The plane lands in Nice, the closest large airport, a mere thirty minute drive from Cannes. The picturesque landing introduces a geography mirrored at the festival a few hills away—the plane skirts the coast and lands on a strip placed right along that shore that could be a double for the Croisette, the main beachside boulevard in Cannes. The Croisette traces a line past the Palais—housing the festival’s two largest theaters, a massive conference space and numerous offices, floors and the usual labyrinths of convention halls—and is drawn out towards luxury hotels, drawing a dividing line between a narrow beach front and touristy haute couture shops, a façade of luxury vacationing behind which are movie theaters. A quick shuttle goes from landing strip to the Côte d'Azur boulevard, and stepping out in the Cannes harbor, the first thing on my mind, tellingly, is not the view or the sun but getting my festival badge.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Cannes is nothing without its badges; more precisely, you are nothing without a badge. A cryptic and powerful hierarchy rules the Croisette. The colors that dangle around the necks of passersby define their degree of rule first, their identity second. You eyes dart to the spinning thing, catching the color. Critic or industry? Or perhaps talent? Within that, the further dots, lines, shades, ambiguities. Because, of course, blogs aren’t newspapers, quarterlies aren’t dailies, buyers aren’t programmers; and indeed, perhaps, directors aren’t actors (though Jafar Panahi implies otherwise in the best film of the festival, This Is Not a Film). Are the talent badges ranked as well? I don’t know. But you can tell talent a mile off—black badge—a small flag in the corner, ah German, and then a name, more inscrutable in its caps-and-lower-case typography than the easy read and judgment of the color-flag glance.
Hierarchy is everywhere here, even the programming seem segregated in diminishing importance compared to other festivals that attempt (and usually fail) at organizing their programs in more cohesive terms. No matter how good the actual films, the selection of the Competition section will always be above those in Un Certain Regard, and they above Directors’ Fortnight selections, and that lording over Critics’ Week. Films in each section get their own dedicated theaters, and walking down the Croisette, passing Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, the Majestic hotel, the Grand, getting further away from the red carpet, you get a weird sense of geographical hierarchy as well. People often sounded surprised when I mentioned going all the way to the Miramar to see a Critics’ Week screening; one critic I chatted with didn’t seem to be aware of the Fortnight at all, and certainly many were unfamiliar with its program, lurking with vagueness a mere 15 minute walk from the gigantic Lumiere theater in the Palais, where the films in competition play—and are judged accordingly. Yet Directors' Fortnight (technically separate from the Festival de Cannes proper) has its own badges and its own dedicated audiences, and perhaps they’d be damned to be seen attending such known quantities as Almodóvar or Von Trier.
It all comes down to waiting. In fact, that seems the appeal of Cannes in general: not waiting.
Me and less than a handful of thousand others were the first large audiences to see Terrence Malick's much anticipated The Tree of Life. This is the festival where the big premieres happen, the first unveilings. So it's not with some irony that those, such as myself, who are so privileged to even be able to attend Cannes then get cranky about waiting in line to be the first to see something. You see, the badge determines just how long you will wait in line to see these premieres. And wait in line you do, all but the most powerful, or the longest attending, or the highest paying—who knows how the system works? The lack of transparency engenders paranoia and curdled disdain and envy amongst some of the more bitter badge holders. Nothing’s worse than standing in the beating sun for an hour only to get shut out of a screening. The color can be a curse—a friend missed nearly every first press screening for competition titles because of the badge he was appointed. It can also be a blessing: for whatever mysterious reason my badge color was upgraded this year and it felt like a secret triumph I was unworthy of, unworthy because the cause or reason was never explained, a gift from the gods of cinema. I got into nearly everything and it felt mighty fine.
The problems of Cannes can be divided neatly into these two sections: before screenings and after. The before is The Process of the Badge. The after is The Problem of the Opinion. It’s like that gag in Airplane
(or is it The Naked Gun
?) where the reporters rush so fast to phone booths to file their copy that they simultaneously knock over the entire row. It even starts before you leave the theater: there were only two booers in the first press screening of Malick’s The Tree of Life
, but they made themselves offensively, pompously heard in the quietude of the film’s credits. And then the push to get out: for Competition titles, press will be ambushed by cameras and mics after the screening, wanting an immediate reaction (witness comrade Ryland Walker Knight’s ambushed response
to the Malick and the boos via the Guardian). Do some anonymous television audiences in Poland really want to know what I thought on Le Havre
Someone should just tell them to check Twitter where years of production work and more then a century of cinema history results in a handful of terse comments and ratings pushed out to a global audience before the platters are even done being re-wound in the projection booths. (Oh who am I kidding, I mean the digital projector has powered down. I saw only three non-retrospective films at Cannes 2011 projected on film.) For their frenzy and snap judgments, the tweeters are rewarded with the responses of an online world who isn’t at Cannes: excited, jealous, angry, curious. That hardly stops them though—have to file, have to file an opinion.
