Doing the Cannes-Cannes

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Gary Meyer of the Balboa is at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Here is the first of his reports from the Croisette and the theater trenches:

Getting there -- No snakes on the plane
The trip to Cannes always starts when I board the plane in San Francisco, looking to see if anyone I know is aboard. The 747 was huge but full exploration didn’t reveal any obvious candidates for the Festival.
Once in Paris things change. On the transfer to Nice I always run into several friends making the final leg of our journey to the south of France and 10 days of movies, morning till dawn. We compare stories about how much sleep we did or didn’t get before leaving and on the plane. And the inevitable jokes about being jet-lagged and surely taking naps in films.
Each year I also spot someone famous getting on my plane. One year I chatted with French superstar Jeanne Moreau. I had been involved in distributing a movie she directed, L’Adolescente. Another time Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) was nervous about the trip. It was his first time in France and he was appearing at the premiere of the movie Unstrung Heroes. He was a nervous wreck. He couldn’t figure out how to use the pay phones, scared of the security and certain he would never find his way to the airport gate at DeGaulle (a reasonable worry). I befriended him and showed the way.
This year as the long line waited to board our flight, Snakes on a Plane's Samuel L. Jackson was escorted to the front of the line. A member of the Cannes Jury, he had a hat pulled down so he’d only be half recognized. Someone in the line called out, “I’ll see you in Cannes,” to make sure we all knew where they were both headed.

Opening night
Arriving a day early has it benefits. The crowds haven’t assembled. One can take care of accreditation, press orientation and study the various program books. A press screening of The Da Vinci Code was the only scheduled event. I had already seen it and chose to have dinner with friends.
Film festivals like to open with a high profile movie that is sure to attract big stars, tons of media attention and a major post-screening party that will last all-night. Allowing a film to open a festival, especially Cannes, is taking a big chance. The movie will come under extra heavy scrutiny from critics. The Da Vinci Code is a logical choice to open the 59th Cannes International Film Festival. It is based on a huge best-selling book and largely set in France. Starring a major American movie star, Tom Hanks, and one of France’s most popular actresses, Audrey Tautou, it also features numerous important European actors. As I write this, over my left shoulder I can see them walking up the red carpet for the opening night ceremonies. Thousands of people jam the streets in front of the Palais. TV cameras and photographers catch the face of every person who ascends the steps to make certain they don’t miss anyone of importance.
The press has now seen The Da Vinci Code. The response isn’t too good. But despite the criticism you will read, Columbia Pictures made the correct choice. Director Ron Howard’s last film, Cinderella Man, was invited in 2005 but the producers passed. And the film failed at the box office. This time they aren’t about to miss out on the glitzy stamp of approval that comes with opening the world’s most famous film festival.

Day one
I’ve seen three films the first day of the Festival -- all official selections caught at press screenings. I’ll catch a few more tonight.
A good way to start off the morning is with something not too demanding. Paris je t’aime is a collection of 20 five-minute films by an eclectic group of international directors including Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron, Alexander Payne, Gurinda Chadha, Tom Twyker, Wes Craven and many more guiding a superstar cast from Natalie Portman to Gena Rowlands, Gerard Depardieu to Fanny Ardant. (Ben Gazzara, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, and Bob Hoskins also are featured.) Anthology films inevitably are a mixed bag. Each piece is about love in Paris. They are like simple short stories; the best ones aren’t overly ambitious. Paris looks lovely of course and I enjoyed most of it.
Next came a film from Paraguay, Hamaca Paraguaya. At only 78 minutes, this is the kind of movie not to see when still jet lagged. It is all voice-over dialogue (subtitled) with stagnant camera shots. When the lights went up, I asked my neighbor, author Phillip Lopate, if I snored. He said I was a very considerate napper and wanted to know how he did. Just fine, I guess, as he didn’t wake me up. I have no doubt it will be hailed as a work of art by someone.
Much better was Summer Palace, the first competition film. Director Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Purple Butterfly) has constructed a complex film of relationships starting in 1989 China. A student leaves her small town and boyfriend to attend university in Beijing. She discovers both friendship and sex, with the pleasures and confusion they can bring. We journey through the political changes in China and Germany (where some of the characters go) over the next 15 years as the group of friends separate and rejoin. The film is often powerful, vibrant and involving, if a bit difficult to follow at times. It overstays its welcome at 140 minutes; some careful editing would help it become even better.
Summer Palace is the only Asian film in the Competition. It arrives amidst controversy. The Chinese government has complained that the producers didn’t get censorship approval and have broken the law by submitting it to Cannes. But the filmmakers claimed they didn’t submit it to Cannes. (Must have been the sales agent in France.) The Chinese censors turned the film down. Some suspect it is for the highly erotic nature and political reasons. There have been reports that the film has been withdrawn and the director has returned to China. This won’t be the first time claims of censorship by China have garnered attention here. The highest profile case was Zhang Yimou’s To Live.

Overheard
Sitting in front of a sandwich stand a young British woman told her companion that film sales have been tough and that the DVD market has slowed to practically nothing: “We are looking for Video In Demand, computer downloading -- anything where people don’t have to leave their homes.”

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