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Five Great Tales from Cannes' Past

This special Cannes 2023 edition Thumbnails, our roundup of brief excerpts from notable articles, spotlights our coverage of the festival from past years, with the exception of the first article, which is newly published below. For the rest of the articles, we provide links to the original sources for you to read in their entirety.—Chaz Ebert

1. 

"My Roger Ebert Story": Michael Bremer, Director of Student Programs at the American Pavilion, shares his story about how Roger saved him from blindness at the Cannes Film Festival. The article is reprinted below in its entirety.

When a star’s light is extinguished, those left behind pay tribute by recounting tales of how our lives were touched by the departed, about those times we were sprinkled by their stardust. Recently, at an industry event hosted by Deadline, I found myself in a conversation with one of my favorite directors, Ron Howard. Ron was promoting his most recent film, the flawlessly made and emotionally powerful "Thirteen Lives." Since my work takes me annually to the Cannes Film Festival, it wasn’t long before we were discussing the merits of that particular festival, and what Mr. Howard’s own experience was with some of his films that premiered there: "Backdraft," "Tucker," "Solo: A Star Wars Story," to name a few.

Despite Mr. Howard’s off-handed remark that Cannes audiences haven’t necessarily embraced his films warmly, his enthusiasm for his craft was palpable and contagious. Of his most recent film, a true story of the international collaboration that rescued twelve Thai boys and their soccer coach trapped miles deep in a cave, Mr. Howard earnestly remarked, “People can be pretty darn wonderful when they want to be.” It’s that humanity that brought back – for me – a Cannes memory that involved another star, a wonderful man who saved my eyesight at the premiere of a different Ron Howard film.

The year was 1992, and I was once again in Cannes working as an acquisitions agent for film buyers overseas. The distributor we represented in Japan was a leader in that market, so I was regularly invited to events by people wanting to be in business with our Japanese client. This particular year, Ron Howard’s film "Far and Away," starring Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman, had its world premiere at Cannes, and I was invited to its after-party at the posh Hotel Du Cap.

Sitting stunningly on the Cap d’ Antibes promontory seven miles east of Cannes, the Hotel du Cap was where the ultra rich and famous stayed. At the time, it was said that the hotel accepted cash only, with rooms starting at $2000 a night. The "Far and Away" bash was held at the hotel’s Eden Roc Restaurant, perched on an outcropping at the edge of the property, with a magnificent terrace that overlooked the sparkling Mediterranean. Inside the Eden Roc, I found myself in a conversation with Whoopi Goldberg about her historic Oscar win for "Ghost" just a few years earlier. Although I comported myself professionally, I was young, admittedly starstruck, and couldn’t believe what good fortune had brought me to this moment. In those days, I freely expressed my own enthusiasm for the art of moviemaking, cultivated, no doubt, by the hours and hours of “At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert” that I watched as a teenager.

It was during this inconsequential chat with Ms. Goldberg that someone approached us to say that we should make our way to the terrace, as the fireworks show was about to begin. We stepped outside, and although it was night, the view was still breathtaking. The moon shone brightly above, its light shimmering on the peaceful sea. Nestled in the rocks below the terrace, the hotel’s pool whispered the names of all the famous people that swam there... which that year I believe included Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, and Japanese master Akira Kurosawa

Just a few hundred feet away, two men in a small motorboat headed back to shore from a barge they’d loaded with fireworks. And then they started. Stunning explosions of color punctured the night sky, casting swirls of yellow, purple, green and more on the water. Things were simpler, then. There were no massive speakers blearing music, and I doubt whether the pyrotechnics were even computer-controlled as they are today. It was just a simple, gorgeous, private fireworks display for a small group of people privileged to have found themselves at Ron Howard’s premiere. I looked around me, soaking it all in. I’m guessing there were about 100- 150 of us on the terrace, looking up, all smiling and enraptured, the fireworks reflecting in everyone’s eyes.

As I turned my gaze upward again, I couldn’t help but marvel at how intimate this experience was. I’d never before seen fireworks almost directly overhead ... the barge was that close to shore. And then it happened... Just as I was thinking “these fireworks sure seem closer than they should be,” I saw one lone red ember drifting toward the terrace. And while the crowd continued to ooh and ahh, I stood frozen as that lone ember landed with utmost precision in my right eye. I didn’t wear glasses at the time, so of course I shrieked at the shock of the heat on my eyeball. To my immediate right, a gentleman sprang into action. He turned behind us to where a busboy stood with a tray of water glasses, and used his hand to furiously scoop water from a glass into my eye. I don’t recall what effect, if any, this unfortunate “right place at the wrong time” moment had on other guests around me, but do recall taking a seat just inside the restaurant from the terrace while this kind man tended to me, asking if I was okay.

I was. After a fleeting thought that I’d lose sight in that eye, I realized I could still see, and the momentary burn sensation was gone. When I could focus, I saw that the man who sprang into action was none other than Roger Ebert. “Are you okay? Can you see?”, he continued asking, until I assured him I was and I could, and we eventually made our way back to the terrace to watch the end of the fireworks.

I didn’t meet Ron Howard at the "Far and Away" party, but recounting that story to him at the "Thirteen Lives" event enforced that, indeed, “people can be pretty darn wonderful when they want to be.” That night, the real star for me was Roger Ebert, a critic I watched with wide-eyed respect as a teen, one half of the team who brought “two thumbs up” into our film review lexicon. Many years later, upon Mr. Ebert’s passing, The American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival decided to name their Conference Center after Roger Ebert. A panel of esteemed critics from around the country assembled to talk about Roger’s legacy, and how he democratized film criticism for the masses. Afterward, steps away from the newly unveiled Roger Ebert Conference Center, everyone present assembled on the beach for a “500 thumbs up” salute to Mr. Ebert, thumbs raised to the same sky from which that ember had fallen into my eye.

