Stolen Summer; Les Destinees

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Project Greenlight, the twelve-part HBO series on the making of Stolen Summer, offered a reality-tv version of that New Yorker cartoon in which a mouse declared, "What I really want to do is direct."

Actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck held a contest to "greenlight" (industry slang for approve) a film by a newcomer that would be financed and theatrically distributed by Miramax. The movie itself is a nonevent. But Damon and Affleck's publicity stunt, promoting themselves as indie gods and Miramax as an art-movie salon, was historic?a document of contemporary film-cult hubris exposing the myth of indie genius that surrounds contemporary American moviemaking. As the 60s term "Director as Superstar" gave way to the 80s phrase "I want to direct," once-lofty artistic ambitions have been replaced by the routine aspiration?the chutzpah?of any kid with a computer, a camcorder and a mental compass pointing to Sundance.

Pete Jones, a former Chicago sales rep, was picked for stardom because his Stolen Summer script?an earnest Irish-Catholic boy's story?no doubt appealed to Damon and Affleck's Southie affectations. (No women or people of color were among the ultimate contest finalists?either through happenstance or old-boys'-network expedience.) Jones, who had never directed so much as a home movie, was driven by indie myths to believe he had a story worth telling and a shot at glory. But the bootstrap fallacy intrinsic to Project Greenlight doomed Stolen Summer from the beginning. The million-dollar budget soon inflated toward $2 million and a huge, fully unionized crew. It is significant that the series never showed a serious script conference or an honest inquiry into what Jones' screenplay is about (there was little discussion of its commercial potential, or Miramax's commercial expectations). Each episode reduced what should have been a series about artistic struggle to a continuing story of soap-operatic power struggles.

The problem with the eavesdropping format (plus, the selection and excision of crucial details?a tactic borrowed from MTV's Real World) was that it skipped over everything that was relevant to the movie's inevitable failure. Instead, HBO viewers saw on-set politics and petulance. Coproducer Affleck seemed boozily distracted, making showoff phone calls to Harvey Weinstein on the Italian location of Gangs of New York; Jones requested a meeting with Miramax vet Kevin Smith to vent his frustrations. (Responding to Jones' complaints, Smith turned to the camera and exclaimed, "This guy doesn't appreciate anything!" Rare cogency for Smith.) Jones played masterfully on Damon's and Affleck's egos yet it turns out Jones' overbearing people skills and his lack of filmmaking experience were the least of the production's problems. Starting with Aidan Quinn's prima-donna contractual demands, Jones was surrounded by the arrogance, ineptitude, lassitude and backstabbing of indie professionals: one conniving executive producer Pat Peach; one meek executive producer Jeff Balis; the passive-aggressive cinematographer Pete Biagi; and two fumbling child actors. (A now-I've-seen-everything moment showed a Little League scene: one of the boys hit the ball, then ran toward third base!)

Project Greenlight's improvised chaos proved our indie era's filmmaking is inferior to the oft-berated studio era's. It's miraculous that Stolen Summer is only mediocre. But what's wrong technically is less offensive than its thematic catastrophe. Apparently no one involved had the capability to improve Jones' naivete. This is not to pick on a neophyte?or to pretend, like a Premiere magazine reader, that inside dope is a movie's essence. What's enraging about Stolen Summer comes from the fatuity rampant in today's supposedly savvy movie culture. From Jones' inadequacy to Kevin Smith's, indie filmmaking doesn't require directors to think about how the world looks and feels. Most indie movies alarmingly lack an esthetic concept?the attention to detail, mood, vision that makes a film like The Delta, George Washington or Time Out so affecting. Stolen Summer reveals that most indie-makers know tv, but not film. It has the drab look and obviousness of an Afterschool Special. Climaxing a family fight, Jones' cut from dad Aidan Quinn to mom Bonnie Hunt just shows flat headshots. After a dramatic turning point, the boy protagonist gets grounded and is shown playing in his bedroom through a mirror reflection, but the composition (the use of reflection) is meaningless. There's no consequence to any of the shots or edits?the things that make storytelling an art. Stolen Summer undermines Project Greenlight's premise by demonstrating that decades after "The Director as Superstar," the art form has been overrun by ambitious mice. Filmmaking is now only about getting jobs and getting shots, not making beauty or making meaning.

