DATE May 24, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Analysis: How the TV network landscape is changing with current
season finales and upcoming new shows in the fall
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This is the big week for season finales on TV. Meanwhile, the networks and
sponsors are looking ahead to the new season. So are the TV critics,
including our own David Bianculli, who's also the TV critic for The New York
Daily News. We're going to talk about changes at the TV networks and new
programs getting ready to premiere. David just attended something called the
upfronts at which the networks unveil their fall schedules to advertisers.
Later in the show, our critic at large John Powers will tell us about some of
the movies he saw at the Cannes Film Festival, which ended over the weekend.
Well, David, while our critic at large John Powers was in France at the Cannes
Film Festival, watching all the exciting new movies that will probably be
heading our way soon, you were at an industry conference in New York seeing
and doing what?
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Yeah, I was running through the dog and pony show where all of the networks
unveil their season schedules for the fall, and there are some critics that
are invited there and there are some reporters, but mostly it's to the
advertising buyers who are going to throw billions of dollars towards these
six networks, and they're all competing. Like, `Buy my show. Buy my network,
don't buy theirs.' It's not quite being on the beach in France.
GROSS: So what do they do? What do the networks do to try to convince the
sponsors at this conference to buy spots on their shows?
BIANCULLI: Well, the first thing they do is they try to pick programming
that's going to appeal not only to the viewers but to the advertisers, 'cause
it is an advertising medium. The second thing they try to do is to put the
best face possible on whatever horrible things happened to them the previous
year and to just say...
GROSS: Sad to suggest.
BIANCULLI: You know, I mean, it's sort of like--NBC for years has ruled the
18-to-34 demographic, for example, and made this a huge deal. `This is the
only group we're interested in, 18 to 34.' Well, this past season, they went
from first in the 18-to-34 grouping to fourth, which is, like, a major tumble.
You have to pass lots of networks. You know, the only things beneath them now
are UPN and WB, which hardly count as networks. So what they're now saying
is, `We're number one with the upscale 18-to-34 households that spend more
than $100,000. So they just try to make it as good as they can. But, of
course, another thing they do is the rival networks make fun of everybody
else, and so they point out these things. So by the time the advertisers have
gone to all six upfronts, they pretty much know who's weak and who's strong
based on last year and then they make up their own minds based on these little
one-minute, 90-second cut-downs of the pilots that have been chosen for the
new season as to what they're excited about.
GROSS: Do the advertisers want to invest as much money in network programs as
they used to, given the amount of competition with cable, the Internet,
TiVo--a lot of people are TiVoing their shows and not even bothering to watch
the ads anymore.
BIANCULLI: You know, it's a great question. There is sort of like if you
have enough money to invest and you're supposed to diversify your portfolio,
there is more diversification where advertising groups or individual
advertisers will target cable. You know, you can reach a lot of young
moviegoers, for example, which is a huge market. So all of Hollywood wants to
buy for the young 18-to-34s who are deciding on Thursdays what to do the next
night. And for that, even though you can advertise on Comedy Central, you can
advertise in MTV, the biggest buy is still the mass medium of television. So
they still do want to go there, but right now, Thursday night, for example,
accounts for 40 percent of all the advertising revenues in prime time, which
is why the Thursday night, which used to be owned by NBC and now it's totally
up for grabs, is so fought over.
GROSS: So are the networks moving in their big shows to Thursday nights now?
BIANCULLI: Yeah, more and more. I mean, CBS started it a few seasons ago by
bringing "Survivor" in, and then that worked. And then Fox brought in "The
O.C.," which went for the really young demographic. And with "Joey"
underperforming once "Friends" left and "The Apprentice" being a little weaker
this year, for this fall it's going to be a six-way battle, including UPN,
which had its first, I think, real serious cult hit last year with "Veronica
Mars"--is putting on what, based on little cut-downs, is, I think, one of
the two best new shows of the year.
GROSS: Did you see anything in the cut-downs that allows you to actually
speculate what the new season might be like or what individual programs might
BIANCULLI: It's really tricky. It's like pre-first impressions when you see
these cut-downs. I mean, one of the things that you can tell when you're at
the upfronts, because these things are held at various New York venues--one's
at Carnegie Hall, you know one's at Radio City Music Hall. So you have, you
know, a thousand people there and if they show a new program clip and
afterward it's as though they've attended a funeral, you get a really good
sense that this is going to be a hard sell and probably a bad show. But you
don't really--you can't tell with a lot of the creative shows, from 90
seconds, whether it's good.
