In Conversation: Cannes

Kern: Cannes would have begun this week, were it not cancelled due to COVID-19, so I thought this week we’d discuss Cannes and film festivals in general. I want to get into our personal experiences with festivals and when we started first following festival coverage, but I figured there’s no better way to start than your experience last year actually going to Cannes. Give a quick rundown of some of the more interesting moments you had there and talk about what the atmosphere was like for you.

Henry: Cannes last year was one of the best times of my life, if not the very best, so it being cancelled this year when I would’ve gone again, but this time writing for Cinema Etc, really stings. For all the talk you see yearly from everyone at Cannes, myself included, griping about early morning showings, having to eat McDonald’s for every meal, wearing tuxedos in the hot sun, and waiting in line for endless hours to see films that are perhaps better classified as war crimes, Cannes is the purest distillation of the magic of cinema and every one of us loves being there. To be on an idyllic beach in great weather, surrounded by people who do not care one bit and would rather sit in the dark all day and get excited about films from unknown filmmakers is a privilege. There’s the occasional stinker of a person there for sure but by and large it’s a group of people who share in a common passion and are excited to see so many others that care deeply about the thing that they have dedicated their lives to and can converse about on a level that is rare to find elsewhere. Even though it’s an old system that has different levels built into it, that passion shines through more than anything and even the folks at the bottom of the totem pole like I was last year in the yellow tier can find themselves at things like the Parasite premiere alongside the writers for the biggest outlets and red carpet royalty. Most people seem to have met a couple of famous people fleetingly and it gives them a memory they bring up for years but at Cannes we’re all in the same place and it’s harder not to have a conversation with someone you’ll see on the front page of tabloids or at least bump into them and every time, no matter how often it happens, it still feels like a fantasy come to life. But beyond the people we all know about, and even the great friends that are made sharing in the experience of Cannes together, Cannes is about the movies. It’s a place where we give every filmmaker a shot even if they wouldn’t have it in the box office and are in constant search of that next masterpiece, hoping to be one of the first people in the world to see a film unveiled that will shake the world, and sometimes we get so lucky. But in every case, masterpiece or travesty, as the first to see the film, those of us at Cannes are the ones who get to present it to the world and it feels like being a part of something huge just to gaze upon the Palais. Every edition is a part of cinematic history and more so than any other festival, it feels like you get to make your imprint on it too.

Kern:There is a kind of electric energy being in a packed venue for a premiere or even just a screening with the filmmaker present. I can definitely relate to that excitement. Even watching a movie I hate (like Synonyms at NYFF), it’s a wonderful experience being at a screening with a Q&A to follow or being one of the first people to ever see a movie, not to lord it over people, but to truly go into a film completely unbiased and have no expectations. Cannes is definitely the pinnacle of that, as most prestigious filmmakers try to debut their new films there, but even catching a subsequent wave of that (as you did last year, seeing a few films multiple times at different festivals) is invigorating. I know that Cannes has a reputation for the divisive audience reactions—10 minute long standing ovations, booing, walk outs, etc.—would you classify that as an exaggeration in your experience, and how does the audience and atmosphere differ from other festivals like NYFF and TIFF?

Henry: There are loads of people who boo or walk out or clap for an eternity so I wouldn’t say what you’ve heard is an exaggeration but the feelings they show by doing those things are definitely exaggerated. I don’t walk out of films and booing feels so disrespectful I wouldn’t do that either but when everyone gets going with the clapping it’s hard to not take part in it even if you don’t think it deserves it. Even if I was there when La Dolce Vita, my favorite of all time, premiered, I wouldn’t think clapping for over a minute would be a reasonable thing to do and certainly it wasn’t worth clapping that long for any of the stuff I saw premieres for last year (I specify premieres because I was not at the premiere for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and that’s the one film that maybe deserved clapping for more than like 15 seconds). The differences with the audience at Cannes vs other festivals are pretty big because people are there by invite only whereas at other festivals the public is present too. Even going to press showings, you’ll still be in areas where the general public who bought tickets are intermingling and that definitely has an impact on the atmosphere. When people show up because it’s something fun they want to do for the weekend, it’s different from when people are there because it’s their job, and I think it leads to everyone at Cannes feeling like we’re in it for the same reasons and being more personable and willing to help out than at other festivals where some folks are definitely annoyed by all the people who pay to go instead of getting paid and have entirely different ideas about all of it in many cases. I think it’s interesting to see how casual moviegoers choose what to see at festivals and what they think about the films but the added crowds do make things more difficult and they tend to limit interactions with the filmmakers a bit more because they don’t always want to be out in such large crowds of people whereas at Cannes we spend most of the time in the same few spaces. Though as you saw at NYFF, sometimes you can still get lucky and get a brief chat with Ari Aster at a public screening. Another big difference in the atmosphere between Cannes and the other big ones I’ve been to like NYFF, TIFF, and Berlinale is that those others take place in major cities and, even though I’m always amazed at how they can shut down large areas of the cities to put on these events, it’s still an isolated thing and life continues as normal around the festivals. In Cannes, it is Cannes. Everyone in the town knows about the festival and it contributes to their businesses and their lives more directly because it’s a smaller place. So even beyond the community we have within the festival itself, the surrounding area can join in and at showings on the beach many of the residents of Cannes join to watch classics with those of us there for the festival and swap stories together about when Hitchcock came to their bakery or they watched the red carpet for the premiere of Pulp Fiction and managed to be let in because there was an empty seat. In the other cities, I’ve often felt like once you get two blocks from the festival’s center, people don’t know what’s going on or they just know that during a couple weeks each year their favorite Tim Horton’s gets a bigger rush of people.

