Our Man in Cannes
The crowd is going straight-up bananas outside the Palais Festival, the red-carpeted stairs rising behind them like some whorish Aztecan pyramid.
It’s Sunday, the fifth day of the Festival de Cannes, and the Croisette has already seen thousands of tourists, dozens of red-carpet strolls and the somewhat disturbing spectacle of a karate-chopping Jack Black in front of a cadre of big, fat pandas. Today there are free Indiana Jones hats for anyone with elbows sharp enough to wedge through the crowd and exclamations loud enough to catch the attention of the promotional hotties in cargo shorts, a blonde and a tanned brunette, both in Indy hats themselves.
“INNNDEEE!,” they scream from behind the police barricades as the hotties pass to the longest and loudest those cheap brown fedoras, each emblazoned with the fiery logo from Dr. Jones’ newest adventure, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, starring a somewhat wizened Harrison Ford, who today ascended the red carpet with Steven Spielberg and Cate Blanchett in tow, to the snapping of a thousand shutters.
It’s probably the most notorious film of the festival – the highest budget, the biggest stars, the largest promotional presence in billboards and banners along the Croisette – and there’s serious kinetic action down here on the sidewalk among the hooples, pretty much all of whom will have to get in line and buy a ticket if they want to catch the on-screen action. But for now, there’s always the hats.
And now everybody’s wearing them, from the stroller-pushing weekend tourists to the drunken, slumming cosmopolitans to the bleary-eyed paparazzi standing on ladders under the date palm trees, with clear sightlines to the red carpet. And by the main entrance to the Palais Festival, several floors removed from the aerie described by those crimson stairs but certainly more accessible to us regular folk, the buzz is strong for this film, which comes nearly 20 years after the last installment of the series.
“Indee!” fancy locals say as they 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 and bought-for-the-occasion shades, sunburns settling into their forearms and the backs of their necks.
And for this moment the buzz over Steven Spielberg’s newest blockbuster runs like a current through this part of the Croisette, and you might start to think to yourself, God damn, son, I gotta go see this movie.
But the word among the insiders, those with super-sharp tuxedos and jewels that twinkle like personal celestialities and small decks of laminates slung around their necks like VIP tarot, the ones whose opinions matter at this moment more than that of anyone who might eventually see the film, has already been spoken, and now it lays there like an epitaph, indelible and forever.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull kind of sucks.
This is the 61st Festival de Cannes, the most famous film festival in the world, which was born in the cradle of fascism and, in fact, owes its existence to those brown- and black shirts who dared to place politics over art.
Before Cannes, the largest film festival was the Mostra 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 many consider to be a German propaganda film, Olympia, commissioned by Joseph Goebbels and involving Mussolini’s son.
The French weren’t having it, and the Festival de Cannes was born as an event where creativity trumps commerce, though in its inaugural year, 1939, it was called the Festival International du Film and it was cut short after its opening night because the British and French responded to the Nazi invasion of Poland the next day.
Over the years it’s generated its own historical footnotes: Brigitte Bardot was discovered posing topless for photographers on the beach in the days before celebrity sex tapes served the same purpose. Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier here, the first chapter of their international love story. An unfinished version of Apocalypse Now won the Palm d’Or, the festival’s highest prize, in 1979.
The list of films that have won the Golden Palm is astounding: Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, MASH, Taxi Driver, All That Jazz, Paris, Texas, The Pianist, Farenheit 9/11.
And by now you’re probably asking yourself what a two-bit journalist from the North Carolina Triad is doing here, notebook in hand, rubbing elbows and hustling party invites with filmdom’s elite.
It’s a fair question. And the short answer is: I cheated.
I am not a filmmaker. Except, in another, more accurate sense, I am. My journey to Cannes began last August as part of a crew that entered Greensboro’s installation of the international 48 Hour Film Project, wherein a five- to seven-minute film must be written, shot and edited in the span of two days. We came up with a concept: the sparse tale of a sad, abused girl who is trying to make a break from her horrible life. And after a hectic shoot, we ended up winning in Greensboro. A couple months later, at Filmapalooza in San Jose, Calif., we were named in the top dozen out of a couple thousand international entrants. With the honor came the opportunity to screen in the Short Film Corner in the basement of the Palais Festival during the festivities in Cannes. A few months of preparation and fundraising, and here I am strolling the Croisette in this mad, beautiful throng. The only difference between them and me is that most people screening films at the festival worked half a lifetime to get here; the work that brought me here, my individual contribution, took about five hours.
