Sean Penn Disqualifies Cannes Films that Don’t Reflect “Current Climate”

Aaaaaaaand they’re off!

The Cannes Film Festival has begun, which means Indiana Jones is suiting up for his first big-screen adventure in twenty years, and a crop of great works of art destined to be almost ignored in America are about to screen for very lucky audiences.

Sean Penn, president of this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury, is already defining how this jury will choose the winner.

Penn said it was impossible to separate film from politics, and promised that the winning film would be a reflection of the current climate.

“One way or another, when we select the Palme d’Or winner, I think we are going to feel very confident that the film-maker who made the film is very aware of the times in which he or she lives.”

This doesn’t sound like “We’re looking for a great work of art.” Instead, this sounds like “We’re looking for someone who reads the newspaper.”

Isn’t this unfair? What if there’s a period piece that’s the next Babette’s Feast*? Will Penn dismiss it because it doesn’t provide any critique of Dubya’s presidency?

Okay, I’m overstating things. But I do hope the jury will be open to the timeless, rather than just the timely.

*Originally, I wrote “Citizen Kane,” but that was a poor example, as pointed out in the comments. I’ve revised it accordingly.
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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://odgie.wordpress.com odgie

    Penn is a great actor and a good director; but he is also a pretentious, limousine liberal who seems more devoted to seeking attention than following his true talents.

  • genebranaman

    I ditto what Jeffrey said in post #5. Longpauses, I think, as Jeffrey pointed out, the money quote for me is “impossible to separate film from politics” because it, IMO, strongly implies a preconceived viewpoint.

    It was never my intention to create or perpetuate a straw man.

  • flatlandsfriar

    The man married Madonna. I wouldn’t trust him to order pizza, no matter what his politics.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Actually, I was also inclined to interpret his words that way because The Telegraph framed the story like so:

    Penn said it was impossible to separate film from politics, and promised that the winning film would be a reflection of the current climate.

    That’s somewhat stronger language than “demanding that a filmmaker be ‘very aware of the times in which he or she lives’”.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Darren,

    I certainly didn’t intend a “strawman-bashing party.”

    I was simply worried about Penn’s statement, based on the context of his usual commentary.

    It sounds (at least to me) like he’s already looking for a particular kind of film, and that makes me wonder if he’s capable of being surprised by something timeless rather than timely.

    Being very familiar with how regularly Penn speaks out about specific political convictions, this statement makes it sound like he’s looking for something that aligns with those.

    Perhaps I’m just being too presumptuous. And perhaps Citizen Kane was a bad example. (I only grabbed it to represent a masterpiece, the most obvious example. Try Babette’s Feast instead.)

    But when I go to a work of art, the question Penn leads with is not at all the question foremost on my mind. I’m more interested in beauty and truth on a timeless scale, not regarding how it lines up with any particular political climate. The brilliance of artists like Ceylan resides in how their work is both particular and timeless, speaking to all generations through the specificity of an exact place and time.

    Again, perhaps I’m reading too much into Penn’s words. I’m actually a fan — I was surprised by the powerful second half of Into the Wild; I’m one of the few people I know who remember and enjoyed The Pledge; and Penn’s performance in Dead Man Walking still haunts me. But his frequent political commentary inclined me to interpret him the way that I did.

  • longpauses

    Sorry to interrupt your strawman-bashing party, but it seems to me you’re all making a big leap here. Granted, Penn’s reputation is fair game — and the committee who named him president of the jury were surely banking on it, so, Gene, don’t think for a second that Penn is subverting anything — but demanding that a filmmaker be “very aware of the times in which he or she lives” is a perfectly reasonable criterion at a festival like Cannes.

    Jeffrey, Citizen Kane is a “timeless” work of art, but it was also very much “of its time” when it was released in 1941. Ceylan, to use another of your recent examples, will not give us a film about the White House, but he’s surely a brilliant interpreter of our times. I’m especially excited to see Apitchatpong Weeresethakul on the jury.

    Heck, if you want to see some quality Bush-bashing, check out the RNC’s response to their loss of another seat in Congress.

  • sdgx

    I think the key phrase is “one way or another.” Yep, there’s virtually no limit to what you can accomplish with that benchmark.

  • genebranaman

    As Mark Shea might put it, Generation Narcissus is at it again!

    Sean, Sean, Sean . . . Believe it or not, mon ami, your particular worldview is not the only one in the world. In fact, there are billions of folk out there who can’t relate to your jet-setting, film-making, wealthier-than-95%-of-the-world lifestyle & would find it as foreign as you do that of Pres Bush, et al.

    And how dare you subvert a major film festival, in another country (!) in order to advance your political agenda! At the possible expense of, as Jeffrey points out, what may be some fantastic, non-political cinema. How can you casually toss off the hard work of other artists so callously?

    When I was acting, I ran into this so very much. I found it as boorish then as I do now.

  • kramerswall

    Because Penn’s last directorial effort was soooo political…

    What a hypocrite. And an ass. I don’t care how beautiful Into the Wild was (and believe me, it was my favorite film from last year). This sort of soapbox attitude is never a good thing.


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