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Big Jew-Off at Cannes

European cineastes clash with American ironists and shlock-meisters at the film-world’s biggest hoedown

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Comedian Jerry Lewis with actor Kevin Pollak before the screening of “Max Rose” at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2013. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)
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The South of France is concerned. Besides the sogginess, a few severe entanglements with the corporeal world also served to blur any escapist distinctions between life and art. The red-carpet premiere of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, an adaptation of a real-life tale of Hollywood teenagers breaking into celebrities homes to steal jewels and luxury clothes, was immediately followed by a real-life cinematic million-dollar jewel heist from a hotel facing the Palais de Festival. (It was perhaps almost too cinematic, some cynics noted; word spread among the town’s natives that the break-in was staged by the hotel to lend publicity to Coppola’s film.) Midway through the festival a man carrying dummy grenades opened fire at the French news pavilion with a gun full of blanks, causing Christoph Waltz and the audience assembled to watch his interview to stampede. On the last Sunday Tunisian-born Frenchman Abdellatif Kechiche’s naturalistic and carnal 3-hour-long lesbian romance La Vie d’Adèle was being awarded the Palme d’Or just as a massive anti-gay-marriage demonstration completely occupied the center of Paris.

This year’s festival also offered a preponderance of films by both American and European Jewish filmmakers, including offerings from the Coen Brothers, Roman Polanski, Claude Lanzmann, and, yes, Jerry Lewis. Other than the Coen Brothers’ Grand Prix-winning Inside Llewyn Davis, the film that brought forth the most ebullient effusions of joy from the crowd of cinephiles was Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a perfectly paced and crafted documentary recrudescence of the Chilean born cinema guru Alejandro Jodorowsky’s early 1970s quest to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Long awaited by salivating and twitching science-fiction fans and tucked securely out of the main competition into the director’s guild curated series “Quinzaine des Réalisateurs,” the film recounts the exhilarating and hilarious tale of the greatest sci-fi movie never made and the cunning maneuvering and promises made by Jodorowsky to secure the participation of the greatest cast ever assembled: David Carradine in the lead (a jar of vitamin D pills), Mick Jagger (no coaxing was needed), Orson Welles (a personal chef), and Salvador Dalí (a burning giraffe, $100,000 a minute). When he was unable to find the necessary funds to finish the film—no Hollywood studio wanted to entrust him with money—the project was handed over to David Lynch. Jodorowsky’s career was derailed for at least a decade, leaving deep psychological and metaphysical scars, which are still keenly visible now. The documentary’s conceit is that the film would have changed popular film history if it had been made and that its influence and ideas instead trickled down through the provenance of pop cinematic history from Aliens to Prometheus.

The white-haired sage had his own film in the festival, his first in 23 years, with this year’s La Danza de la Realidad (The Dance of Reality), in which he returns to his hometown of Tocopilla in the Chilean desert to weave a surrealistic reminiscence of his unhappy childhood as the child of communist Jewish immigrants from Ukraine with a severe Stalinist streak. The film’s blithe interplay of cadenced irony, luminous asperity, and subtle referencing of the tradition of high modernist European cinema from Švankmajer to Bergman, makes it a poised representative of European cinema. Compared to Jodorowsky’s hallucinogenic 1970 Western El Topo, it is a relatively subdued and burnished production.

A radically different form of ribaldry was on offer from the radioactive-horror-zombie-porno shlockmeisters at Troma entertainment, whose black-garbed, pun-inflected, and grungy representatives were picketing the festival and causing minor mayhem all along La Croisette—when they were not being ignored. America’s premier purveyors of gloppy grotesque and puerile maximalism, Troma has bequeathed the world such B-movie classics as Surf Nazis Must Die and The Toxic Avenger series. This year they were in the process of filming Occupy Cannes, a paean to independent filmmaking and a howl of protest against corporate consolidation in the film industry. On the occupied Rue d’Antibes, Troma’s founder and philosophical guru Lloyd Kaufman was surrounded by his cadre of howling and yodeling followers. Dressed in a blue seersucker suit, pink shirt, and a yellow tie along with two-toned tennis shoes, he possessed an uncanny resemblance to Mel Brooks. Kaufman gave an interview into a French journalist’s camcorder in impressively idiomatic French (“beaucoup de sexe! Beaucoup des lesbiennes!”) The screening of the film that followed, with its fart jokes, juvenile jocularity, and comic-book zombies was a pure distillation of Kitsch Americana, exactly as bad or as good as one imagines it to be.

