If there is one thing that the Internet loves (aside from cat pictures and moral outrage) it is disagreeing with awards. Whenever an award is announced, you can guarantee that people will be on the internet within minutes registering their disgust and incredulity: ‘How could they give to prize to X’ they scream, ‘when Y was clearly the better novel/film/sex toy/advertisement for motor oil!’ Compared to other awards, the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or tends to come in for something of an easy ride as critics generally choose to celebrate the winners rather than grump about the losers. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, even when the Cannes jury gets it wrong it generally does so for reasons that are quite interesting. For example, when the 2004 Jury chaired by Quentin Tarantino looked past such fantastic films as Olivier Assayas’s Clean, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, Lucrecia Martel’s La Nina Santa, Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Conseguenze dell’Amore, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud Pralad in order to award the Palme to Michael Moore’s baggy, manipulative and self-indulgent political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, people generally saw it as an entirely justifiable decision to channel the media interest generated by Cannes into an assault on the Bush regime and its dubious foreign policy.
Secondly, despite the medium of film being grotesquely over-represented in mainstream media, Cannes is really the only time when entertainment reporters focus their attentions solely on the world of art house film. Only too aware that this might be the only chance they get to push these films at a mainstream audience, film critics generally choose to downplay controversy and negativity in favour of celebrating the positive and so raising the mainstream profile of art house film.
Thirdly, unlike most awards that are given out retroactively to works released within a particular timeframe, the Palme d’Or is only awarded to films that are officially in competition at Cannes. What makes the competition so peculiar is that many of the films that are in competition at Cannes also premier at Cannes meaning that unless you happen to be in Cannes during the festival, chances are that you will not get to see any of the competing films until they are picked up for distribution. This quirk of administration means that anyone not at Cannes is effectively excluded from the conversation. Furthermore, the Cannes film festival only lasts about ten days meaning that most critics struggle to see all of the films in competition. Taken together, these two sets of considerations ensure that, come the end of the Cannes festival and the announcement of the Palme d’Or winner, almost nobody in the world has seen enough of the shortlist to be able to criticise the jury’s selection in any meaningful way.
These three barriers to criticism effectively ensure that all press coverage devoted to the Palme d’Or is either a series of uplifting platitudes about the wonders of art house film or objective and dispassionate reportage that a group of people watched a group of films and determined one film in particular to be better than the others. By and large, this media love-in works quite well as the increased visibility generated by Cannes and the Palme d’Or not only creates an international market for decidedly non-commercial films, it also provides producers with an opportunity to find people to distribute their films and thereby satisfy said international market. Unfortunately, it is precisely because Cannes plays this key role in determining which films achieve wider cinematic distribution that its selections must be scrutinised and its juries held to account.
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Andrea Arnold is a director renowned for her unrelenting modernity. Set on council estates, Arnold’s first two films are about being on the outside, looking in and trying to find cracks in those protective walls that we call alienation and indifference. In her directorial debut Red Road (2006), Arnold tells the story of a CCTV operator who finds herself becoming obsessed with observing a man she happens to recognise. Now used to experiencing life through a lens, the operator follows her target into a party and dances with him. Horrified by the intense colours, sounds and sensations of reality, the operator runs from the party and vomits in a lift. Seemingly, real life was just too much for her. A similar withdrawal from the world features in Arnold’s follow-up picture Fish Tank (2009) where a teenaged girl observes her mother’s relationship with a local lothario. Initially treating this interloper as a potential father figure, the girl soon finds herself being lured into the waters of adult sexuality by waves of unexpected kindness and discrete flirting. Believing she is in control of the situation, the girl pushes harder and harder at the limits of her childhood before the complexities and inequalities of adult life threaten to overwhelm her, forcing her to withdraw to a state of adolescent seclusion where everything makes sense and lessons can be learned in relative safety.
While there is no denying that Arnold’s adaptation of Emile Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) constitutes something of a departure for the director, the film’s novelty lies not in its period setting but in the refusal of its characters to back down when confronted by a world they do not really understand. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a film in which madness and obsession confront reality and reality loses.
