Cannes Diary: Being There
As journalists and bloggers descend upon the seaside town of Cannes in the south of France, the nagging question remains: Why would an Oscar analyst spend thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to attend a film festival that has limited influence on the Oscars? First, it’s because our love for movies is a stronger force in our lives than our interest in the Oscars. World cinema doesn’t rely on the Oscars for validation. But it turns out that one’s association with Oscars can undeniably open doors to a wider world of film — and with those doors graciously held open, we make our entreé.
All the same, why invest all the time, the effort, the expense of a trip to Cannes? You might ask that question about life’s adventure in general: Why strive to do anything? If we start with the grim premise that we live our lives preparing to die, then everything we do between our first breath and last should be the things we love to do rather than things we have to do. Things we’ve never done rather than things we’ve already done. If we only keep doing what we’ve done, we only keep getting what we’ve got. Our choices are limited, after all. We don’t have forever. All we ever have, all we’re ever going to get, is right here, right now, right in front of us. So we grab on tight to whatever we can, wrap our arms around its neck, wrap our legs around its waist, and ride the wild beast for all its worth. Most of all, we need to seize every opportunity to distance ourselves from the familiar in order to feel things afresh. Spectacular things worth a journey of 6000 miles to come see.
Getting to Cannes always seems deceptively simple when you’re buying things online to get there. A plane ticket. An AirBnB flat. A computer adaptor plug. Click, click, and click. You think you’re all ready to go, dragging your giant suitcase through the airport terminal, checking your bags, arranging your creature comforts in your airplane seat. Time delights in playing tricks on your internal clock the further you get from the time zone that tells you when to wake up and when to go to sleep. Natural sleep/wake cycles suddenly become an thing that feels artificial, a scheme you consciously need to think about. Questions plague. Should I sleep now? Should I stay awake? If I stay awake can I subvert the effects of jet lag and thereby prevent the inevitable dead drop in the morning screening you really can’t miss?
Sooner or later you must abandon the notion that body rhythms are a puzzle you can solve. It isn’t something you can control. Like most things, you have to kind of just go through it and see what happens.
The first leg of the flight to Zurich passed smoothy. It almost seemed as though I wasn’t on a plane at all. I had my tenth viewing of The Wolf of Wall Street to keep me company. Thirty hours of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio and counting. LivinginCinema’s Craig Kennedy was along and we ended up arranging to sit next to each other. I spied Hitfix’s Gregory Ellwood and Drew McWeeney on our flight. Later I would run in First Showing’s Alex Billington (or did I dream that part?) and then even later, Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells, Deadline’s Pete Hammond and Indiewire’s Erik Kohn.
Without incident Craig and I made our connecting flight and glided into Nice right on time. The funny thing about travelers who aren’t Americans is that most don’t wait obediently in line. They kind of shove-in. Craig and I were determined to be among the shove-ins this time, for fear of missing the free shuttle that takes members of the press from the Nice Airport to Cannes proper. We did okay for the first round: getting your huge suitcase into the bus’ belly. If you get there too late there is no room for your suitcase and you’re fucked. We flipped around to the other side and shoved in, trying to get on the bus. We were crowded out, though, and by the time everyone got on board I was standing on the steps to get on, begging the bus driver. He let me on as one of the last to fill the jam-packed bus. Sitting there and feeling annoyed I had to bitch-slap my own psyche and remind myself not to act like an entitled American. We don’t know from crowded buses. We don’t know from discomfort. This would be one of many times I would have to reel my skewed sense of entitlement back in. That’s what you do when you go out of this country. You have to remember to check that entitlement and replace it with humility, politeness, and general tolerance for all kinds of other places where things don’t work like they do here.
Cannes glittered in the twilight. Still a knockout town of tenacious grace after decades of annual molestation by film folk, the cloudless sunset skies promising a sunny festival for the first time in a while. At once the haze of unexpected cigarette smoke reminds you of where you are. The whirring unpredictability of scooters and speeding taxis, the seductive fragrance of rosé from somewhere enticing you to a sidewalk cafe where internationals were already gathered and settling into their leisurely meals. They eat, they drink, they smoke, they talk. The last thing they do is hurry away. The servers don’t push them out either. They know that this is an important ritual, this coming together.