***

The Coen Brothers’ wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis is, needless to say, infinitely more nuanced and charming, but it springs from a similarity folkish impulse. Set nostalgically in the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk-revival scene of 1961, it follows a talented never-will-be working-class folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, a singer who was not a musical magpie, did not reinvent himself to fit the times, or change the history of music. The movie opens with Davis performing a smoky rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the long-gone Gaslight nightclub. The song and the character are inspired by the posthumously completed memoirs of Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, signaling the Coen Brothers’ return to a hermetic musical micro-universe analogous to the blues world of O Brother, Where Art Thou? After he finishes the song, Davis is asked to step out back into the alley where a mysterious stranger thrashes him and leaves him bleeding—a metaphor for the continuous humiliation he will endure for the next several hours before the reasons he earned it are revealed. The morose and disillusioned Davis oscillates between a particularly late-1950s sort of existential commitment to the values of artistic authenticity and the struggle and yearning for success. His album—of the film’s title—was a dud, and his singing partner has committed suicide, leaving him rudderless. The molten volcano of grief does not stay dormant for very long.

Davis’ world is one of the shaggy bohemia, and he scrapes and sponges through his friends, money, couches, good will, and women: He sleeps with Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his best friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) of a folk duo named “Jim and Jean,” with whom he collaborates occasionally when critically strapped for cash. Jim calls him into the studio to work as a backup singer on a chintzy and vacuous but believable period song “Please Please Mr. Kennedy,” (sung with Adam Driver), after which Davis forgoes his share of the royalties to get the money up front. The sappy jingle will naturally hit the top of the charts.

During one of his excursions to the Upper West Side to crash with an anthropology professor friend, Davis lets out the pet orange tabby, and his endeavors to catch it become one of the film’s recurring motifs. A Homer’s Odyssey-inspired road trip to Chicago finds Davis in a car with a babbling jazzman played by John Goodman in his obligatory Coen Brothers’ role. Davis is neither a nice nor a likable guy: He answers fate’s minor cruelties with his own. Nor does he employ the post-Woody-Allen anti-charmer’s bag of tricks to be liked for his unlikability. Still, he is significantly less hapless than the average Coen Brothers protagonist, years of failure having annealed the schlemiel into a tougher sort of creature; one’s degree of self-destructiveness, the film implies, might be the thin margin between the artist who makes it and the one who does not.

Inside Llewyn Davis’ press-conference panel—which sat the Coen Brothers next to Isaac, the music producer T-Bone Burnett, Mulligan, Timberlake, and Garret Hedlund (who plays Goodman’s valet)—was, as these almost never are, actually quite instructive. There were long questions about cats (how many in total? hard to work with? how many litter boxes did the crew use?) and questions about Timberlake’s beard in the film. These were followed up by an utterly amazing, rambling, and insane question by a German reporter. “I know that Germans are not considered funny,” the plaintive voice began and the room collectively held its breath. “However Germany used to produce comedies before the war,” the earnest German continued, as the crowd tittered. “Now we have no Jews. We have conferences now about why we have no good comedies after the Jews are gone. Do you think the Holocaust has something to do with all this? Do you think that there was something particularly Jewish about the humor, and do you really think there is such a thing as Jewish humor?”

“He’s got you trapped!” the delighted T-Bone chortled. The horrified Joel Coen shot back “Yeah, nothing like a Holocaust to give your humor a stake! I really have no idea how to answer that question.”

It fell on Burnett to smooth things over philosophically. “Look, it’s a good idea to revisit our mistakes,” he said. “If you have made a mistake it’s probably a good thing to think it through.”

