More about people than movies, this book is an intimate, quirky, and witty account of the parade of personalities attending the 1987 festival—Ebert’s twelfth, and the fortieth anniversary of the event. A wonderful raconteur with an excellent sense of pacing, Ebert presents lighthearted ruminations on his daily routine and computer troubles alongside more serious reflection on directors such as Fellini and Coppola, screenwriters like Charles Bukowski, actors such as Isabella Rossellini and John Malkovich, the very American press agent and social maverick Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter, and the stylishly plunging necklines of yore. He also comments on the trajectory of the festival itself and the “enormous happiness” of sitting, anonymous and quiet, in an ordinary French café. And, of course, he talks movies.
Illustrated with Ebert’s charming sketches of the festival and featuring both a new foreword by Martin Scorsese and a new postscript by Ebert about an eventful 1997 dinner with Scorsese at Cannes, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun is a small treasure, a window onto the mind of this connoisseur of criticism and satire, a man always so funny, so un-phony, so completely, unabashedly himself.
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Two Weeks in the Midday Sun
A Cannes Notebook
By Roger Ebert
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1987 Roger Ebert
All rights reserved.
Peter Noble, the editor of Screen International, once told me this story:
A guy is sitting in a sidewalk cafe at Cannes. He asks the waiter, "Can you tell me where the toilet is?" The waiter says: "Monsieur! I have only two hands!"
HEATHROW. The British Airways flight to Nice was delayed an hour for an equipment change: "An air-conditioning failure," the receptionist in the Executive Club explained cheerfully, as if, after all, it could have been worse. Reading her computerized passenger manifest upside-down, a skill I developed while bending over the printer's stone in the hot-lead days of newspapers, I found that the lounge also contained "T. Jones, dir Monty Python," "Lady Delfont — see note," and the president of New World Pictures. We were all on the flight to Nice, and we were all eyeing each other uneasily across the checked gray carpet of the lounge.
I was at a corner table with my battery-powered Radio Shack Model 100 portable computer, and my tapping had already annoyed a British businessman, who stood up to go look at the newspapers. We Americans are so very uncouth. The blonde in the green dress, for example, asked two polka-dotted British ladies to move over one position on their couch: "I just want to sit next to my father-in-law; is that all right?" she said, in one of those low, confident American female voices that carries across the room and into the corridor. The one thing many Americans never do notice in Europe is how quietly the Europeans speak to one another.
This was my twelfth Cannes festival, if you count that confusing week in 1972 when I knew nothing about the festival, decided to drop in while on holiday, asked my taxi driver to take me to the Carlton Hotel, and confidently walked in to ask for a room. I ended up in a pension somewhere up in the hills, in a room with French doors that opened onto a rose garden. That was the year the documentary Marjoe was shown, and I had dinner with the reprobate evangelist Marjoe Gortner and his directors, Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, in a Russian restaurant where during the coffee course the owner gleefully wheeled in a large silver cart and whipped off its dome top to reveal a stainless steel sculpture of two pigs copulating. I've never been able to find that restaurant again.
The British businessman, driven away by my computer, was standing by the wall, glaring at me and sipping his coffee. An American took the empty seat and asked me how much memory I had on board.
In the early days, covering Cannes was made considerably more difficult by the problem of getting copy back to the United States. After writing my stories on a portable typewriter, I had to take them over to the Telex booth in the Palais des Festivals, where French-speaking typists copied an approximation of my prose into their telegraph machines. Mistakes were de rigueur. In 1977 I wrote that 900 balloons were released at a cocktail party in honor of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, as she was then. After the French Telex operators had finished with their work, the Chicago Sun-Times and New York Post printed that "900 falcons" had been released — and there was an alarmed protest from Cleveland Amory on behalf of the Fund for Animals, inspiring a correction ("... they were not falcons. In fact, they were balloons. The Sun-Times regrets the error"), which I submitted to the news-break department of the New Yorker, earning twelve dollars.
For the last four years, computers have promised to make my life easier at the festival. In theory, I can dial up the Sun-Times computer in Chicago and dump my daily coverage directly into its memory. In practice, this has never quite worked, because the French long-distance system measures each call with a series of little clicks that automatically disconnect computers. Last year, in desperation, I brought along a portable printer, printed out hard copies of all of my stories and had them sent out by Telex, making the computer operation, if anything, less convenient than the portable typewriter. This year, my plan was to dump everything into the French arm of MCI Mail and let MCI figure out how to get it to Chicago. This had already cost me $362 for a temporary National User's Number, which sounds like a drug registry but is only the French method of charging me for the privilege of paying for my transmissions.
I HAVE ALWAYS felt a little out of place at these glamorous international events. The passengers in the lounge all looked as if they had dressed, this morning, in appropriate lounge-wear. Across from me, for example, was a tall, distinguished man with slicked-back iron-gray hair, an impeccable gray suit, and gold personal jewelry. He was traveling with a tall, slender young woman with a mane of black hair, who was wearing a form-fitting navy blue suit and gold slippers. She had just fetched him a cup of coffee in French. They looked like models in a slick magazine ad promoting the Executive Club. I imagined that all of these people were going to Cannes to stay in expensive hotels and eat in expensive restaurants and make expensive deals involving movies. Their expenses for the festival would equal an annual minimum wage.
