It must be difficult to remain an amateur for over 30 years, but that, by dint of sheer will, is exactly what director Henry Jaglom has achieved in his career. His new film, Festival in Cannes, is the work of one of the most distinguished amateurs in moviemaking. It tells the story of two competing film deals being circuitously, comically pursued in the margins of the Cannes Film Festival, and the film’s slapdash style, after a while, starts to feel a lot like charm, while its cheery sloppiness comes to resemble conviction.
Early in his career Jaglom assisted in the production of the late films of Orson Welles, such as the unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. By that point, years after the mitigated triumphs of his Hollywood studio films–like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons–Welles had moved so far from the aesthetics of studio filmmaking that those who saw his films at all often wrote them off as simply bad.
The truth is that even when Welles had studio resources at his command, he used them in unusual ways, and once he no longer had them, he elaborated an alternative style radically at odds with conventional approaches. For The Other Side of the Wind, Welles shot footage over many years, with the disorienting effect that characters age appreciably, and illogically, from scene to scene. In the footage that’s been shown publicly, the movie exhibits a casual mastery–astonishing shots tossed off as if they were easy, with an air of indifference, and without the overt bravura of Kane–and an exhilaratingly impromptu quality. Watching Welles’ late films, you feel you’re seeing a whole new way of making movies–as if a true professional, sick of it all, had happily reverted in the end to the simpler pleasures of the genuine amateur.
Before his death in 1985, Welles appeared in Jaglom’s films A Safe Place (1970) or Someone to Love (released in 1988), and Welles’ photo still appears, movingly, at the start of Jaglom’s films, in the logo of his production company. What Jaglom learned from Welles’ late work is that movies, always in danger of slipping into a stifling mechanism, can be best when you make them up as you go along. Even Welles’ last Shakespeare film, the great Chimes at Midnight, has at the base of its magisterial vision an adventurously makeshift quality–stitching bits of different plays joyously together, and reveling in B-grade production values, to give the movie an immediate rush much at odds with typical Shakespeare films. It’s classic without ever feeling dourly “classical.”
Jaglom adapts the impromptu quality of late Welles, but manages nothing of the polyphonic sense of narrative that energized even Welles’ most radically experimental films (like the little-seen masterpiece F for Fake). Jaglom’s scenes are often literally improvised, and since they never strive for the kind of emotional rawness of, say, John Cassavetes, they don’t typically escape the lumpish inertia that such scenes always risk.
Jaglom’s storytelling is loose and gangly: You feel him holding back deliberately, resisting momentum, not wanting the story to hurry us past the fleeting, eccentric details of gesture, speech or mannerism. At their best (which is not often), Jaglom’s movies, like Eating or Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, mimic what we glimpse in peripheral vision. Yet there’s a sense in these movies of the director eschewing visual variety, or resisting style itself as a gratuitous ornament. All Jaglom can think to do with a two-shot is to keep panning slowly from one talking head to the other, then cut abruptly back to the first, and repeat the process. It’s a distinctive rhythm, all right–like a metronome.
Festival in Cannes is definitely Jaglom at his best. Its shoestring textures–the forthrightly mismatched shots, the out-of-synch dialogue, the unpredictably shifting film stocks of light effects, the drone of ambient noise drowning out the dialogue, the crowd scenes that look like outtakes from wedding videos–seem breezy in their carelessness. There’s also an occasional atmospheric shot, making full use of the picturesque setting, that seems designed, with breathtaking casualness, to demonstrate that Jaglom knows more than enough about filmmaking to be turning out real movies if he felt like it.
Most of all the film has a clean line of wryly amusing action. Alice (Greta Scacchi), an actress who wants to direct a small, intimate film she is writing, falls in with Kaz (Zack Norman), a shady producer type who pulls strings to get her a meeting with Mille (Anouk Aimee), a faded international star who is also being courted by Rick (Ron Silver) for a big studio project with Tom Hanks. The intrigues pile up around this situation at a leisurely pace, and though Jaglom disdainfully eschews any real payoffs, this plot workably supports his shrewdly sloppy technique.
The satire of hypocrisy, hucksterism, philistinism, and self-absorption in the movie business will not strike anyone as being particularly novel. It is gentler than that of a film like Robert Altman’s The Player, maybe because of the elegiac qualities of performances by Greta Scacchi (who’s also in The Player), Anouk Aimee, and Maximilian Schell. (Even Ron Silver as a soulless producer gets a bit of a reprieve.) Though, like Altman’s film, the movie features a series of “star” cameos as part of the satire, it seems far less mired in celebrity culture than any of Altman’s films since The Player–in which the stars obviously enjoyed funning themselves for profit, undermining the satire considerably.
From his more detached vantage point, Jaglom does score a few new points. Despite their yammering about the importance of story, we gather, none of the players in his film ever bothers to read a script. And Jaglom gets at something anyone who cares about movies should be worried about, the blurred distinction between independent and studio filmmaking. Jaglom’s point is that the so-called small, personal film is now subject to the same exigencies of bullshit wheeling-and-dealing as the big blockbuster. In its modest way, his own sharp, skillful film could serve as a model of one way to break out of the impasse. It reminds us that the root meaning of the word “amateur” is “lover.”