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Envy (…or Remembrance of Cannes Past)

Envy (...or Remembrance of Cannes Past)

Volume I: Tom’s Way

OK, I can admit it. I am going through a severe bout of Cannes envy right now. For the past week, I have been unfolding myself into my desk chair every morning, reading over the daily news from the festival , and feeling a profound sense of longing rising up inside of me. While I have been hard at work locking up the schedule, film program and catalogue for the Nantucket Film Festival, assembling all of the bits and pieces of information required to have a complete website/catalogue/press release, my colleagues* are all over in France, sipping Taittinger champagne (my favorite!) and watching scantily-clad ‘stars-to-be’ frolicking up and down the beach.

But it is not the “fun in the sun” aspect of Cannes that has me wishing I was there. In fact, champagne aside, it has pretty much nothing at all to do with it. There are many things to love about Cannes, but I am not a huge fan of big, lavish parties. I think A.O. Scott speaks for people like me when he writes in his Cannes journal;

“Finally, you arrive, bedraggled and thirsty, in a tiny, damp garden, where you chat with the same five people you always chat with after the screenings. And then you leave, long before whatever promised special entertainment arrives… You trudge home looking forward to the morning’s screening, and hoping there is enough gloom, death and suffering to lift your spirits.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I pretty much make it my mission to avoid anything with a velvet rope. Instead, like Mr. Scott, I love the screenings. And when your line-up features the new work of so many great artists (as this year�s does), it is hard, after a 40 minute commute from Brooklyn to Midtown, to trudge through another shift of copy editing, fully aware that an incredible line-up of films is continually unspooling in the best movie theater in the world, the Salle Lumi�re in the Palais du Cinema in Cannes.

Leave the parties to the star-fuckers and the suits. I am in love with the Lumi�re.

A sip of champagne (my film festival equivalent of a petit madeleine) and I am off�

At first glance, the interior of the Lumiére, most often seen as the host of the Cannes awards ceremony on the festival’s final Saturday, may seem like any other performance hall in the world. The purple seats, overhanging balcony and huge stage are all traditionally structured. The exterior of the building, with its ever-changing banner honoring each year’s poster and catalogue art, is pretty unsightly; too boxy, too much concrete. However (and I know I am not as well traveled as I should be), if forced to choose one room in the entire world in which to see a film, I would instantly choose the Lumiére. The screen is utterly enormous, the projected image is perfectly framed and unbelievably sharp, the subtitles are projected in multiple languages below the screen and the seats, rising to the top of your head and cradling your back, are positioned stadium style to allow flawless sight lines. And then there is the sound. The theater has the single most spectacular sound system I have ever heard. When you couple the sound system with the image on the screen, it is like no film experience you have ever had. Imagine watching Dancer in the Dark in Imax with the sound system from CroBar and you start to get the picture.

I have been to the Cannes Film Festival twice in my life; in 1999 and 2000. Both times, I was there to create on-line ‘content packages’ for my employer at the time, The Independent Film Channel. Both years, we rented an apartment directly across the street from the Palais, and I set up a web-cam that showed all of the red carpet arrivals as they happened, and pulled out to a wide shot of the Palais, the beach, and the Croisette at all other times. In addition, I wrote on-line updates for the website, reviewing films, etc. For this job, and because IFC had a long history with the festival, I was able to score a coveted PINK BADGE. Twice. As you probably know by now, that gave me second level access to all of the press screenings. I took full advantage of this badge, and while all of my colleagues, in Cannes primarily to do business and entertain clients, went about the business of business, I totally checked out and ran from press screening to press screening like a kid in a candy store.

