The granddaddy of film fests provided some bangs and some duds

By Howard Feinstein
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich
Credit: A.D.C./Ipol

As the setting for the world’s oldest film festival, the resort island of Lido is perfect, a sandbank separating the timeless treasures of Venice proper from the timely horrors of the former Yugoslavia right across the sea. So it seemed appropriate that this year many entries reflected rage — even if the parties disguised such heaviness.

Sept. 1’s stuffy opening-night event with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise for ”Eyes Wide Shut” was an anticlimax to that morning’s press conference, at which Cruise said Stanley Kubrick’s ”movies have a life beyond the opening weekend,” creating a mini-scandal by referring to the revered auteur in bean-counting terms. The next night saw a fun fete with Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, and Catherine Keener for Spike Jonze’s surreal comedy ”Being John Malkovich.” On playing extra-frumpy, Diaz said, ”It’s sort of shallow to assume that someone is better than someone else because they are aesthetically pleasing.”

Several movies probed violence in America so viscerally that even a stroll along the beach provided little relief. ”The only thing I didn’t do myself was fall down the stairs,” Edward Norton said about making David Fincher’s bold, button-pushing ”Fight Club.” ”Easy entertainment is great, but it’s our job to hold a mirror to our dysfunction.” First-time director Antonio Banderas echoed that sentiment: ”We’re always watching the same movies, done like a salami.” His slice of ’60s Southern life, ”Crazy in Alabama,” depicts clashes between black activists and white segregationists. Other movies focusing on brutality included Kimberly Peirce’s ”Boys Don’t Cry,” based on a real-life murder, and Harmony Korine’s ”julien donkey-boy,” the tale of an aggressive schizophrenic.

Though two of the top prizewinners — Zhang Yimou’s ”Not One Less” (Best Film) and Zhang Yuan’s ”Seventeen Years” (Best Director) — were nearly violence-free, you could say the festival still managed to go out with a Zhang.