This year’s festival is supposed to be somewhat subdued from a big-gun Hollywood studio standpoint, according to Cannes regulars, given that last year’s Oscar hopefuls ran out of steam by the end game. No one wants that to happen so most of the major “Oscar movies” will be avoiding Cannes altogether, with the exception of one or two, like Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher.
I don’t know if that is what Cannes represents but I do know that the privilege of attending each year is unmatched by any other film festival for the very reason that it has nothing to do with the Oscar race. At this festival, for the most part, you are looking at the best world cinema has to offer in a given year. Most of these films are made in countries whose governments support artistic endeavors as a point of national pride. In America, of course, studios and industry mouthpieces stare longingly at that opening weekend take, looking for the giant massive impressive number to measure success. But if you do that, if you only measure a film’s worth by how many people ibuy tickets to it you will miss everything that is vital about film and filmmaking.
And sure, you can eventually see most of these movies in the States – publicists will beg most bloggers to see them and ideally everyone will get that opportunity months, sometimes years later. Why is it then important to shell out so much hard cold cash for a trip to Cannes? I think it’s my responsibility as someone who covers film to help keep those arteries open, to notice and promote films and filmmakers who aren’t plugged into the cash machine that is American film. Too often in Hollywood, films fall into two categories: will it make money or will it win Oscars? Here in Cannes, we never ask those questions — we simply ask, was that a great film or one that fell short of greatness.
Call it pro-bono work, if you will, but there is a much bigger picture to be considered. The films that come to Cannes are chosen to expand the dialogue around world cinema. If anyone diminishes the festival or its selections, or seeks to measure the worth of the movies here by whether or not they make it all the way to the Oscars, then you they’re missing the point. Cannes and the Oscars are two different mindsets. The two worlds couldn’t be farther apart. Vive la différence.
Craig and I are renting an AirBnb flat in Le Suquet, the medieval section of Cannes. We climbed the steep path heading uphill to the famous clock tower and museum. (We would later discover that all the huffing and puffing had been unnecessary after finding an easier route to the place). We walked up six flights of tiny spiral Hobbit stairs to get to our top-floor flat, two rooms, with nearly everything anyone needs in life: bed, sofa bed, coffee maker, shower. One thing it didn’t have: a single towel.
We skipped the traditional blogger dinner at La Pizza but I was soon getting urgent text messages from Jeff Wells. “Where are you?” “Are you here yet?” “Wake up! Come down here!” But all of his cajoling could not get us down there in time. I had to find a towel, you see. A shower was in my near future. A glorious cleansing hot-water shower to wipe clean away 24 hours of planes, trains and automobiles.
The night air in this part of town is wet with the sea. Birds fly by the windows in this flat, screaming along the way in their treacherous and fierce reality. We think they’re cute. But birds? They’re badass. Get out of their way. Throughout the night I would hear cats fighting, wild cats who rule the streets after dark. The birds would wake up early and help to bring me into the reality of the morning, the reality of Cannes. I am here and I’m almost ready. Almost.
One struggle I must face over the next ten days, other than staying awake and writing as much as I can, is the inevitable melancholy that sets in when I begin to miss those I love back in the USA. Maybe it seems silly to go there so soon but it’s an ache always hanging in my heart, a pang that reminds me how far away I am and how hard it would be to get there if I needed to be there fast.
We met up with Jeff anyway, “I feel like walking,” he said. Pete Hammond tagged along. We wandered and stumbled like zombies through the busy streets looking for a towel. Yes, a towel. We finally found one. Thirty euros for a trashy beach towel with Cannes printed on it somewhere. We found a cash machine, and then a restaurant. We returned to a place we’d gone last year and I even recognized the waitress.
“You go for the soul of cinema,” said Craig Kennedy to Jeff Wells when the subject of why go to Cannes at all came up. Jeff agreed, even though he had already admitted that he was hoping for more Oscar juice this year. It is so expensive to come here, thousands. Why go at all unless someone else pays for it? What is money, though, if it can’t be spent on the things that make this life, this complete moment, worth living? Says the entitled American.
I remember the rosé. I remember the bread. I remember the conversation. But I don’t much remember after that. The next thing I knew, it was 4am and I was wide awake. A cool breeze floated in from my window. I opened the blinds at looked out over the rooftop towards the sea. How in the world did I ever get here, I wondered. Somewhere in the collection of my thoughts and dreams is the answer to that. But it isn’t a question I am obligated to answer. The coffee is hot. The festival awaits. I’m alive and I’m here.