Two years ago I applied for credentials to the Cannes Film Festival and received an invitation, only for the festival to be canceled due to COVID-19. The following year, in 2021, the festival was delayed but held with limited participation due to covid restrictions. It wasn’t until this year, 2022, when I was finally able to fly out to Cannes and join the 40,000 other film lovers and professionals in a vibrant, deeply sensational and inspiring week.
Each year (aside from the past two due to the pandemic) I attend Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. There’s already a lot to love about a quaint town transformed into a magical haven for film enthusiasts. But Cannes, set in a small town in the Cote d’Azur of France, featured an unmatched diversity of filmmakers and films from all around the world - Iran, South Korea, Italy, Belgium, Romania, Turkey, France… just to name a few.
An entire International Film Village dedicated to the films and studios within different countries sprung up and is accessible with the 3-day in Cannes badge. Throughout, fervent energy permeates the festival grounds, as film-goers young and old consume some of the most anticipated international films of 2022 (as felt during the resounding standing ovations before and after each screening).
The display is extravagant, a long red carpet that ascends the steps of the Grand Theatre Lumiere each night, a scene no different than that of the Oscars, with coveted celebrities such as Anne Hathaway and Tom Cruise donned in glamorous evening gowns and tuxedos pose for the thousands of thirsty cameras.
I don’t have much affinity for celebrities, but I couldn’t help but beam at the sighting of Tang Wei, a Chinese actress whose work in Lust, Caution (Ang Lee) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan) remains some of my favorites to this day. She walked up the red carpet during the premiere of Decision to Leave, with co-star Park Hae-il and director Park Chan-wook, whose 2016 thriller The Handmaiden left me shaken with complete awe.
All goes to say there’s no other film festival experience quite like Cannes.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any of these films.
Haeojil Gyeolsim - Park Chan-Wook (B+)
In other words: Decision to Leave, is an intense romantic thriller woven into a detective story, and probably one of the only ones where the cases themselves are not the main plot. Deeply riveting dialogue with a storyline that transcends language barriers, Decision to Leave puts a lot of romantic dramas to shame without the use of sex. Not my favorite of Tang Wei’s performances (nor Park Chan-Wook’s films), but highly impressed by her ability to act the entire film in (mostly) Korean.
Forever Young - Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (B+)
A playful coming-of-age story of young actors at a prestigious French acting program. Didn’t leave me longing for more, and to be entirely honest, the storyline itself is a tad cliche. What bumped this to a B+ for me was Nadia Tereszkiawicz’s brilliant performance both as an actress of and within the film. Every small movement and glance is met with careful and intentionally crafted charm. Bravo to her.
R.M.N. - Cristian Mangiu (B+)
The name of this film beats me, and I must say the film was a little too long for the weight of its plot. Nonetheless, I can truly appreciate Mangiu’s expert directing and his infamous slow burn. In terms of exploring xenophobia, probably the most well-executed film I’ve encountered thus far, nuanced at every level, in a very complex environment with a protagonist that is neither here nor there. Can see why this is competition-worthy at Cannes.
Crimes of the Future - David Cronenberg (B)
This is not for everyone. Cronenberg’s past films haven’t exactly appealed to me given their grotesque nature, but I thought to give this a try since last year’s Titane (Julia Ducournau) had me simply speechless — not in a good way, though indeed left a deep impression and occupied mental space rent-free for several weeks. Crimes of the Future lived to par with the body horror expected from a Cronenberg film, this time with a level of unexpected finesse and artistry that resembles so well its auteur. This film is more a work of art than it is a story. Just not for me.
Triangle of Sadness - Ruben Ostlund (A-)
I was worried when I saw that the film was 2.5 hours long. The last time I sat through a film like that was Driving My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi) and I embarrassingly watched it in 4 sequences because of its 3-hour length. However, every second of Triangle of Sadness was worth it. Deeply engaging yet not overdone, with the right elements of humor and irony, as expected from a director who won the Palme d’Or in 2017 for The Square. The film is divided into three sections, each so distinctly different yet ties together surprisingly well.
Nostalgia - Mario Martone (C)
It agonizes me to admit, but this was the only film at Cannes where I wanted to walk out in the middle but stayed in respect for the director. Maybe I had too high expectations of Martone? Maybe it’s because I sat in the first row of the balcony section and the rails just so cover the subtitles enough that I have to crank my neck in order to understand? Regardless, no part of this film evoked any positive emotion in me. It felt lackluster and contrived, with an ending that may have saved the film entirely but instead left me with ‘WTF’.
