Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

My life and Times in Cannes

It’s good to have traditions. Traditions give us a sense of community as well as a connection to the past and the future. A good example of tradition is that, each year in May, lots of people get together in Cannes (and Seattle) and have film festivals. And longtime readers know that I have my own May tradition. Each year without fail I write a column whinging and whining about how I am not at Cannes. You might call it a rut, but I like to think of it as a grand and glorious tradition. I did it last year and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that. (Wow. I’ve been at this a while now.) As a tradition, my annual whinging and whining rite by now has history and depth to match, oh say, the Bush Administration.

Well, I’m not going to whinge and whine this year. You see, in a strange way, I feel as though I have been to this year’s Festival de Cannes. One reason is that, since my visit to Cannes last year, I have still fresh pictures in my head of what Cannes looks and feels like. When I read accounts of the festival, I can actually virtually see La Croistette and the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. What’s more, every day when reading about the festival, I drink thick, black coffee out of the souvenir Festival de Cannes mug that the Missus bought for me.

Another reason is that I managed to see one of the big films exhibited at the festival while the festival was still going on. Of course, so did millions of other people. I am referring, of course, to the last (if not concluding) installment of the Star Wars film series, Revenge of the Sith. Frankly, I was quite proud of myself for seeing this movie on the very first day that it was officially released, despite the fact that the movie was playing in so many cinemas around the world that it was almost easier to see the darn film than it was to avoid seeing it. But, if I managed to see it on day one, I’m glad that I saw it in Ireland. Ireland is a great country in which to see really big movies on their first day. That is because Irish people refuse to queue. The worldwide media were full of pictures of people in Jedi costumes camping out in front of box offices in the U.S. for weeks in advance. But you didn’t see that sort of thing in Ireland. I showed up at the fabulous new state-of-the-art Eye Cinema in Galway 30 minutes before the film was scheduled to start and the bored young woman taking tickets looked at me strangely and said that I was too early but that I was welcome to sit and wait on any of the numerous available seats in the ante room.

I can never get used to this mentality. As much as I try to arrive barely on time or late, as the Irish do, I can’t help but arrive early. Countless times at Irish film festivals I have found myself sitting nearly alone in an auditorium waiting for a movie to start. If other people sitting around me, their accents are never Irish. The Irish are in the pub right up to the last possible minute, and then they coming pouring into the auditorium just as the program is starting. I can’t do that. But, hey, I had a really good seat for the new Star Wars movie on its first day. (Revenge of the Sith, by the way, bears more discussion, but that can wait until next time.)

The main reason, though, that I feel as though I have somehow been in Cannes this year is that I spent the week following the postings of the two attending New York Times film critics. In some kind of experiment, Mahohla Dargis and A.O. Scott not only had their reviews and commentaries, which they wrote for the print version of the newspaper, published on the Times’s web site, they also published personal running commentaries several times a day during the festival. I found them fascinating reading.

I should explain that I have a long, mostly one-sided relationship with The New York Times. Back before the internet and blogs and cable and satellite TV and 24-hour news channels, if you wanted in-depth current information about what was going on in the world, there weren’t many choices. The Times was a (if not the) preeminent source of such information. And, in the pre-media-glut days, the Times not only did not have a web page (as it does now), it did not have a national edition (as it does now), so the newspaper’s content was not easy or cheap to come by. I really got familiar with the paper when I did a year of graduate school at Ohio State University. Columbus was close enough to New York that one could buy the Times on the newsstand the same day it was published. For the first time I was in journalism junkie heaven. Which was appropriate since I was in Columbus attending journalism school. As it happened, my academic adviser was a former foreign correspondent for the Times. He was wonderful, urbane gentleman who, in his seminars, did not bother with lectures or assignments or papers. Instead, he would sit back, with his eager students around him, holding court while chain smoking stinky little brown cigarettes, and regaling us with whatever memories occurred to him from his long and fascinating career. Although he was American, if a movie were made of his life, he would have to be played, without question, by the English actor John Hurt.

Paul Underwood had spent years writing dispatches for the Times (as well as the Associated Press) from the Balkans and the Middle East. He loved to drop names like Tom Wolfe And “Scotty” Reston (longtime dean of Times columnists, known to us outsiders merely as James Reston), as well as colorful foreign personages he had interviewed, like Josip Broz Tito and one of his favorites, Kamal Jumblatt (a name that could have been conjured by Douglas Adams himself), the Lebanese Druze leader and father of current Druze chief Walid. One of his most compelling accounts, which sounded like something out of Casablanca, was about how he withheld a story about a Serbian politician in exchange for allowing a friend to be allowed to leave Yugoslavia. He said he never had a moment’s doubt or regret about making the deal.