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At the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the wheel-chair bound James Stewart finds himself confronted by the man he has been spying on all Summer long. Briefly lit by flashbulbs, the murderer advances upon Stewart from out of the shadows before lunging at him. In this scene, the voyeur gets his comeuppance. Once so powerful in his capacity to observe his neighbours without being seen, Stewart is impotent to prevent one of them attacking him. As an audience, our pulses race. Not only because of the technical perfection of the scene, or because Stewart’s character is sympathetic, but because we are complicit in the character’s voyeurism. The murderer is not just lunging at Stewart. He is lunging at us.
Hitchcock’s teasing analogy between the cinema audience member and the voyeur is one that has continued to inspire film-makers. However, while Rear Window was recently remade in the shape of Disturbia (2007) – a teen thriller starring Shia LeBoeuf – it is in its more oblique descendants that we find this central analogy best explored. Indeed, many of the films of Michael Haneke express furious moral outrage at his audience’s passivity and prurience. In Benny’s Video (1992) he suggests that watching violent films desensitises the audience. In Funny Games (1997) he has his characters break the fourth wall in order to make the audience complicit in their crimes. In Hidden (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009) he follows genre guidelines in order to build tension but pointedly denies his audience the cathartic release of an answer to their questions or an unambiguous resolution. Haneke and, to a certain extent, Lars von Trier are animated by a deep sense of suspicion about the power of the audience. We sit in front of our TVs or our local cinema screens and we watch moments of heart-break, happiness, death and redemption. We vicariously experience these emotions and yet we are safe. We have risked nothing except boredom. What have we done to earn these emotional experiences?
Some of the more intriguing attempts to answer the question posed by Hitchcock, Haneke and von Trier are found in the works of Charlie Kaufman. In Being John Malkovitch (1999), Kaufman presented one of his characters with the opportunity to stop being a voyeur and to actually participate in the life of the character he was surreptitiously observing. This allows the character to experience love and career success that would have been impossible to achieve on his own but the success ultimately turns to ashes as real love eludes the character who eventually winds up trapped inside someone else experiencing the love that he craves but will never receive. Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (2008) further explores the emotional hollowness of the voyeur as the film’s central character, a stage director, attempts to adapt his life for the stage only to realise that, no matter how lavish the production and how much authorial control you have, real life is always outside of your control and always capable of messing you up.
Andrea Arnold’s debut film Red Road returns to Hitchcock’s original set up but expands upon it not with Hitchcock’s amusement or Haneke’s anger, but rather Kaufman’s sense of sadness at the ultimate impotence voyeur.
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Art is a conceit and cinema doubly so. For all the demands for greater realism and protestations that one is producing cinema verite, the director can never hope to capture reality itself on film. If a director is holding up a mirror to the real world with the help of actors, camera crews and sound technicians then the distortions are so great that, in a sense, the director might as well be making a super hero film for all the truth that he has managed to capture on film. The very artificiality of artistic endeavour means that it is forever on an ontologically slippery slope. Indeed, consider the evolution of forms of story-telling such as the three act structure or the buildungsroman. These evolved in order to communicate certain kinds of truths but all too often the demands of the form come to dominate to desire to communicate truth. Real life seldom fits into a three act structure. What started off as abstraction from reality quickly becomes obfuscation of it as the cinema begins to create its own fictional worlds. Simplified parodies of the real world. Childish facsimiles in which the good guys always win and the cute couple always wind up together. These forms can then solidify into genres, traditions of stories that follow the same rules or which evolve with the rules in mind. The original truths behind the rules and the forms long since ignored and abandoned.
Because of this tendency to confuse the cause with the effect, discerning audiences have come to value ambiguity in their stories. Ambiguity that fills a space normally reserved for boldly fraudulent declarations of how the world works. Ferocious defences of the natural order of purely literary universes. This deliberate ambiguity is seen as a sign of intelligence as it is a reminder that there is a universe outside of the artistic, the traditional and the conceptual. A universe more complex and more intriguing than could ever be captured by a single piece of art.
Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is a film that has internalised this understanding of the nature of art. Ostensibly a formulaic coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence story, its strength comes from a willingness to explore not only the ambiguities within the characters, but also within our perceptions of those characters.
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