Last weekend I had a really interesting conversation with Sean Penn about his service as Jury President at the recent Cannes Film Festival. (That's him in the photo, having a smoke and looking slightly concerned - whether by the gentleman next to him or the paparazzi gang behind, we're not to know.) Anyhow, an edited account of aforementioned conversation will run in the next issue of Sight & Sound.
After Sean was announced as this year's Cannes Prez I was struck by the number of media outlets who decided to run the rule over the Festival's choice, so rehashing the legend of Penn the Dangerous Hothead of 1980s tabloid lore, as if ignorant of the fact that inter alia he had previously competed in the Official Selection at Cannes both as actor and director, and won the Acting Palme for She's So Lovely in 1997. But, such is the general standard of reporting on cinema out there, and particularly when bracketed to coverage of the Cannes Festival, where the celebration of what is very best in film is inevitably shackled to a realisation that movies are consumed far more widely and profitably by devotees of Spiderman and Batman, be they young or old.
Sean has been on the record umpteen times in the past about his particular problems with the Hollywood mainstream, and the outriding assumptions about the audience. And this subject naturally arose in the course of our Cannes discussion: 'As an audience member', he remarked, "I always feel frustrated by the monoculturalism of American cinema, and in so many places it’s American monoculturalism that people buy." (Yes, 'Hollywood Movie Actor' is still his own main occupation, but the closest he's ever got to the Hollywood mainstream is working for Clint Eastwood, whose creative control over his own work is the envy of film artists everywhere.)
There is a certain caste of film critics for broadsheet newspapers, in the UK as well as the US, who see themselves as the scourges of that 'American monoculturalism', but very often I think they're kidding themselves, if not their readers: their own finicky sense of personal discernment is what comes top of their agendas. The thought reoccured to me when Sean described how he and his jury ignored all the daily critical chatter about the films they were adjudicating upon: a discipline that resulted in his feeling aggrieved on the part of certain films and filmmakers once he reviewed the press coverage in the aftermath of the Festival and saw how movies he admired unreservedly had been instantly weighed in the balance by The Critics and found wanting.
At Cannes the deadline-driven comprehensive-coverage rush to judgement can be very injurious to a movie. Of course, judgement is always waiting round the corner for any creative undertaking and cannot be hidden from. But I know how Cannes works, and what is the daily routine for most film journalists out there (it's long, but not arduous, not by any reasonable standard, other than on the liver...) And it's a matter of fact that Cannes is not the ideal place for arriving quickly at a considered view of a picture, much less for conveying that to readers. Hence Sean's lament, particularly on the part of Steven Soderbergh's Che, on which his jury bestowed the Best Actor prize for Benicio Del Toro, but which had a rough ride in a lot of print outlets. "The diminishment", Sean told me, "is reminiscent of the bad reviews Bonnie and Clyde got, or Apocalypse Now, or the 'failure' Wizard of Oz was or It’s A Wonderful Life was." This remark I think is particularly useful, because the critical tendency is very often to make the best the enemy of the good. But with a lot of critics who regularly refer to the masters and masterpieces of the past, all you have to do is imagine what they would have said of those great originals had they been reviewing at the time: most likely, "Not without interest, but with (sighs) a lot of problems..."