Hey, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, and Ang Lee: What’s Your Verdict?

Name That Coen Brothers Movie. (Hint: It won an award at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend.)

What film prize means more to filmmakers around the world than an Oscar?

That prize was given to another film today.

And most American moviegoers — munching popcorn and slurping corn syrup this holiday weekend as they watch disposable, factory-made films like Fast and Furious 6, The Hangover 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, or Epic —  won’t even notice that it happened.

Okay, that sounded mean. But I’m feeling cranky for a good reason.

I enjoy a good blockbuster like most other moviegoers. I had fun watching Iron Man 3, and I’ll probably have fun watching Star Trek Into Darkness someday (in spite of all of the plot holes I’m hearing about).

But when you see so many people making a regular diet out of junk food, you start to worry about the consequences. And that concern increases when you see them ignoring altogether what artists all over the world consider a culinary event, a feast of the first order. Film festivals like Cannes attract some of the finest work being filmed in the world today. And those films are often far more “nutritious,” cooked with imagination and care, in kitchens beyond the Hollywood junk food factory.

When the Academy announces the Oscars, or the HFPA announces the Golden Globes, Americans pay attention like something of great importance is taking place. But do they care about what happened today? Most American moviegoers won’t even notice that the 66th Festival de Cannes — which is treated worldwide as the most prestigious and important film event of the year — has wrapped up.

That is true because, well, it took place in France. So, for many, it won’t seem significant.

And it focused on a lot of movies that starred people Americans don’t recognize as celebrities. So, that will disqualify it for others.

Many of these films would have to be subtitled for American audiences, but subtitles require reading and attention to people beyond our own borders. Forget it.

And Cannes doesn’t give us televised coverage of a show where a smartass host makes jokes, where song and dance numbers clamor for our attention, where cameras give close-ups of glamorous celebrities sipping cocktails and flaunting expensive fashions.

Even though the the Oscars are awarded by people we don’t know — most of them elderly white men — Americans go bananas over their decisions. But the Cannes awards are chosen by a jury of accomplished artists who are respected around the world after they’ve viewed some of the best that the whole world has to offer. While the Oscars stack the deck against foreign films, so that most of the focus goes to American commerical products, the Cannes festival is as likely to find value in a film from Iran as it is to celebrate something made in New York.

This year’s jury at Cannes was led by none other than Steven Spielberg, and also included an impressive array of international talents: Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan, Naomi Kawase, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, Cristian Mungiu, Lynne Ramsay, and Christoph Waltz. (American moviegoers will recognize a few of those names.)

That’s not to say that the Cannes event isn’t influenced by commercial influences and other corruptions. What event on the world stage isn’t? It inspires all kinds of hype and hoopla. But year after year, Cannes has served up films that stand the test of time, proving themselves worthy of contemplation and study. By contrast, Oscar-nominees and winners rarely earn reputations as lasting classics.

Two years ago last week, the top award at Cannes — the Palme d’Or (the Golden Palm) — was given to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. At the Oscars, The Tree of Life was treated like an anomaly, a “difficult” film unlikely to win anything (it didn’t), and the big award went to The Artist, thanks to clever marketing and a rush of Hollywood self-congratulation and nostalgia. Sure, The Artist was fun. But today, which film is still being studied and talked about? Which film has books written about it? Which is frequently named as the inspiration for things we see in new big-screen events from Man of Steel to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints? (Meanwhile, after America patted itself on the back for still appreciating silent, black-and-white films, another arrived on a wave of similarly positive reviews — Blancanieves — but Americans were already over it, and it didn’t register as more than a blip at the box office. )

Meanwhile, Roger Ebert ended up naming The Tree of Life among his top ten films of all time.

Now, I’m not fond of turning art into a contest in any way, shape, or form. I’d prefer to consider art as a community and discuss it without having to compare the movies and determine which is “best.”

But when a jury of artists whose integrity has been proven year after year, film after film, find themselves impressed by something, I am very curious to know what got their attention. And the films they recommend almost always prove to be something worth seeing and discussing. Sometimes — I’d go so far as to say often — they become films I need to see more than twice to really begin to appreciate what they have to offer.

So, who won the big awards this time?

Read the list of winners at this year’s Cannes festival here, at Fandor. And then join me in looking forward to the day when those films reach a theater near you… if American moviegoers get lucky enough to see them at all.

Or just ignore it and trust the commercials to tell you which movies are worth your addiction… I mean, attention. As a former addict of steroidal American “cinema,” I’m still trying to break my dependence on forgettable, disposable, mediocre, derivative entertainment. And I’m grateful for the reviewers and teachers and artists who have helped me make my way as a beginner into a bigger, better world of art — the stuff that involves and improves my head and my heart, instead of merely distracting me.

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Must-read Cannes Coverage:

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  • Craig Burrell

    On the other hand, sometimes Cannes lets its politics overwhelm its aesthetic judgement. (Remember Fahrenheit 9/11?) Naturally I’ve not seen this year’s Palme d’Or winner yet, but, given its subject matter, my spidey-sense is tingling.

  • photosbychinwe

    I hear you Jeff! There are so many wonderful, substantial movies out there, that are never even marketed here. I have a question though: how do you end up watching these movies? Do you just wait until the make it to Netflix?


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