The press corps wasn’t surprised, exactly, when renowned director Terrence Malick didn’t show up for his new film’s Monday-morning press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, but still managed to register its disappointment. According to IndieWIRE’s report from the room, Malick’s producer, Dede Gardner, explained that the auteur was merely “shy,” and claimed his work “speaks for itself.”
“That’s not good enough,” came the retort from panel moderator Henri Behar.
You might wonder, for a minute, why any director wouldn’t want to show up at the Cannes press conference for his new film — to make a gracious appearance, to answer a few questions with whatever degree of candor suits him, to breeze out the door secure in the knowledge that he’s gotten some face time with the world press.
But then you might think about the spectacle that ensued in 2009, when Lars von Trier received such a hostile reception from reporters covering his Cannes entry, Antichrist, that he resorted to chiding them for their lack of manners. “I am the best director in the world,” he declared, perhaps unwisely. “I don’t have to justify myself.”
The prankster Von Trier was probably half-joking, but his reaction to the questions he received at Cannes, like Malick’s refusal to appear to take questions at all, raises an interesting question: What responsibility does a filmmaker have to his or her audience?
The arrival of the DVD, with its detailed behind-the-scenes features, plus the explosion of online publications dedicated to film coverage and criticism means that today’s directors have more opportunities than ever before to explain exactly what was on their mind when they were working. Some of them relish the opportunity, of course. But others demur. Big-name directors like Woody Allen and Brian De Palma occasionally talk to the press but won’t go near a DVD audio commentary. And Terrence Malick rarely even has his picture taken!
Sometimes, filmmakers don’t want to talk in detail about their work because they find it immodest. Or they worry that it dispels some of the magic inherent to filmmaking. (Rob Reiner complained about this in the commentary track he recorded for the Criterion laserdisc release of This is Spinal Tap way back in the day.) And at other times, I suspect, they feel just a little bit insecure about putting themselves on the line to answer questions about the art they have created, lest they come across somehow as shallow or foolish.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of not showing up. Malick is a widely revered director, as are Allen and De Palma and Reiner. If Terrence Malick doesn’t show up to a press conference, he has the comfort of knowing that he has friends like Brad Pitt who will cover for him. And, based on the early reviews, his reputation as an artist seems secure — The Hollywood Reporter calls The Tree of Life “an exceptional and major film;” Variety says it’s “nothing less than a hymn to the glory of creation.”
Some young filmmakers might be every bit as shy as Malick, but in order to get their work seen, they have to hustle. They’re looking for attention from critics and interviewers as well as slots in film festivals that can get their work seen. I don’t think directors can ever completely forgo the balancing act that weighs business issues against their concerns as artists, but I’ll bet a lot of them envy the niche Malick has carved for himself, where he gets to make challenging and provocative movies without once answering directly to the writers and reporters who would question him, dissect his film, try to figure out what makes the man and the movie tick.
What do you think — when your next movie gets its shot at Slamdance or Sundance (or Cannes!), do you want to be invited onstage to take a bow, pose for photos, and explain for interested questioners what you thought you were doing? Or would you rather let your work speak for itself?
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