For example, at last year's upfront, they showed the entire pilot, NBC did, of
"Joey" because this was so important because of Thursday, because of "Friends"
leaving. And the pilot for "Joey" actually was a good pilot, but the
remaining 21 episodes the rest of the year just were dreadful. So that was
fooled in one way, but it wasn't until about a week after the upfronts--like
next week, this week, I will be getting the tapes, the full pilots from all
six networks, and when you sit down and you start going through those, that's
when last year "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" popped out. You know, there
wasn't a lot of buzz after the upfronts, but about a week or two later, when
critics began seeing them and started writing about them in advance and then
when the television critics press tour happened in July, that's when--you
know, these are the new shows to watch. But yes, there are a couple that, you
can tell early, look interesting.
GROSS: What would those couple be?
BIANCULLI: NBC has one called "My Name is Earl," which stars Jason Lee, who
was, you know, the rock star in "Almost Famous," and he's been a really
interesting actor with some good choices. For years, this is the first time
he's done TV, and to me, it plays like a Coen brothers comedy made for
television. It's that offbeat just in even the little two minutes we saw.
And then the other one, just as CBS loses "Everybody Loves Raymond," UPN picks
up a show called "Everybody Hates Chris," which is Chris Rock's childhood
where he was bussed to an otherwise all-white school, and so it's "The Wonder
Years" a half a generation later. The childhood of Chris Rock, who narrates.
GROSS: That sounds great.
BIANCULLI: It is great, and the cut-down had a better response and more
laughter than anything else shown. So the question is, number one, is the
pilot going to be as good? Probably yes. And then are future episodes going
to be as good, and that we don't know.
GROSS: Did Chris Rock write the series?
BIANCULLI: He co-wrote the pilot. I don't know--the question is exactly what
you're asking: How much involvement...
GROSS: Is it a Chris Rock franchise or...
BIANCULLI: Yeah. How much...
GROSS: ...is he really involved?
BIANCULLI: Yes, how much involvement will he have? And we won't know that
until he gets into it. But it could be that he'll be so excited by this form
that he'll want to keep it true to himself. I don't know.
GROSS: So what's the general shape of next season's TV season?
BIANCULLI: It's fairly encouraging, because what happened this year,
"Desperate Housewives" came out of the box so strong, and "Lost" came out of
the box so strong that those two ABC shows basically single-handedly reversed
the course of network television, and to that, I say, `Hallelujah,' because
reality shows, which were getting more and more dominant, sort of faltered
last year. And scripted programs written by writers, performed by actors, the
old-fashioned stuff, did so well that now the networks who are so greedy and
shortsighted and stupid and always want to chase whatever is successful, are
all chasing that.
Now the lesson they never seem to learn is the reason "Desperate Housewives"
worked is because there was nothing like it on TV. The reason "Lost" worked
is because there was nothing like it on TV. So putting more "Losts" and
"Desperate Housewives" on next year, those won't be hits. We need something
that's not on now, something that's not working now, and that's why both, you
know, "My Name is Earl" and "Everybody Hates Chris" have a shot. But it is a
great thing. The most amazing statistic for me is that two years ago, there
were five or six reality shows on the fall schedule. Last year there were 21.
And this coming fall, it's back to 14. That is a huge victory. And there are
more comedies on than there were the year before and more dramas, just a small
number but still, you know, I thought that was a horrible slide that we
weren't going to be able to correct.
GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We'll be back after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. As current programs
present their season finales and the networks prepare for the new season,
we're talking about how the TV landscape is changing.
What are some of the other big stories about this past season regarding, you
know, the shape of television now?
BIANCULLI: One didn't occur in prime time. It's occurring in the news with
all the big stalwarts in terms of the evening news. Tom Brokaw retires, Don
Hewitt leaves "60 Minutes," running that helm, Dan Rather steps away after the
controversy, Peter Jennings is very ill right now; Ted Koppel--"Nightline" is
about to go. You know, that's not just a sea change. That's a tsunami.
These are guys that have been around for 30 years and have had those jobs for
that long, 20, 30 years, and presto, nobody knows what's going to happen next.
CBS is trying to change it and maybe bring some more entertainment into the
mix of the evening news, but on all three networks, viewership is down by a
couple million from a few years ago, and the trend is definitely that younger
people are not watching the evening news as much. So--but it's still a big
mass medium that attracts more than, you know, anybody else. Even the
worst-rated network news gets millions more than FOX News or CNN.
GROSS: Dan Rather was very controversial on the right, even before the...
GROSS: ...the Memogate thing, right. Do you get the impression that anybody
in network news now is afraid of being controversial, afraid that they will be
accused of being liberal, of being elite, of being, you know, any of the
things that news people are being accused of right now?