The event they were attending at such great expense could be described as Disneyland for adults. During the day at Cannes, the Palais des Festivals churns away with the press and trade screenings, the grubby journalists and distributors darting in and out of the sunlight, looking for a good movie. At night, the elegant people emerge from their hotels, having spent the day playing tennis and lunching on yachts, and they stroll along the Boulevard Croisette in expensive formal wear, on their way to the official black-tie screenings. Narrow-eyed German film critics and French cineastes and American movie buffs crouch over their tables in the sidewalk cafes, watching them malevolently as they stroll toward the projection, blaming them for the death of the cinema. Meanwhile, on the back streets of Cannes, the local theaters grind away twenty hours a day with the interchangeable annual budget of exploitation pictures, a tribute to the industry's unflagging optimism that new ways can be found to combine tits, ass, and machine guns.
THE FESTIVAL is held for two weeks every May. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. The 1987 festival was the fortieth anniversary year for Cannes, which was originally conceived in 1939 as a response to Mussolini's Venice Film Festival, but which finally got underway after the war. The earliest years were fairly serious affairs, the sunny Riviera notwithstanding, but in 1949 a starlet took off her bikini top and embraced Robert Mitchum for the photographers on the beach, and the Cannes Film Festival as we know it was born. It is claimed that forty thousand people attend, not counting the hot-eyed fans who surge at the barricades and scream out the names of their heroes as the stars promenade into the Palais every night. This is the movie industry's annual trade fair, serviced by three daily festival newspapers, which run lists of prominent industry figures with the names of the hotels where they are staying, and then one of two words: Buying, or Selling. Every year there are festival jokes: The pope was just shot. Oh, yeah? When are they releasing it?
The screenings are held from morning to night in the new festival palace, which was opened three years ago on the site of the old casino, next to the yacht harbor. The big concrete building is essentially several giant auditoriums surrounded by terraces, meeting rooms, restaurants, a nightclub, and a casino. "It looks like a cross between a parking garage and a machine-gun emplacement," New York press agent Billy (Silver Dollar) Baxter observed when it opened, and the Palais has since come to be known as the Death Star because of its undeniable resemblance to Darth Vader's mother ship. The Palais Croisette, which was built after the war down at the other end of the Boulevard Croisette, near the Carlton Hotel, has been scheduled for demolition ever since the new Palais opened, but has so far received an annual reprieve as the home of the Quinzaine des Realisateurs, the Director's Fortnight. Screenings are also held in every commercial cinema in town, especially those strung along the rue d'Antibes, the shopping street a long block inland from the Croisette. The public is not encouraged to attend the festival, but admission to screenings is free for anyone who can obtain accreditation, and every year thousands of the most amazing candidates are accredited.
Covering the festival reminds me of a saying we have in Chicago about the Dan Ryan Expressway: Never drive it until you've driven it three times. After twelve years, I have a certain familiarity with the routines and rituals of the festival, and the notion of this journal is to take note of the experience itself, almost apart from the specific films that are shown. It is such a glorious ceremony of avarice, lust, ego, and occasional inspiration and genius that some record should be made, before the age of telecommunications and video sweeps it all away, and the movie industry makes its deals at home, before computer terminals and television screens.
AIRBORNE. Brian Dennehy, two rows behind me, was starring in a film set to play Sunday night. Roaming the aisle, he explained he had been in the air for hours, days even — flying all the way from Australia, where he was making a movie, because he didn't want to miss the experience of having a film at Cannes. He was a big, open-faced, smiling man with a moustache; we talked about his run last year in Galileo at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and his tenure at O'Rourke's Pub on North Avenue: "That's my favorite bar in the whole world. Somebody should write a story sometime about Jay's troubles with his lease." Dennehy made plans for us to have "a couple of pops" when we got to Cannes. I saw him again in the Nice airport, waiting in line for customs, and he used sign language to symbolize a glass in his hand, for having a couple of pops.
I ALWAYS AWAKEN very early on my first morning in Cannes, just at dawn, and pull on my jeans and a sweater to walk down by the old port for a cup of coffee at the all-night cafe. The street-cleaners are washing away the debris of the night before with fire hoses, and sometimes they will direct a spray into the air so that it catches the rising sun and creates a rainbow. I am always very tired when I choose my table on the sidewalk — it must be the same table I have taken for the past twelve years — but I am happy. I tell myself it is jet lag that makes me rise so early, but in fact it is ritual. I must sit just precisely here, across from the park with the stubby sawed-off city trees that look so desperate and forlorn, and compose myself for the ordeal ahead.
