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Cannes' Poison Pie

Fahrenheit 9/11 lights it up

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Never mind the red-carpet glitz and the star-packed soirees; they're so "been there, done that" for regulars of the Cannes International Film Festival. There was but one conversational concern at this year's fest, the obsession of practically all, from whatever country: how to get those war criminals ejected from the White House. The 57th Cannes Film Festival, May 12 through 23, was all about Bush-and-Cheney loathing, and it's therefore logical that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a poison pie in the face of our stupid-white-men foreign policy, won both the International Critics (FIPRESCI) prize and the coveted Palme d'Or. The latter was given by Cannes's Official Jury, which had Quentin Tarantino as its president.

Earlier, many speculated as to how Tarantino's geek tastes might affect the awards. Would the Kill Bill helmer lean on his jury to reward a hyper-violent Asian action picture or an anime feature with the Palme d'Or? Or would the jury balk and choose something very left-wing and politically correct? My guess (I wasn't at the meetings) is that compromise reigned. Tarantino secured a very nice Grand Prix second prize for his South Korean favorite, Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy, a time-bending, kinetic, "noir" revenge tale featuring sizzling digital visuals. In turn, he agreed to endorse Fahrenheit 9/11 for its energy and chutzpah rather than its didacticism.

According to indieWIRE, Moore told reporters that Tarantino had taken him aside to say, "We want you to know that the politics of your film had nothing to do with this award -- you were given the award because you made a great film."

Certainement, Quentin.

In France, Moore has been regarded as a Buddha-bellied demi-god since premiering Bowling for Columbine at Cannes 2002. The first public screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 brought a 20-minute ovation of stomping and cheering, the tuxedo'd crowd of several thousand acting up like Red Sox fans, with George W. standing in for the Yankees. The Palme d'Or victory proved equally popular. Who wasn't with Moore when he declared, jubilantly accepting the prize, "You will ensure that the American people will see this movie!" That is: screw you, Disney Studios, for refusing to allow your Miramax subsidiary to distribute it in the USA.

Was Fahrenheit 9/11 the best picture in Competition? My vote would have gone either to Wong Kar-Wai's elegant, opulent 2046, a Hong Kong-set sci-fi love story, Josef von Sternberg meets Philip K. Dick, or to Agnes Jaoui's Comme une image, a witty Gallic tale about the uneasy relationship of a self-absorbed French writer and his adult daughter. The former was left out of the awards altogether, despite the transcendent cinematography and sensual performances from Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. The latter won a deserved Best Screenplay and was bought for American distribution by Sony Classics.

So what's Fahrenheit 9/11 about? It's a sprawling, often haphazardly organized attack on Bush's non-elected presidency, for which Moore's zealous researchers have tracked down all kinds of footage showing George W. as a consummate nincompoop. This movie isn't a "Bush is smarter than you think" documentary. Here, he's an even more dimwitted, callous frat boy than his enemies can imagine, whether smirking and being goofy and infantile seconds before announcing the war on Iraq, or ending a somber political speech by, in one swirl, turning to the golf course behind him and yelping, "Watch this drive!" Most astonishing: Moore has located a September 11 home movie of Bush in the moments after he found out, from the Secret Service, that the second plane had hit the Twin Towers. For seven Warholian minutes, our president continued to read aloud a story about a billy goat to elementary school children.

Will the Kerry campaign have the sense to make use of clips from Fahrenheit 9/11? Wouldn't blue-collar undecided and even evangelical Christian voters be disturbed by Bush's smarmy talk to rich Republicans, whom he describes, decadently, as "the Haves and Have Mores . . . my base"?

I did meet at Cannes some nay-sayers to Moore's documentary, including annoyed Serbian critics who labeled it "not a serious, well-made film" and a 26-year-old American critic who thought it far too skewed against Bush, whom he admitted to having voted for in the 2000 election. And there was the always idiosyncratic Jean-Luc Godard, who hadn't seen Fahrenheit 9/11 but haughtily dismissed Bowling for Columbine. He said during a press conference, "If you compare Michael Moore and John Ford, or Bowling for Columbine with the major films of Frederick Wiseman made 25 years ago, like Welfare, they're two different worlds. He [Moore] is helping Bush in a way. Bush is less stupid than he thinks, or so stupid you can't change him."

But then there were the liberal British journalists who told me they wish a similar documentary would be made at home blasting Tony Blair. And Michel Ciment, the outspoken editor of the French film journal Positif, declared that, "no French filmmaker would dare make a film attacking [French president Jacques] Chirac, and, if made, not Cannes nor any French film festival would dare show it."

This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

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