There are five of us from the crew and we’ve secured a small villa up in the hills of le Cannet overlooking the beachfront city. We’ve got five days, a modest bankroll by Cannes standards – the dollar is running about two to one against the Euro – and low-level passes that give us access to the 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 every journalist knows it’s easier to get forgiven than it is to get permission. Besides, unless you’re a high-level industry insider, an up-and-coming starlet willing to put out or the owner of a mega-yacht docked on the pier, all the action is in the bars and on the streets.
My mandate is simple: experience, experience, experience. Talk to as many people as possible; have some great meals; drink with the locals and run with the tourists; keep an eye out for celebrities; keep an ear to the ground. And most of all, see if I can sweet-talk this magnificent city and this spectacular festival to yield some of their secrets to me.
The first 48 hours goes by in a frenetic blur.
Our crew assembles by the palais, we secure our credentials and, after I sneak into a reception at the Short Film Corner to which I was not entitled to attend – “How did you get in here?” a woman from New York asked me – we take dinner on a side street café with some of the other filmmakers from the 48 Hour Film Project.
We walk the seaside streets for a while, beautiful neighborhoods overlooked by wrought-iron balconies and balustrades, and then head back to the villa to put on nighttime clothes: black suits and gowns; hard, shiny shoes.
By then we’ve met up with a local by name of Michael who’s been cruising the hills on a ballsy scooter, and after we hit a beachside tent party featuring 20 drinks and lingeried hotties who wriggle on tabletops we ask him to take us to a cool bar. He leads us down a short side street to a nightspot called Sun7, which is where we would usher in the dawn every night thereafter.
On that first night I meet a phalanx of Brits, one of which leads the kind of life I would have sworn 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 a magnificent pumpkin and an ass that looks like it was made from a couple bowling balls. I take to calling him “Big Me.”
His friend, who looks like a symphony conductor in his white bow tie, is interested in our path to Cannes. He asks me what I’m working on, and I synopse the plot of a novel I’ve been kicking around for a few years. I tell him my major apprehension about screenwriting: that it is stripped of the little details and stylistic prose that I’ve come to see as aspects of my overall style.
Back at Sun7 the next night I see him again.
“I’ve been thinking about your screenplay,” he tells me. “You know, in Eastern 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.
Like any good American during his first time abroad, I become filled with this sense of patronizing acceptance of my nation and countrymen.
Their money makes so much sense, I think. Different colors and sizes. And two-euro coins? That’s pure genius. I’ve got a pocketful of change and it’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.
It is an easy thing to be seduced by Cannes, particularly during the festival when you’re carousing down a street closed in by ancient architecture surrounded by beautiful people from the finer corners of the 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 climate of San Francisco, and it’s geography, too, with craggy, cave-dotted shores; and there are palisades like those upriver from Manhattan; and of course there are echoes of New Orleans’ French Quarter, my old neighborhood, everywhere I look.
And in all my encounters I experience not a shred of anti-American sentiment. Most Frenchmen I meet seem to feel sort of sorry for us, and three of them, on separate occasions, bring up 9-11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers. They do so reverently, almost apologetically. “We do not understand why,” one man at a café told me.
Michael, the scooter-riding local, leaves a bag of fresh cherries on our doorstep the day after taking us around town. And on my second day, when I get off at the wrong bus stop on my way up to le Cannet, a middle-aged French couple pulls out a map and drives me to the doorstep of my villa.
The scenery is magnificent; the food sublime. There are no mosquitos and the air smells fresh and sweet, save for the occasional whiff of alcohol vapors that seem to be coming from the scooters everyone maneuvers through traffic.
And when I ponder this society they’ve built here on the banks of the Mediterranean, I keep thinking about something Chris Matthews said on television one night when describing another European nation.
“Do you ever get the feeling they’re playing chess and we’re playing checkers?”
