Tuesday, May 22, 2007

TO EACH HIS OWN CINEMA unspools at Cannes

By Todd McCarthy, Variety

The specter of the death of cinema and the communal movie experience hangs like an ironic shroud over "To Each His Own Cinema," a mostly engaging compilation of 33 three-minute films made by leading international auteurs on the occasion of the Cannes Film Festival's 60th birthday. Venture was conceived and produced by fest prexy Gilles Jacob as a way to celebrate the cinema rather than Cannes per se, and the directors were asked only to express "their state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theater."

List of directors, 35 in all, including two sets of brothers, consists of names very familiar on the Croisette, many Palme d'Or winners among them. With a couple of exceptions, the identities of the filmmakers are withheld until the end of each short, meaning that guessing who's behind the camera becomes part of the fun (the presence of some directors in their own films provides tip-offs from time to time).

Especially through the first part of the grouping, the overwhelmingly dominant image is of old movie theaters fallen into states of disrepair, disintegration and disuse. In the films of Takeshi Kitano, Theo Angelopoulos, Andrei Konchalovsky, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, just for starters, one beholds the spectacle of a world in which cinemas, at least as a home for shared experienced in a privileged domain, no longer seems valid or valued. A mourning for the passing of the classical Euro-style art cinema of the '60s -- of the sort very much represented by films commonly shown in Cannes -- filters strongly through the proceedings, no doubt in great measure because they were made by men who belong to that tradition or grew up on it (Jane Campion, still the only woman to have won the Palme d'Or, is the sole femme in the group here).

As such compilations go, this one is somewhat better than the norm, as quite a few of the entries are imaginative, engaging and/or interestingly personal; even the bad ones have the virtue of brevity. Taking the cake for sheer entertainment value is Walter Salles' Brazil-set entry. With cheeky humor and exhilarating energy, two musicians stand in front of a rundown rural theater showing "The 400 Blows" and alternate singing about what it's like, or what they think it's like, in Cannes; little capper about a guy named "Gil" they've heard runs the festival is a hoot.

Also rating high marks are contributions from Atom Egoyan, in which two people in separate cinemas phone each other images of the films they're watching; the Coen brothers' amusing snippet about a cowboy (Josh Brolin, seemingly having walked straight out of the Coens' "No Country for Old Men") trying to decide which film to see at Santa Monica's Aero rep house ("Rules of the Game" or "Climates") and Zhang Yimou's energetic, superbly composed look at rural Chinese kids gathering for a movie show.

Occupying a provocative, confrontational zone all its own is David Cronenberg's intense piece, in which the director himself appears as "the last Jew in the world in the last cinema in the world" preparing to commit suicide on television while commentators blather on dispassionately about Jews and cinema.

The fear of a dire Jewish fate similarly drives Amos Gitai's blatantly bad episode, which positions the state of Israeli Jews today with those of Warsaw in 1936. Sharing the bottom of the barrel with it is Youssef Chahine's shamelessly selfserving short that exists solely to display extended footage of the vet Egyptian helmer being honored by Cannes in the Palais du Festival.

Among the other helmers who took their assignments seriously and came up with something more than watchable are Kitano, who imagines a visit to a solitary old cinema memorably existing in the middle of the countryside; Nanni Moretti, with a characteristically snappy commentary on matters cinematic; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's bracingly filmed account of a blind woman's reaction to Godard's "Contempt"; Claude Lelouch's memoir of his parents' key movie experience; and Manoel de Oliveira's fantasy of a goofy encounter between two world titans of the '60s.

Program is ironically capped by a Ken Loach seg that essentially states there's nothing in commercial cinema these days worth watching.