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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Cannes

Cannes critc as sketched by Roger Ebert

Cannes is so many things at once it all but creates a dimension of its own. Simultaneously an art festival and a jumbo-sized machine for cranking out media buzz, it’s a red-carpeted stage for movie buffs, business folks and assorted wackos alike. Half-naked cuties traverse the beach, hardcore fans organize parties to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Troma studios (I just said hi to a Toxic Avenger), and tuxedoed civilians stand for hours hoping to get a ticket from a benevolent insider. It’s a frenzy, and it’s fun — but boy, do I need to get some sleep.

When you’re a journalist, Cannes is all about hierarchies. The press pass is free and quite easy to get. However, if you happen to be a rookie (as I was last year), you end up with the weakest badge of all: the dreaded yellow pass, which makes it hard to get into the most-awaited screenings. It also forces you to sit at the very top of the balcony, making the screen below so tiny you could practically hold it at the end of a toothpick. The more coverage you do, the more regularly you come and the bigger your publication, the better badge you get. Going up the ladder of importance, there’s blue, pink, pink one with a yellow dot and then the all-powerful white pass that reportedly helped Moses part the Red Sea.

No matter what your pass looks like, though, lines are always huge. This year, it doesn’t help that it’s been raining cats and dogs at Cannes for the past couple of days. Last night, I spent an hour and fifty minutes queuing up before the new Coen brothers movie, which was actually shorter than the time I stood in the rain, sheltered only partially by my raggedy old umbrella. The crowd was so tight, drips from adjoining umbrellas formed little waterfalls, one of which found its way straight under my jacket’s collar. It’s a good thing my film critic buddies were there to keep me company — at one point, we turned our shared predicament into a sing-a-long, starting out with selected verses of Billy Joel’s “Goodnight, Saigon” (“Yes we would all go down… together…”) and ending with a Sondheim marathon (“I’m Still Here” kicked off entire series).

Standing in lines forms bonds and enables new friendships. One of the great things about Cannes is that you can safely assume everyone around is at least as movie crazy as yourself, so it’s safe to open a conversation in a way that would normally earn you a slap in the face or a weird look at the very least (“Say, what do you make of the new Kiarostami?” is a terrible pick-up line anywhere except Cannes). And even if you have something less than seduction on your mind, you’re sure to leave the festival with more friendships you came here with. Most of the folks you won’t see until next year, but it doesn’t matter. Next time you’re here, you will bump into each other in front of Grand Théâtre Lumière and say: “Isn’t this just crazy? I almost didn’t make it to the new Jia Zhang-Ke!”

The ultimate goal for many is to make themselves visible at Cannes. To stand out is to earn a badge of honor that trumps all official colors. Costumed fan boys and girls aside, there’s a tribe of beautiful people looking their best and roaming the fest turf in the hope of being spotted by a big-time producer and play out “A Star is Born” in their real lives. Then, there are the hipsters and the fashionistas, as well as mutations of both. Just the other day I saw a gorgeous girl wearing stilettos at 11am, lining up for a screening and totally immersed in her copy of “On the Road,” the movie version of which played in last year’s competition. Talk about new cool.

After each screening, it’s time for a Twitter-palooza. Hundreds of minds share their first-time impressions, giving the movies their very first critical spin, which will stick for better or worse (unless there’s a backlash in opinions). Reviews are written in matter of minutes, opinions abound, and all this in the press office packed so tightly even the floor serves as a desk. It’s the closest thing to working in an old-fashioned news room and waiting for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell to show up and trade verbal blows, before they yell "Stop the presses!"

As tiring as it is, it’s also a kind of heaven. Its denizens pride themselves on their exhaustion, but they all end up here the next year, and the next — possibly hoping for their pass to get bumped up to a flashier color. How can you not love a place in which reports of a stolen necklace are making news just like in the good old days of “To Catch a Thief”? Only yesterday a bitter letter from a Jerry Lewis-supporter and fan got leaked, and it felt like a real-life version of Martin Scorsese's “The King of Comedy.” As naughty, gaudy, bawdy and sporty as 42nd street used to be before the reign of Simba, Cannes is truly something else and it doesn’t give a damn if you love it or hate it, as long as you talk about it and keep the buzz going.

Michał Oleszczyk

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic and scholar based in Poland. In 2012, he has been named the Critic of the Year by the Polish Film Institute.

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