***

The Holocaust is also the unsurprising theme of Claude Lanzmann’s latest offering, Le Dernier des Injustes (The Last of the Unjust), an uncompromising series of interviews with Austrian Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the last of the three presidents (“elders”) of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezín that Lanzmann filmed in the summer of 1975 in Rome. Murmelstein is a brilliant and complex man, the only Theresienstadt “elder” not to have been killed during the war, and the interviews with a young Lanzmann, in German, are as absorbing and scintillating as anything in Shoah.

Murmelstein, who was famously denounced as a collaborator by Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg, and Gershom Scholem, was handed over to the Czech government after the war and slated for execution. He spent 18 months in Prague’s notorious Pankratz prison before being acquitted of all charges and allowed his exile in Rome. Lanzmann shrewdly realized that the interviews with Murmelstein had no place in his famous film. “If I had included him, Shoah would have had to be 20 hours long,” he admitted at one point during this almost 4-hour film. Murmelstein—who argues that he kept the ghetto going out of a sense of responsibility, hoping that lives would be spared—refused to draw up lists of deportees for Auschwitz, gambling (in his case correctly) that he was too valuable to the Nazis to execute. He worked in intimate contact with Adolf Eichmann, whom he refers to as a demon and reveals to have seen participate “with his bare hands in Kristallnacht.” (These revelations are a timely counterpoint to this season’s Hannah Arendt film by Margarethe von Trotta.)

At the time of Eichmann’s trial, Murmelstein offered to testify but was turned down by the Israelis, who wanted nothing to do with the pariah rabbi (“unreliable witness,” the judges concluded). The interviews are interspersed with about an hour and a half in total of scenes of an aged Lanzmann visiting every city mentioned—Vienna, Terezin, Rome, Prague—and filming them with languorous panning shots while reading from journals of executed men and pontificating on the barbarism of the Nazis. These parts of the film were painfully difficult to sit through. The film coincides with the publication of a collection of Lanzmann’s articles by the French house Gallimard. It also touches on themes familiar to Anglophone readers of his memoirs published in English last year as The Patagonian Hare.

Lanzmann, who was always a stately man, is now possessed at the age of 87 of a burly physicality and a baronial presence to match his towering ego. He delivered a typically grandiose and high-minded speech about his sacred responsibility to the material left in his care; he claimed to have been mulling this film, or what to do with the hours of footage, this last mismatched section of Shoah, for three and a half decades. He spoke also of his request to the president of the festival that the film not be included in the competition but be screened instead in the prestigious hors competition program as an honorable mention. He did not elaborate on his reasons for choosing to do so, yet most everyone assumed it was because of his famed rivalry with and contempt for Steven Spielberg, who as head of this year’s jury would have been called on to make public and most likely unflattering pronouncements on the film’s quality. Leaving the screening, I ran into France’s preeminent critic of Israeli cinema, the French-Israeli academic and film critic Ariel Schweitzer. Schweitzer was as disappointed with the film as I and most everyone else was: “Lanzmann has lost his rigor,” he told me. “This film lapses into the sentimentality and pathos that he had abhorred in Spielberg. Shoah deserved to be nine and a half hours long because it was remarkable. This film is far, far too long.” Still, when Lanzmann stood up from his chair to bow, he was surrounded by hundreds from the audience who proffered him a deeply reverent standing ovation earned over a lifetime. The scene had the undeniable feeling of a final bow, and it was an undeniably moving sight.