BIANCULLI: I think so. I think that there's a timidity out there. There's
an eagerness to please, and what I think is probably the most dangerous
inclination of all, there's an eagerness to give viewers what they want. And
so everything is being shaped--more and more of the newscasts are being shaped
as news you want to know rather than things you ought to know or maybe--you
know, "Nightline" will do two or three days on the Congo, and that's not
showing up in prime time, and why not? And the newscasts, I think, to try and
attract the younger viewers, may repel some of the viewers they had, not
attract the young viewers anyway and just hasten their own slide into
GROSS: The "60 Minutes" Wednesday edition was canceled.
GROSS: The network says because it's low ratings. Some media critics are
speculating, is it really because of the Dan Rather controversy and the
National Guard story that was broken on "60 Minutes." What's the inside
story? Do you know?
BIANCULLI: Well, on this one, I do believe the raw numbers really were bad
for that edition, and while I don't see a conspiracy, I do see a real nice
side benefit, because I don't see a lot of love lost between Leslie Moonves,
who runs CBS, and Dan Rather, and Dan Rather had it in his contract that when
he stepped away as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," that he could be a
regular correspondent on "60 Minutes Wednesday." It was specific to that
program. When that program's no longer there, it doesn't automatically shift
over to "60 Minutes." And we asked him in a press briefing last week how
involved Rather was going to be in "60 Minutes" and whether he was going to be
assigned as managing editor, and Leslie said he doubted very much that Dan
Rather would be assigned as managing editor of "60 Minutes."
Now most of the people in this position, when you get that high up in a
network, they don't say anything at all unless they have to. So the fact that
he volunteered a negative, I think, is a real good indication that there is a
lot of bad blood or at least memory there at CBS.
GROSS: FX, which is a Fox cable network, seems to be doing really well now
with a few really dynamic programs. You've got "The Shield," which is a cop
show, and Glenn Close is...
GROSS: ...a regular in the series now. You've got Denis Leary in a show
called "Rescue Me," which is a drama with elements of comedy, and he plays a
post-September 11th fireman with family issues--all kinds of issues. And then
there's a new Steve Bochco show that's going to be starting on FX that has to
do with the Iraq War. How did FX become such a force?
BIANCULLI: They stole HBO's playbook. What HBO did while programming almost
no other nights in terms of original programming, targeted Sunday night and,
you know, it rolled out "The Sopranos," it had "Sex and the City." Whenever
one show ended, another show was there and so viewers began to think of Sunday
night as an HBO place to go. What FX did was it started Tuesday, and it
started with "The Shield" and got a lot of attention because of how raw that
character was and how violent and how loose-cannony it was for basic cable.
The following year they came back with "Nip/Tuck," the show about surgeons
BIANCULLI: ...very well received, just as edgy. And in the following year,
"Rescue Me." So three years, three shows, all on Tuesday, and so when one
ends, another one comes in, and so they've only really programmed three hours
so far, but they're three for three, they're all in a place where you know
where they are, and there is a synergy that builds. And so Bochco's program
is going to join that. I think FX has been brilliant.
GROSS: Let's look at Comedy Central for a second.
GROSS: "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart has really become a cultural
phenomenon, and it seems like so many people watch it, and it's actually very
influential now, I think it's fair to say. I don't think it's determining
elections or anything, but...
BIANCULLI: It is shaping the very young viewers that the networks do not know
how to reach, do not know how to reach for news in particular. It is not only
reaching them, but it's teaching them. I think it's a brilliant show, and not
just about politics. It does media deconstruction, which the networks just
GROSS: And "The Daily Show's" foremost fake news correspondent, Stephen
Colbert, is getting his own show...
BIANCULLI: Starting later--I think in the fall, September, I believe. I'm
not exactly sure, but I seem to think it's a September launch. And that's
going to basically just make Comedy Central an hour long in terms of "The
Daily Show" block. It's a perfect idea. He's going to be sort of like a
comic Bill O'Reilly, if that's not a redundancy.
GROSS: And meanwhile, Dave Chappelle has been missing in action.
GROSS: And his show is on hiatus.
BIANCULLI: And his new DVD, which just comes out for the second season, is
probably going to be the most popular DVD release of a TV show ever, because,
as astounding as that sounds, his first season just caught everybody by
surprise and is what made David Chappelle sign a $50 million contract for
Comedy Central. They realized there are more people buying his show than I
think there were watching his show, and that's an incredible phenomenon. The
whole DVD idea has changed TV in the last few years. "Family Guy" is back on
Fox. They're registering the after market and giving it a factor in terms of
what shows are canceled or renewed. And, you know, Dave Chappelle is a big
force, and his show really is not only funny but edgy in a way that less and
less of TV is these days.
