Fish Story

“Consider the Atlantic cod,”

Kenny Turan begins.

“Once it was so plentiful that 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas fils estimated that if every cod egg reached maturity, it would take only three years to fill the sea so you could walk across the Atlantic dryshod on the backs of cod.’

Today that fish is perilously close to extinction in the wild. It was the species’ familiarity that put it in danger: Its past omnipresence made it beyond imagining that it could be in danger of disappearing.

The once-mighty cod was on my mind at the recent Cannes Film Festival’s closing night, and not because I was looking forward to a nice fish dinner. Rather, I was disturbed that Clint Eastwood’s masterful ‘Mystic River’ had been shut out of the awards, just as Curtis Hanson’s exceptional ‘L.A. Confidential’ had been blanked six years earlier.

Hunh? The “Romance of the Mighty Cod” and references to Alexander Dumas fils because the Cannes Film Festival didn’t give Clint and Curtis the Palme D’or?

Isn’t this a tad overwrought?

“There was a trend here, a dangerous obliviousness to the realities of the movie business, a confusion about what was endangered and what was not, and I wasn’t happy about any of it.”

Ooooo — “dangerous obliviousness”! Is that the new Communism?

“Of course it’s always possible that the jury, chaired by French director Patrice Chereau, simply didn’t think much of the Eastwood film, but I don’t believe that was the case.”

Naturally not. Maybe before 9/11, but times are different — aren’t they Ken?

“It’s more probable that the jurors preferred the likes of Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning ‘Elephant’ because they confuse artful vacuousness with genuine art, but I think there was a third — and much more disturbing — possibility at work here as well.”

And now Ken moves in for the kill. A simple preference for Gus over Clint is ruled out from the start. The infamy of an award like this can only be indicative of some darker force at work. Especially as the chairman of the jury is Openly French !

Yes friends, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny “You realize that this means war!” And no, it’s nothing so simple was the “War Against Terrorism” or the “War Aginst Drugs” or even the recently won “War Against a Statue of Saddam Hussein.”

No, this is a Culture War, and the Evil French, and their sympathizers must be put in their place!

“My guess is that despite the presence of Americans Steven Soderbergh and Meg Ryan, the jury was inclined to dismiss ‘Mystic River,’ as ‘L.A. Confidential’ had been dismissed before it, as contaminated by the stink of Hollywood. Films produced in the maw of the studio system couldn’t possibly be art, and even if they were, they surely didn’t require the kind of help or recognition a major film festival award can provide.”

I’m sure that Ryan and Soderbergh are relieved tolearn that Commisar Turan has given them a pass on this Culture Crime.

As for the studio system (which has in point of fact been dead for decades) the “maw” of which he squeaks is that of multi-national corporations who own outfits like Warner Bros. (for whom Clint produced “Mystic River”) as “units” of considerably larger capitalist enterprises. The ability of this corproate entities to push their products — film among them — into any area of the known universe that they choose has yet to be undermined by any film festival awards jury.

“Make no mistake, juries like to reward films they feel are deserving and in need of assistance. That’s why the group that neglected ‘L.A. Confidential’ split the Palme between two fiercely recondite, commercially doomed items, Shohei Imamura’s ‘The Eel’ and Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘A Taste of Cherry.’”

Needless to say, those who’ve seen said works by Imamura and Kirostami don’t find them “recondite” at all. But that’s not the reader Kenny is aiming for. He wants those who prefer to read about films than see them. And even among those that do go to the movies, leave us not forget he’s addressing a readership that has yet to see the Eastwood and Van Sant films either.

“The problem, however, with a point of view that treats ‘Elephant’ like a precious flower and, unable to tell the difference between ‘Mystic River’ and ‘Pearl Harbor,’ assigns the former to the outer reaches of philistine hell, is that it does not take into account the realities of today’s movie business.”

And now things get really condescending. What’s the “precious flower” crack about? And why should the jury of a film festival concern itself with the “realities” of business practice?

“First, though it sounds counterintuitive, the art film is one of the least endangered segments of the movie business, much more an imaginary invalid than a patient actually in need of assistance.”

Depends on whether the patient in question has insurance covereage, doesn’t it Ken?

“Of course, these films by their nature will never reach a wide audience, but that’s not the point. “

No, that’s precisely the point. Clint Eastwood no ore in need of a Palme D’Or than Jerry Bruckheimer.