I can remember them all; the boos and confusion after a screening of Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité; the sound system rattling my teeth during the quick hip-hop edits in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream; walking down the red carpeted stairs directly behind Steven Soderbergh after the premiere of The Limey (yes, Michael Moore, I was actually the first person from Flint, MI to walk the red carpet at Cannes! ); nursing a hangover and being hypnotized to the point of near-nausea during the swirling ballroom dancing sequence in Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinees Sentimentales; getting to know fellow Michigander Elvis Mitchell after sitting next to him during the premiere of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; almost oversleeping and scrambling to the 8:30am screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn in the Lumiére (I was so excited to see the film, I barely slept a wink); the feeling of having my ass kicked while watching the shaky hand-held brutality of the Dardenne Brother’s Rosetta; sitting next to an inconsolably sobbing colleague during von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark; being bored shitless by Manouel de Oliveira’s La Lettre despite my huge crush on Chiara Mastroianni. Ah, the glory days of dot-com expense account travel. How I yearn for them.

My favorite experience at Cannes, though, took place not in Salle Lumiére, but in the outdoor seating area of the bar at my favorite hang-out, The Majestic Hotel. Some of the executives had just returned from a formal dinner, and I had been hanging out, very informally, with a dear friend and colleague for about an hour. Our group suddenly became strange mix of a few very rich, very lame but VERY powerful cable TV owners, their plastic, boring wives, a couple of my bosses and my colleague and me.

Some background before we proceed.

My company’s trips to Cannes were planned down to the minute so that our high-powered clients would always be entertained. Because of our relationship with the festival, we were able to split our guests into two groups. While one group was dining, the other got to walk the red carpet for a premiere of whatever film was playing at the time. Then, they flip-flopped, with the early diners going to the second premiere and the film-goers eating a late dinner. Each group got to go to two films in four days. Looking at the line-up of films every year, I was always tickled by the films that, due to the long term planning and scheduling, the groups were forced to see. My all-time favorite night involved a group of cable TV exec clients, middle-brow and soaked in money, fresh off the plane from Denver, rushing in black tie just in time to make the premiere screening of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Molokh. Only in Cannes.

Meanwhile, back at the Majestic Hotel…

On the night in question, the late-diners had seen Esther Kahn and all of them had, to put it mildly, despised the film. No one had understood it at all. Having seen it at the morning’s press screening and having really been moved by it, I defended the film. This set off a round of indignation so dismissive of my opinions, I was thinking of leaving the bar. I mean, who wants to defend tehir opinions on a film to a group of condescnedning nuveau riche? Not me. Suddenly, in the middle of the hostilities, my friend and colleague flagged down an African-American man in a hooded sweat shirt and baggy khakis to join us for a drink. The man sat down to a round of snickers and whispers as the clients and their wives clearly thought we had asked some undesirable to sit with us. The man talked to my friend and I ordered him a drink, a sweet pear brandy he called Poire, the perfect French rolling off his tongue. I returned to the table to find the wives of our clients all laughs and smiles, asking the man questions. I handed him his brandy and stepped into the following conversation:

Woman I: So, what do you do here at the Festival?

Man: Oh, I am just here hanging out this year. I live in Paris, so I thought I’d come check out the scene.

Woman II: Oh, hanging out? Well, what do you do for a living?

Man: I make movies.

Woman III: Really? have I seen your movies?

Man: I doubt it. What about you? Where are you ladies from?

Woman I: We’re from Denver.

Man: Oh, I’ve been to Colorado. I directed that version of The Shining that was made there. I thought it would be tough getting pussy in Colorado, but it wasn’t at all…

Of course, the man was Melvin Van Peebles. And of course, the women probably have no idea to this day what an encounter like that means to someone like me.

Ah, Cannes. One day I’ll return to your Speedo-infested shores, settle into a seat at the best movie theater in the world, and watch another film introduce itself to the world. Until then, I will think of you with every taste of Taittinger, in every report of your booing, shout-filled press screenings, and await my next chance to be a part of it all.

* Not just other film festival programmers, but actually staff from the Sarasota Film Festival, where I am Director of Programming. As a fundraiser for the non-profit festival, the Sarasota Film Festival rented a yacht to sail from Rome to Cannes and are hosting some parties there. Because duty for Nantucket called, I couldn’t go, but I bet that trip was out of this world. Soooo JEALOUS !

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