GROSS: David, as we've been sitting here talking about television, all I can
really think about is the fact that when you started as a TV critic, there
were basically three networks and, you know, a few UHF stations, and that was
the menu of programs you had to write about. And with the proliferation of
cable stations and more broadcast channels, how are you possibly expected to
actually keep track of what's on television and keep watching series as they
continue? It's not possible.
BIANCULLI: It isn't. This is how stupid I am. When I started off in college
to try to plan to be a critic and I actually had at the local newspaper there
a movie column and a TV column running at the same time, and I actually could
choose whether I wanted to be a movie critic or a TV critic. I chose
television because I figured you had 50 years less history to have to know
about, so it would be easier. I didn't think that you would have, you know,
8,000 channels and all these new technologies and you would have to worry
about, you know, current events and every time there's a war or any big thing,
that's also TV. I mean, you know, Roger Ebert doesn't get called up at 3 in
the morning because they've just invaded somebody. And, you know, it's just a
weird thing. It is a completely different medium than it was when I started,
because I've been doing this 30 years now, I don't like to say very often.
But the core of it is still the same. I still love the medium when it's good,
and even though it's lost a lot of its audience, it still reaches more than
any other mass medium. And at times of genuine crisis, it is still the first
thing that brings everybody together. It's a fascinating tool, even if it's
more misused than ever and more misused than not.
GROSS: Well, David, really good to talk with you. Thanks.
BIANCULLI: Oh, thanks a lot. This is fun. This is easier than actually
GROSS: David Bianculli is our TV critic and TV critic for The New York Daily
News. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: The Cannes Film Festival concluded over the weekend. Our critic at
large, John Powers, was there. Coming up, we talk about the films and the
scene at Cannes.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Cannes Film Festival
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The 58th Cannes Film Festival wrapped up over the weekend. Cannes is an
international festival in France that screens about 900 films and attracts
over 200,000 people. Our critic at large, John Powers, was one of the people
making his way through the crowds in search of good film. John is also the
film critic for Vogue. After the festival ended, he went to a studio in Paris
so that we could talk about some of the films he saw at Cannes that he thinks
we should watch out for.
John, why don't we start with the film that won the top prize, the Palme d'Or.
Tell us about the film.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Well, it's a very naturalistic behavioral-oriented film. It's called "The
Child," and what it's about is a young punk whose girlfriend has had a baby,
and this young punk is completely amoral, and in order to make a little bit of
money, he sells their baby. And it basically follows his story and his
girlfriend's story and essentially learning how this overgrown child learns to
accept responsibility and become a man. It sounds awful, but it's extremely
well-made. It's made by these brothers from Belgium called the Dardenne. who
made a film called "La Promesse" a few years ago and another one called
"Rosetta," which actually won Cannes a few years ago. And they are perhaps
the best realistic or naturalistic filmmakers in the world. You know, they're
very good at setting out people's lives and embedding some sort of social idea
in it without being didactic or overbearing.
GROSS: Now the second big prize, the grand prize, was won by a film that Jim
Jarmusch made and that stars Bill Murray. What's the film about?
POWERS: Well, it's actually got a great premise--is that Bill Murray is a
retired dot-com rich guy, who is a Don Juan, and at the beginning of the film,
his girlfriend, played by Julie Delpy, is leaving him. And he gets a letter
from one of his old girlfriends saying that 20 years ago, he had actually had
a child that she'd never told him about. The problem was that 20 years ago,
he'd had so many girlfriends, he doesn't know who that woman is. So he sets
off on a road trip to find who's the mother of his child and who the child is.
And he then meets up with, along the way, Sharon Stone and her Lolita-like
daughter and Francis Conroy from "Six Feet Under" and Jessica Lange and Tilda
So it's a road trip with Bill Murray doing a sort of version of the thing
we've seen him do before in "The Life Aquatic" and "Lost in Translation" and
even "Rushmore," the kind of minimalist acting style one doesn't associate
with Bill Murray. This is one of the best ways he's ever done it. It's kind
of remarkable when you see him essentially work the same role over and over
again, how many interesting new ways he finds to make his character come
GROSS: Now I understand Jim Jarmusch actually wrote the role for Bill Murray.
Is that right?
POWERS: Oh, I think the film is almost inconceivable without Bill Murray, I
mean, partly because Jarmusch has always been something of a minimalist, and
one of the strange things about Murray is that he's learned to act so his
effects getting smaller and smaller and smaller, which I think fits perfectly
the deadpan style of Jarmusch. Now in this film, there's a moment where he
eats a carrot from a plate and the look on his face, which is incredibly tiny,
brought the house down.
