Saturday, February 18, 2006

Thoughts on… November 30, 2004

A lot of important decisions are being made in France these days. Over the weekend, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected chairman of France’s conservative ruling party. Tomorrow, French socialists will have to vote on whether or not they will support a European constitution. And, perhaps least importantly for the nation of France but most importantly for my own research purposes, a Paris court has ruled that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles is too “American” to compete in French film festivals because of Warner Bros.’ financial support of the film. Now, not only is the film not in the running to be France’s nominee for the “Best Foreign Film” Oscar or for any prestigious César awards, but Jeunet’s universal hit cannot become a candidate for the Cannes film festival awards because, due to its November US debut, it will have been screened outside its country of origin before the festival. Since the film has been dubbed “not French,” Jeunet and co. have decided to enter A Very Long Engagement in the “Best Picture” category of the Academy Awards, placing it alongside Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, the Spanish-language Motorcycle Diaries, Pixar’s animated hit The Incredibles and other Hollywood offerings such as Sideways, Ray, Kinsey, Beyond the Sea and Neverland. Can you imagine an Oscar race where a French war film, a biting documentary about presidential politics, a Spanish-language bildungsroman, a movie about sexual behaviour and the human male and an animated parody of superheroes compete in the coveted “Best Picture” category? Imagine Michael Moore facing off with Mr. Incredible, Che Guevara duelling with Ray Charles and J.M. Barrie fighting against Bobbie Darin – it’s uncanny. But not impossible. Whether or not these films actually make it onto the ballots in February, the fact that they are even being considered is step in a positive direction in my opinion. Perhaps A.O. Scott’s optimistic vision for a future world cinema is not so far off after all. And maybe Warner Bros.’ intervention into the economy of French film isn’t such a cultural menace. If foreign films keep getting better and better, our children might just witness an era where an Icelandic film wins the “Best Picture” Oscar and where a rising star doesn’t have to relocate to Los Angeles to have any hope for a career. Sure, the 85th Star Wars prequel and the 100th film in the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Spaceship of Doom?) will most likely be cult hits in the second half of the 21st century, but, if these films are balanced by those requiring Americans to read subtitles, then I’d settle for Darth Vader and a bucket of popcorn any day.

Greg Marcks, young American director

Huge posters advertising Greg Marcks’ film 11:14 are all over the walls of nearly every stop in Paris. Only 28 years old, Marcks has already followed up his award-winning short film, Lector, with a daring drama about a car accident told in reverse technology. 11:14 backtracks to follow the chain of events of five seemingly random yet eventually connected characters who all contribute to a young man hitting a body with his car at 11:14. The film, which was nominated for the Grand Special Prize at 2003’s Deauville Film Festival, stars Hilary Swank, Rachel Leigh Cook and Colin Hanks and features appearances by Patrick Swayze and Barbara Hershey. I wanted to see what a young up-and-coming American director had to say compared with what I have learned from his young French contemporaries. Marcks was kind enough to answer a few of my questions:

Rebecca Leffler: Do you see any noticeable differences between ‘old Hollywood’ and ‘young
Hollywood’? Spielberg, Scorcese and Coppola, for example vs. say, Sophia
Coppola, Zach Braff, you?

Greg Marcks: This could be an entire doctoral thesis, but I will say that I enjoy attending screenings at the Director's Guild of America because they are generally followed by a Q&A with an older generation director moderated by a younger generation director (Alexander Payne and Jack Nicholson, Wes Anderson and Mike Nichols, etc.) I learn a lot from these discussions because it tends to draw into sharp relief the differences in the approach of the two generations. I think we are experiencing somewhat of a movement in American cinema as represented by people like P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Sofia Coppola, etc. The underlying theme tends to be that these films are extremely personal, rejecting the global appeal that the blockbuster approach demands. I think the main contrast from the preceding generation, which made remarkable films with tiny budgets by necessity, is that these filmmakers spend larger and larger sums of money making films of smaller and smaller scope, which is an entirely new precedent.

RL: Who are your cinematic influences?

GM: They are many and varied. I think my most profound influences came when I was a child and was unaware of their impact. Although now I study films and reference directors like the Coen Bros. and writers like Charlie Kaufman, my true roots are probably John Hughes comedies and 40s and 50s WB cartoons.

RL: Where did the idea for 11:14 come from? Did many of the twists come during the writing or after, during production? How much creative liberty were you given by the producers? Was this project much different than making Lector?

GM: 11:14 was an attempt to portray what I saw at the time as a cruelly ironic world of connections without meaning. The ideas all came out of the boredom I experienced as a frustrated teenager in a Massachusetts suburb. Virtually all of the "events" were determined in the writing, since it was such a rigid structure. I had complete freedom until post-production, which involves a lot of compromise. 11:14 was very different from Lector, in its intent, its visual style, its performances, and its tone. I like my next films to be as different from their predecessors as possible.

RL: How would you define “independent film” these days? For example, 11:14 wasn't funded by a major studio but featured big stars such as Hilary Swank, Rachael Leigh Cook...

GM: The term “independent” has lost most of its meaning, except in its promise of something different. The spectrum of movies made without guaranteed distribution is vast. In this particular case, I wanted to make a very gritty, independent looking film that happened to have movie stars in it. I liked the contrast of seeing someone who is usually perfectly lit and not being able to see their face very well. It fit with the visual aesthetic.

RL: Do you make films for yourself or for your spectators?

GM: I have always made films for myself, but I am starting to consider the expectations of a viewer, especially as it relates to genre. I've realized that most people seek out movies to stimulate a certain emotion, whereas I generally go to movies to have emotions I didn't choose thrust upon me. And 11:14 in particular has forced me to consider the question of marketing,
since ultimately everyone wants his or her work to be seen and considered.

RL: AO Scott recently wrote an article entitled “What is a Foreign film?” for
the New York Times. How would you answer this question?

GM: My definition of a foreign film is any film that doesn't accept the cultural assumptions of that country as given. I would argue that any American-made film that doesn't have a happy ending is a foreign film, in the sense that its message will seem foreign to most American viewers.

RL: In the article, Scott writes:
“While it is true that, on a given Friday, most of the world's multiplexes
will be playing franchise products from American studios, it is not hard to
imagine a future in which an American suburban marquee will boast a Chinese
martial-arts picture, a Korean action thriller, a Mexican cop drama and a
French romantic comedy.”
What do you think about Scott's vision of the future - overly optimistic or entirely possible?

GM: Sadly, I disagree with Scott. While I do think that general audiences have been exposed to “subtitled” films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in general it is far more profitable for American companies to remake foreign genre films in English with American actors. It will take truly global movie stars to disrupt this dominant business model in Hollywood.

RL: Basically, my project is about the state of contemporary French film and comparing that to young Hollywood. I'm not sure how into French film you are, but if you have any observations on that, that would be great also...

GM: I saw Patrice Leconte speak recently, and I admire Mathieu Kassovitz, but unfortunately my knowledge of contemporary French cinema does not extend much further than that. Perhaps you can help me in that respect.

RL: And just curious, I know 11:14 has been at a bunch of US film festivals, but will it be released theatrically there?

GM: That is still a question without an answer. There are basically two options for U.S. distribution for this type of movie: studio independent divisions and arthouse distributors. The studio independents are understandably leery of the costs of marketing something unique, and the art houses can't put up enough to compete with the lucrative direct-to-video market. So the film waits in hibernation, hoping to be woken by proof from overseas that it will in fact make money in the United States.
So basically, tell all your friends in France to go see it.

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