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Up In The Air: To and From Cannes

Up In The Air: To and From Cannes

As much as George Clooney did in that movie last year, I crave my privileged hours in the other-worldy bubble of airport lounges and long-haul flights; I want to make the most of them, to think, read, write, make lists, talk to my seatmate if so inspired and, very occasionally, watch a movie. The separation from fixed time and place, from phone calls and e-mails, from the need to answer to anyone, creates a sanctuary especially cherished because it lasts but a few hours. However, my flight to the Cannes Film Festival two weeks ago offered the sort of diversion Mr. Clooney would especially appreciate.

From Los Angeles there are a number of ways to get to Cannes, the fastest taking about 20 hours door-to-door. This year I flew Air New Zealand to London–the “secret” and by far the best service between the two cities–with a British Airways connection down to Nice. After taking my window seat, I noticed a striking young woman walking up and down the aisle, obviously trying to figure out where she belonged, and thought to myself she’d be welcome to the open seat next to mine, which in fact was hers. In my younger bachelor days I might have tried to make the most of such good fortune, but now that Roger Ebert has placed me physically in the old Clint Eastwood category (and not the middle-aged George Clooney zone), I’m not so inclined to try my luck. So we settled in, had dinner and almost immediately after that she was out like a light.

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Not ready to konk out yet, I looked over the movie offerings and was impressed by how many more titles were available compared to the last time I took the airline–about 80 altogether, and in a wide range, from brand new and very recent (“Shutter Island”) to classics (“A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Searchers”), gobs of Asian fare and a collection of Kiwi productions, mostly unknown to me. But as I thought it would be good to refresh my memory given that I’d be reviewing the sequel in Cannes two or three days hence, I opted for “Wall Street,” which I hadn’t seen since it came out in 1987 and was entirely entertaining. Michael Douglas sure seemed young, it was good to glimpse some of the new actors–James Spader, John McGinley–fresh faces at the time but who subsequently emerged, and Daryl Hannah’s hairdo looked plenty ridiculous.

Then it was time for some shut-eye, or so I hoped. I prefer flying to Europe from Los Angeles than from the East Coast because, at roughly 11 hours each way, there’s time for five or six hours of sleep; by the time drinks and meal service are finished leaving from New York, you’re lucky if you’ve got two hours until it’s light outside again. So I had my beer and Melatonin, always enough to ease me to sleep, put the earplugs and eyemask in place and off I went, until I began to sense that the distracting lady next to me was up to something.

Let’s just say that I’ve never slept next to anyone who moved around as much as this woman did over the next several hours; legs, feet, butt, arms, hands made repeated contact in all sorts of places. As I drifted in and out of hazy states, awakened to vague stirrings and unexpected movements, denied slumber by this somnolent beautiful creature, my uncensored imagination wondered if she was really asleep. But no, old guy, forget it, she doesn’t even know where she is, much less who’s next to her–she was totally out, which was confirmed when she slept through the landing. She must have taken something incredibly strong, as she had to be shaken awake and helped off the plane. The long night was a highly tactile sensual half-dream in a dark cloudy hammock swaying above Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland. I got no sleep at all, which was not welcome but more than all right.

The flight back this past Monday–a daytime flight, helpfully, and with no one sitting next to me–was more productive, if rather less memorable. The airline handed out the Daily Mail, in which the only story of interest was an excerpt from the forthcoming memoirs of the great conservative English historian Paul Johnson (“Modern Times”), due to be published in the U.K. next month. Johnson has known many of the world’s most important figures over the past 60 years and the paper promised juicy, unbridled tales about politicians, writers and artists. One anecdote: Shortly after French President Charles de Gaulle left office, he attended a formal dinner hosted by the British ambassador. One guest asked Madame de Gaulle what she was most looking forward to now that her husband was free of official duties. “A penis,” she replied. When a startled hush enveloped the room, de Gaulle jumped into the breach: “You have misunderstood her pronunciation. She means to say, ‘appiness.'”