I must say that it's kind of weird to see Bill Murray become the great
minimalist actor. And, you know, even watching this film, which I enjoyed a
lot--I think it's a very slight film, but a really enjoyable film. But
watching it, I kept thinking, `You know, maybe it's time for him to stop
playing middle-aged guys and make "Meatballs II" or "Stripes II,"' because
whenever you see him talk, he's so unbelievably funny that I kind of regret
the fact that he's now sort of working this middle-aged man minimalist thing
GROSS: Now Tommy Lee Jones made a film that did very well. He directed it,
he stars in it and he got the best actor award. The film got best screenplay
award. What's the film?
POWERS: Well, it's a film of a kind that often would win an award because
it's a high-minded idea. What it's about is--essentially it's about a border
guard on the border with Texas and Mexico who kills a Mexican cowboy who's in
the country illegally. Tommy Lee Jones plays this Mexican's best friend, and
what he does is he takes this border guard and forces him to take the body
with him back to Mexico. The film is called "The Three Burials of Melquiades
Estrada," and it's basically about the different times this body is buried.
And the whole story is essentially the story of two things. Tommy Lee Jones
is essentially the last cowboy, the noble guy who gets along with the
Mexicans, and he's teaching the young guy, played by Barry Pepper, who killed
the illegal immigrant, that, in fact, he's a human being, too. And, in fact,
essentially what happens is the nasty border guard is forced to take the
opposite journey of a Mexican immigrant, so he has to cross the river back
into Mexico and go across, so he's reversing the journey and, in the process,
learning what it's like to be one of those people.
It's a slightly overblown movie. I mean, if you've seen many movies set in
Mexico--for example, "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" by Sam
Peckinpah--you'll recognize lots of the stuff. But what's interesting is I
think it played to a streak in the jury that was obviously in love with
high-minded social themes, that almost all the movies that did very well had
that. Except for the Jarmusch film, which was kind of a light-hearted film,
all the films were extremely earnest in their way and were actually advancing
some sort of social idea.
GROSS: Well, last year, the big winner at Cannes was "Fahrenheit 9/11,"
Michael Moore's movie about President Bush and the war in Iraq; very critical
of the Bush administration, as everybody remembers. So was there anything as
overtly political as that film this year that got a lot of notice?
POWERS: Well, you know, the interesting thing is that ever since September
11th, almost every Cannes Film Festival is, in some way or another, a
referendum on the United States. You know, last year, the vote that the
Cannes community made was that Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a true
depiction of how evil George Bush and the war in Iraq was.
This year, there was nothing quite so overt, although the Danish troublemaker
Lars Von Trier brought out his sequel to the film "Dogville," and in this, Ron
Howard's daughter plays the character that was once played by Nicole Kidman.
She stumbles across a slave plantation in 1930s America and essentially tries
to liberate it, and the entire film becomes, in a sense, an allegory for the
American invasion of Iraq.
When he made "Dogville" a couple years ago, it was so anti-American that
Americans were outraged. By now people are kind of used to him doing it. So
people who came out of this--which is also very insulting about
America--saying, `Oh, that Lars. You know, isn't it funny how he just keeps
trying to make us angry?' I mean, some of the political anger had died down.
Ironically, my favorite moment at Cannes was almost the exact opposite of
"Fahrenheit 9/11." There was a film by an Iraqi French filmmaker who was born
in Iraq called "Kilometre Zero," and it had the moment that left the audience
in Cannes perhaps the most startled at any moment, because it's a film about
being in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years, and the film ends with the hero
having escaped from Iraq with his wife, and the final scene shows them on the
day that the Saddam Hussein statue falls. They're in Paris. They open their
windows in Paris and shriek out the window, `We're free! We're free! We've
been freed!' And the shot shows how they're shrieking `They're free!' and
that Paris is this stony city that doesn't care at all that they've been
And, in fact, if you are an Iraqi Kurd, I have no doubt that Saddam falling
made you feel as if you'd been freed. For the left-leaning, high-minded
European audience, it's hard to imagine something more politically incorrect
in a film festival than ending by saying, `Saddam fell, we've been freed and
you in Europe didn't care,' and the silence was absolutely deafening. And
when you read some of the reviews the next day, you know, they just dismissed
the film out of hand. It was the exact opposite. It was as if George Bush
had somehow come on screen and tried to win the Palme d'Or, and it was just
GROSS: So what'd you think of the movie?
