Our man in Cannes

by Brian Clarey

"Innndeeeeeeee!" "Iiiinnnnnn Deeeeeeeeee!" "INNNNNNNDEEDEEEEEEEEEE" Thecrowd is going straight-up bananas outside the Palais Festival, thered-carpeted stairs rising behind them like some whorish Aztecanpyramid. "Innnndeeeee." It’s Sunday, the fifth day of theFestival de Cannes, and the Croisette has already seen thousands oftourists, dozens of red-carpet strolls and the somewhat disturbingspectacle of a karate-chopping Jack Black in front of a cadre of big,fat pandas. Today there are free Indiana Jones hats for anyone withelbows sharp enough to wedge through the crowd and exclamations loudenough to catch the attention of the promotional hotties in cargoshorts, a blonde and a tanned brunette, both in Indy hats themselves. "INNNDEEE!,"they scream from behind the police barricades as the hotties pass tothe longest and loudest those cheap brown fedoras, each emblazoned withthe fiery logo from Dr. Jones’ newest adventure, Indiana Jones and theKingdom of the Crystal Skull, starring a somewhat wizened HarrisonFord, who today ascended the red carpet with Steven Spielberg and CateBlanchett in tow, to the snapping of a thousand shutters. It’sprobably the most notorious film of the festival – the highest budget,the biggest stars, the largest promotional presence in billboards andbanners along the Croisette – and there’s serious kinetic action downhere on the sidewalk among the hooples, pretty much all of whom willhave to get in line and buy a ticket if they want to catch theon-screen action. But for now, there’s always the hats. "Innndeee!" Andnow everybody’s wearing them, from the stroller-pushing weekendtourists to the drunken, slumming cosmopolitans to the bleary-eyedpaparazzi standing on ladders under the date palm trees, with clearsightlines to the red carpet. And by the main entrance to the PalaisFestival, several floors removed from the aerie described by thosecrimson stairs but certainly more accessible to us regular folk, thebuzz is strong for this film, which comes nearly 20 years after thelast installment of the series. "Indee!" fancy locals say asthey hold up signs begging for tickets, accented with the letters"SVP," which I’ve come to understand means si vous plait. "Indee!" say the slick-ass tuxedoed Euroboys as they hold up a homemade banner bearing an interpretation of the film’s logo. "Indy!"they say as they pose for pictures in their cheap brown fedoras andbought-for-the-occasion shades, sunburns settling into their forearmsand the backs of their necks. And for this moment the buzz overSteven Spielberg’s newest blockbuster runs like a current through thispart of the Croisette, and you might start to think to yourself, Goddamn, son, I gotta go see this movie. But the word among theinsiders, those with super-sharp tuxedos and jewels that twinkle likepersonal celestialities and small decks of laminates slung around theirnecks like VIP tarot, the ones whose opinions matter at this momentmore than that of anyone who might eventually see the film, has alreadybeen spoken, and now it lays there like an epitaph, indelible andforever. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull kind of sucks. Thisis the 61st Festival de Cannes, the most famous film festival in theworld, which was born in the cradle of fascism and, in fact, owes itsexistence to those brown- and black shirts who dared to place politicsover art. Before Cannes, the largest film festival was theMostra di Venezia, it’s top prize, no shit, called the Mussolini Cup.But in 1938, when Jean Renoir’s Le Grande Ilusion lost to what manyconsider to be a German propaganda film, Olympia, commissioned byJoseph Goebbels and involving Mussolini’s son. The Frenchweren’t having it, and the Festival de Cannes was born as an eventwhere creativity trumps commerce, though in its inaugural year, 1939,it was called the Festival International du Film and it was cut shortafter its opening night because the British and French responded to theNazi invasion of Poland the next day. Over the years it’sgenerated its own historical footnotes: Brigitte Bardot was discoveredposing topless for photographers on the beach in the days beforecelebrity sex tapes served the same purpose. Grace Kelly met PrinceRainier here, the first chapter of their international love story. Anunfinished version of Apocalypse Now won the Palm d’Or, the festival’shighest prize, in 1979. The list of films that have won theGolden Palm is astounding: Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, MASH,Taxi Driver, All That Jazz, Paris, Texas, The Pianist, Farenheit 9/11. Andby now you’re probably asking yourself what a two-bit journalist fromthe North Carolina Triad is doing here, notebook in hand, rubbingelbows and hustling party invites with filmdom’s elite. It’s a fair question. And the short answer is: I cheated. Iam not a filmmaker. Except, in another, more accurate sense, I am. Myjourney to Cannes began last August as part of a crew that enteredGreensboro’s installation of the international 48 Hour Film Project,wherein a five- to seven-minute film must be written, shot and editedin the span of two days. We came up with a concept: the sparse tale ofa sad, abused girl who is trying to make a break from her horriblelife. And after a hectic shoot, we ended up winning in Greensboro. Acouple months later, at Filmapalooza in San Jose, Calif., we were namedin the top dozen out of a couple thousand international entrants. Withthe honor came the opportunity