival for the past 53 years will have noticed that it has given documentaries "equal footing" for decades, and in the past decade has doled out large cash prizes as well.