It was at that photo-op that I met Mr. Ebert’s lovely life partner and widow, Chaz. Perhaps still a bit awestruck to speak to the wife of the man who saved my vision some 21 years earlier, I said to her, “I’m sure everyone comes to you with their Roger Ebert story. Can I tell you mine?” “Sure,” she graciously replied. I’d barely said anything – “Hotel du Cap, 'Far and Away,' fireworks, eye, water, flush” – when she touched my arm: “That was you?? I was standing right next to him! Are you okay?”

Yes, I am. Through Chaz, I thanked Roger again for his quick reaction. I thanked Chaz for continuing Roger’s legacy of kindness and humanity, and for her graciousness while still grieving the devastating loss of the world’s greatest film critic. I’m honored to have been brushed by his stardust. And thank you, Ron Howard, for setting the stage for this indelibly seared moment in my memory. People can be pretty darn wonderful when they want to be. 

2. 

"The festival comes into focus": This classic dispatch penned by Roger Ebert at Cannes 1980 contains indelible stories about his pal Billy "Silver Dollar" Baxter.

What Baxter has also figured out is that everyone at Cannes is a pirate and a cynic, and that the way to survive here is to make it clear upfront that you are prepared to be more aggressive, competitive and outrageous than they are. Other customers may tip more than Baxter at the bar of the Majestic Hotel where he holds his annual court but nobody tips more visibly or demands more service. The waiters here actually like Baxter; they can identify with his chutzpah much more than with the smarmy ingratiations of the Americans who are intimidated by Cannes and actually try to be nice to the waiters. Baxter thinks in terms of parables, and the other day he was telling one. One year here he introduced a young actress to the son of the board chairman of Philip Morris. 'For three days,' Billy explained, 'this girl followed this kid around like she’s handcuffed to him. Then suddenly she disappears. She finds out his father runs Philip Morris. She thought he ran William Morris. William Morris is the show business agency. Being head of Philip Morris is about a hundred times a bigger deal – but not here. Here, they all wanna be famous.'”

3. 

"A fake paparazzi, lots of films, funny stories, and I walk the red carpet": A vivid report from the Cannes 2009 penned by Raven Evans as a younger student.

I went an hour and ten minutes early to wait in line to try to see the Quentin Tarantino movie, 'Inglourious Basterds.' I brought my iPod and some Sudoku puzzles, but ended up talking with the people around me in line. A kind South African lady let me in on the best way to get premiere invites, and I met one of the directors of the Jakarta Film Festival. With an hour of waiting to go, I was more than 10 people from the front of the line. I learned that people don't like when their Tarantino is jeopardized. After 30 minutes into waiting, neither did I. At 45 minutes of waiting, I needed to see this movie. It was an exclusive directors cut with 28 minutes. of footage that wouldn't be released to the public until the movie's DVD release! After an hour of waiting, getting into this screening became of life or death importance. I was entertained by 'Inglourious Basterds.' Some parts were signature Tarantino with a few overly bloody scenes and the unexpected music, but I was into the story and really liked the ending. During the two and a half hours of the movie, I never checked the time, or thought, "this could be over anytime," which is impressive considering my attention span.”

4.

"Buzz on 'Witch' sweeps Cannes": Roger Ebert reports on the game-changing film, "The Blair Witch Project" at Cannes 1999.

The movie consists entirely of what purports to be the actual footage of the doomed documentary. Sanchez and Myrich obtained a Hi-8 camcorder and a lightweight 16mm film camera, gave them to three actors and sent them off into the woods. Literally. Until I talked with them here, I didn't realize how cleverly the film's footage was devised. I imagined a traditional shoot, in which the crew followed the actors through the woods, clicking off shots from the script. Not at all. 'We tried to stage the experience so they were having it while they were shooting it,' Sanchez told me. 'For example, we showed our actress a house and told her this was where she lived, this was her room, blah-blah. We told her to be ready to leave home at a given time. On schedule, the other two actors arrived. They all started filming everything. They went to a restaurant for breakfast. Some of the customers and waitresses were planted by us, but they didn't know which ones. Then we told the actress to make some notes for her little speech explaining the mission to these two guys she had recruited as her crew.'”

5. 

"A devil's advocate for 'Antichrist'": Roger Ebert writes an in-depth essay on how Lars von Trier's controversial selection at Cannes 2009 took hold of his imagination.

I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind. Von Trier has reached me and shaken me. It is up to me to decide what that means. I think the film has something to do with religious feeling. It is obvious to anyone who saw 'Breaking the Waves' that von Trier's sense of spirituality is intense, and that he can envision the supernatural as literally present in the world. His reference is Catholicism. Raised by a communist mother and a socialist father in a restrictive environment, he was told as an adult that his father was not his natural parent, and renounced that man's Judaism to convert, at the age of 30, to the Catholic church. It was at about the same age that von Trier founded the Dogma movement, with its monkish asceticism.”

Image of the Day

At Cannes 2013, Ben Kenigsberg reports on the late Roger Ebert's legacy being honored with a panel at the American Pavilion and a "500 Thumbs Up" salute on the beach.

Video of the Day

This video dispatch from Cannes 2014 contains exclusive footage from the festival's premiere of Steve James' documentary, "Life Itself," about Roger Ebert. 

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