Kern: It sounds entirely different from what I’ve experienced then, because like you said, with other festivals the cities are still business-as-usual for the most part and it’s almost as if there’s this hidden society intermingling within. Especially when I was at Melbourne last year for MIFF, I’d inevitably get asked what I was doing in Australia (the accent tips people off pretty quickly) and I was surprised by how many people had no clue a film festival was going on in their city when I told them why I was there. So it definitely sounds like a different energy in Cannes, where every soul is aware and eager for the festival. Would you say you prefer that kind of concentrated environment, or do you like to be able to walk a half mile and not have to hear the occasional cringy conversations about whatever new film was “mind blowing” or “pretentious trash.” Do you like to have that ability to escape from it an grab a sandwich at Tim Horton’s and Katz’s Deli?

Henry: I spend most days around people who never talk about movies or only talk about the blockbusters and Oscar movies and maybe a few others so to hear people talking about the type of film that we get more often at a festival is usually a treat even if it can get a bit annoying. I love being in cities and everything that comes with them and there is something to be said for having a much bigger variety of things to do between films or when the day is done but Cannes is like its own little world and going there for the brief time it happens is the best, I can always go to a city after. Katz’s Deli does make me have to consider a slight bit though since it’s the greatest culinary experience on the face of this earth.

Kern: Regardless, even the most quaint of festivals are more enjoyable than most normal theater-going experiences. We’ve got a local festival near us, the Middleburg Film Festival in October, that shows surprisingly high profile films, like The Irishman and Knives Out last year (and A Hidden Life which I saw in a mostly empty auditorium which was even more empty by the time it ended). The general audiences there typically skew less film-obsessed and the makeshift theaters are a far cry from the gorgeous halls of most festivals, but you can’t beat that sense of excitement when you can finally see a film you’ve been anticipating months or even years, or like you said, just wandering blindly into a movie you know nothing about and hoping to be surprised.

Henry: Middleburg is a great festival and actually where we would’ve initially run into each other, before twitter even, since we saw a few films there at the same time a few years back without knowing it. Missed connections. Like any other festival, it comes with its own character and it’s fun to go to the small ones like that or slightly bigger ones like Rotterdam or Prague because there’s still always great films and great people. But there’s also loads of festivals that you simply can’t go to whether because of timing or money or whatever reason (still mad I skipped Berlinale this year, would’ve definitely made a much bigger effort to go if I knew there would be no more festivals) and there’s always coverage of those so even years before I went to Cannes, I was keeping track of what was happening there. Whether it’s trying to find out what movies I should be mad never get a release near me, or trying to imagine what the worst films could be like, or just living vicariously through the critics I like, it was always a fun time and I later started doing the same with other major festivals like Venice that I hope to go to one day. The festival experience may seem like it has to be confined to a couple of screens in some foreign country but that’s never been exactly how it was for me. Have you also followed along or has your festival experience only been when you’ve physically attended?

Kern: I started really looking into the major festivals when I got to film school, making an effort to seek out some of the Palme d’Or winners and finding modern filmmakers that interested me. As with all things related to film in my life, it can likely be traced back to Roger Ebert who I idolized as a kid and would read incessantly. I’d bookmark his reviews for films out of Cannes and catch up with them when they eventually came out at Blockbuster. Over the past decade, I’ve obsessively followed the AV Club’s festival dispatches, especially for Cannes, which led me to pulling the trigger on going to TIFF in 2009, my first film festival experience which I loved. I only recently started going to festivals regularly over the past couple years. What about you? Were you also a compulsive festival dispatch reader?

Henry: I’ve really only followed festival coverage for the last few years other the occasional article before that I found interesting because of some prior interest in the director or the subject but with each passing year I’ve expanded to following more and more festivals and anything from some writers that I enjoy. Now even when I’m at a festival, I seek out the dispatches so I can try to find something I might’ve missed and make a last minute attempt to see it. Unfortunately, with the amount of coverage by the time I can sort through it all it’s usually too late to change my plans.

Kern: Yeah it’s important to go in with a game plan but then also realize you’re absolutely going to be changing plans on the fly.

At the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, I was constantly changing my line up, sometimes not even sure of what I was going to see next until minutes before showtime. It’s a constant rush and can be chaotic, which gives the obsessively-planning side of me a lot of anxiety, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

I know the prospect of festivals coming back in full force this year seems unlikely, but I recommend that people who love film that don’t live in or near major cities look around their area, because there are plenty of small film festivals around the globe. I had no idea until a couple years ago that Baltimore has the Maryland Film Festival or that the Middleburg Film Festival happens basically down the street from me. Both of those festivals I saw some great films at and even got to meet and chat with some of my favorite filmmakers. So whenever the world resumes and the film community is thriving again, take stock of what’s available in your area. You may even be in the same room as someone you’ll eventually become good friends with from twitter and not even know it!

In Conversation

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