Ebert and Cannes

So the world’s most highly-profiled film event, the Cannes Film Festival, is currently underway and Roger Ebert is complaining that most of the films this year depress him. “Where is the Cannes of the past?” he writes, “The Cannes of great joyous movies and silly starlets and larger-than-life characters and long, lazy lunches on the beach?”

He goes on to wax nostalgically about the good ol’ days of Federico Fellini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Akira Kurosawa, and claims to miss the “audacious experiments” of Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers.

This is strange to me on two counts: 1) Ebert is obviously forgetting the Michelangelo Antonionis and Ingmar Bergmans and the occasional L’Argent (1983) in the sunny days of yore, and 2) I would lay any charge of cynicism in contemporary film squarely at the feet of such pessimistic hipsters as Tarantino and the Coens.

But Ebert saves his venom for two of the most acclaimed filmmakers of our day, Theo Angelopoulos from Greece and Abbas Kiarostami from Iran “with their fashionably dead films in which shots last forever, and grim middle-aged men with mustaches sit and look and think and smoke and think and look and sit and smoke and shout and drive around and smoke until finally there is a closing shot that lasts forever and has no point.”

It is no coincidence that the only films in the past 18 years Ebert has reviewed by either filmmaker is Angelopoulos’ weakest (Ulysses’ Gaze) and Kiarostami’s darkest (Taste of Cherry) and most recent (Ten). How he’s able to criticize these two filmmakers without even having seen Angelopoulos’ accomplished Landscape in the Mist (1988) or Eternity and a Day (1998), or warmly humanistic masterpieces by Kiarostami such as Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Close-Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), or The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is beyond my powers of speculation. And since neither filmmaker is screening a film at Cannes this year, Ebert’s comments are downright baffling.

Maybe the problem is that Angelopoulos and Kiarostami do not make larger-than-life films meant to be consumed while vacationing in the Riviera?

I grew up reading Roger Ebert and think he’s one of the most intelligent reviewers working for a mainstream newspaper. But increasingly over the years, his critical faculties seem shaped by emotional whims and a desire for a good yarn and less by any commitment to introduce his readers to a diversity of films. Where is the Ebert of the past? The Ebert of great joyous cinephilia and larger-than-life imagination and long, perceptive reviews?