“Rather, the combined impact of the ease and affordability of digital filmmaking, the existence of government subsidies in many countries, the eager involvement of cable channels such as HBO and Showtime over here, the ability of creative producers to string together multinational sources of financing and the passion of directors to make themselves heard means that the art film may be healthier today than it’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, ask Sundance director Geoff Gilmore, increasingly overwhelmed by a flood of personal cinema.”

What a LOAD!

Sundance is nothing if not MORE commerical than Cannes. It’s the means by which Harvey Weinstein went from being an “independent” distributor to a mega-budget international entrepreneur.

Sing “Melancholy Baby,” Ken!

“Secondly, we have to realize that the Hollywood side of the movie business has changed in our lifetime.”

No shit, Sherlock!

“In the pre-television era, when adults had fewer entertainment options, it was a given that the studios made numerous films with them in mind, a habit of mind that continued at least through the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s.

Now, with corporate owners demanding predictable profits from films that cost the earth to make and advertise, the studios have understandably narrowed their focus to the kinds of undemanding entertainments favored by the 25-and-under audience that dominates theatrical attendance.

Serious drama suffers “

Oh Prunella! Chicago wasn’t serious?

“What this means is that it is harder to get literature-based projects like ‘Mystic River’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’ made than it is ‘Elephant.’ Because adult viewers are notoriously fussy and younger audiences don’t always care enough, serious, intelligent works with dark, grown-up themes that require the stars — and the budget — of a major studio are now the scarce hen’s teeth of Hollywood.”

Clint and Curtis “literature-based”? When they made Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Wonder Boys, maybe. But so what? Do you want to put Merchant-Ivory in charge of things Ken?

“Even as major a player as Eastwood had great difficulty convincing a studio to foot the ‘Mystic River’ bill. ‘It’s amazing how many people didn’t want to do this film,’ the director said at Cannes. ‘Warner Bros. finally did it almost as a favor, saying I could only have so much money [less than $25 million], a budget that’s pretty small by today’s standards. I took no salary, just the DGA minimum. And they said I was welcome to take it anywhere else. Like ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence.’ “

Now really — Clint Eastwood as one of “Hollywood’s 100 Neediest Cases”? It wasn’t done “almost as a favor.” They owe him.

Hell, Clint could adapt William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions” to the screen if he felt like it!

“Just days after Eastwood spoke, a story in Daily Variety under the headline ‘Does Lit Really Fit?’ made the same point by reporting on a panel on novels-into-film at BookExpo America.

‘I can’t tell you how many times people have said they’re looking for the next ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ or the next ‘Ordinary People,’ ” agent Jody Hotchkiss told Variety. ‘There’s a lot of lip service being paid to doing these kinds of movies. But fewer and fewer of them are being done, at least at the studios. I’ll make an impassioned plea for some small, interesting novel, and the producer will say, ‘Yeah, well, what’s the one-sheet [movie poster]?’ “

Not an unreasonable question for a producer to ask.

And in the case of Mystic River the answer is Clint Eastwood.

“When films are made at all, it’s at least in part because of their potential for gathering awards. If the Oscars didn’t exist, ‘The English Patient’ and ‘The Hours’ would have had tougher going getting approved.”

So what are you proposing, Ken? That such films should get awards the moment they go into production?

“In a glory-hungry business where even as suspect a prize as a Golden Globe is valued, a major award at Cannes would make a studio feel better about its risky decisions.”

See folks? That’s what Cannes is there for — to make studios feel better !

“So if a jury at a place like Cannes really wanted to do some good in the film world, if it weren’t so infected by stereotypical notions about Hollywood as to be blind to what’s truly under siege, it would be looking out for — rather than ignoring — films like ‘Mystic River.’ Instead, intent on overstuffing a favorite child, it ends up unable to see who is really starving.”

Why does Ken sound like a Log Cabin Republican encouraging me to vote for George W. Bush?

“For if we abandon mainstream studio films that reach out skillfully and thoughtfully to a mass audience, we will be abandoning a key part of our artistic heritage, of film’s legacy, its gift to us. We won’t miss these films until they’re gone, and, like the once-mighty Atlantic cod, they are closer to being gone than people are willing to admit.”

But I don’t like Cod, Ken.

I like Catfish.

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