Here’s lookin’ at you, Roger
In Richard Schickel’s 2007 documentary Bienvenue à Cannes (Welcome to Cannes), legendary film critic Roger Ebert is seen commenting on the Cannes Film Festival as it was in years past. Says Ebert, “We had more time then. I wrote a book about Cannes in 1987, and it consists mainly of people sitting around the Majestic Hotel playing practical jokes on each other.” Lest anyone think that it really was just a joke book, this is the perfect time to set the record straight. The twentieth anniversary of the publication of Ebert’s Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook — perhaps the best book ever written about experiencing the Cannes Film Festival — gives us an excellent occasion to revisit this classic and consider just how the Cannes of today has changed, or failed to change, since the 1980s.
To Ebert, who had already covered the annual festival for the Chicago Sun-Times over a dozen times before writing the book in 1987, Cannes clearly represents an intensely personal experience shared with 40,000 strangers. The images that he conjures up are striking. While sitting in the dark in a theater, experiencing a Zen-like oneness with the hyper-reality on the screen, Ebert would become outraged at any seemingly innocuous intrusion, such as when another critic dared to use a penlight while taking notes. Equally entranced while sitting at a sidewalk café in a special moment of unexpected bliss, Ebert imagines for himself a life spent sketching the French locals while sipping his espresso and ignoring his editor’s deadlines. The personal and the professional mix seamlessly in his mind, no matter how contradictory they might seem to us. Reviewing films and interviewing movie industry people was the professional purpose of his visit to the fortieth incarnation of the festival in 1987, and he did it all with a zealous enthusiasm. He relished the very crassness, noise, and outrageousness that made this commercial festival a madhouse. Something of value sprang from his encounters with virtually every aspect of Cannes.
What was the purpose of his writing this book? He asserts early on, in typically wry fashion, that Cannes is such a “glorious ceremony of avarice, lust, ego, and occasional inspiration and genius” that someone needs to record it all before the computer and “telecommunications” make travel to movie business conventions unnecessary and hence put an end to the festival. But two decades later, Cannes is still thriving, actually bigger than ever. Interestingly, Ebert repeatedly employs the word “ritual” to describe the festival and his own activities there. Some strangely vital energy, a parade of colorful characters, and an endless array of wacky occurrences keep the oddly profane and sacred ritual of Cannes alive and beloved long after any material need for the festival has long passed.
So let us contemplate ten of Ebert’s most perceptively witty observations about Cannes from Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, and consider their relevance to Cannes as it is today.
1. The Stars: Ebert wrote that “you go to Cannes to see movie stars and you return home having seen lawyers, publicists, film critics, tourists, distributors, buyers, sellers, and what is reputed to be the back of Elizabeth Taylor’s head.” Replace Taylor with Angelina Jolie for the modern day, and that sentence remains the most perfectly accurate capsule description of the festival ever written. The movie stars are still on display every evening on the red carpet, but they are outnumbered a thousand to one by industry drones trudging through another trade fair.
2. A Fortnight: The festival runs for two weeks every May, causing Ebert to remark: “if the Super Bowl were two weeks long,” you would then have “something more like Cannes.” Today, the Super Bowl, or at least its appended activities, actually does last for two weeks, so that’s no longer something we have to try to imagine. We are seeing the influence of Cannes everywhere, as any three-hour event can now be readily transformed into a two-week publicity orgy by a media machine that knows no limits.
3. Waiting in Line: The British queue up obediently, the Americans get in line reluctantly, but the French, Ebert perceived, just forge ahead obliviously, never noticing the line at all. No change there, at least regarding the French and the British; however, the Americans abroad do seem to have caught on to the French way.
4. Breasts: “Breasts are another thing the French never seem to notice,” Ebert mused. Comparing American attitudes with those of Europeans, he concluded that “We notice it when a woman takes off her bikini top in public.” Pity today’s would-be starlet unable to attract any photographer no matter how much skin she reveals. That topless beauty who hugged Robert Mitchum on the sand and got into every newspaper on the planet back in 1948 had it easy.