Obviously a festival is not a place for comprehensive analysis or monk-like contemplation, but the way opinions are hoarded and expunged is verily overwhelming and not a little off-putting. As a friend remarked, they are a currency here, names of films and filmmakers traded back and forth—"Oh the Ramsay? No, but the Bonello that’s something, you?” “Over in Fortnight a real find, but there’re no more screenings, sorry”—or, equally, a social currency, where, like the rest of humanity, festival attendees are brought face to face with the fact each individual may in fact have little in common with the others around him or her, and must land on the only subject everyone knows they share: what they’ve seen and what they think of it. Dead time is killed in endless exchanges about films missed, films coming up, what one thought of the latest, most visible title. Well, we do have to wait in line with strangers and the barest of acquaintances after all, don’t we?
But my problem is that it comes back to judgment again: some complain about the treatment of the badge system but then exit a screening and proceed to rank, grade, crap on or raise to high heaven some film before moving onto the next. Really, judgment seems the principle theme of the film festival, and what’s especially funny is how it’s a currency mostly only relevant to attendees. After the festival closes, what do greater audiences care about other than, perhaps, a prize winner, a big name director, a big name star? Most movie-goers don’t even know what Cannes is, and are of course flabbergasted to learn that it’s essentially a festival for industry and press only, not public audiences. But in the heat of things, for the attendees, one simply must know which of the two Russian films in Un Certain Regard are worth seeing, which of the Koreans, where can I find a good doc, I must see something shorter, something more exciting.
At a festival, awareness of the outside world shrinks—especially for me, as a festival takes all my concentration and I’m nearly unable to write anything but notes on films, and meanwhile emails languish and I don’t keep track of news outside the festival. (I apologize to all who did not receive a post card from me this year.) No doubt that’s an extreme case, but the myopicness that is required to get from film to film and concentrate on writing on them re-organizes, temporarily, what’s important within one’s world. To get cinematic for a second, I'd say one’s mise-en-scène changes at a festival, the values between things, the weight of certain things and the lightness of others, changes dramatically. Off-screen space, as it were, is barely evoked. Strauss-Kahn has to compete with the secrecy and sentimentality of the Terrence Malick film, and it was very hard to tell what people thought was more important. Strangely, the opposite seems the case outside of the festival—who gives a damn about most films, but let’s write up Cannes once a prominent filmmaker says something that has nothing to do with cinema.
If judgment is the end of the journey, the theme of the journey is navigation, parsing a schedule of four official programs, plus special screenings, films Out of Competition, Cannes Classics—and let’s not forget the industry-only "market" being held simultaneously as the festival, wherein lurks sometimes better films than the festival proper, if one is willing to page through the market screening guide full of anonymous international films of such questionable quality as to send the most ardent cinephile into a fit of depression. Then again, that’s where, in 2008, I saw Takashi Miike’s God’s Puzzle, one of the great films of the 2000s, and one that I never had the opportunity to see again.
So there are those some-hundred films to see, and where do you place your bets? Most cover Competition exclusively or nearly so, why I’m not sure as really most non-cinephile audiences will have to be convinced of the repute of Von Trier, Almodóvar, or Malick, and the stars and prestige of individual films generally only have an impact in their countries or origin, where the Italian press (and the French, and Michel Piccoli fans) and few others would be excited about Morreti’s pope film (Piccoli for pontiff!). So why not write on the obscure stuff anyway, and try to convince audiences that this is where the power of cinema lays? If journalists are allowed to report on meaningful events in obscure places around the globe, why can't critics write on meaningful films similarly located in obscurity?
Yet on the Croisette, on the red carpet, the "big" films are a big deal, and an exponentially bigger deal than the films screening in the Un Certain Regard section right next door to the Lumiere (and equipped with its own red carpet) and so on down the list. Pushing long and hard through the Fortnight and Critics’ Week will usually reward one with films that put the Competition to shame—witness this year’s Play, for example—and one of the first lessons one must learn in Cannes is to be mobile, a roving cinephile, jumping from one section to the next, to have no national biases, no genre biases (Wu xia, a mainstream Chinese action movie, was one of the best films this year), to hunt down obscure re-screenings in strange local theaters.
It takes some footwork, quite literally due to the compression of the festival into a single strip between the hills of Cannes and the sea, but fragmented not just among the official theaters but the anonymous market screening rooms which take over the multiplexes scattered around town. You hear about a film you missed the official screening of and you might be lucky if seven days later it showed up again in a theater that seats 25. Just hope that the French-subtitled print also has English digital subtitles projected as well, as you don’t want to be stuck catching up on a film only to realize the quirky venue it’s showing in cannot support your poor linguistic prowess. Indeed, there is as much a rush to see the latest unseen thing as there is to catch the thing you wrote off or couldn’t make and then, distressingly, heard was “quite good.” It's one of the few times in life when hearing a film recommendation causes more consternation than excitement.
