Words by Travolta Cooper
What is Amazon Studios doing here?
Cannes, France – It is day two at Cannes, the mother of film festivals, and the debate among cinema lovers continues on the presence of streaming giants like Amazon Studios at the festival. Which side you find yourself on the debate could determine, to some Cinephiles, whether you should keep your true cinema card or not. Cinema purists in press conferences and screenings are acting like the festival has been infected with a virus. They feel like something foreign and toxic is threatening to destroy at core the true essence of the cinema (there was a collective “booo” when the logo for Amazon Studios appeared on the screen at this morning’s screening). But is it really that serious? Hasn’t cinema always evolved technologically? Hearing the debates remind me of what cinema audiences might have experienced when silent film became sound film. Or when black white film became color. Special effects. Visual effects. Computer graphics. Cinema has always evolved and evolved over the seventy years course of Cannes and beyond. Wonderfully, since we’re discussing these things, the new film Wonderstruck is most auspicious. It embodies much of these ironies in this ongoing debate.
So what is Amazon Studios doing at Cannes? They are here because Amazon is distributing Wonderstruck, one of the most refreshing cinematic experiences I have had in quite some time. Detail master Todd Haynes, who was last here at Cannes with his visual marvel “Carol”, directs the film. Like Carol, Haynes’ collaborator and Indie Cinema legend, Christine Vachon, produce Wonderstruck. It is also produced and costumed by costume designing legend Sandy Powell (Ms. Powell we learned actually introduced Mr. Haynes to the film’s source material). Wonderstruck is not as emotionally magnetic and cinematically rapturous as Carol (this film doesn’t come quite close to Todd Hayne’s best work) and at times the movie feels somewhat self-indulgent. But it does thrust itself in the zeitgeist here at Cannes because, stylistically, it hearkens to the oldest cinematic form we know (silent black and white film) while at the same time highlighting the very new world of a streaming cinema.
Wonderstruck tells the story of Rose and Ben. In doing so it jumps back and forth between color and black white, and sound and silence. We begin in with Ben (played by Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon) a 12-year-old boy mourning the sudden loss of his mother Elaine (briefly played by Michelle Williams) in Minnesota 1977. Ben is looking to the night sky with unanswered questions about the father he never knew. His story is intercut with Rose (played by stunning young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds), also 12, in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. Rose aims to escape the constant reprimands of her cloistering father by going to the movies. Ben’s story is told in color and sound and Rose’s story is appropriately told in black and white silence. As an audience we experience Rose’s story and feel what life must be like for someone deaf in the silence. The film gets most exciting and interesting, when Ben suffers an accident that prevents him from hearing as well. When this happens, both Rose and Ben embark on a journey in their perspective time periods, leaving their homes behind in search of real meaning in their lives.
Todd Haynes, when asked about why Amazon Studios was distributing the film, stated: “The film division at Amazon is made up of true cineastes who love movies and really want to try and provide opportunity for independent film visions to find their footing in a vastly shifting market.” He added: “They love cinema.” That is somewhat easy to believe when watching Wonderstruck as it does come off as somewhat risky and artsy. And therein may lay the irony of the phenomenon of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Studios. They seem to be forcing us now to ask: what is cinema really? If cinema art is an innovative and visual medium pushing the boundaries of story and character, then is it possible that streaming services are actually saving cinema from ridiculousness that has become Hollywood and “independent cinema?” It is true, the common denominator of cinema, from its inception to now, has been people watching it collectively in a darkened theater. Even when it evolved, it evolved in the darkened theater. Or did it? On another note, as I recall, the “business” of the cinema is linked to the movie theater going experience, and not cinema itself. Cinema art is tied to cinema technology. There is no separating the two. And “cinema” according to history, began when French men invented and experimented with lens, and light, and even in some instances sound (before “silent film”) in their private homes and studios.
Maybe this is the “end” of the cinema, as we know it. But in the words of the Philosophers, “the end is also the beginning. The two are tied. And Amazon’s presence, while it could mean the end, also hearkens back to the beginning of inventive picture storytelling. Wonderstruck is wonderfully woven into these ideas. If only it had been a leaner film. There is too much going on in it as a story and at times, the movie will bore. Like Isamael’s Ghosts, which opened the festival (and we wrote about yesterday) Wonderstruck suffers from being to bogged down in plot and excess. And while the film is based on the book written by Brian Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay) Rose’s story alone, I feel, was a movie within itself. Simple premise: the silent film era where our protagonist is a deaf child. Instead Mr. Selznick’s adaptation and Mr. Haynes’ movie begins in color and sound and bounces back and to black and white and silence. Perhaps some ideas are even too revolutionary (and commercially unviable) for even Amazon Studios.