Innocents Abroad: Cannes-Approved Visions of America

By Karina Longworth | May 14, 2009
Innocents Abroad: Cannes-Approved Visions of America - LEADPHOTO

As Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock has its world premiere in Cannes, Karina Longworth examines the American movies – or films about America – which have found success on the Croisette.

Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape

Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape

At the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, when Steven Soderbergh’s debut effort, sex, lies, and videotape, won the Palme D’Or over a field of impressive contenders including Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, no one was more surprised than Soderbergh, who allegedly left his trophy under his Palais seat. Lee’s response was the opposite of Soderbergh’s stunned inaction; hearing that jury president Wim Wenders had dismissed his film for not having a hero, Lee famously, furiously claimed to “have a Louisville Slugger” with Wenders’ name on it, and went on to dismiss Soderbergh’s talky dissection of white suburban sexual power dynamics using Wenders’ complaint about his own film as a guide: “What’s so heroic about taping women?”

Heroism seems beside the point. A cursory glance at the American films (and films about Americans) that won the Palme D’or during the last few decades of the 20th century shows that when it comes to impressing Cannes jurors, Do The Right Thing did a few things wrong. Lee’s third feature focuses on real problems faced by actual Americans and, stylistic flourishes aside, demands that we take these problems seriously as sociological ills rather than psychological ones. Its real-world relevance and ultimate call to action puts it at odds with most films about America which have won the Palme since the 60s. From MASH to Wild at Heart to Dancer in the Dark, Cannes loves visions of American that come dressed as the sick soul of suburban social and sexual rot, films that acknowledge real-world events only when they serve as a convenient catalyst for a vision of the American character marked by self-delusion and a theatrical self-indulgence, the dealing with life and death alike with a swagger and cocky smile. Perhaps above all else, Cannes seems to love American movie-movies, those that riff on the idea that American values and identity are both sourced from moving images, and reflected with distortion back onto the screen.

MASH, Robert Altman's 1970 Cannes winner

MASH, Robert Altman's 1970
Cannes winner

The pattern begins with the first American film to win the Palme after the chaos of 1968 – and the first film from the so-called New American Wave to make a splash in competition on the Croisette -- Robert Altman’s MASH. Altman’s first big hit was a comedy set in the Korean War, made at the height of the Vietnam War, but really only interested in war itself as distilled down into the movie tropes (particularly music) it borrows for ironic effect. MASH mocks the notion of American patriotism, but the film’s only references to the then-contemporary quagmire in Vietnam come thickly veiled in jokes, such as when Sally Kellerman’s exasperated nurse asks how a man with no respect for rules and authority such as Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye could have ascended to his position in the military, and the answer comes from the peanut gallery: “The draft.” Later, during a drunken party, Eliot Gould dons an Uncle Sam hat and calls Kellerman “a sultry little bitch.” The suggestion that ugly entitlement and American symbolism go together is the furthest MASH goes in making a political statement, and it's couched in enough casually misogynist cool that it’s probably not even intentional.

Gus Van Sant won the big prize with Elephant

Gus Van Sant won the big prize with

Vietnam is dealt with in an even more spectral way in Taxi Driver, which won the Palme in 1976; like MASH, with its army surgeons flirting over the bloody wounded, it holds a funhouse mirror up to contemporary attitudes regarding sex, death and the uneasy relation between the two. On the one hand, Robert De Niro’s veteran/taxi driver is determined to “save” Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute by any means necessary; on the other, he’s driven by sexual obsession to attempt a political assassination. Several future America-set winners play with similar contradictions. Pulp Fiction, of course, literally dances towards a forbidden romance before obliterating its possibility with a near-death drug overdose. Even sex, lies, in its suggestion that displacement of desire onto voyeurism and confession is a preferable option to a run-of-the-mill duplicitous marriage, does its part to implicate unwieldy sexual impulse in the disruption of life cycles.

You could argue that the “America as funhouse fantasia” description could apply to a number of competition entries in the year 2000, including the film that won the Palme d’Or, Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, as well O Brother Where Art Thou and Nurse Betty, both of which went home empty handed. But not only does Von Trier’s quasi-musical tragedy up the artificiality ante, it also serves as a bridge between two subsets of recent Cannes winners. The story of an immigrant worker drunk on both the American dream and the American movie musical who is ultimately executed for playing by what she perceives as the rules of the game, the choice of Dancer would prove prescient, not only of Europe’s distaste for Bush’s America, but of a growing tendency amongst Cannes juries to salute visions of America that sought to ominously diagnose, and even scold, American flaws that earlier Cannes winners would have treated more ambiguously.

The American Palme winners of the 70s to the 90s mostly had a sardonic sense of humor that pointed towards an ambiguous moral reading of the American character, but that sort of tone hasn’t helped contenders in the 00s. Think of a competition title like Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s physical comedy of unlikely romance in a world gone banal.  If made in the 90s, it might have had a decent shot at the top trophy. In 2002, it was snubbed in favor of The Pianist. In 2003, the grand prize went to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film which, in fictionalizing the Columbine High School massacre, humorlessly points fingers at everything from video games to drunk parents to repressed sexuality. Finally, we have the last American film to win the Palme, Fahrenheit 9/11: part documentary, part stand-up comedy, all business when it comes to laying blame on George W. Bush. Elephant and Fahrenheit 9/11 present real American crises through a twisted lens, but unlike previous winners, that lens is distinctly European in sensibility — the former film in form, the latter in ideology.

With the 2009 Cannes competition getting underway this week, it’s been a full five years since a portrait of America has won the Palme — a drought almost as long as that between the 1994 victory of Pulp Fiction and the Dancer in the Dark win in 2000. Though both Tarantino and Von Trier will be back in competition, they’ll face stiff competition from other previous winners (Jane Campion, Ken Loach), as well as world-renowned filmmakers who have never been feted by the fest, like Ang Lee. What Isabelle Huppert’s jury will gravitate to is impossible to say, but a much-ballyhooed new era in American democracy could very well lead to a newly Cannes-certified American vision. 

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