1970: The Cannes Film Fesitval (part four)

1970: The Cannes Film Fesitval (part four)

Robert Altman

One constant in Cannes are the large billboards promoting actual or proposed new movies, and the one that struck my eye, so to speak, was for a French production called “Paris Borgne” (literally, “One-Eyed Paris,” but also implying shady or disreputable). Appropriately, this was intended as a three-part film with segments directed by three great one-eyed directors, John Ford, Fritz Lang and Raoul Walsh (Andre de Toth or Nicholas Ray could have stepped in if necessary). Claude Chabrol’s regular producer Andre Genoves agreed to finance the intriguing undertaking, which I later learned was the brainchild of a man not yet known to me, Pierre Rissient, a close friend of all three directors and tireless promoter of their work and that of everyone else he believed in (he was officially in Cannes that year on behalf of John Boorman and “Leo the Last). The “eyepatch” project always was a questionable one due to the age and precarious health of all three directors, there never was a script or even a final selection of stories, and Genoves eventually went bankrupt. Rissient later admitted that the idea was perhaps a tad “utopian” on his part, but its combination of audacity and noble purpose to provide the three giants with a joint last hurrah certainly appealed to the cinephilic imagination.

You never knew what to expect on the streets of Cannes then, especially at night. Prostitutes were all over the place, and accounts circulated of naïve young men being duped by a good-looking decoys who would arrange a tryst, accompany the client to a room, demand payment in advance, excuse herself to the w.c. for a moment and then vanish, sending back in her stead an ugly old hag whose services, as often as not, were declined. For much of the festival, the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet occupied the harbor, biding time in case it was needed in Cyprus, if I recall correctly. This meant hundreds of uniformed American sailors in the streets every night, some looking for hookers or just a drink, but most simply gawking at the whole scene. When Kent State happened and Nixon and Kissinger moved on Cambodia, many Americans, led by Michael Wadleigh and Robert Altman, took to wearing black armbands, and a renewed anti-American mood became palpable; the sound of jets revving up on the aircraft carrier at dawn woke you up whether you wanted to or not.

Because the food and drink were cheap and pretty good, a popular destination was Le Petit Carlton, the late, much-lamented working class dive on the rue d’Antibes that, a few years later, became the scene of all-night carousing by hundreds of drinkers that overflowed onto the street; it was the rowdier predecessor of the still-extant Le Petit Majestic. That year, at least, the place was heavily frequented by mercenaries, battle-scarred and sometimes scary tough guys of all nations who, when they weren’t mixing it up in Africa somewhere, crewed on yachts in the Mediterranean. One memorable evening, drunken Brits started singing some rather tangy English nautical ditties, which weren’t much appreciated by the Foreign Legion types, who responded by trying to drown them out with some patriotic French songs, and back and forth it went. It was Rick’s Cafe Americain all over again.

Oh, yes, there were movies. I saw all or part of roughly fifty films during the two weeks, far more than on any subsequent visit because I didn’t have to write anything while the festival was happening. Largely forgotten today is that the competition used to consist of twenty-five films, which guaranteed the presence of several real stinkers. The entries from many countries, particularly the communist ones, were chosen by the governments, which further assured a conformity of mediocrity. The Quinzaine des Realisiteurs, created the year before from the detritus of the aborted 1968 festival, took place in crammed back-street cinemas, as did the rapidly expanding market. Most of the interest in the latter centered on boundary-pushing near-porn, epitomized by the tumescent boredom of Jens-Joergen Thorsen’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” and Jorn Donner’s”Portraits of Women,” while the Fortnight specialized in boring politics, most conspicuously Godard’s “Wind from the East.” More to my taste in this realm were two quasi-experimental films by Quebecois director Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, “La chambre blanche” and “Q-Bec-My-Love,” and I remember another young American critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, whom I met there for the first time, rhapsodizing about Robert Kramer’s “Ice.” Jonathan, who had just moved to Paris and was similarly in Cannes on essentially bogus credentials, subsequently introduced me to the Latin Quarter cinema and jazz scene, as well as to David Overbey, who lived nearby and later became an influential programmer at the Toronto Festival of Festivals.

The screening of “Woodstock” was downright weird; the orchestra section of the Palais was mostly occupied by middle-aged French couples in formal dress who, it soon became clear, had absolutely no idea who or what they were watching. Walkouts abounded. By contrast, “M*A*S*H” was a smash; Altman, with his hipster hippie attitude, became an overnight star in Europe, and ultimately won the Palme d’or from a jury presided over by Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias (in the days when internationally prominent writers, not photogenic actresses, populated the juries) and which also included Kirk Douglas, Karel Reisz and Volker Schlondorff.

Looking back, other than for some of the prize winners—“Leo the Last,” Elio Petri’s “Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion,” Ettore Scola’s “A Story of Jealousy” (for which Marcello Mastroianni won best actor), as well as such non-winners as Claude Sautet’s “Les choses de la vie” and Andrzej Wajda’s “Landscape After Battle”–it was not a great year for the competition. Preminger’s “Tell Me That you Love Me, Junie Moon” couldn’t hold a candle to the entertainment value of the imperious director’s press conference, and it’s amazing how many of the titles and directors singled out that year are entirely forgotten forty years on (Robert Ellis Miller’s “The Buttercup Chain,” anyone?).

More interesting was the out-of-competition lineup. Bunuel’s “Tristana” had been invited into the competition but Franco’s Spain wouldn’t permit it to officially represent the country, so it was shown, with great success, outside the main event. Joining it there were Bergman’s “A Passion,” Sydney Pollack’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” which paved the way for his “Jeremiah Johnson” to appear in competition two years later, and Costa-Gavras’ “The Confession.”

But no doubt the most controversial film of Cannes 1970, and one that perfectly exemplifies its era, was “The Strawberry Statement.” Based on a novel about the student protests at Columbia University, this was one of those counter-culture projects seized upon by the studios (in this case, MGM) in the wake of “Easy Rider.” Stuart Hagmann, a long-haired newcomer, was hired to direct, while Off-Broadway playwright Israel Horowitz wrote the script. As the youngest American on the Croisette (and from Rolling Stone, no less), I was somehow sought out to talk to Hagmann, a likeable guy who seemed both thrilled and astonished when his film won a shared jury prize. Attached was an unprecedented advisory: “The jury was bitterly divided, with half of its members wanting the film to receive the Golden Palm.” Hagmann went on to direct only one more film, the anemic “Believe in Me,” with Jacqueline Bisset and Michael Sarrazin, the following year, and later taught at the University of Southern California.

Poster for “The Strawberry Statement” on the Croissette

John Boorman

Marcello Mastroinanni

Michel Piccolo

-to be continued tomorrow-

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