***

The press conference for Daniel Noah’s Max Rose, starring Jerry Lewis (who is, intriguingly enough, Lanzmann’s exact contemporary) turned out to be even more instructive and amusing than the Coen Brothers’ press conference. The soft-spoken and bespectacled Noah directed a film based on the story of his pianist grandfather, a bereaved and misanthropic old Jew mourning the death of his wife of 65 years. After the funeral, where Lewis/Rose rejects his family and berates his son, who is played by a sympathetic Kevin Pollack, he finds a lacquered box inscribed to his wife by a mysterious Ben in 1959 on the day he was away in New York recording his only flop album (shades of Llewyn Davis). There is some bickering about the sale of his house after the family checks him into an old-age home. After his sense of the validity of his life and marriage becomes unglued, he begins experiencing nighttime hallucinations and having nighttime conversations with his deceased wife. After some minor sleuthing he seeks out and confronts his rival (played deliciously by Mort Sahl) only to be confirmed in his belief in his wife’s steadfast and unbreakable fidelity. This epiphany is the source of a radical transfiguration of his attitude toward life: He mends his ways as well as relations with his family, even going so far as to hug his son. Save for a subtle and rancorous performance turned in by Lewis, the film’s plot is fairly forgettable. A fellow critic with whom I watched the film, Yael Hirsch, the founding editor of toutelaculture.com (Paris’ answer to Time Out New York) and Parisian Jewish Gaullist aristocracy, pronounced it: “So trite, so predictable, and so Hollywood!”

Lewis treated the subsequent press conference as the latest in a long line of stand-up comedy gigs. He insulted, heckled, ignored, or pretended he did not hear every single person who asked a question. Standing up and introducing myself as the correspondent from Tablet magazine, I inquired about his thoughts on the difference between the European Jewish and American Jewish perspectives in film. The moderator assumed that I had meant Jewish humor. Lewis’ answer was a garrulous variation on “We are all human beings and humor is humor.” This was immediately followed by his now widely reported insight that women are not really capable of humor. This being Jerry Lewis in France, the inevitable followed: A French critic associated with a cultural magazine stood up to comment on France’s “special fondness for [your] films.” Lewis interrupted him: “Fondness? They kept me alive for 50 years!” The critic then continued with the “Why is Lewis huge in France?” question in intricate detail, delving into arcane particulars of the debate surrounding the “French exception,” which the moderator had to explain to a befuddled-looking Lewis, who after he got the gist of the question warned the journalist to “be careful you don’t get too highfalutin!” The spontaneous ejaculation of the enraged noble savage, a shtick which Lewis plays to perfection, seems to play to some deeply compelling need in the French (and by extension the European) psyche. It is in fact a perfect counterpoint to the over-sophisticated and lustrous grandeur, whether authentic or put-on, of the Polanskis, the Lanzmanns, and Jodorowskys.

Later that evening, at the official red-carpet premiere of the film, Lewis shambled into the theater Soixantième, on the rooftop of the Palais and the coziest and fanciest of its theaters, in a rumpled tuxedo. The audience leaped to its feet in reverent adulation, clamoring as if Jerry Lewis was the victorious Caesar returning from subjugating the Gaulish tribes. A large group of dignitaries, festival staff, flunkeys, and the actor Richard Belzer with a poodle under his armpit, swarmed around Lewis. After someone from his retinue asked what he wanted, he screamed, “I want to sit down!”—a remark that instigated merriment. When the emcee turned to him and asked if he wanted to say some words before the film began, Lewis bellowed at him: “NO! Turn on the movie, you putz!” The audience was delighted. The humiliated emcee appeared to be the most delighted of all.

***

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I’d like to request that all references to Roman Polanski be phrased as “child-rapist Roman Polanski”. The fact that anyone gives this guy anything but 100% scorn appalls me.

Through Lloyd Kaufman’s Twitter feed, we have been informed that Troma’s Toxic Avenger films are not a trilogy, but a tetralogy, with a fifth installment in development: @lloydkaufman writes: “we R still writing Toxie5,The Toxic Twins.” The piece has been updated. We regret the error.

Mark Burgh says:

When I read that question from the German reporter, I started laughing hysterically. The answer that came to me was “you killed us all, you stupid m-f-ker.”

Brigitte Erdan says:

Are you G-d?????
Or just jealous of his filmmaking talents, and adoration of million?!

2000

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Big Jew-Off at Cannes

European cineastes clash with American ironists and shlock-meisters at the film-world’s biggest hoedown

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