Kurak Gunler - Emin Alper (A-)
I accidentally went into this film when I mixed up the Grand Lumière with the Debussy Theatre (I was hoping to see Ali Abassi’s Holy Spider). I’m glad I did because I was pleasantly surprised by how the film captivated me. Set in a rural Turkish town, Kurak Gunler leveraged a novel angle to discuss the political corruption, instability, conservatism, and urban egoism that slyly edges into your purview and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Leila’s Brothers - Saeed Roustaee (A)
It’s been several years since I’ve seen a film that can so effortlessly string together multiple complex characters in a high-stress environment with free-flowing and natural dialogue (well played once again, Tarane Alidousti) for 3 full hours. The last time I was riveted by a film like this was Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in 2011. Roustaee leaves you at the end longing for more, for a resolution — something to ease the wrenching feeling inside. My only complaint is that its style too similarly resembles Farhadi’s, which can come off as uninventive. Nonetheless, its surgical study of empathy and class struggles is to be lauded.
Selection of Films
Each year, a select number of acclaimed films are selected to be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. There are also more such as the Short Films, Cannes Premiere, Midnight Screenings, Cannes Classics, and Special screenings that I won’t get into detail about.
This is the center of the festival, where selected films compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or, awarded by the competition jury and is synonymous with Best Picture. All premiere screenings are coupled with the lavish red carpet walk where the director and actors greet the audience.
Holy Spider by Ali Abbasi
Forever Young by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
Crime of the Future by David Cronenberg
Tori and Lokita by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Stars at Noon by Claire Denis
Brother and Sister by Arnaud Desplechin
Close by Lukas Dhont
Armageddon Time by James Gray
Broker by Kore-eda Hirokazu
Nostalgia by Mario Martone
R.M.N by Cristian Mangiu
Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Ostlund
Haeojil Gyeolsim by Park Chan-Wook
Showing Up by Kelly Reichardt
Leila’s Brothers by Saeed Roustaee
Boy from Heaven by Tarik Saleh
Tchaikovski’s Wife by Kirill Serebrennikov
Pacification by Albert Serra
Mother and Son by Leonor Serraille
EO by Jerzy Skolimowski
Le Otto Montagne by Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felex Van Groeningen
Out of Competition
Other highly regarded films, but not quite qualified for the competition, are screened as Out-of-competition (they also enjoy the publicity and lavishness of the red carpet). These films range from Hollywood Blockbusters, as indicated this year with Top Gun: Maverick, to the latest work of highly regarded directors such as Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby).
Final Cut by Michel Hazanavicius
Top Gun: Maverick by Joseph Kosinski
Elvis by Baz Luhrmann
Masquerade by Nicolas Bedos
Novembre by Cedric Jimenez
Thousand Years of Longing by George Miller
L’innocent by Louis Garrel
Un Certain Regard
“In some perspective,” as it translates — these films are regarded for their novelty, experimental approach, and unique techniques, usually from newer directors worldwide.
Some highlights (there are a total of 20):
Les Pires by Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret
Return to Seoul by Davy Chou
Kurak Gunler by Emin Alper
Joyland by Saim Sadiq
Corsage by Marie Kreutzer
It goes without saying that if you are a film enthusiast, I highly recommend you apply to attend the Cannes Film Festival. If you’re not in the industry, you can get in through the 3-Day in Cannes credentials (the one I got), or the Cannes Cinephiles.
It requires an essay, submission of your own work or portfolio, and for the Cinephiles - a letter of recommendation. It’s work but well worth the experience, and a must for artsy film lovers. You can look up the information for this here.
A wild array of emotions throughout this week, not to mention 4D experiences at the finale (I caught a mild case of food poisoning). Rest assured this will not be my last time.
They say that the magic behind books is words that exude the beauty of prose, an entry way into the unspoken thoughts of flawed heroes and dejected villains. The author's job is simple: to provide the words. The real work, and the most difficult part, befalls the reader, who must deconstruct the narrative and translate it into her imaginary world, one only she knows. And though each reader consumes the same narrative, their worlds are bespoke.
That, is the power and beauty of words.
I say great films are no different, and if they are truly great, can invoke vivid imagery and emotional impulses that challenge the viewer's realm of familiarity. The writer creates a script that tears down our beliefs, the actor delivers a performance that steals our hearts, the director captures the essence through an artistic visual that's so palpable, we don't even know what hit us. A great film makes us alive, spell-bounded, slightly bewildered though satisfyingly so. Its remnants are still firmly rooted in our minds for months and years to come, remaining just as intense.