POWERS: The movie's just OK. I mean, it actually has a few nice things in
it. It's a story very much like the Tommy Lee Jones film, which is about
taking a body back to be buried. This is about a Kurdish soldier who drives
across Iraq to bury another soldier who has been killed during the war with
Iran. And what's interesting about this is that you get, I guess, images of
the Iraqi countryside that I've never seen, how barren it is and how beautiful
it is. And almost no matter where you go, the one thing you always find is
there's a big truck taking another statue of Saddam to another city to be
erected, and that was the vision of Iraq, you know, so that the Kurds are
being bombed and killed; the Saddam statues are everywhere.
And that's kind of ordinary stuff. But the ending is just sublime, because it
really does say something that I think most people in Europe don't want to
hear, which is that for lots of people, Saddam Hussein being out of Iraq was
an unambiguously good thing.
GROSS: Well, while we're on the subject of politics at movies at the Cannes
Film Festival, one of the movies was about the French involvement in
POWERS: Yeah, a ver...
GROSS: ...and this won the best director award.
POWERS: Yeah. Well, it's actually a very indirect version of that story. A
lot of films at the festival this year were about the intrusion of the past.
I mean, even in the Bill Murray comedy, you have--it's the story about how you
haven't thought about something for 20 years and you suddenly realize you have
In the film that actually won the best director award--it's called "Hidden."
It's by an Austrian filmmaker named Michael Haneke, and essentially the story
is about this self-satisfied bobo couple in Paris--you know, he has a
successful TV show; she's in publishing--and suddenly, they begin getting
videotapes of someone who's obviously watching their life, and they're
completely unnerved. And as the story progresses, you realize that all of
this has to do with something that happened many, many years ago when the
hero, played by Daniel Auteuil, was involved with a young Algerian boy. And
the whole film is a very subtle thriller about how the things you think you've
buried or repressed in your past actually come back to get you.
So on the one hand, it's just a personal story of somebody you treated wrong
at one point coming back. But the film makes an explicit point of linking
that both with the French experience in Algeria, but also with what's going on
in the Middle East right now, you know, so that's it's a sly political film
rather than an overt one. But everyone who watched it knows that what it's
really about is the way that the comfortable, settled middle-class life in
Europe--not just France--is actually based partly on forgetting all the things
they've done in the past, trying to pretend that they didn't actually do them
and suggesting that no matter how much you try to pretend that you did
something 30 or 40 years ago, it will come back eventually and haunt you.
GROSS: John, I don't know if Cannes was exactly buzzing about "Star Wars,"
but you know, "Star Wars" has opened in the States, and one of the issues
surrounding "Star Wars" is whether--this is, I think, a lot of--like, the
right-wing media has been talking about this--is George Lucas making an
anti-Bush statement in "Star Wars" by putting sentences in the mouths of his
characters like, `If you're not with me, you are my enemy.'
POWERS: You know, I'm sure George Lucas was making an anti-Bush statement by
doing that. You know--I mean, I'm always amused when, you know,
multibillionaires get political in their science-fiction fantasy films. You
know, in Europe, they noticed it, but they didn't really care, because really
throughout the world, what people like about "Star Wars" is the cool story and
the history of all the stuff. So in France, where you would expect people to
have picked up on it, you know, that really wasn't at pe--on the streets of
Cannes, you saw people lined up for hours just to watch George Lucas walk up
the red carpet. And the French government and the French film world, which
spends all of its time complaining that people like George Lucas are ruining
the movies, you know, brought in the Queen Mary and gave him a special award
for his contributions to cinema, which is really hilarious because when you
talk to those people two days later, they'll be saying, `Oh, no, "Star Wars"
has ruined the world.' But nevertheless, for the sake of Cannes and the
publicity, they'll give him an honor.
GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers. We'll talk more about
the Cannes Film Festival after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to our critic at large, John
Powers. We're talking about the Cannes Film Festival, which just ended over
the weekend, and John is joining us from the BBC in Paris.
John, one of the movies at Cannes had a Christian theme to it. This is a
movie called "The King," which stars William Hurt. What's the story behind
POWERS: Well, it's actually an interesting film. Gael Garcia Bernal--who
people might remember from "The Motorcycle Diaries"--plays, of all things, a
guy named Elvis who's sort of an ex-sailor who goes to visit his father who's
denied him for lots and lots of years. The father is the head of a Christian
church in Corpus Christi, Texas, and basically what it's about is about this
kind of serpentlike outsider, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, coming into this
Christian community and the effect he has on it. And what I liked about the
film--and there are things wrong with it--was that it was one of the rare
American films that actually took the faith of the people seriously in this
religious community and neither made the people better or worse than they
actually are. It wasn't an idealization, but on the other hand, it wasn't
suggesting, `Look at all these sad boobs who believe this stuff.' I mean, it
wasn't at all a red state-blue state division movie; it was an interesting
movie trying to work through what it would mean for people to deal with the
presence of evil when they have a Christian faith that can and can't protect
GROSS: Well, a film I really want to hear about--Atom Egoyan, who made "The
Sweet Hereafter" and "Exotica," has a new film that played at the Cannes Film
Festival, and it's based on a novel by Rupert Holmes about a Hollywood pair of
performers modeled after Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Do I have that right?