to screen in the Short Film Corner inthe basement of the Palais Festival during the festivities in Cannes. Afew months of preparation and fundraising, and here I am strolling theCroisette in this mad, beautiful throng. The only difference betweenthem and me is that most people screening films at the festival workedhalf a lifetime to get here; the work that brought me here, myindividual contribution, took about five hours. There are fiveof us from the crew and we’ve secured a small villa up in the hills ofle Cannet overlooking the beachfront city. We’ve got five days, amodest bankroll by Cannes standards – the dollar is running about twoto one against the Euro – and low-level passes that give us access tothe Palais Festival, that hulking, brick-like structure on the beach,the Short Film Corner and very little else. No matter to a guy like me- I’ve always been able to survive pretty well by my wits, and everyjournalist knows it’s easier to get forgiven than it is to getpermission. Besides, unless you’re a high-level industry insider, anup-and-coming starlet willing to put out or the owner of a mega-yachtdocked on the pier, all the action is in the bars and on the streets. Mymandate is simple: experience, experience, experience. Talk to as manypeople as possible; have some great meals; drink with the locals andrun with the tourists; keep an eye out for celebrities; keep an ear tothe ground. And most of all, see if I can sweet-talk this magnificentcity and this spectacular festival to yield some of their secrets to me. The first 48 hours goes by in a frenetic blur. Ourcrew assembles by the palais, we secure our credentials and, after Isneak into a reception at the Short Film Corner to which I was notentitled to attend – "How did you get in here?" a woman from New Yorkasked me – we take dinner on a side street caf’ with some of the otherfilmmakers from the 48 Hour Film Project. We walk the seasidestreets for a while, beautiful neighborhoods overlooked by wrought-ironbalconies and balustrades, and then head back to the villa to put onnighttime clothes: black suits and gowns; hard, shiny shoes. Bythen we’ve met up with a local by name of Michael who’s been cruisingthe hills on a ballsy scooter, and after we hit a beachside tent partyfeaturing 20 drinks and lingeried hotties who wriggle ontabletops we ask him to take us to a cool bar. He leads us down a shortside street to a nightspot called Sun7, which is where we would usherin the dawn every night thereafter. On that first night I meet aphalanx of Brits, one of which leads the kind of life I would havesworn I’d be living if you’d have asked me 20 years ago: wealthy,international, single and rich. Plus he’s huge, with a head like amagnificent pumpkin and an ass that looks like it was made from acouple bowling balls. I take to calling him "Big Me." Hisfriend, who looks like a symphony conductor in his white bow tie, isinterested in our path to Cannes. He asks me what I’m working on, and Isynopse the plot of a novel I’ve been kicking around for a few years. Itell him my major apprehension about screenwriting: that it is strippedof the little details and stylistic prose that I’ve come to see asaspects of my overall style. Back at Sun7 the next night I see him again. "I’vebeen thinking about your screenplay," he tells me. "You know, inEastern Europe, scripts come in two parts. The first is a description,kind of like a novel. The second consists of only dialogue. Just lines.I think perhaps you might be more comfortable with that style." I think: Perhaps I would. Likeany good American during his first time abroad, I become filled withthis sense of patronizing acceptance of my nation and countrymen. Theirmoney makes so much sense, I think. Different colors and sizes. Andtwo-euro coins? That’s pure genius. I’ve got a pocketful of change andit’s like 20 bucks. Two different flushes on the toilets? I muse. A small one for a piss and a big one for a crap? Brilliant! Why can’t we do that? "How does it feel to live in a poor country?" we ask each other every time we exchange dollars for euros. And: "You would never see that in the States," we say, rarely in a positive light. Itis an easy thing to be seduced by Cannes, particularly during thefestival when you’re carousing down a street closed in by ancientarchitecture surrounded by beautiful people from the finer corners ofthe world, a steady parade of six-figure cars rolling slowly,conspicuously by. But even at its bones the city is remarkable,an amalgamation of some of those US cities I love the most: the climateof San Francisco, and it’s geography, too, with craggy, cave-dottedshores; and there are palisades like those upriver from Manhattan; andof course there are echoes of New Orleans’ French Quarter, my oldneighborhood, everywhere I look. And in all my encounters Iexperience not a shred of anti-American sentiment. Most Frenchmen Imeet seem to feel sort of sorry for us, and three of them, on separateoccasions, bring up 9-11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers. They doso reverently, almost apologetically. "We do not understand why," oneman at a caf’ told me. Michael, the scooter-riding local, leavesa bag of fresh cherries on our doorstep the day after taking us aroundtown. And on my second day, when I get off at the wrong bus stop on myway up to le Cannet, a middle-aged French couple pulls out a map anddrives me to the doorstep of my villa. The scenery ismagnificent; the food sublime. There are no mosquitos and the airsmells fresh and sweet, save for the occasional whiff of alcohol vaporsthat seem to be coming from the scooters everyone maneuvers throughtraffic. And when I ponder this society they’ve built here onthe banks of the Mediterranean, I keep thinking about something ChrisMatthews said on television one night when describing another Europeannation. "Do you ever get the feeling they’re playing chess and we’re playing checkers?" 