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The Sound and the Furor

The 50th edition of the glamorous film festival spurs memories and a question: How did this come about?

May 04, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

What is this thing called Cannes?

Given that the next few weeks will see an avalanche of stories celebrating the 50th edition (not the 50th anniversary) of the Cannes International Film Festival, it's appropriate to ask why this event at a formerly sleepy seaside resort is so important. And also, on a personal level, it's a time to revisit memories that go back, if not to the first festival in 1946, at least to the considerably different festivals of the 1970s.

In truth, after an intramural tussle between Cannes and Biarritz, the first Cannes film festival was scheduled for 1939, but the Sept. 1 opening day turned out to mark Germany's invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II. The festival began again in 1946, skipped 1948 and 1950, and finally took hold as a yearly event in 1951.

Though predated as a film festival by Venice, Cannes had no difficulty capturing the world's attention in the 1950s and '60s because, as one disapproving film historian writes, it "early opted for glamour and sensationalism" by concentrating on "the erotic fantasies of naked flesh so readily associated with a Mediterranean seaside resort."

Cannes was celebrating its 25th anniversary when I first covered it in 1971 for the Washington Post. Though it had strayed from its stated 1939 goal of being "a festival of cinematographic art, from which all extracinematic preoccupations would be excluded," in a day when festivals were much less thick on the land, Cannes stood out as an astonishing welter of film.

That's just what the sharp-featured Italian director Luchino Visconti was happiest about. At the festival with his "Death in Venice," which won a special 25th-anniversary prize, Visconti dazzled me with his vivid argyle socks and was shocked in turn when I confided that being confronted with all these films was a bit overwhelming. "It is cinema, cinema, cinema, all day long," he said, shooting me a piercing glance. "I love it."

I was also impressed by the great size of the festival crowds. Making things worse was the old festival Palais, an elegant building but noticeably small in size. It was patrolled by a vigilant cadre of tuxedoed guards determined to evict gate-crashers. I especially remember a well-dressed French interloper almost being choked to death as he was literally dragged out of the Palais. Yet he didn't lack the effrontery to insist, as loudly as that chokehold would allow, "Un peu de politesse, s'il vous plait"--a bit of politeness, if you don't mind.

I didn't get back to Cannes until 1976, and the crowds had not abated. In fact, it was at the late-night debut of Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses," whose story of sexual obsession leading to castration had created a ferocious want-to-see, that I got closer to being crushed by an expectant hoard than I ever want to be again. Was the picture worth it? Do you even have to ask?

That was also the year "Taxi Driver" won the Palme d'Or and I watched youthful director Martin Scorsese get his first glimpse of how disconcertingly political, not to mention wrongheaded, European film journalism can be.

Midway through the "Taxi Driver" press conference, a French journalist got up and referred to a scene between Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster's Iris where Travis talks about getting away from the city and spending some quiet time in the country.

"Mr. Scorsese," the journalist asked, "isn't it true that Travis is emphasizing the bankruptcy of Western industrial capitalism and insisting on a more communal, socialist model as the way of the future?" Scorsese looked truly, deeply baffled. "No," he said finally. "Travis just wants to spend some time in the country."

That same festival also gave me an insight into the thought patterns of actors. Roman Polanski was in attendance with "The Tenant," in which he directed himself as a disturbed individual who spends what felt like half the movie attempting suicide in drag by jumping out of an upper-story window, not succeeding and then crawling back up the stairs, still in drag, to leap out all over again. And again.

"Mr. Polanski," I blurted out in what now feels like startling naivete. "Why did you ever decide to do this film?" He looked at me with genuine surprise. "It's a great role for me, don't you think?" was his answer, and I have never forgotten it.

After 1976 I didn't return to Cannes until 1992, and a lot had changed. The hotel I'd stayed at had been converted to luxury apartments, the old Palais had been torn down and replaced by something called the Noga Hilton and a massive new Palais had replaced the chic casino in the city's old port. As for the festival itself, it had become if anything more important.

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