Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

MEMORIES OF CANNES 2008 Not a vintage edition…

The 61st Cannes film festival ended some 7 weeks ago, and I would be the first to acknowledge that it is not exactly hot news. However, several readers had requested a personal report of this year's edition, and I had promised to do so. The unexpected interruption of my papers during June meant that it has taken longer than expected, but here it is.

THE SAME OLD STUFF Covering film festivals is not my prime activity, as most of you know, and after 12 editions of Cannes, I am getting a bit weary. The quality of films on offer obviously varies from year to year. Otherwise, you meet the stars, have exchanges at press conferences and go to parties (most of which are over-rated anyway). You put on your black tie disguise and go up the red carpet a few times. You have interesting or boring conversations with fellow journalists. What does not change or improve is the petty bureaucracy of the organisation, the silly regulations that make your job more difficult, the dictatorship of the press representatives with whom you lose plenty of time in order to organise meetings and interviews, which are then changed or cancelled at short notice, throwing all your schedules overboard. Once you have met and spoken with Pelé and Paul McCartney, what else is left to excite you?

If on top of that you hit with a rainy spell of Spring weather, as was the case this year, it does not make for a fun experience.

LET DOWN BY LA NACION In most of my earlier years in Cannes, I reported for the English-language News Review, until it came to pass despite several attempts to revive it. I then switched to the web-based El Mostrador, which is the easiest way to report an ongoing event. Here I met with one example of festival bureaucracy, namely that they do not like to give accreditations to online publications. I therefore also offered my services to La Nacion, Chile's State-owned daily. They have let me down very badly, despite the favour I was doing them.

The Cannes festival lasts for exactly 11 days, a period which includes
two week-ends. Furthermore, the Chilean holiday of May 21 also happens
to fall in the midst of the festival. This makes a total of 5
non-working days for the bureaucrats of La Nacion (almost half the
duration of the festival). Unfortunately, the week-ends are when the
most newsy events take place in Cannes, but at the paper's offices in
Santiago there are only junior sub-editors obviously unable to cope
with contributions, and therefore contenting themselves with using
agency reports even though they have their own correspondent on the

As if this was not bad enough, they do not even respect their own
requirements. On several occasions they asked me for specific articles
which I made a particular effort to provide, including queuing for two
hours at the offices of press representatives to get interviews, only
to see them ignored by the paper.
They could not even get organised to publish an interview of the
director and principal actor of the only Chilean film taking part
(Pablo Larrain's impressive "Tony Manero"). Before the event started,
I thought they might like an "atmosphere" piece on a first hand basis.
The editor wrote back saying my own experiences "were not news",
because "I was not Truman Capote". Strangely, several people who read
my contributions in El Mostrador told me on my return how much they
appreciated the personal angle of my reporting. There obviously is no
unanimity on the issue, because on a totally different occasion,
someone wrote to complain on my weeklies that "they were too
egocentrical". Folks, I have turned 60, and I have been writing for
publication for some 45 years. My style and views are established and
you are not going to change them. You get these papers because you are
on a list at your request. If you do not like them, just say so
instead of suffering in silence.

At least I am luckier than a Colombian colleague at the festival,
whose editor rung her in the middle of the night to ask her to find
out if it was true that Naomi Campbell was to have artificial
insemination..As for me, half-way through the Festival, I stopped
filing for La Nacion.

CHILEAN AND LATIN PRESENCE Once again, Chile had an official stand
at the parallel film market which takes place in the Palais des
Festivals, and a delegation from various areas of the industry. The
stand was equipped with good material on Chilean films. A reception
was given on a beach venue in the Croisette, which was well organised
and well attended. In general, Latin America, and in particular Brazil
and Argentina, was well represented in the various festival
categories, and I like many others am surprised and disappointed that
Pablo Trapero's Argentine movie "Leonera" did not get a prize for the
outstanding performance of its female lead, Martina Gusman. La Mujer
sin Cabeza of his compatriot Lucrecia Martel, on the other hand, is an
eminently forgettable movie. Still, a female Brazilian actress acting
for the first time at the age of 45 did get the female acting prize,
which thus became a clean sweep for the latinos. The problem with many
Latin Directors, particularly Brazilians and Mexicans, is that once
they get a home success, many think they have to "graduate" to
Holllywood and make "international films", as if the region did not
provide sufficient cinematographic inspiration. Hence Meirelles´movie
"Blindness" based on Saramago' novel is a sterile waste of time.