I almost never purchase new fiction in hardcover, but the delirious raves for and, even more, the subject matter of Tom Rachman’s first novel made me rush to buy “The Imperfectionists” to take on the trip. The setting and dramatis personae are all but irresistable to an internationally-minded American journalist like myself: A Rome-based English-language newspaper, largely staffed by eccentric expatriate Yanks, that flourished from the 1950s through the 1980s but is now spiraling precariously into insolvency and likely oblivion. Given that Rachman, English-born but raised and schooled in Canada, did time at the Associated Press in Rome and the International Herald Tribune in Paris, he knows of what he writes. It’s a book that many journalists harboring latent literary ambitions will feel they could have written and kick themselves for not having done so; we’ve all known the asexual sad-sack copy editors, the fastidious style Nazis, the obituary writers destined to die at their desks, the wacky and variously reliable freelancers, the hard-charging editors-in-chief, even the oddball heirs to the publishing throne, even if not any quite as bizarre as the one Rachman conjures up here.

Writing, a bit disconcertingly at first, in the present-tense, the author daringly devotes each of his 11 chapters to a different character, although most of them appear in supporting roles elsewhere. The mosaic comes together beautifully toward the end, in unexpectedly moving ways, and the paper’s demise is as sad as it is preordained. Rachman captures with absolute accuracy the way in which every staffer, from the editor down to the lowliest minion, has invested his or her entire life in the paper; for better and for worse, it defines them and dictates every other aspect of their lives. He’s especially good at writing female characters, especially the almost too shrewd and calculating editor and the alluring younger wife of a stodgy older news editor, and Rome provides a fresh and credible alternative to Paris, which would have been a more obvious setting, one familiar as a base for expat journos from Jake Barnes onward. In the right hands, the wittily titled “The Imperfectionists” will make a first-rate movie; a few years ago, Sydney Pollack would have been an ideal director for it. It’s not clear to me who can fill his shoes, although Jay Roach did a good job with “Recount.”

After knocking the novel off on the plane, I took advantage of the chance to sample the new New Zealand cinema and watched “Boy,” the follow-up feature by Taika Cohen (aka Waititi) to his 2007 “Eagle vs. Shark.” Winner of the Kinder cinema sidebar in Berlin this year and a Sundance entry, “Boy” has been one of the most successful films in New Zealand history and it’s easy to see why. The story of an adorable pre-teen who wants to admire his wayward dad but is continually presented with every reason not to, the hand-crafted picture oozes charm, visual invention, musical delight and audience-pleasing good times. Like “Eagle vs. Shark,” but fortunately less so, it’s also rather too insistently eager to please. The limited options of isolated lives among mixed-blood folk in tiny distant communities serve as a vivid backdrop to the wacky shenanigans, although the frequent f-bombs would provoke an R-rating that would effectively cancel out the desired young audience in the United States.

Finally, I dipped into the delight that is Adrian Turner’s Bloomsbury Movie Guide book on “Goldfinger,” a copy of which Derek Elley had given me in Cannes. For anyone even somewhat into James Bond arcania, this 1998 book, which is available on certain bookselling sites for as little as $.99, is a treasure trove of information both essential and trivial–that Gert Frobe, playing the title role, didn’t speak any English and (like many of the Bond girls, beginning with Ursula Andress) was (expertly) dubbed; that the above-mentioned Paul Johnson, in 1958 still a left-wing writer for the New Statesman, wrote a moralistic denunciation of the novel “Dr. No”–“the nastiest book I have ever read”–which Ian Fleming countered by inducing his friend and fan Raymond Chandler rave about it in the Sunday Times; that director Guy Hamilton wanted Burt Reynolds to play Bond in “Diamonds Are Forever” before Sean Connery agreed to return for a ton of money; that screenwriter Richard Maibaum originally wrote “Diamond Are Forever” to pit Bond against the late Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother (also to be played by Frobe), a man obsessed with diamonds, only to be overruled by the producers; that “Mack the Knife” was the inspiration for the brassy “Goldfinger” title song so memorably belted by Shirley Bassey, and on and on, from A to Z. It’s wittily written, with information I never knew on every page along the way.

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