I arrived in Cannes yesterday evening with little more than last names and question marks in my schedule, redolent necessities like Apichatpong and Haynes, the intimate invitations of Garrel and Hou, and the elegant mysteries of Kurosawa and Jia abrupt against the more manic possibilities of Miller, Miike, and Tscherkassky. (I hope these names are as familiar and suggestive to you; if not, I envy your future fresh discoveries.) A good count of my calendar's other notations fall under the tentative headings all akin to I wonder..., Perhaps..., and Why not? Many more, including the French drama opening the festival tonight, prompt indifference at best, and at worst riled confusion. "The festival feted this," you or I may ask, and not, say, whichever of your favorite filmmakers or pet projects might have been ready in time for a Riviera premiere? For example: The new Pixar and not the new Terence Davies? Why is the long-awaited return of Possession director Andrzej Zulawski improbably muffled in the business-only Marché of the festival and not found up the steps of the red carpet? Could the three Italian films in competition possibly reach the presumed heights of Johnnie To's upcoming, but not selected, musical? And so on, with optional grumbles about branded auteurs and photo-and-controversy ready names versus risks, discoveries, forays and other possible attempts at surprising the international cadre of press and business types—with a smattering of regular public—gathered to sell and celebrate cinema at what remains the world's most prestigious event to premiere a feature film.
I, for one, can't wait. Vilify this or that festival year, this or that selection or Palme d'Or winner, but whenever I get off the plane in Nice—and this will be my eighth time—I feel a luck-giddy breathlessness. This despite the fact in general the majority of all great films that begin their public life at Cannes end up showing theatrically in New York, where I live, within a year. This despite the fact that since the festival's transition around 2012, in lockstep with the movie industry at large, of showing their premieres digitally rather than on film, the distance between what precisely I'm watching in the Grand Théâtre Lumière and what I can watch on my iPad not so much later is shockingly small. Yet the experience of watching something within the sun-drenched fervor of a festival which brings before our senses films that haven't yet been seen by the public—this is something that carries a genuine, and highly elite, electricity. It is all the more conductive because the supposed art of the motion pictures and the supposed business of those pictures are so proudly, if not garishly, heralded at the same time: in the casual conversation, in the written word and published image, on the same red carpet, in the same cinema's shadows, and out in the light—or dark—after the movie is over.
Having just come from the inaugural, relievedly down to earth and humbly exalting Nitrate Picture Show—a film festival put on by the George Eastman House showing only archival film prints made of the long-discontinued nitrate film stock—I have perhaps all too recently been immersed in an experience in the theatre so thrillingly fragile and alive it is literally dangerous—in fact fiercely flammable. The material that made up those nitrate movies was vividly tangible in front of us there in Rochester, New York, the black and white hinting of embossed silver and colors like condensed gemstones. Descending towards the Riviera, seen from above, Cannes appears no longer concerned with what was perhaps once the central object of consumption, commerce, worship and distain. Here, even more than at all the other sprawling, subsidized and often corporatized or branded festivals such as the Berlinale or Toronto, we come to consume an event, not the films, an event that subsumes the films. Cannes is a glittering gestalt, the tallest standing platform enrobed in the laurels that hail the feature film. The festival has built itself into being—or being perceived as being—a necessity for the industry, an explosion of exposure and dealmaking, and therefore a necessity for the films and therefore for the culture. Even as the evolution of digital media distribution and consumption and the flourishing of an exciting variety of film events big and small worldwide chip at its foundations and the gleaming varnish, Cannes will remain such a platform as long as cinema culture demands it.
Tomorrow, I must choose between conflicting screenings of Philippe Garrel's no-doubt whisper-lovely In the Shadow of Women, opening the Directors' Fortnight, and the no-doubt haptic racket of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, getting its world premiere Out of Competition. To some, the choice may appear obvious, to me less so, as both are among the experiences I hope most to treasure at Cannes, to transmit to you, and, at an ideal festival, discuss on equal footing. While I sit here considering a choice many would be envious to have in front of them I can feel a tightening inside myself, a tension embroiling this passing decision in the grand scale of the events of the next twelve days. From the red carpet of the Festival de Cannes it radiates, a nervous energy declaring here, for now, the cinema comes forth.