That, is the power and beauty of visuals.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, well, then perhaps a video is worth millions. I watch with an imaginary pen in hand, rewriting each scene with words as I dissect it. Every observation —the slight tilt of the chin, the look of fear through a mirror, the neutral tones turning to bright fiery red — accentuate the intention behind the narrative.
In moments of silence, I learn not to digress, and instead hold the space intimately. The director is telling me a story even in those blank, plotless moments, using the camera and color tones to further seduce. Yes, lure me to Shanghai in the 1940s, to Paris in the 1700s, and if you so wish, to another planet. Set me in the Caucuses, or the Great Plains, I don't mind. Tell me what it feels like to fall in love, and gently (or abruptly) break my heart.
Somehow the characters' passion and anger snake into me, and their pain and envy slash open the fortress where I hide my despair. I find so perfect their imperfections, their irrationality doubly so. I feel, truly feel.
A real artistic masterpiece will make us uncomfortable, yet concurrently broaden our emotional spectrum. As spoken by the great philosopher, Kahlil Gibran: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."
In a way, we are all artists in the presence of a great film.
Diving into the existing and future transformation of music and visual arts
An abridged version of this article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
When the novel coronavirus startled the world earlier this year, San Francisco quickly took action by suspending large, public gatherings in the city. For the more privileged in the Bay Area, this simply meant less international travel, more indoor remote work, and fewer social events. But for many artists and art workers, their livelihoods were upended by the closure of concert venues, art galleries, and museums.
The canvas has switched. Artists are thrown off their usual course. In order to reconnect with their audiences, they are compelled to leverage the internet and adopt creative techniques to continue their work. Surviving organizations and venues are aware they must pivot and prepare for a post-coronavirus society.
As such, the pandemic is accelerating technology’s already rapid transformation of visual arts.
To understand how these areas will be affected, we must first peruse technology's current influences. In the Bay Area, technology has significantly impacted music and visual arts over the past century. Not only has it shaped the creation process in these two areas, it also changed how we discover and experience them.
Technological progress has democratized the creation of music. "Musicians nowadays can use the internet to learn to play an instrument, write lyrics, produce, publish and market their music— all by themselves," said Jeff Byron, Bay Area music composer and sound designer. "The 'industry' isn't as necessary or powerful." Hundreds of music software tools and applications enable artists to ditch expensive studios and create music in their bedrooms. Notes and sounds that usually take multiple instruments or devices can now be produced from a keyboard on an iPhone. Google's Magenta Studio directly connects machine learning with music, allowing artists open software access to generate new beats.
At the turn of the century, the proliferation of smartphones, creation of streaming services, and surge of social media completely altered music discovery and consumption. "Back in the days, we relied on the radio or record labels to guide our taste; but today, we can discover new music all around the world through Instagram, Youtube, and Tiktok directly from creators," Byron explains.
By democratizing access to music, technology enabled cultural cross-pollination and the formation of new music genres. For example, a British songwriter can sample tunes from a Japanese artist, and an American producer can collaborate with an Australian performer. Furthermore, there's a whole world of traditional music that is making headway but has not yet made the mainstream.
Within visual arts, artificial intelligence has redefined who can be an artist. Two years ago, a portrait created by an AI was sold at an auction for $432,000, reaching a new milestone for conceptual and generative art. "Tools under this big umbrella of 'generative art' revisits the discourse around 'What is Art?', the answer to which has implications beyond its historical precedent," said Bay Area artist Vivien Sin.
Technology not only disrupted who can be an artist and how art can be created, but also became the subject of visual arts itself. The DeYoung Museum opened a new exhibit this year, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, which explores the relationship between humans and intelligent machines.
In the era of the smartphone and internet, art has shifted to ground us to our physical world. Multi-sensory and experiential art forms have established a growing presence within visual arts. Rather than simply appealing to the person's visual field, these large-scale installments and immersive experiences combine other modalities — audio, touch, taste, and smell. Even though the SF MoMa still consists mainly of curated static art, there is a stronger emphasis on sound exhibitions and other types of media and digital art as a form of "spatial experience."
Meow Wolf, Pace Gallery, and teamLab all combine art and various modalities to create immersive and interactive experiences. Gray Area, an interdisciplinary technology and art-focused non-profit in the Mission District, has been pioneering immersive art experiences such as End Of You, focused on understanding our personal relationship to a living planet in crisis. Advancements in virtual and augmented reality further enable art audiences to develop an enhanced relationship with art.