Though it was not directed by a Latin American, Steven Soderbergh's
CHE deserves a mention, and not just because the lead actor Benicio
del Toro got the male interpretation prize. It is in fact two films,
totalling nearly 4h30m combined. The first is the entry of Ernesto
Guevara into the Cuban revolution movement, following his awakening to
the region's social problems as described in the Motorcycle Diaries.
In a way, it is a sequel of that film. The second part is the
ill-fated mission to Bolivia, which the CHE thought would be a fertile
ground for the next revolution, and turned out to have been as wrong
as Karl Marx's hopes for a Communist Britain.

It is very difficult to get independent views on anything concerning
Ernesto CHE Guevara because people tend to look at it from their
political perspectives. The film´s approach is obviously sympathetic
to the character without being sycophantic. The director was fairly
cynical when asked why he had chosen the character as a subject and
why he still held a fascination on the public. "He is one of the few
acceptable figures coming out of the Cold War era. You do not see the
picture of Honnecker on T-shirts".

It was mainly shot in Spain, which you couldn't tell would be able to
pass as the Bolivian jungle. The premiere was shown simultaneously in
two different screening venues, with only a short break in between
(during which we were helpfully given a snack). It is significant that
despite the nearly 5 hours involved, very few people actually left the
room before the end. How such a monster of a movie will be exploited
commercially is a question mark. Two different films launched within a
few months of each other? That seemed to be the initial wish of the
director. Scaled-down version combining the two? A TV mini-series?
One can only wait and see.

Also a Latin theme by a non-Latin, Emir Kusturica's "Maradona" is a
very entertaining documentary, even for non-football fans. Both the
Argentine and the Yugoslav are egocentrical clowns and the chemistry
between them is quite successful.

ARMENIANS I have been regretting the absence of films from Armenia
at Cannes in all the years I have been there. This year, we managed to
fly the Armenian flag in Cannes, literally. Two Armenian short film
directors (one from Moscow and another from Gyumri, in Armenia) had
features in respective sections. Apart from that, Canadian-Armenian
Atom Egoyan, a Cannes veteran, was presenting his intense new feature,
"Adoration". The director of Yerevan's dynamic Golden Apricot film
festival, which takes place this coming week, was also in town. All
this crowd and other Armenians and sympathisers met for a stupendous
oriental buffet on the Croisette-overlooking terrace of an apartment
owned by a French-Armenian. We had an Armenian flag flying high. Among
the guests was the film critic of Milliyet, one of Turkey's leading
newspapers. What was she doing there? Well in fact she is Armenian…

The screening of the Armenian directors' films, as well as Atom
Egoyan's press conference, all coincidentally took place the same day.
This clashed with not one but two events involving Madonna, but la
patria viene primero, and I gladly sacrificed the opportunities to
meet her, at
the great surprise of the press agents.

Among the other highlights of my stay in Cannes was a meeting with
Omar Sharif (I can hear many younger readers say "who?", but I despise
your ignorance). I mention this in the "Armenians" section, because
apart from his well known roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor
Zhivago, the Egyptian star also played in the two parts of Mayrig, the
autobiographical films on a refugee Armenian family in Marseilles
directed by the late Henri Verneuil (born Ashot Malakian). I heard by
chance about his Cannes presence (supporting the market launch of an
Egyptian film that was refused an incorporation in the official
programme), and tracked him through a very helpful press agent, who
invited me to the gala screening. Very sprightly in his 77th year, he
was most charming and I have a nice picture with him.

