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Cannes 1980: The festival comes into focus

Cannes, France – This year there are five airplanes flying in formation up and down the Croisette, trailing giant banners announcing “Superman II.” Last year there were only two. This year the giant construction cranes have moved into place on the site of the new Cannes convention center. Last year it was the site of the old municipal casino. The more things change at Cannes, the more they remain the same.

In the sunny little breakfast nook of the Hotel Splendid, an overheard conversation deals with the effect of the world recession on Cannes, which is quite possibly the world’s most dramatic, glittering and vulgar annual display of money being spent wastefully. “The recession has hit,” one distributor is telling another one. “Even Lord Grade isn’t spending as much money this year.”

They are talking about Lord Lew Grade, the British entertainment tycoon. The day before, Lord Grade hosted his annual luncheon for about 500 people at the Hotel D’Antibes, at a cost of $100 a person. Rising for his annual luncheon remarks, Lord Grade observed that he had planned to buy the three largest hotels in Cannes for $190 million – until he learned that there was a $10,000 down payment.

The recession is felt everywhere. A young British girl named Valerie, from Blackpool, explains that her year-round job is selling advertising space in Policeman’s Diaries. For her annual holiday she hitches down to Cannes and supports herself by passing out leaflets and giving away T-shirts. “It’s daft,” she says, “People staying in $200-a-day hotel rooms are clawing each other for a free T-shirt.” Valerie’s daily asking salary is $50 but this year there are rich American college students doing the jobs for free because they think it’s a kick. Valerie doesn’t know how she’ll pay her bill at the pensione.

The recession here, you will have gathered, is different than it is anywhere else. Cannes is built on dreams, big plans and hype: Many of the ads in the daily festival newspaper, which ran to 132 pages the other day, are for movies that have not been made and may never be made. The big stories are about deals. An American producer named Sandy Howard made the headlines the other day with his plan to raise $135 million in production money by using the frozen funds of multinational corporations to shoot movies in the countries where the funds are frozen. This has nothing to do, you understand, with what films, if any, Howard wants to make, plans to make, or indeed will make. It has to do with deals.

Halfway into the second week of my fifth year at Cannes, I am finally getting the festival into focus. My first few years were spent in finding my way around in the confusion of the dozens of daily screenings, nonstop press conferences, omnipresent TV crews, and the crowds – the masses of thousands of tourists on the brink of riot over the news that a would-be starlet in the next block is taking off her bikini.

The last three years have been spent in my gradual discovery of another festival, an alternative to this series of mass public displays. There are a lot of people here who are serious about films but you never see them – they’re at the movies. They prowl the back streets of Cannes, darting into the little cinemas where a good new film from Germany, or Finland, or the Philippines, is rumored to be playing. Their discoveries will program the world’s other film festivals for the next year, and the art theater circuits and revival houses for the next few years.

For every Cineaste at Cannes, however, there must be a dozen wheeler-dealers who literally never go to a movie. They may never have been to a movie. They are here to make deals, to spend and acquire money, to see and be seen. The “serious” Cannes Film Festival is devoted to films. The public spectacle at Cannes is devoted to a celebration of lifestyles. The people who are most visible here every year have been perfecting their acts for decades, at Las Vegas, Monte Carlo and those few other places where the bouncers wear tuxedos.

I have been discussing all the matters with my friend Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter. I’ve written about him from Cannes for several years, having first assured my editors that Silver Dollar Baxter really does exist. He is not only a real person but in the world of Cannes he is (his own favorite word) a “biggie,” a high-roller who tips with silver dollars, calls all the waiters “Irving,” and is one of the very few people to have this festival thoroughly figured out. Baxter, with his silver hair and his complexion as pink as a baby’s skin, with his belt-buckles made out of 10,000-franc markers from the casino, is greeted with joy by every headwaiter in town.

I’ve written earlier about Baxter’s masterstroke this year of issuing his own official credentials, but the story is so good I want to elaborate on it. Every year here at Cannes, the festival boils down to thousands of people trying to jam into spaces large enough for hundreds of people, while tough bouncers in tuxedos disdainfully reject perfectly valid credentials.

There are so many different varieties of credentials here – from the various categories of press passes to the ID tags of the marketplace – that nobody can keep them straight, and so Baxter simply had his own printed. They are for the “World International Television Network,” which is producing Baxter’s TV special about Cannes, and which does not exist apart from Baxter’s invention of it. The credentials look fearsomely official: They are laminated and there are spaces for height, weight, hair color and birth date of the bearer, next to a color photograph.

Baxter’s credentials have become widely respected and observed at Cannes simply because they look good: They have no official validity at all but you wear them around your neck on a chain and you look important at a festival where appearances are everything. Baxter has figured out the rules of festival gamesmanship and has simply bypassed them. It is a stroke of simple genius.

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.”

What does it all come down to? Why are people here, and what do they seek here? Why is it worth thousands and thousands of dollars to attend a fortnight of chaos – especially if you have no interest in movies and, like some of the most visible people here, have little particular connection with the movie industry and are just making the scene?

The three most obvious ingredients in the “public” Cannes festival are money, power and sex. They are as omnipresent here as the pigeons and they are the things everybody is really interested in. The perfect deal involves a little of all three.

But money, power and sex are not enough without the one ingredient that Cannes uniquely supplies: fame. People are not only powerful, rich and sexy here, but they are seen to be so. This is like a summer camp for the rich, the famous, the flashy, where they can come and be witnessed by each other.

The most-read page in the daily edition of Screen International here is Peter Noble’s gossip column, in which he breathlessly reports yesterday’s doings by the mighty. Here is where they can come to spend tax-deductible money, to be photographed attending premieres, to be interviewed by journalists, to play the roles of tycoon, producer, investor, dealmaker. For the rest of the year, they merely work at those jobs. At Cannes, they are seen to inhabit them.

I wrote in an article before leaving for Cannes this year that I had always imagined it to be incredibly glamorous – and was amazed to find out that I was right. Maybe that’s why the high-rollers come back year after year, why the famous are drawn here, why Pete Hamill is interviewing Mario Puzo in the Majestic Bar when neither one has a really pressing need to be at Cannes: Because when they were kids they heard of the glamour of show business, and when they grew up they found that very little of it was real – except at Cannes, where for two weeks unreality is the only reality, and if you don’t understand that you’re only just attending a film festival.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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