Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Cannes-Deed - not by Voltaire (part 2), reminiscence continued

by Karen Jaehne

Cannes is a great place for young genius. My favorite was Steven Soderbergh. His little movie "sex, lies, and videotape" seemed to be up for the e.e. cummings award and little else. The day before the festival went into full tilt, there was Steven sitting on a grassy knoll with James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo and Peter Gallagher, looking very closely at the food they'd just bought from a nearby charcuterie (deli, en français). Harlan Jacobson and I joined them briefly to answer a few questions about the eating habits of the French. They were aquiver about being in Cannes, all of them sharing a cheap hotel room that they'd managed to get for about as much as they'd collectively earned on the movie.

France was new, the movie game was new, and they were new! Cute kids. "You've got a helluva talent," I said to Spader as we went on our way in search of famous people. "That was mean," Harlan told me. "They're all nervous, but you only complimented him. What'd you do that for?" "I dunno. He's so...Jack Nicholson. I think he'll make it." "I dunno," said Harlan, "It's sweet to see them so excited. But Cannes may be a bridge too far for that movie." Of course, their film went on to win the Golden Palm, and they've all made enough money to buy their own personal French waiter.

After you've gone to Cannes for a while, you realize it's not really about the French. It's more like a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope "On the Road" movie set in this funky little place. As the people arrive for the festival, they take over. English dominates - with lots of accents, but it's the "lingua franca" of money, so it's better to know English than French, if you want to do something besides understand how the waiters are insulting you. French waiters consider themselves the martyrs of the festival: Americans make demands on them; nobody can pronounce "boullibaise" properly; Scandinavians bring their own fish in tins; and the only subject is film, film, film. Instead of food, food, food.

As my friend said after his first day at Cannes, "Movies are all that's going on here - it's like a theme park. It's like being Irish on St. Paddy's Day. It's like being a leper in a leper colony." It's like being hated by the French. But that's OK. Like passing go, like not collecting $200, the disdain so peculiar to the French is just one throw of the dice in a much bigger game.

It should be pointed out that the French naturally feel that it's their festival, so the Palme d'Or ought to be their prize. It seldom is, thanks to a jury composed of international filmmakers and celebrities, veterans of this and other festivals who successfully keep their eyes on the screen and not on local politics. Except in 1987, when Cannes celebrated its 40th Anniversary, and Yves Montand was Chairman of the Jury, and "Under the Sun of Satan" by Maurice Pialat, which nobody liked, was palmed off on the audience at the awards ceremony! The crowd moaned, booed, then hissed at Pialat as he took his award; it annoyed Pialat enough to make him yell back at the crowd and flip them the bird - on national TV.

Not everybody who comes wants the prize. Or they don't want to take the risk of competing for it. Lots of big American films are shown in the Palais "Out of Competition"- called "Hors concours," which a friend explains as the whore's concourse: a place to land the movie in order to make lots of sales and not hear critics say it sucks.

Every night during the Cannes Festival, a film is screened at 8 o'clock in an event that combines the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace with the Kentucky Derby. At 7:00 pm, loudspeakers all along the Croisette blare out pompous music - usually film scores, in order to set the tone for the evening. Then trumpets sound, calling the faithful to their fate. A spit and polish later, half the French militia is in full mufti and standing at attention on the steps of the Palais - all the way down to the street, in order to salute the stars. A red carpet has been unrolled so limos can dump their glamorous load right in front of the crowds. Common people, who never dream of attending one of these screenings, line up about 20-deep, cheering and ogling and hoping for some reflected glory from the 1500 people making their way into the True Church of Cinema.

Cannes offers an experience that is, at the very least, unsettling and, at the worst, infuriating. Everybody deals with it in their own way. Some just settle in at one of the local watering holes and drink their way through the fortnight of fun. Others, like my friends from the Berlin Festival who come hunting for new movies, don't drink. They don't do anything but see movies. They don't even talk to you about what they've seen. They are like deeply entrenched moles in a festival environment they don't approve of. People who are this serious are unusual at Cannes, on the principle that only madmen come, and if you're not mad, the festival will make you that way.

For example, in 1983, I ran into Martin Scorsese crossing the street. He was in a hurry, but who isn't? I stopped him: "Marty! Hi, what's happening?" "I can't talk," he told me, moving along so that I turned to follow him. "I have to get back to my room, because I gotta talk to my shrink in ten minutes. He's calling me for our regular appointment." Transatlantic therapy is only one approach.

There's also Paul Schrader's angle on it. "Cannes is designed," he says in a morning stupor that he has managed to overcome to make a 10 o'clock interview, "as a survival test." He grips his coffee like a pilot pulling out of a dive. After a meandering explanation of how he came to make "Patty Hearst" and why he would never again make a movie about a victim, especially a powerful victim. I ask him where is the Rosebud in all this. He gives me a level gaze. "Cannes," he says it flat-like man, ban, also-ran. "Cannes," he repeats. "We make these damn movies so we can come to Cannes."

In 1988, after a similarly blown-out night, two other directors sit down for an interview on a balcony overlooking the bay. A breeze tossles Andre Konchalovsky's hair; the sun lights up the creases in Nikita Michalkov's face. They're russians - brothers, in fact, with films in competition representing Italy, "Dark Eyes" and the USA, "Shy People." And they haven't seen each other since before perestroika got hot. They answer my questions, but the information is being given to the other brother - a way of informing each other of a loyal communism and of a cynical rebellion into capitalism. I am like a little referee who just chases up and down the field to witness a game that's gone beyond any rules I know.

The only other time I was privy to something equally strange and interesting was in 1983 when Alan Rudolph invited me to lunch with G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary. "You're from Washington, D.C. so you'd probably get a kick out of this," he said with a snicker. At a hotel bar on the Croisette, a table for four is about 14 inches in diameter, so we got very close, very fast. My job was to ask them how they had enjoyed working together on the documentary film Rudolph had made about their debate, "Return Engagement."

Things happened sort of in the following order, although confusion and memory may be giving them more rationale than they deserved: Liddy insulted the waiter, Leary recommended the rat-sandwich, Liddy ordered a scotch, the waiter brought it with a lemon, so it got sent back, while he reviled us for drinking wimpy campari drinks, I asked a question, I was asked if I was a commie, I was asked if I'd ever tripped, I was asked to talk to the waiter in French, I was laughed at when the waiter couldn't understand my French. Liddy claimed to love guns, Leary claimed to love women, Liddy said guns are more reliable, Leary said it depended on what you wanted to do. Some food came, nobody could recognize it, more drinks got ordered and Liddy's on his fourth scotch (without lemon). And on for about two hours, during which Alan Rudolph said only two words: "Check, please."

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