I CHALLENGE CLINT EASTWOOD Even if it is not my main professional
activity, I take my work as a film critic seriously (as I do with
everything I undertake). I nearly always ask a question at the press
conferences I take part in, as well as the group interviews. I pay
attention to what is going on, and find interesting angles.
Unfailingly, each year, I am approached by total strangers in the
Palais des Festivals congratulating me on my remarks (the press room
only sits just above 200 people but the proceedings are broadcast
throughout the Palais on closed-circuit screens, and subsequently
repeated on a special cable TV channel).

When that unspeakably bad adaptation of an incredibly bad book, The da
Vinci Code, was premiered some years back, I did point out to the
director that there was a spelling mistake on a poster in one of the
shots (and got congratulated by Tom Hanks for my perceptiveness). This
time, I had a go at director Clint Eastwood with his latest offering,
The Changeling (I understand it will be screened in Chile soon). It is
a thriller involving a kidnapped child, based on a real case that took
place in Los Angeles in 1928. Such a period movie involves a
tremendous effort and expense in order to appear genuine. It was
therefore surprising that in the opening sequence, lead actress
Angelina Jolie gets up and switches on a radio, the sound of which
comes on immediately. So where's the problem?

The older ones among you will remember that well into the 1950's,
radios were based on valves that needed some time to warm up after
being switched on, so the sound NEVER came on immediately. I did
mention this to Eastwood, earning an applause from a heavily pregnant
Angelina Jolie sitting next to him (I mention this for the sake of
completeness. I do not like Angelina Jolie, and therefore being
applauded by her does nothing to me).

Still, our friend Clint admitted that the scene was technically
incorrect, but that he had to adopt some literary licence, rather than
make the spectator wait minutes for the radio sound to come on.

AND THE WINNER IS I did not see the French winning film, Laurent
Cantet's "The Class". By all accounts it was a deserving choice. The
subject matter is fairly topical in many countries, and concerns the
problems of coping with problem pupils in a hard-up urban area. The
author of the book on which the film is based, a teacher himself,
plays his own role in the film. The school chosen for the filming
happened to be one near where one of the production assistants lived.
The most interesting aspect is how the pupils were chosen. The
director started an acting workshop in the school, through which many
pupils passed, and 24 were finally chosen. Much of the situations and
dialogues were improvised. It is not sure if the film will be
commercially screened in Chile, so you may have to be contented with a
"gala" organised by the Cultural Counsellor of the French embassy. To
be invited to that, you either have to be a francophone diplomat, or
an expatriate French businessmen who will attend with his Chilean
girlfriend, and both will be seen chain-smoking in the lobby of the
Cine Hoyts La Reina. Cinéphiles s'abstenir.

BRAZILIANS REMAIN PENDEJOS Readers will hopefully remember my paper of
October 1st, 2007 (Why I am not in Copacabana Today), where I
described how the organizers of the Rio Film Festival invited me to
attend the 2007 edition, then systematically refused to confirm any
arrangements, and when I insisted to know were I stood, abruptly
cancelled the invitation without so much an explanation or excuse.

As in previous years, Brazil had a stand in the Film Market adjoining
the Festival, so I went there several times to try to meet the
representatives of the Rio Festival and have it out with them. They
were never available. Finally, I left them a written message pointing
out how rude their behaviour had been, as well as disruptive, leaving
me looking like an idiot in front of many people.

I can only repeat that I cannot take anything Brazilian seriously any
more. I do not believe their oil discoveries or their fiscal results.
For me, it is a non-entity.

HUEVADA OF THE WEEK I am afraid that the subject is still Chile's campaign to ensure that its citizens will never speak English properly (the latest estimate is that only 8 % of Chileans speak English, which is probably an inflated figure). Anyway, I am indebted to an expatriate American reader who pointed out to me the website of the Mampato children's amusement park in La Dehesa. They have a logo which says: "Let's Fun" (sic.). In fact, they have the logo actually registered. The aim is to catch the buggers when they are small, and ensure that they absorb a totally idiotic pseudo-English expression.