3714a.jpgOnTuesday night at le Petit Majestic the waiter, a fellow who looks to bein his forties, wears horn-rimmed glasses, earring plugs that blinkcolored lights, a mesh T-shirt, booty shorts that highlight hispackage, black thigh-high stockings with a pack of Marlboros tuckedinto them and a pair of Puma high-tops in metallic green. And he’spulling it off. We’d heard about this place the night before -the unofficial Riviera Clubhouse of the British film industry in theshadow of the Grand Hotel – but couldn’t even get near it and settledin at Sun7 to usher in the morning. But we’re here tonight, and the fancy waiter has already propositioned me. "Twenty-threeeuros," he says, and then prances over to a waiting cab, gesturing tome wildly. I am unsure of local customs and therefore don’t know whichone of us is on the paying end of the transaction, and dammit, if I wasgay I just might give this guy a go. But no matter how many pastis theguy sells me, it is just not gonna happen for him. Ah yes, thepastis… a little bombshell I discover quite by accident, tipped offby a passing fancyman holding a cloudy glass of the stuff. It’s agentler version of absinthe, stripped of wormwood when that vile stuffbecame banned. The liqueur, which when diluted with water is likely themost popular drink in the country, still packs quite a wallop, and Imay even mean it when I say I am never drinking that shit again. Thenight was still a winner, though. We hooked up with a Finnish crowd whohad procured a small apartment overlooking Rue d’Antibe, just above aDolce & Gabbana retailer. There, on a rooftop patio amid lemontrees and a gently falling rain, we sipped a Finnish beer called Koffand watched their trailers. One was for a feature called Iron Sky, asci-fi comedy about a Nazi colony established on the dark side of themoon in 1948 which is now preparing to invade the earth. You kind of had to be there. Andin the street outside le Petit Majestic, while I’m standing theregabbing on about god knows what, I turn around and literally rub elbowswith Steven Spielberg as he passes through the crowd. He was so close Icould have stolen his watch. At least I think it was him. Pastis, you know. Imay very well be the only North Carolina-based journalist in Cannes forthis year’s festival, and one who was turned down for press credentialsat that, a fact that the festival keepers actually had on record, whichI discovered when I tried to bullshit my way into a temporary presscred. But more than 4,000 members of the press are here, frommore than 1,600 media outlets, television and print, mostly. The LosAngeles Times has a banner hanging from a hotel balcony and Variety hasestablished a beachhead in a small strip behind the Grand Hotel wherethey file their stories in a newsroom that an editor tells me is"private" just before bouncing me out. And over on the patio atthe Grand Hotel the journos ease in for afternoon drinks and latedeadlines. A table of television folk prepare for a six-o’clock packageto air in the US; a fellow laptop rattler sips a cocktail at a table onthe grass and searches for that perfect word. And still, just down thelawn, the Croisette flows like a vital artery. The paparazzimove hurriedly in small packs, many wearing rumpled and sweaty tuxedoesbut others looking appropriately unprofessional. Or they’ll gather inflocks, perched on ladders like birds on a wire, craning for thatperfect shot. Or they’ll pick a spot and wait out their prey, likethose TMZ guys camped out on the docks under the tent outside Diddy’syacht. Or they’ll hunt alone, picking out famous faces that havestrayed from the VIP rooms, from behind the velvet ropes. They’ll dropto a knee and start shooting right there in the street. And invariably,within seconds, they’ll be joined by fellow solitary hunters. Perhapsin different surroundings it would seem distasteful. But no one inCannes is here to be ignored, and the ability to attract attention is aprized talent. In fact, this is what showbiz is all about: to be ableto yell, "Hey everybody, look over here!" and actually get people topay attention to what you’re doing, and hold them there for ameaningful amount of time. This comes to me in a pastis-induced moment of epiphany, inspired by an event earlier in the day. Downin the film market in the main chamber beneath the Palais Festival, wehappen upon a trailer for a film called Ong-Bak 2 starring a guy namedTony Jaa. Jaa is the baddest, quickest, most creative martial-artsasskicker I’ve ever seen on film. An example: In one scene he grabs aguys Adam’s apple, twists it upside down and then cocks it like ashotgun. We sit and watch for a while, and pretty soon a crowd gathers, and we’re all like, "Ooooh!" and, "Awwwwww!" and "Daaaammmmm!" Beforethe trailer runs its course, a guy with a sweater tied around his neckwho stinks like money approaches, waving a business card in his handand speaking in a British accent. "Who is selling this film?" It’s all about the eyeballs. To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at