Venice Film Festival

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – September 15, 1997

At the Venice Film Festival

On the film-festival circuit, Venice is the new anti-Cannes.

IF YOU INVITE PRODUCERS, film-distribution apparatchiks, and journalists to a resort to watch unreleased movies, assert grand opinions, and eat expense-account meals among the professionally good-looking, they tend to show up. There are, however, some more interesting reasons for the mad proliferation of film festivals.

Cannes is the most celebrated festival, but there’s a pecking order. Telluride is the Western Hemisphere’s definitively hip film festival, having overtaken Sundance, which is deemed to have grown too commercial, too slick, too frenzied—too Cannes-like. Outside America, the Venice Film Festival, which gives its prizes Saturday night, is the stylish anti-Cannes. In the past few years, as Cannes has become more than ever a hubba-hubba philistine circus (last spring’s memorable photo op was a giant, inflated Howard Stern), Venice has been reinvented to glide right into the cool new transatlantic movie-business slipstream. The rise of the American independents—that is, the commercial success of some excellent low-budget films, particularly “Pulp Fiction,” because it starred real movie stars—pumped up the glamour quotients of certain arty movies. For the first time since the late sixties, when films like “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” supplanted European cinema in the American upper-middle-brow imagination, real quirkiness successfully crossbred with Hollywood. In the right postmodern proportions, consequence and glitz can mix nicely: the Venice festival thus draws plenty of stars (Harrison Ford, Emma Thompson, Elisabeth Shue, Sylvester Stallone, and Nicole Kidman this year), but serious, low-budget films still predominate. And the European venue gives the whole show a classical resonance. When Harmony Korine––the twenty-three-year-old director, who is in Venice with “Gummo,” his cinéma-vérité chronicle of two white-trash Ohio teen-agers––told me that he models himself on “Jean-Luc,” he meant Godard, not the captain of the Starship Enterprise.

“On the spectrum of the unholy alliance between art and commerce,” says Liz Manne, who runs marketing for Fine Line Features, Time Warner’s Miramax-manqué boutique, “the others have moved toward commerce. Venice is still more like the old days. Films not so easily digestible can get killed at Cannes or Sundance. Especially with a controversial film like ‘Gummo,’ even if it’s a mess you have official bodies that have said, ‘This is art.’” In other words, Cannes is the Hamptons, Venice is Martha’s Vineyard—the latter are what the former were back in the good old days. As with alternative everything, the informing sensibility at Venice desires commercial success—it just doesn’t want to appear to want it too shamelessly. Before the festival’s opening ceremony, the director Paul Schrader teasingly asked his new movie’s co-star, Willem Dafoe, if his suit was Prada, in whose ads Dafoe appears. “Nah,” Dafoe said, smiling at the implied whorishness. “That’s why I can’t wear Prada.”

Unlike the people involved with “Air Force One” and “Cop Land,” who are in Venice simply to incite European press coverage, Schrader has no distribution deal for “Affliction,” his good, bleak film about a man breaking down. “This is a big pair of dice to roll, because if you get a negative buzz it’s straight to video,” Schrader told me. “That’s scary. When you have a serious film, what the distributor wants to know is, ‘Am I gonna get support from the critical community?’”

People seemed to like “Affliction” and “Niagara, Niagara,” a neo-hippie road picture about a girl with Tourette’s syndrome. Jane Campion, the head of the Venice jury, told me she liked Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” although for the overwhelmingly Italian audience phrases such as “world-class meshuggana cunt” probably lost something in translation. Adultery by well-to-do bohemian men in midlife crises (“Deconstructing Harry,” Mike Figgis’s “One Night Stand,” “Metroland”) was the de-facto festival theme.

There was more buzz about Count Volpi than about any film. Giovanni Volpi, a smart, down-to-earth man who seems to know everyone, and whose late father founded the festival, in 1932, supplies the trophies and hosts an A-list lunch at his villa on the Giudecca. When Umberto Vattani, the secretary-general of the Italian foreign ministry, toasted Volpi at the lunch as “the last baroque prince in Europe,” the guests chuckled happily, among them the daughter of the last Italian king; Jack Valenti; Charlotte Rampling; and the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Anan.

The festival, like Italy, was inefficiently organized. At the opening ceremony, the m.c. asked Dafoe if he was German or English.  An announcer introduced the co-star of “Deconstructing Harry” as “Kirstie Allen,” and the event came to a halt for twenty minutes so that technicians could remove TV lights. Screening queues were mob scenes.

No one seemed to mind terribly—it’s Venice!—except Count Volpi, whose righteous fight with the festival regime was itself an Italian political microcosm. “There’s no professionalism. They think the mess is fine. They don’t have a clue,” he said. “Venice is way, way behind what it could be. This could be so far ahead of Cannes.” He shook his head, recalling the anti-Hollywood remarks of the festival’s new curator. The count took a drag on his cigarette, then went to chat with Harrison Ford. Later, when someone asked Ford if he would return next year for a U.N.-focussed adjunct to the film festival, he smiled, glanced around the sunny, perfect villa grounds, and said, “I have no intention of leaving.”