With coronavirus shutting down their venues and exhibits, artists are reminded of the importance of the internet. "A lot of artists now can't connect with their fans as easily, they know they have to find new ways," Byron stated, "Eventually if this goes on for long enough, we will see some real innovation." Musicians hosting online concerts are devising new ways to simulate an intimate, virtual experience.
Online galleries and virtual museum tours also gained popularity during shelter-in-place. Gray Area showcased its Spring education program's exhibition in a virtual art space. "We want our audience to have an intimate engagement with our space and community," explained Gray Area Executive Director Barry Threw. Other initiatives, such as Museum from Home, leverage augmented reality to allow users to experience museum artwork in their living room.
Artists are skipping the middleman and directly reaching their audiences. "With less gatekeepers and intermediaries, artists will have more power over their work, a silver lining of the gallery system crisis," explains Bay Area artist Drue Kataoka, who works directly with collectors globally.
The internet has issued a temporary fix. "But while social media has offered many artists a ready-made onramp to port their artwork online, I hope they don't become the defacto form of presentation in the future. For all their convenience, these platforms offer a limited palette for artistic expression," said curator, writer and educator Vanessa Chang. "Music and art are created to be experienced in-person." Listening to a song on Spotify does not compare to the heightened experience of attending a live concert. Looking at a shrunken image on a computer is completely different from standing next to a 15-foot installation. When entered from a webpage, immersive art loses its ability to appeal to people's senses.
Despite the internet commanding much of society's attention for the arts, there is optimism around renewed demand for more interactive and physical experiences in a non socially-distanced world. The current innovation happening in the arts will continue to expand in a post-coronavirus society, and music and art will both extend beyond traditional immersion.
We may see more enhanced visuals and other sensory techniques in live concerts. "I can imagine concerts becoming huge mixed-media experiences, way more than they already are. Not just big light shows, holograms, projections, and VR, but performances that break down what we consider a music show. You can see this happening already with shows like Ramin Djawadi's Game of Thrones tour, a huge film and music experience that challenges expectations," described Byron. "But there's never going to be a replacement for 'the Troubadour'. People will always be entertained by musicians, singers, and songwriters as they have for millennia."
Technology can enable new types of performances, for example, allowing musicians to bring back deceased artists on stage. Algorithms can generate both familiar and novel voices, pitches, and tunes that intermix with traditional music creation. Imagine being able to simulate John Lennon's voice in a song collaboration, where AI writes his lyrics and melody by analyzing thousands of past performances. The world’s greatest musicians can become immortal.
We may see museums convert standard wall spaces to make room for fully immersive and experiential art, catering to a post-pandemic society starved of physical interactions. But in the far future, museums may cease to exist. "Art will be more decentralized and accessible to people of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds," Kataoka remarked. "The disintermediation of the art model will allow art to become much more civically engaged than is currently — confined in its ivory tower."
Virtual and augmented reality will become more commonplace, allowing greater access and amplified experiences to performances and exhibitions all around the world. "In the future, artists will be able to build virtual experiences of the great artworks of the past that will be at least as powerful as the originals," described Kataoka. For instance, imagine being “transported” inside a rendered Matisse painting!
“The art 50 years from now will provide unmatched expression through the visual, aural, olfactory and haptic, encapsulated in compelling virtual reality experiences for lovers of art, wherever they are located,” Kataoka said. “Developments in brain computer interfaces (BCI), bandwidth, and AI will create a new syncretic form of art, generating life-like experiences unlike anything we’ve seen. This art will challenge our brains to re-think everything in our world — from the laws of physics and causality to the fundamentals of human existence.”
With machine learning gaining momentum in art, it prompts a more existential thought. "Tools under this big umbrella of generative art revisit the discourse around ‘what is art?’, the answer to which has implications beyond when Tolstoy asked it in 1897, or when conceptual artists pushed possibilities on what constitutes art,” said Vivien Sin. “As more human work gets replaced by machines, the answer to the aforementioned question has direct implication on what it means to be human.”
Collaborations between technologists, researchers, and artists will grow as AI continues to penetrate the creation process and experiences of both music and visual arts. "Art and technology have been intimately entangled throughout history, but their overspecialization has caused a fragmentation in our ability to think well about the world," Threw said. "In the future we will increasingly recognize the role of artists as full collaborators with technology, science, the humanities to holistically address the existential crises facing us, and San Francisco is uniquely situated to lead this cognitive evolution."
As more creativity and innovation are fostered during this time and extend beyond the pandemic, artists and art audiences alike will come to realize more than ever the inseparability and transcending power of art and technology.