It sounds like great fun to cover the Cannes Film Festival. It is one of those events, like the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, or the Kentucky Derby, that comes cloaked in its own legend. But if the Super Bowl were two weeks long, that would be more like Cannes. I have in my hand the first issue of Screen International, fresh from the presses, the daily English-language newspaper of Cannes, and it is 158 pages long. Most of the pages are given over to ads for movies that will be shown here, in and out of the competition, and as I riffle through them my annual case of gnawing insecurity begins to form. I will not be able to see more than a fraction of these films. I will miss some of the good ones. I will waste my time at the bad ones. I will never be able to find all of the stars and all of the directors I should interview, and if I do succeed, say, in tracking down someone really interesting like Barbara Hershey or Dusan Makavejev, my editors will want to know why I didn't have lunch with Elizabeth Taylor.
FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, I will be covering a story with no end and no shape. Every morning at 8:30 there will be the first of the day's press screenings, and every night at midnight another party will be just beginning. My job will be to think in two ways at once: To be a critic, evaluating the films I see and trying to find some sort of pattern in them, and to be a gossipmonger, trying to discover the real reason why Bo Derek has made only two films since 10. The only constant will be my battle with my computer. The people will drift in and out of focus, on the screen and at lunch and dinner and poolside at the Majestic and on the Carlton Beach and out at the Hôtel du Cap d'Antibes and on the sidewalks and in the cafes, and it will all be disconnected, and I will convert it all somehow into copy that will make the Cannes Film Festival sound like a jolly round of glamorous interviews.
If I am lucky, however, something extraordinary will happen to me during this festival. I will see a film that will make my spine tingle with its greatness, and I will leave the theater speechless. There is no better place on earth to see a movie than in the Palais des Festivals at Cannes, with its screen three times the size of an ordinary theater screen, and its perfect sound system, and especially its audiences of four thousand people who care passionately about film.
IT WAS HERE at Cannes that I saw Coppola's Apocalypse Now for the first time, and when the helicopter warships flew overhead playing the music of Wagner, the effect was so powerful that the audience cheered and cheered. On other nights in this town, I attended the world premiere of E. T., and saw the audience stand up and turn to applaud Steven Spielberg, up above in the director's box, for minute after minute. Here I saw Scorsese's Taxi Driver for the second time, this time with a foreign audience (for the Americans in Cannes had already seen it), and realized what a great film it was, because the first time I saw it, there had been so much to absorb that I could not get outside of it all. And it was here that I saw Isabelle Huppert, so silent and still, turn her eyes to the audience in the closing scene of The Lacemaker, and here that I saw Bresson's precise, unforgiving L'Argent, the summation of his entire career in a film which was so suspicious of passion and emotion, so cold on its surface, that Bresson's whole career came together for me and I finally realized that no man could make such distant and austere films without being, in fact, filled with unlimited passion.
Anyone who goes to Cannes in search of masterpieces will, however, be frequently disappointed. There are Dantean levels to this festival. At the top level is the Official Selection, the films chosen from all over the world by Gilles Jacob, the director general, and Pierre Viot, the president of the festival. Then there are the lesser levels, the sidebar events, the marketplace screenings, all the way down to the fire sales of forgotten videos. The morning press screenings of the Official Selections are followed by chaotic press conferences, the stars and directors assaulted by television lights, paparazzi and idiotic questions ("I just want to know, is Mr. Newman free for lunch?"). The evening premieres, where formal wear is required, are a spectacle of sound and light. While loudspeakers endlessly blare "Thus Spake Zarathustra," thousands of movie fans crush up against police barricades while the filmmakers and the stars alight from limousines and walk a city block to the vast flight of outdoor stairs leading up to the Palais. They stop on the first landing, turn, wave, climb up to the second landing and wave again, into thousands of flashbulbs.
It would be easy to bring the stars in by a back entrance, but alien to the whole idea of the festival. At the old Palais, down at the other end of the Croisette, the nightly processions up the stairs became a world-famous ritual, and when they designed the new Palais they made the stairs wider and taller. Indeed, they also made them too steep, and in the first season of the new Palais, there was the danger that a photographer would trip and fall, starting a human tidal wave to tumble down and crush the stars below. So they rebuilt the stairs to reduce the angle, but they still required the stars to run an obstacle course, arriving in limousines, walking down the red carpet, climbing the stairs, all in full view of the thousands of fans who have arrived, some of them, from all over Europe because they know they will be given a fair chance to see their heroes in the flesh. Many movie stars have not appeared on the stage for years and, although their fame is vast, they may never have received a great ovation; their arrival at Cannes is the nearest they may ever get to scoring a winning touchdown. Some of the French stars seem addicted to the ritual, and attend every year; Gerard Depardieu is such a familiar sight, cruising the Croisette on his motorcycle, that he's one of the institutions of Cannes, like Edy Williams, that you expect to see.
Excerpted from Two Weeks in the Midday Sun by Roger Ebert. Copyright © 1987 Roger Ebert. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPraise for Two Weeks in the Midday Sun About the Author Title Page Foreword by Martin Scorsese Dedication Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook Postscript, 1997: Scorsese Goes to Dinner