5. The Market: The main component of the festival is not really the prize competition but the buying and selling of rights to make or distribute films. Most of this activity occurs at the festival’s Marché du Film — the film market. Located in a cavernous basement area filled with small booths, the Marché gives its hucksters a place to display their wares. There, Ebert said, he saw for sale movies such as Assault of the Killer Bimbos, and “met a man named Ken Hartford, who cheerfully explained that he sold movies by the pound.” Hartford would reportedly arrive in town eager to resell the rights to some 140 films, most of which he had not seen. “Basically I sell crap,” Ebert quoted Hartford as saying with detached honesty. While there is no sign of Mr. Hartford there today, his successors still fill the basement, shamelessly peddling an assortment of movies typically featuring vampires, slashers, mad scientists, sex maniacs, and zombies. A company called Salvation has had the most visible presence there in recent years. Among the international classics in its distribution repertoire are Nude for Satan, Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine, Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun and Kung Phooey. That is not to say that only cheapo exploitation movies in the Marché and small art films in the competitions have a place at the festival these days. Major Hollywood movies such as The Da Vinci Code and Casino Royale still make a huge splash at Cannes, and they do so without actually entering any competitions. (Why risk the embarrassment of having your $100 million epic lose to The Wind That Shakes the Barley?) In other words, the blockbusters are there for exactly the same reason as the zombie pictures — to get publicity and turn a quick profit. The French film industry, by the way, has absolutely no presence at the Marché part of the Festival — it would injure their dignity to participate in such an uncouth wallow. In any event, French cinema is substantially subsidized by the government, thus leaving most of the Cannes festival to the unrepentant capitalists.
6. Guile: Ebert’s favorite type of Cannes character was the press agent pitchman, epitomized by loud, boisterous Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter. One year, Baxter had a print shop make some gaudy-looking fake credential badges boasting that the bearer represented the nonexistent “World International Television Network,” and Ebert used one such badge to get into screenings “where the guards were waving away people with genuine tickets.” Alas, in the post-9/11 world, such behaviors are frowned on. The French authorities now have in place a security program called “Vigipirate.” Although it sounds like a vague reference to Captain Jack Sparrow, Vigipirate is actually a monitoring plan designed to help the vigilant French police keep out all but the wiliest of party crashers. Although a little guile will still get you a long way in Cannes, the days of bluffing your way into Ingrid Bergman’s press conference or the Prince of Wales’ banquet or Jack Nicholson’s suite at the Carlton (all as depicted in Ebert’s book) are long gone.
7. The Palais: Humorously called the Palais, or Palace, the festival’s main building is, by objective standards, a concrete monstrosity. Derisively nicknamed the Bunker from the outset, it was brand new when Ebert wrote his piece. Ebert praised its triple-size screen and perfect sound system, declaring that “there is no better place on earth to see a movie than in the Palais des Festivals at Cannes.” He noted, however, that others at Cannes compared the building to the Deathstar from Star Wars. People were nostalgic for the previous Palais, which was centrally located and permitted absolutely everyone to get close to the stars. But stars do not like anyone getting too close, and thus the Bunker was born. Although the Vigipirates presumably love the Bunker, everyone else is still trying to get rid of it. Gilles Jacob, who has been President of the festival roughly since Lillian Gish was a schoolgirl, looked forward to the festival’s sixtieth anniversary in 2006 by writing a newspaper article denouncing the Bunker and demanding a new venue. Calling the Palais “désuet,” a French word that literally means “obsolete” but translates best in this case as “hell-hole that only an American critic would call the best place on earth to see a movie,” Jacob declared that he could not see why a mere 300 million Euros should be allowed to stand between him and a decent theater.
8. Side Acts: Ebert reported seeing a “drunk” carrying a “huge stuffed giraffe” under one arm and a bouquet of muddy roses under the other while “fire-eaters paused to watch him pass” (right). Naturally — it’s Cannes, after all.
9. Reporting the Story: Reporters like Ebert had a difficult time getting their dispatches to their newspapers in the old days because the main form of written transmission was the telex. This technological wonder required that French typists, often short on knowledge of English, retype Ebert’s stories into their telegraph machines with frequently disastrous results. Ebert figured that the brand new contraption that he had brought with him, a 1987 “Radio Shack Model 100 portable computer,” would take care of that problem once and for all. Unfortunately, he found that the French long-distance phone system transmitted only in short units that disconnected the computer every couple of seconds. Luckily, today’s journalist need only stroll over to the American tent in the international village and file the story by e-mail from any of the many computer terminals, none of which carry the Radio Shack logo.
10. The Future: Filmmaker Ken Russell, commenting on the public’s shrinking attention span, shocked Ebert by predicting, “In the future, movies will be ten minutes long.” Ebert thought the director was being less than serious, but it is apparent now that Russell had looked into his crystal ball and seen YouTube. Perhaps ten minutes seems a bit long.
Cannes lives on, changing in ways that don’t really matter, staying the same in ways that do. What Roger Ebert captured in his book two decades ago was a gaudy spell that perpetually mesmerizes the festival’s thousands of attendees and hangers-on, as well as the millions who gaze on through their television sets in a combination of reverence and disbelief. Is Cannes still what it once was? One might just as well ask, is Nicole Kidman today as glamorous as Faye Dunaway twenty years ago? May the debate never end.
Roger Ebert, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook, Text and Drawings by Roger Ebert. Kansas City and New York: Andrews and McMeel, 1987.
Gilles Jacob, “Il nous faut un nouveau palais,” Le Journal du Dimanche, May 28, 2006.