The first foreign film I watched on a big screen — that is, apart from the rare ones Doordarshan used to screen at night — is Federico Fellini’s La Strada. Midway through the screening, organised by the Madras Film Society (I’d just become a member), I fell asleep. Now, don’t “how COULD you!” me. I was a teenager in an era where the norm was Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan and Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor. The arty-est cinema I’d gotten a taste of was a Benegal or a Nihalani — and even if the pace of those films was “slow” (rather, slow-er than the mainstream fare), there was some rooting, some familiarity with the characters or the setting. Even if we are talking about Trikal, set amidst a Goan Christian family in the 1960s, there was Naseeruddin Shah, there was drama, there were ghosts!
So the Fellini happened because I’d read so much about him and Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa and a bunch of others, and they were almost always spoken about in hushed, reverent tones, as though they were gods and the article or review was written in a chapel. Today, I’d pick Fellini and Bergman among my desert-island directors (some others like Antonioni, not so much), but the reason I bring up the La Strada memory is the recent announcement of the “Cannes 2020” selection. There’s no physical festival, of course. There are also no categories, like In Competition (the films vying for the Palme d’Or) or Un Certain Regard. We just got a list of films, with only one really big-name director: Wes Anderson, whose The French Dispatch was practically a foregone inclusion.
Or let me put it this way. Had I been a teen today, the same film-loving teen, Wes Anderson is the only name I would have recognised from the Cannes 2020 lineup. He’d have been the only one about whom I’d have read pieces written in hushed, reverent tones. (And hopefully, I’d not have fallen asleep at a screening of one of his films!) And here, finally, is the point: In film festivals, high profile directors matter. Here, the directors are the stars, and that’s who we look for whenever a lineup is announced. The French Dispatch has Benicio del Toro, Timothée Chalamet, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan… But it could just have easily been toplined by John Doe and Jane Doe, because the real star is Wes Anderson. Had this year’s festival taken place as usual and had I been there, he’s why I’d be in line.
Just like Quentin Tarantino was why I was in line, last year, for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt were just the nice-to-haves. That way, Cannes 2019 was studded with stars. In the In Competition and Un Certain Regard sections alone, we had Jim Jarmusch, Terrence Malick, Elia Suleiman, Xavier Dolan, Pedro Almodóvar, Bong Joon-ho, Céline Sciamma, Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Albert Serra, Bruno Dumont… It wasn’t just Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan and Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor, but Ranbir and Ranveer, Ajith and Vijay, Alia and Deepika, Mahesh Babu and Prabhas…
So why are star-directors so exciting? Because they have oeuvres we already know, and the excitement is about what next! Almodóvar hadn’t been Great in a while: I’m one of the defenders of Julieta (2016), but even I’d probably call it good-not-great, and the film before that, I’m So Excited (2013), was an indefensible misfire. And when Pain and Glory turned out to be exquisite, it was both a celebration and a relief, the way a “hardcore” Ranbir Kapoor fan might have felt when, after a series of flop-to-middling outings, Sanju turned out to be a bona fide blockbuster. As with Almodóvar, I had a not-quite-there feeling about Tarantino after The Hateful Eight (2015). So watching him not just “regain his touch” but also transcend it, in the gloriously directed Once Upon a Time…, left me with an incredible high.
This does not mean the lower-profile directors mean nothing. That’s the other reason you go to festivals, to see who’s the surprise, who’s the next Almodóvar, the next Tarantino. And this kind of discovery can be, in a way, even more exhilarating. I still remember the rush I felt after watching Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms at Berlin, last year. I had not seen his earlier films like Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, and Synonyms was a slap-on-the-forehead, where was this guy all this while! find. Or Mati Diop (whose Atlantics won the Grand Prix) and Ladj Ly (whose Les Misérables won the Jury Prize) at Cannes 2019. These are also the filmmakers who benefit the most from the attention at a major festival. In relative terms, the Grand Prix means more to Mati Diop than the Palme D’Or meant to an already established and celebrated filmmaker — a “star” — like Bong Joon-ho.
And over time, this new galaxy of filmmakers will form its own stars, whose films future teens will read about (or maybe watch YouTube videos about, because… will reading still exist?) in hushed, reverent tones. But for now, all I’ll say is that I wished the Cannes 2020 lineup had had a few more filmmakers I was giddily excited about. Yes, there’s the new Pixar movie. Yes, there’s Francis Lee’s new film, Ammonite, with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. (I loved Lee’s God’s Own Country, a gay drama that rose above a rather traditional-sounding synopsis and found something tough and lyrical and tender.) There’s, above all, Studio Ghibli’s Earwig and the Witch, a 3D title directed by Goro (Hayao’s son) Miyazaki.
But apart from Wes Anderson, there’s no “Fellini”, no one with a so-far storied career. The film itself could be hit or miss. But apart from glamming up a festival, high-profile filmmakers — the stars — provide a great entry point into art cinema ( or at least, relatively non-mainstream cinema). Their films are easier to watch, as they end up in far wider circulation than the non-“star” films. (The star system amongst filmmakers is no less brutal than the one amongst stars.) That’s how I ended up giving La Strada another chance, because of the high demand for another screening. And for some reason, this time, I was hooked — not just on Fellini, but on European art cinema.
And eventually, Japanese art cinema. And now, I guess, Korean. Because the directors from there are among the biggest stars in the film festival circuit, the ones you keep reading about all the time and say “okay, let me see what this guy is all about”! The hardcore cinephile will watch everything, whether a star director is behind it or not, but for the rest of the world, a Parasite may be the closest they come to endorsing a (relatively) non-mainstream film, a film different from what they are used to. This helps expand minds, expand the consumption of the art form. And where did this particular film begin the journey that ended at the history-making Oscars? At Cannes!
There’s another thing at play here. It’s not that I ended up liking every Fellini film. But I adore his sensibility. And at least for me, my “star directors” are the ones who come with their own sensibility. One look at an Almodóvar frame and you know it’s him. The “will he do it this time?” adrenalin rush isn’t quite there with the not-yet-star directors, even though they may actually end up making a better movie. So yes, in a way, it’s like a less-mainstream version of the Oscars. You root for the best film to win. But in your heart, you hope that one of your favorites has made that best film, and that he/she wins. Commercial or arthouse, I guess movie-love comes with a good dose of being… star-struck.