That sounds so improbable.
POWERS: Yeah, it does. No, I think what's interesting is that it's a
slightly disappointing film with the greatest premise in the world, which is
that somebody is trying to write the story of a murder that took place 40
years ago, or 50 years ago, during the reign of this great showbiz team that's
obviously modeled on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. And so you actually get the
great old showbiz stuff; you get the battles between Martin and Lewis. The
one difference is that when Egoyan made it, he made--he softened the
Martin-Lewis parallels. I don't even think for legal reasons; I think he just
didn't want to get into it.
So you have Colin Firth as the Dean Martin character, playing him as a sort of
English suave guy, and then you have Kevin Bacon as the Jerry Lewis kind of
more cross between Jerry Lewis and, say, Lenny Bruce type. And they were this
great comedy team, and a beautiful young woman is found dead in a bucket of
ice in their hotel room. And the story's all about tracing back over the
years what happened on that fateful night when the girl died. It was, in some
ways, caught between being a trashy, exciting movie about Dean Martin and
Jerry Lewis and an art movie. And it kind of fell in between, and people were
a bit disappointed with it.
GROSS: Well, another movie I really want to hear about--David Cronenberg has
a new movie called "A History of Violence." And he hasn't been doing a whole
lot lately, to my knowledge.
POWERS: Yeah. And I think this is probably David Cronenberg's best movie
since "Dead Ringers." You know, he hasn't fallen on hard times, but I think
he lost his way somehow. You know, he started off making this pulpy great
stuff, and then he seemed to dis...
GROSS: With an oddly spiritual component to it.
GROSS: Like, he'd make movies about mysterious sexually transmitted diseases
that had an incredible spiritual component to it.
POWERS: Oh, no, they do. No, no, it was--and his early movies were kind of
messy, but incredibly juicy in a good way, filled with ideas. At some point,
around the time of "Dead Ringers"--which I still think may be his greatest
film--but around that time, he began becoming more artistically interested.
And over the next few years, he began making these, like, adaptations of
William Burroughs, and somehow I think he lost some of the vitality that he
This new film is really his best film in a long, long time, and once again,
it's a kind of classic American story that can be read as an American
allegory. You know, Viggo Mortensen plays a guy who owns a cafe in a kind of
small-town America town, you know, such a quintessentially small-town America
town that you'd expect to see it, you know, in a David Lynch movie rather than
in small-town America itself where they actually have Wal-Marts. This is a
small town without Wal-Marts; it's a small town where everybody knows the cafe
owner and so forth.
One day, these gangsters come into town and try to--basically try to damage
the cafe. Viggo Mortensen heroically stops the crime, and everyone loves him.
But there's one problem, which is the story gets so much publicity, he's then
visited by a gangster played by Ed Harris, who says, `You're not who you claim
to be. You are, in fact, this other guy, Joey, back from Philadelphia, and
you used to be a gangster.'
And so then what happens is you then learn the truth about whether or not he
was a gangster and about the past of Viggo Mortensen, and his family has to
adjust to the fact that maybe this guy they thought was just this ordinary
cafe-owning good guy is actually something more complicated. More important,
everyone has to adjust to the fact that lying inside this man is an enormous
capacity for violence and that the violence will protect you. So that, in
fact, as you're watching him do violent stuff, as an audience, you're
thinking, `Boy, these are really good action scenes. It's kind of cool.' But
you're also thinking, you know, `What would you do if gangsters came after
your family? Would you kill them?' And the movie raises the question: `OK,
yes, you would kill them. But what does it say to you if you're actually good
at killing them?'
And so then the whole thing, in a weird way, becomes a question of the
American past, which with our American past is largely based on the violent
taking over of our country, you know, that, in fact, we didn't simply come
over on boats, but in fact, we did cleanse the country of Native Americans,
for instance. There's a deep amount of violence in our history. A lot of the
violence that America has done has been justified, but the film is about how
do you make peace with and accept the fact that you simultaneously can be a
tremendously good citizen, but also you're capable of enormous violence. So
it actually becomes a kind of pop pulp meditation on that, and it's really
GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers. We'll talk more about
the Cannes Film Festival after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers. We're talking about the
films he saw at the Cannes Film Festival in France, which concluded over the
Woody Allen seems to make, like, a film a year, and his latest film was
screened at Cannes. How does that measure up? Most people have been pretty
disappointed these past few years with Woody Allen's movies.