Without seeing Project Greenlight you can still see Stolen Summer is shabby. Trouble started with Jones pitching a formulaic script that trivializes the personal story he meant to convey about Pete (Adi Stein), an Irish-Catholic boy contending with ethnicity and faith. Following the story of St. Paul he hears in school, young Pete wants to convert Jews. A life-threatening illness tricks up Pete's friendship with a rabbi's son, Danny Jacobsen (Mike Weinberg), which gives Pete's quest a false, mawkish urgency. Jones shows a decent streak (as when he defended Balis), but he hasn't been encouraged to think about how to convey his own quest visually, emotionally. He deals with faith but doesn't credibly depict moral struggle (as did Bonnie Hunt's lovely, studio-financed debut film Return to Me). This is the kind of thing tv's Touched by an Angel does quite well, yet Stolen Summer panders to Christian/Jewish relations: flirting with the Irish father's bigotry, reducing the rabbi (Kevin Pollak) to platitudes. Even though young Pete shares his faith through acts of love, Jones himself winds up making a careerist compromise. "Jesus is just a symbol," Pete consoles the rabbi, a childishly cute reduction of dogma. Going for box-office humanism, Pete Jones sells out faith.

Les Destinees
Directed by Olivier Assayas

A newspaper photo of Isabelle Huppert bore the caption "Imagine the past 25 years of French cinema without her." Gladly, I thought. If anything, the past 25 years belong to Isabelle Adjani, the perennial Catherine Deneuve, Sandrine Bonnaire and Emmanuelle Beart, who costars with Huppert in Les Destinees (known in France as Les Destinees Sentimentales). Beart and Huppert respectively portray current and ex-wives of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), a minister who loses faith and becomes an industrialist heading his family's porcelain factory in early 20th-century Limoges. As two kinds of French woman, Beart and Huppert embody Barnery's dilemmas of ego vs. service, passion vs. restraint. Casting these actresses to specifically evoke their personalities and careers, director Olivier Assayas makes us respond to them kinesthetically, postmodernly?in effect, a thesis on the two poles of French cinema, the poetic (Beart) and the ascetic (Huppert).

Better than Assayas' facetious Irma Vep, this film defends the French tradition of quality against the encroaching international market. "Forget the Americans," Barnery says, "make something unique." (And even though that something is clearly based on ivory?African exploitation?Assayas accepts the paradox of being a bourgeois, politically aware artiste.) Les Destinees is unique in complicating romantic narrative with moral consciousness. Barnery's rigidity in religion and business recurs in love and politics throughout his epic life story. It's as sprawling as Giant but with a family and political focus recalling The Magnificent Ambersons. Barnery lives by the existential proverb, "Our dwelling is removed and carried away from us like a shepherd's tent." Assayas validates his solemnity, yet imparts dignity to art and work?as when the sound of a groundskeeper raking stones on a path replaces Barnery's death rattle.

Les Destinees' bourgeois pleasures are undeniable. Like Barnery, Assayas has great taste, making every image sensuously vivid. Sunlight bursts into doorways?the great cinematographer Eric Gautier proving himself a son of Raoul Coutard but then, like Nestor Almendros, there's no saturation, just soft, natural pastels. Experience is evoked esthetically. When the characters age, a pan to a shot of autumnal trees displays a palette of hues as in old age's mix of emotions. And Berling and Beart are impressively versatile; her role goes from blooming youth to mature sagacity. Andre Techine's 1975 French Provincial did as much politics-sex-movie history in half the time, but this extended version is the best film Olivier Assayas ever will do.

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