Crowds, Cannes, Chaos Festival exposes film critics to France's odd sense of order CANNES FILM FESTIVAL


Imagine a film festival held in a train station during a war or at rush hour. Imagine a maze of a place, with ramps, escalators (some of which actually work), elevators, hallways, corridors, shops, dirty bathrooms. Give it two main auditoriums and about 30 other smaller auditoriums, some of which are called by name and others by letter and still others by number. Don't ex- plain any of this. When asked to, profess amusement. Then fill it with endless swarming, teeming crowds.

Now imagine that hardly anybody in these crowds speaks the same language. Imagine that all are frantic to get to their destinations, as if their careers depended upon it, for generally they do. Then instruct them that when things are the most crowded, the most hectic, the most delirious, there is only one thing to do: Light up a cigarette.

Then imagine that the overall authority governing the train station has a somewhat quixotic attitude toward its own power. It is "ironic" rather than despotic, a bit frightened of the imposition of order upon chaos but at the same time utterly absorbed in the autocratic details of its bureaucracy.

But why imagine? Why not just go to the Cannes Film Festival, headquartered in the cavernous Palais des Festivals on the wind-dark Mediterranean? I just did.

It was invigorating, it was exhausting, the beach was topless, the movies were endless, Stallone was there, and when I got home, I realized why they only have them once a year. It's like a gunfight: If you survive, you win. But most of all, it was French.

"They don't have an idea of creating order in the way Americans and English do. They think it's fascistic to impose order," says Peter Brunette, a film free-lancer who teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and is a festival veteran.

He's right. It's as if the festival itself was planned by Sartre after too much Pernod and angst. Then he let Camus schedule the movies.

Beneath all the hubbub is a complex system that has been constructed with a great deal of thought so as not to work. The obsession with bureaucracy is evident in the way the press is handled. Critics, for example, are graded by priority. If you're Roger Ebert, you have a white card. I know because I watched Roger Ebert use his white card. It essentially means: I am God. A white card gets you into anything any time. Then there are those of us with pink cards. We're pretty important. Then -- ho, ho, ho -- there are fools and scum with blue cards. They get nothing. Watching the pain on their faces is exquisite.

Now this system works as long as it isn't used. As soon it's used, of course, it falls apart. Since it is asked to work at every screening, every day . . . well, you get the picture.

"They have the cards, but they never establish separate lines for the cards," cries Brunette in exasperation. "The people just crush together and fight their way to the front, where they let the whites in first, then the pinks and then the blues. So at any screening, two-thirds of the crowd, by definition, cannot be admitted. I said to one of the festival people, 'Why don't you do separate lines or separate entrances?' He thought a second and said, 'Next year.' Well, they've had 46 years and they still haven't gotten it right."

"It takes a while to figure out what to do," says David Levy, the Washington exhibitor who runs and books the Charles. "It's a madhouse. Nothing is ever easy. You never get anything explained. 'It is not possible,' that's all the explanation you get."

And he's someone they're trying to sell movies to!

For regular people, it's even worse. You can buy a ticket, stand in line, and if the film is popular, and lots of people with white cards show up, vous etes screwez. Too bad, monsieur. An hour you waited in the rain? It is not possible.

But physical conditions aside, what of the festival in general? As Cannes goes, the feeling seemed to be, the 46th wasn't one of the best.

"Cannes this year was like the fishing in the Mediterranean -- thin, very thin," said Tony Crawley, a British free-lancer for Paris Match and other publications.

American disappointments

The American films were a particular disappointment. "Menace II Society" generated the most buzz, but "King of the Hill" from Cannes favorite Steven Soderbergh, "Falling Down" and Abel Ferrara's "Body Snatchers" all failed to ignite much in the way of enthusiasm among either critics or audiences. "Cliffhang er," shown out of competition chiefly as a star platform for Sylvester Stallone (who wouldn't do American press) and Elizabeth Taylor (who would, but just for 20 minutes), was mindless, but Cannes at its worst is so star-blinded it didn't care.

No film excited more contempt than Eric Idle's "Splitting Heirs," which was met with this 12-gauge blast from British critic John Harkness: "If the combined presence of Eric Idle, Rick Moranis and John Cleese promises the hilarity of a 'A Fish Called Wanda,' 'Splitting Heirs' delivers a package of crushing banality. 'Splitting Heirs' would be an embarrassment in the competition at the Croydon Film Festival. In the competition at Cannes, this bit of failed silliness is a puzzlement even to those who felt the French sense of humor held no more surprises."

Harkness had evidently forgotten that the French adore Jerry Lewis and that their film aesthetic isn't merely based on aristocratic notions of "quality." In this most passionate and hectic of democracies, their festival is a monument to film culture at its most passionate and hectic.

The 23 films in official competition are only part of the story. There's another whole series called "Un Certain Regard" comprised of films jury president Louis Malle regards with special feeling; there's a huge commercial market of B and C features and wannabe or maybe-be features being screened; there's a number of national film commissions showing the work of their own country to the world; and there's a revival series. On one day, I counted 118 screenings. That means that every film appetite can be slaked.

The pilgrimage

On the flight over, for example, I met two pilgrims to this mecca that in their way sum up the festival. One was a very pleasant screenwriter named Bill Turner, in the process of nursing into a movie a screenplay he has written based on a prize-winning novel, to be directed by a prominent Hollywood mainliner. The second was a wildly successful independent filmmaker who now lives in a beach house over the Pacific. His name is John Stagliano and, like Bill, he was a very nice guy. His niche? Calling himself "Buttman" he has produced and directed a series of pornographic films and made tons of money! Consider the scope of a film festival that has room for both Bill Turner and Buttman!

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