During the flight to France for the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month, the movie showing in my unlucky cabin was "Rocky IV." On the last night of the festival itself, curiosity drew me into a back-street theater for a preview glimpse of Cannon Films' upcoming "Invaders From Mars."
A worse set of bookends for the festival of festivals you couldn't order.
Yet, considering what unreeled in between, they seem grotesquely appropriate. Nothing on the Cannes competition program was as bad as "Rocky IV" (few films probe such depths) or "Invaders From Mars," which is a misguided attempt to spoof a 1953 science-fiction thriller of the same name.
Still, taking the 20 Gold Palm candidates and holding them up to Cannes' traditional view of film as social art, they were a withered lot.
It was suggested that the absence of major American stars--the ingredient that energizes Cannes and gives it its uniquely festive atmosphere--merely plucked the feathers off the entries and held their naked little bodies up to unusually cruel scrutiny.
But Cannes regulars say the festival has been degenerating for the past several seasons, both as a competition event and as an international market.
The market still thrives, and will likely remain the prominent gathering spot for buyers and sellers. But the no-frills, no-thrills business markets held annually in Milan, Italy, and Los Angeles are clearly diluting Cannes' importance.
And the films?
Last winter, festival President Pierre Viot was in Los Angeles, searching (and searching) for ripe candidates for his festival. It was Viot's first search party, and he acknowledged his surprise at the spare pickings in Hollywood. There were few films to see, he said, let alone films with Cannes credentials. ("Hamburger, the Movie" might have been ready then, but it wouldn't have been quite right.)
The studios, Viot said, showed little interest in having their films considered, and some of the promising independent features were ineligible for one reason or another (Alan Rudolph's "Trouble in Mind" was a film Viot liked, but it had already been accepted for competition in another festival, he said.)
There are the obvious problems with the studios' films. It's the wrong time of year for the few serious pictures they deign to finance these days (production schedules for potential Oscar contenders are timed for fall releases). Also, the Gold Palm--as prized as it is everywhere else--is of no marketing value in America.
Still, in better times, Cannes managed to find and sign some great American films, and many of them have won the top prize--"M.A.S.H.," "The Conversation," "Scarecrow," "Apocalypse Now," "Missing."
The malaise may simply be a reflection of political and social moods. Film, like any other art, mirrors its time, and despite the troubles in the Middle East and Central America and South Africa and elsewhere, there is a sense of calm in the Western world. Particularly when contrasted with the '60s and '70s, the golden years for issues-minded film makers.
Judging by the success of Sylvester Stallone's moronic political action films, and the production vacuum where satire and dramatized political analysis once flourished, film consumers are content with a medium that has become almost exclusively entertainment.
There was much musing over the future of Cannes at the festival this month. The general feeling was that Cannes may have run its course as a showcase for the best work in international film--that it has become little more than an expensive party that the Americans, at least, feel consumes more Alka-Seltzer than it's worth.
Indeed, after the raid on Libya prompted all those fears of terrorist retribution against Americans in Europe, the studios were suddenly competing in Cannes, after all--in a race to see which could pull out fastest.
With none of the big boys in from Hollywood, Cannes was left pretty much to Cannon, the most rapidly expanding film company in the world. In the last few years, Cannon--through posters, billboards and daily newspaper ads--has become the dominant presence on the Croisette.
Cannon's Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus have been playing Cannes like a game of Monopoly, and this year they won the board. They were everywhere, talking to everybody, and apparently writing deals with some of the same people who used to accuse them of using Monopoly money.
"If it weren't for Cannon, there wouldn't be a Cannes," is the way one American critic put it.
Cannon's success may be coincidentally linked to Cannes' decline. The film industry, stimulated by a video market richer than they ever imagined it could be, is in a buy/sell frenzy right now. The studios, the mini-studios and scores of independent producers are almost gloating over the ease of funding pictures. Hardly a week passes without some major financial arrangement being announced in the industry trades.