On Tuesday night at le Petit Majestic the waiter, a fellow who looks to be in his forties, wears horn-rimmed glasses, earring plugs that blink colored lights, a mesh T-shirt, booty shorts that highlight his package, black thigh-high stockings with a pack of Marlboros tucked into them and a pair of Puma high-tops in metallic green. And he’s pulling it off.
We’d heard about this place the night before – the unofficial Riviera Clubhouse of the British film industry in the shadow of the Grand Hotel – but couldn’t even get near it and settled in at Sun7 to usher in the morning.
But we’re here tonight, and the fancy waiter has already propositioned me.
“Twenty-three euros,” he says, and then prances over to a waiting cab, gesturing to me wildly. I am unsure of local customs and therefore don’t know which one of us is on the paying end of the transaction, and dammit, if I was gay I just might give this guy a go. But no matter how many pastis the guy sells me, it is just not gonna happen for him.
Ah yes, the pastis… a little bombshell I discover quite by accident, tipped off by a passing fancyman holding a cloudy glass of the stuff. It’s a gentler version of absinthe, stripped of wormwood when that vile stuff became banned. The liqueur, which when diluted with water is likely the most popular drink in the country, still packs quite a wallop, and I may even mean it when I say I am never drinking that shit again.
The night was still a winner, though. We hooked up with a Finnish crowd who had procured a small apartment overlooking Rue d’Antibe, just above a Dolce & Gabbana retailer. There, on a rooftop patio amid lemon trees and a gently falling rain, we sipped a Finnish beer called Koff and watched their trailers. One was for a feature called Iron Sky, a sci-fi comedy about a Nazi colony established on the dark side of the moon in 1948 which is now preparing to invade the earth.
You kind of had to be there.
And in the street outside le Petit Majestic, while I’m standing there gabbing on about god knows what, I turn around and literally rub elbows with Steven Spielberg as he passes through the crowd. He was so close I could have stolen his watch.
At least I think it was him. Pastis, you know.
I may very well be the only North Carolina-based journalist in Cannes for this year’s festival, and one who was turned down for press credentials at that, a fact that the festival keepers actually had on record, which I discovered when I tried to bullshit my way into a temporary press cred.
But more than 4,000 members of the press are here, from more than 1,600 media outlets, television and print, mostly. The Los Angeles Times has a banner hanging from a hotel balcony and Variety has established a beachhead in a small strip behind the Grand Hotel where they file their stories in a newsroom that an editor tells me is “private” just before bouncing me out.
And over on the patio at the Grand Hotel the journos ease in for afternoon drinks and late deadlines. A table of television folk prepare for a six-o’clock package to air in the US; a fellow laptop rattler sips a cocktail at a table on the grass and searches for that perfect word. And still, just down the lawn, the Croisette flows like a vital artery.
The paparazzi move hurriedly in small packs, many wearing rumpled and sweaty tuxedoes but others looking appropriately unprofessional. Or they’ll gather in flocks, perched on ladders like birds on a wire, craning for that perfect shot. Or they’ll pick a spot and wait out their prey, like those TMZ guys camped out on the docks under the tent outside Diddy’s yacht. Or they’ll hunt alone, picking out famous faces that have strayed from the VIP rooms, from behind the velvet ropes. They’ll drop to a knee and start shooting right there in the street. And invariably, within seconds, they’ll be joined by fellow solitary hunters.
Perhaps in different surroundings it would seem distasteful. But no one in Cannes is here to be ignored, and the ability to attract attention is a prized talent. In fact, this is what showbiz is all about: to be able to yell, “Hey everybody, look over here!” and actually get people to pay attention to what you’re doing, and hold them there for a meaningful amount of time.
This comes to me in a pastis-induced moment of epiphany, inspired by an event earlier in the day.
Down in the film market in the main chamber beneath the Palais Festival, we happen upon a trailer for a film called Ong-Bak 2 starring a guy named Tony Jaa. Jaa is the baddest, quickest, most creative martial-arts asskicker I’ve ever seen on film. An example: In one scene he grabs a guys Adam’s apple, twists it upside down and then cocks it like a shotgun.
We sit and watch for a while, and pretty soon a crowd gathers, and we’re all like, “Ooooh!” and, “Awwwwww!” and “Daaaammmmm!”
Before the trailer runs its course, a guy with a sweater tied around his neck who stinks like money approaches, waving a business card in his hand and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.