POWERS: Yes. Well, actually, Terry, I'm going to say to you a sentence that
I never thought I would say again as long as I lived, which is Woody Allen has
made a really good film. It's a film called "Match Point," and it's very
unlike anything he's done for the last few years. For starters, it's set in
London, and it's a tale of social climbing and murder. And it actually has
good jokes and good drama and a narrative drive that's been missing from a lot
of his work. You know, one of my friends had said that for the last 15 years,
he felt that what you were you seeing were Woody Allen writing first drafts
and then filming them. But this film actually feels as though he actually
thought it all the way through, so it actually has a good solid energy.
It's about a tennis player, a professional--a club pro, played by Jonathan
Rhys-Meyers, who gradually worms his way into a family and gets involved with
a young American named Scarlett Johansson, at the same time as he's wooing the
daughter of a very rich British family. And from that, all sorts of
unpleasant consequences ensue. But it is all the things that one wants in a
Woody Allen movie that you haven't been getting. It's actually sharp, it's
well-paced, the camera moves. And what's really surprising, if you've watched
a lot of his last movies, is that for years, he's never let anybody act. You
know, he's been so busy stuffing the screen with, you know, 10 or 12 big names
in every movie that everyone's on screen, it seems like, for five minutes and
they never have a chance to do anything.
Here, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson are really terrific, and the
story builds up this cumulative power that I don't think he's probably had in
a movie, really to my mind, probably since "Manhattan." I mean, it's been a
long, long time since he's managed to find a story that carries all the way
through and crests properly and is both fun and intelligent and moving.
GROSS: I noticed that the best actress award at Cannes went to an Israeli
actress in an Israeli film. And it seems like more and more Israeli movies
have been coming to the States. Is the Israeli movie industry becoming more
POWERS: It is. You know, for years, everyone, you know, would say, when an
Israeli film would show at a festival, `Ai, yi, yi, we have to see this
movie,' you know, that they just can't make movies. But recently, that's
changed. I mean, this film at Cannes is by Amos Gitai, who has actually had
some films that have played prominently in international festivals, and this
film, which is not a completely successful film, has a seductive premise,
which is Natalie Portman plays a young American, you know, living in Israel
who's just broken up with her boyfriend who talks her taxi driver into taking
her along on the trip that the taxi driver is taking. And the taxi driver's
trip is to an area between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan called the Free Zone,
which is an open space where people--it's essentially a duty-free area where
you can buy all sorts of stuff.
So they leave Israel and drive through Jordan to the area called the Free
Zone, which is a wonderful idea and a wonderful metaphor. The problem is
along the way, the story doesn't make any sense and the characters aren't
given enough to do, so they're mainly just driving. So it's an interesting
travel log. The woman who plays the taxi driver is--you know, did win the
best actress award and has a really pungent presence, and no one had ever
heard of her, you know, when the film screened. Everybody's saying, `Who's
that really interesting woman?' And so everybody raced back to look at their
press kit to find out who she was, and it turns out she's a comedian who's
most famous in Israel for being the host of their version of "The Weakest
GROSS: That's funny.
POWERS: Isn't that great? Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. What impact do you think the Cannes Film Festival is going to
have on what we see in theaters in the US in the next year?
POWERS: I think the impact that Cannes has, in general, but coming up in the
next year, is it becomes a launching pad for certain movies, you know, that
with Cannes, they will come to our theaters in a different way than if they
haven't been at Cannes and haven't done well. An interesting example of that
would be the Jim Jarmusch film with Bill Murray. It finished second, and I
think if it had finished first, its release date might have been pushed back
and it would have gotten a much bigger push, because it suddenly would be--it
wouldn't just be a Jim Jarmusch-Bill Murray movie with Sharon Stone and all
the rest; it would actually be the Cannes Film Festival winner. By finishing
second, it'll probably open when it was originally scheduled to open.
There will be other films, you know, from less-famous film cultures that
simply won't open in the US because they didn't win an award. I mean, Cannes
is--because of its prestige, because there are an insane number of journalists
who go, because it's on TV every night, even in the US, it has a cache that,
therefore, helps films. And then if you go there and nothing happens for your
film, your film just disappears, and it may get released, but its life is much
GROSS: Well, John, thanks a lot for talking with us about the Cannes Film
POWERS: It's my pleasure.
GROSS: John Powers is our critic at large and film critic for Vogue magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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