Thanks to the influence of Professor Underwood, for years I had a standard answer when someone asked me what my ultimate career goal was. Without hesitation, I would respond, “I want to be foreign correspondent for The New York Times.” That never happened, and in the years since there has been a lot of water under the bridge, both for myself and for the Times. Changes in media technology and a few unfortunate incidents (Jayson Blair) have dulled the luster of the Times somewhat, but it is still an institution for which I have great fondness and respect.

So, it was fascinating when Dargis and Scott started blogging. We are definitely in a different age from when Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin were pronouncing on film. What was most surprising about the NYT movie blogging was how excited the NYT guys were to be blogging. That sparked a truly bizarre realization in my head. For years, I had would have given anything to be writing for the Times but, thanks to the way things worked out (and technological innovation), I ended up blogging instead. Meanwhile, people who actually do get the privilege and honor of writing for the Times are thrilled when they get the opportunity to do, well, what I am doing, i.e. blog. It’s a strange world indeed.

Other interesting revelations from the Times’s movie bloggers included how similar their film festival attending is to my own or anybody else’s. I always figured that NYT film critics arrived at the screenings in gleaming white limousines, like the celebrities. Instead, at Cannes anyway, they have the same pressures and anxieties as the rest of us. (Except the rest of us don’t actually get to go to Cannes.) They have the same bouts of exhaustion after seeing back-to-back movies as well as hunger pangs when there is no time for food in between. I was particularly amused by Dargis’s posts. For one thing, she verified what I have long suspected: that NYT writers think it’s weird that the paper has to put “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Or “Miss” or “Ms.” in front of everybody’s surname. In fact, Dargis is not too different at all from myself. For instance, she missed her first chance to see a screening of the new Jim Jarmusch movie, Broken Flowers, because it was full and the publicist was only letting in people that he knew. And he didn’t know her! And she was “far too embarrassed to yell ‘New York Times’”! Sheesh! If I worked for The New York Times, I would be yelling it out at every screening, whether it was full or not. Okay, not really. The odds are that I would have done the same as Dargis. I would have slinked into the background and not drawn attention to myself, even though I worked for one of the most prestigious newspapers on the entire planet.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if it is consoling to find out that the people writing movie reviews for the Times are not so different from myself. Or if I am angry because, like, you know, it could have been me! The truth is: I don’t care that I didn’t get to go to the Festival de Cannes this year or any other year. Right now what I am feeling is that I have a whole world of regret that I never got to sit in a tent and interview Kamal Jumblatt.

* * *

Needless to say, when my recent holiday in Italy inspired me to review the considerable list of Brits-in-Tuscany movies last week, I didn’t realize that I was, in part, paying tribute to the life and career of Indian-born film producer Ismail Merchant. But I was.

While not every filmgoer could readily recall his first name, they almost certainly knew his surname and that of his longtime creative partner, director James Ivory. Indeed, the name Merchant/Ivory became so well known (and for all the right reasons) that casual film fans might be forgiven for thinking that the name referred to a single person. For more than four decades Merchant, Ivory and their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala created some of the most impressive literary film adaptations ever made. For some reason, we tend to think that they mainly adapted novels by Henry James (The Europeans, The Bostonians) or by E.M. Forster (Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End) or novels that Forster could have written (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day), and that’s certainly a big part of what they did.

But they had more range than that. They also adapted Jhabvala’s own novels with distinctly Indian themes (The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust). Merchant/Ivory films did not always take place in period English drawing rooms. Sometimes they were set in Paris, both in the 18th century (Jefferson in Paris) and in the 21st century (Le Divorce). Or in 1920s Hollywood (The Wild Party with Raquel Welch!) or in the midst of the New York 1980s art scene (Slaves of New York). Sometimes Merchant produced films by other directors, like Connie Kaiserman’s complete misfire My Little Girl or Simon Callow’s first directing effort, The Ballad of the Sad Café. And occasionally, Merchant did his own directing, as in In Custody, The Proprietor, Cotton Mary and The Mystic Masseur.

For a filmmaker whose reputation was for making tasteful films (even though they weren’t always), his work was always fresh. In fact, so fresh that it’s hard to believe that he was at it since 1960. It’s even harder to believe that his era is suddenly over.

-S.L., 26 May 2005

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