Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
CANNES, France Euzhan Palcy strikes me as proof that great directors can come from anywhere but they must know they are directors, and trust that they are great. As a 10-year-old schoolgirl on the Caribbean island of Martinique, she made her own movies at night in her room, casting shadow-plays on the wall. By the age of 17, she had produced short documentaries for the local TV station and recorded albums of songs and stories for children.
She went to high school in Paris, returned to French-speaking Martinique, made an hour-long documentary for local television, won a scholarship to the Sorbonne, and returned home to direct "Sugar Cane Alley" (1984), the story of a poor child growing up in a shack by the cane fields, who is befriended by adults who notice his intelligence and wins a scholarship that will free him from a life of manual labor.
Talking with Palcy one afternoon in the South African Pavilion at Cannes, I remembered that I rated "Sugar Cane Alley" four stars and there were four more stars in 1989 for her "A Dry White Season," which won Marlon Brando an Oscar nomination for his performance as a crusty liberal lawyer in the time of apartheid.
In the pavilion, Palcy had just been given the Sojourner Truth Award, the annual prize of Agora, the organization that presents films from Africa during the festival. But why, I asked her, have I seen no features from her since 1989? You missed them, she says: "Siméon" (1992) was a musical fairy tale set in Martinique. Then she made a documentary about the Martinique poet and philosopher Aime Cesaire, and in 1999, she directed "The Ruby Bridges Story," a film about a 6-year-old girl in a newly desegregated school, for The Wonderful World of Disney. She has just finished "The Killing Yard," starring Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut, about the 1971 Attica prison uprising; it will air on Showtime in September.
"I could have worked more," she said. "After all I have my bills to pay. But I will not make a film just to be making a film. If my heart is not in it, my head will not follow." She despairs, she said, of a Hollywood mentality that only wants to repeat proven formulas, starring a small group of A-List stars.
As for Cannes? "I came to do business and talk to people," she said. "In 1984, I submitted 'Sugar Cane Alley' and the festival told me it was not for them. I later discovered that they never even viewed it. I submitted it to Venice, and it won the Silver Lion, plus the best actress prize, and then won the Cesar, the national French award for best first film. When I made `A Dry White Season,' of course they wanted it, because of Brando. But I had no time for them."
The poolside buffet of the Hotel Majestic always has a line of people eager to sample its delights. After waiting a long time the other day, I finally found myself with a plate in my hand and the buffet before me. Then a man pushed in front of me so roughly, he actually jostled me.
"There is a queue," I said.
"I do not use the queue!" he barked.
"It is not for you?" I asked.
"It is not for me. I pay no attention to it."
He began to pile his plate with cold shrimp. As an American, I believe the Declaration of Independence when it says that everyone in a buffet queue has been created equal. I was not willing to let this jerk off the hook. "But all of these people have been waiting," I said.
"So what?" he said.
"You are more important than them?"
"Yes. Now get out of my way."
I was not in his way. He was in my way.
I stared at him, making my eyes narrow and mean. He stared at me. His eyes were already narrow and mean. I thought for a moment he might hurl his shrimp at me. Finally he snapped:
"Leave me alone! Leave me alone!"
We filled our plates in a tense silence. I went back to my table.
"I have just met the rudest man in the world," I said.
"Don't tell me, let me guess," said a fellow film critic, whose name is available on request. "Is it that man over there in the white shirt?"
"Yes!" I said. "How did you know?"
"It had to be him. Do you know who that is?"
"Claude Lanzmann, the director of `Shoah.' "
"You're kidding! The nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust?"
"At the New York screening," my friend said, "I introduced him to my mother, who is a Holocaust survivor. He brushed right past her. Didn't have a moment to spare for her."
This story has an encouraging moral. You don't have to be a nice man to make a good film.
The cash-only Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, the most expensive hotel in France, has perpetrated a new outrage.
This year, no evening drinks are being served in its famous lobby bar, because the bar became too crowded and noisy. Even though one must theoretically be a hotel guest (or with a guest) to drink there, the bar mysteriously filled with hundreds of gate-crashers, many of them quite plausibly hookers.
The new policy was explained to me by Anant Singh, the South African producer.
"Now all evening drinking is down the hill at the hotel's Eden Roc," he said. "You pay admission to get in. It costs 1,000 francs ($200). For that, they give you three tickets, each good for a drink. You feel like someone at a school dance."
What about the hookers? Just as many as ever. They don't accept tickets.
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