Oh, the despair of the festival schedule—there are always too many films, too much potential and too little time, too much overlap, too much of a distance between theaters. And so you clench your teeth as someone sings the praises of something you wrote off, or, even worse, wanted to see but couldn’t make. It doesn’t even matter if that person clearly has the exact opposite impression of cinema as you. At a festival, buzz seems objective. If someone says it’s good, well, by god, it could very well be, no matter the source. “I heard it was good” is a very common phrase. “Worth seeing” or its opposite, another. It’s surprisingly challenging to ask someone what they thought of a film at the festival without making it sound like you are asking for an affirmation or negation, a snap opinion, a should I see it or should I not, or, even worse, a should I trust/respect you or not, based on the response.
KEEPING IT GOING
For some, a festival is relatively relaxing or at least fun—for me it is a highly directed pressure cooker, where everything seems charged and heightened. There’s just so much energy directed at film-
going as an actual logistical activity and film discussion as a simplistic, pared down opinionating, all combined with the tense time limits of a festival experience, the need to get to the next film but scratch some notes or post some coverage first, that it keeps everything very tense even when the timing is flowing, and the films inspiring.
At least I keep hydrated, thanks to official beverage sponsors, partnerships that probably exist because we are unable to take bottled beverages into theaters because, who knows, perhaps they contain explosive gels. And being caffeinated is not a problem thanks to the handy Nespresso stand in the Palais which offers as many near-instant pulls of pod-based coffee injections as I desire, each handed out by young French girls who seem to never be allowed to see movies and instead keep a press corps made predominantly of men energized and perhaps not a little intrigued. Food is utilitarian and almost uniformly mediocre unless one is willing to distance oneself entirely from the festival area, or pay a great deal more. The best bet is to take advantage of the daily morning markets of which there are at least two in the city, and make out like a farmer’s market raider grabbing local cheese, produce, fruits and such, combine them with the fresh bread which is often more invigorating than the trumpeted majesty of global cinema premieres, and make oneself something humble and fresh. The typical Cannes lunch is usually held en route to another theatrical venue, wolfed down before a theater security guard waggles his finger at your bag's culinary contents.
It sounds silly to say, but one really does need energy and vigor to see movies all day, to stand in line in the beating sun, to watch six hours of various manners of filming the world around us and then try to re-translate those images into some form of personal descriptive text. Too many baguettes, buttery croissants, harsh espresso shots and late nights wreck havoc on one’s ability to think about a film clearly (if that indeed is needed), to remember which was the film you saw several hours ago, you know the one, with the long takes and pallid color—or was that yesterday?—the ability to hump it 30 minutes across town to make it to a film that starts in fifteen minutes, the ability to walk the red carpet to the Lumiere. (Which, by the way, is a much smaller feat than it seems from the images that come out of Cannes; at 8:00am, one strides across the vacant carpet in mere seconds; if I ever had brought a tuxedo to the festival I would be able to tell you how it undoubtedly turns into a congested gauntlet of glamour on the night time gala screenings.)
BEYOND THE DOOR
Let us not forget that no matter where one goes in the world, there is always somewhere else than where you are. Cannes is very mysterious. Many people are there, and many things occur, and only some of them audiences and film screenings. Parties along the beach, on boats, in the hills’ villas; sponsorships and deals, films pre-sold before they are made, teenagers training down for the weekend from Paris, and an entire army of beige suited security forces—where do they come from, where do they live? What do they do when they get off shift? What do they think of the festival, its obstinate, self-righteous attendees? Who snuck Jafar Panahi’s film out of Iran, and why is that film—the festival’s truest discovery—a “special screening” while the other Iranian film was granted a Un Certain Regard spot, where it was able to, and indeed did, garner an award? Why do publicists think 15 minutes is enough time to talk to a filmmaker about anything? How many films in Cannes this year were shot digitally and how many on film? Of those shot on film, how many were projected digitally, and why were they? Are the Ferraris I see clustering on the Croisette, crawling through the tux-and-gown wearing foot traffic, rented or owned? How many filmmakers in Cannes own a Ferrari? There are so many fancy hotels in the city, the lobbies of which are dense with purposeful, clipped, business like motion. Is this, for ten days, the center of cinema?
Who are these other people, the ones who aren’t watching movies? Who, come to think of it, are these people watching movies?
The first year I went to Cannes I assumed attendees would be the niche of the niche—festival press who covered art house movies. I had forgotten reports a couple years earlier of Shrek 2’s standing ovation at the festival, and that film audiences are similar the world over, from a multiplex in New York to the press screening of the new Terrence Malick in Cannes. Now, a week after Cannes, the festival's attendees, its films, its memories have dispersed around the globe, quietly re-integrated back into the world's generally passive film culture. From here, it is Cannes that seems behind the door, the secret place few know about, within which mysterious deeds and actions are performed by strange, anonymous beings. Until next year when the few "regular audiences" show up on the Croisette with hand-written signs—"One Ticket SVP", s'il vous plaît—and the curtain of the festival is drawn back.