PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: Preview

[14 May 2007]

By Hannah Eaves

Festival de Cannes 2007 runs 16-27 May.  This is the first of several installments Hannah is writing on the event for PopMatters.  For this year’s complete line-up, see Cannes Film Festival 2007 Official Selection.

See also:

PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: In the Thick of It
PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: La Belle Communauté Internationale
PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: This Growing Body of Artful Human Expression

When a film festival becomes a phenomenon it is inevitable that with time it will become a phenomenal beast. The more it murmurs “Feed Me” to the publicity mill, a la Little Shop of Horrors, the longer the line of willing human sacrifices grows.

The Cannes Film Festival, the most monumental and mythologizing film festival of the year, turns 60 this year, and there’s already plenty of hype about how they can’t control the hype (see
“Crunch time at Cannes” by Allison James on Variety.com). Cannes is the only film festival even your grandmother has heard of. Its only equal for festivals-that-have-burst-their-seams-with-the-fireworks-of-media-attention-big-business-star-parties-sex-and-gossip is Utah’s Sundance Film Festival. But whereas when January rolls around we are lately greeted with the voices of a thousand critics bemoaning Sundance’s lackluster films, those same voices continue to find gems at Cannes.

My Blueberry Nights director, Kar Wai Wong

Kar Wai Wong, director of the Opening Film, My Blueberry Nights

Counter-intuitively this may be in part because it is such a huge circus, not despite it.

Gary Meyer, who founded the US’ arthouse Landmark Cinema chain and is now the co-director of the Telluride Film Festival, first attended Cannes as an improvised “representative” of a friend’s large US distribution company.  He and his wife arrived at Cannes in a van in 1972, a stop-over after a year-long road trip. Over the last 35 years he’s seen things change, but mostly in terms of venues and overall size.

“It’s always been a business and I think that’s really important for people to understand.” He cautions, “While the film festival itself is a celebration of the art of cinema, and there are good films and terrible films, there’s also the market. Anyone who has the money to rent a screening room can show their movie in the marche, and then claim in their advertising, ‘Screened at the Cannes Film Festival.’ At, not in.” But both Gary and his Telluride co-director, Tom Luddy, said that they had found many fantastic films made by unknowns this way, attending the “Off Broadway” version of Cannes, if you will, seeing films playing outside of the main competition.

Ocean's Thirteen - Matt Damon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt

Ocean’s Thirteen - Matt Damon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt

This year the Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16-27 and there will be close to 30,000 professional participants from the film industry there, alongside around 4,000 members of the press. As there are only a token handful of public screenings, for all intents and purposes Cannes is a private event. The majority of the professional attendees are European producers and distributors there to buy and sell films, carving them up by territory and distribution method (theatrical, television, DVD, Internet, you name it).

Luddy, who has been making the trip since the mid-70s, has attended as a producer, programmer, and juror. “In one year I was maybe one of the only producers that was ever to have three films in the Official Selection… When you’re a producer with a film there you’re experiencing Cannes one way, when you’re there as a critic it’s another, when you’re there as a film festival person it’s another experience, if you’re there buying and selling at the market it’s another thing. There are many different levels. If you’re an indie producer and your film hasn’t been sold in some territories, then of course you’re working with a foreign sales agent hoping to get foreign distribution.”

But if you’re there with a big film that has had secure distribution from day one, then your experience of Cannes is largely about publicity, which is partly why so many high profile films, like this year’s Ocean’s Thirteen (Steven Soderbergh), Sicko (Michael Moore) and A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, starring Angelina Jolie), screen, even when they’re screening “out of competition”, as films the selection committee determines it should show, but can’t quite justify selecting for the official program.

Emir Kusturica

Emir Kusturica, director, Promise Me This

Competing this year for the top prize, the Palme d’Or, are some of the world’s most famous art cinema directors—Wong Kar-Wai, Catherine Breillat, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Kim Ki Duk, Emir Kusturica, Alexandre Sokourov, Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant – as well as more mainstream names like Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher. The inclusion of Tarantino has left some scratching their heads about the limitations of the festival’s longstanding relationships with certain directors.

“The French are dyed in the wool auterists.” Said Luddy, speaking about Cannes’ programming trends in general. “They have had a tendency with certain pet directors that when they have made a new film, they almost always take it. In some cases that’s good and in some cases that’s bad. There are some directors that the French refuse to believe could ever make a bad film. We hope that all these films by name directors are good, but we’ll see.”

Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas, director, Boarding Gate

Other famous names with films screening include Olivier Assayas, Abel Ferrara, Ken Burns, Harmony Korine and Barbet Schroeder.

That’s not to say that the competitive fervor isn’t a part of the event. Leaving the festival with a Palme d’Or can make a new director’s career. When Luddy’s Mishima was in competition in 1985, he witnessed the immense disappointment of its director Paul Schrader, and fellow nominees Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Alan Parker (Birdy) at winning secondary awards, knowing they were then unlikely to win the big one. All the buzz had put them as the front-runners for the Palme d’Or.

As he stood backstage with Babenco and Parker at the award ceremony (Schrader having been so disappointed he couldn’t even bring himself to get on stage and accept the award), he was surrounded by fuming directors. “I was the only one happy back there.” He recalled. “The prize was given by Milos Forman to Emir Kusturica for When Father Was Away on Business, a film that no one went to see in the press. No one had heard of it. Kusturica wasn’t even there.” Thanks to that award for a completely obscure Yugoslavian film, Kusturica gained enough traction to direct his later successes, including more recently Underground and Black Cat, White Cat.

Luddy also witnessed Kustarica’s Cannes success come full circle several years later when they served on the Cannes jury together in 1993. “We had one jury member who was complaining all the time about Cannes being this insane media circus with paparazzi everywhere, saying why did she come here, this was not about art, this was not about culture, this was not about cinema, this was just about media, and of course that’s partly true,” remembered Luddy. “Then Kusturica said, listen my dear, you were telling me earlier how much you love my films, how you’d love to work with me, how you admire me, I can tell you that you wouldn’t know my films, I wouldn’t be sitting here today, if it wasn’t for a bunch of people like us a few years ago, sitting in the middle of this media circus, and deciding that this obscure unknown film was the best film. That’s the responsibility we have.”

A Mighty Heart - Angelina Jolie

A Mighty Heart - Angelina Jolie

This year PopMatters will be jumping into the Cannes fray. As the PopMatters’ representative, you may ask what preparations I have made for my upcoming journey. Late nights researching obscure South Asian filmmakers? Early interview requests with publicists? I’m embarrassed to say that instead, in the last week, I’ve had my eyebrows shaped, dyed my hair blonde, bought a slinky black dress and procured some cat’s eye sunglasses. I now look like a rough approximation of Kim Novak circa her trip there in 1959, by way of the punk movement. I have asked journalist friends for advice and the most common response I’ve received is “Never go to Cannes during the festival.” 

The second most common suggestion has been “Get out of town!” The Alps are just up the street, as is the rest of the Riviera. Provence is a long day trip away, and just 15 minutes over the water are the Lerins Islands, where you can see the one-time home of the titular Man in the Iron Mask.

Seasoned veteran Gary Meyer warned me not to sit through more than 30 minutes of a bad movie. That’s the only way he makes it through the 50-60 he regularly sees at Cannes each year. But the most practical advice at all came from Tom Luddy: Wear comfortable shoes.

Of all the people I have spoke to, Luddy had the most amazing stories to tell, which is no surprise as he’s been an essential unsung film hero, whose passion, discoveries, and introductions have spawned film projects around the world. He had recently joined American Zoetrope when Apolcalypse Now was accepted to Cannes. “Francis was there with his mother and father and dozens of people who were involved with the film, staying on a yacht docked in the Bay. I would go back and forth on a little boat to visit him there. I remember bringing Fassbinder out on a boat one day to visit Francis. Another time Barbet Schroeder, Sergio Leone and Francis cooked pasta on the boat for us all. Being part of that group and that screening was very unforgettable.”

It’s hard to imagine I’ll be bringing back stories like these. As a critic stuck in a darkened theater I have modest hopes. The discovery of a gem in the landslide. Press conferences with superstars. And perhaps even one little moment in the sun.

Hannah Eaves has published several articles on PopMatters, and is a regular contributor to other outlets both online and in print, including the glossy magazine SOMA, and the daily newspaper The Santa Cruz Sentinel. Her writing has also been reprinted in book form by Faber.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/popmatters-at-cannes-2007-preview/