In the Salle Bunuel, 111 steps above ground level in the Grand Palais, several gents of a certain age stand in front of the screen that will soon be illuminated by images of the iconic actor of the 50s in the documentary James Dean, Forever Young. Among those here to testify are Dennis Strock, who took some gloriously, painfully evocative photos of Dean, on exhibit in the Debussy theater lobby, and Dean's younger cousin, Marcus Winslow, an Indiana burgher who allows that Michael J. Sheridan's film portrait is "one of the best shows about Jimmy." The audience exhales a little gasp of wonder as Winslow is introduced. These professionals shuck their cynicism realizing that they're one degree of separation from a movie legend.
We're rounding the bend to the home stretch of, so far, a so-so installment of the Cannes festival the eighth of 11 days. Today's competition pickin's were slim. The American contingent had already seen Robert Rodriguez' Sin City, a supercharged retro-noir effort, which opened in the States two months ago. And the French sex comedy Prendre ou faire l'amour (To Paint or Make Love), contained such meager enticements that Michel Ciment, doyen of French critics, told me, "I want you to know I bear no responsibility for this film."
But even the better premieres, like Michael Haneke's Hidden and David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, look impoverished when compared to the old films that are screened in festival sidebars. In his New York Times blog, Tony (A.O.) Scott fondly elegized the 1941 Powell-Pressburger war film The 49th Parallel. At a party the other day Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto Film Festival, exclaimed that he had just seen "the best film of the festival": Sam Peckinpah's 1962 western Ride the High Country. Mary, my better half here at Team Corliss, had similar praise after a screening of Robert Bresson's first film, Les anges du peche, from 1943. "It has everything: sex, spirituality, jealousy, murder... and a majestic filmmaking style."
The festival, more than ever before, is recognizing the movies' precious past. Documentaries like the one on Dean and a 3hr. study of Ingmar Bergman are part of the official program. Each night on the public beach, an old film is projected for those sturdy enough to withstand the mostly cool nights: Bullitt, Star Wars (the original), the 1946 Mexican film Enamorada, Dean's Rebel Without a Cause.The Cannes Classic series unearths all manner of antique treasures. Tomorrow we have a real treat: Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. How can any talkie of 2005 match a silent film of 1922?
That's a FOOF speaking: a Friend Of Old Film. Plenty of them come to Cannes, have been here for decades. Mary and I have attended for 32 years, but we're novices next to Marc Gervais, who is celebrating his 40th pilgrimage. Jean Vallier, former luminary of the Alliance Francaise in New York, recalled his first trip here 50 years ago, when the new sensation Brigitte Bardot walked hand-in-hand on the beach with child star Brigitte Fossey. Cannes' super-scout Pierre Rissient is going strong in his 42nd year; each day he holds court in the lobby of the Hotel Splendid, our long-time castle on the Cote d'Azur. We're all happy to be here happy to be alive and we realize that one of our main jobs is custodial: not just to adjudicate the new films but to proselytize for the old. The Cannes fortnight is one batch of films from a single year; that leaves all the superb works that went before to be cherished and promoted.
Classic movies are one thing modern films can never be: old. Age lends distance, delight, reverence. And as the actors are frozen in glamorous youth on the screen, so we are yanked back in years to an age when movies first dazzled us. We are no longer film professionals, gazing down at the moving image, appraising it like dispassionate jewelers; rather we gaze up at it, with the remembered awe of a child in a golden-age movie palace, in the cathedral of dreams.
So often, when groovin' with the oldies, we surrender to the romance of black-and-white a chromatic scale that was rarely totally black or pure white but a palette of all the pearly tones in between. Seeing these films today, I am reminded that no "color" was so subtle or rich, or had so great a range, as old-movie gray. It lent a luster to good, bad or mediocre films. The other night here, on the TF3 channel, I saw the 1959 melodrama I Spit on Your Grave, based on the Boris Vian novel and set, improbably, in the American South. The film has no special qualities other than a sullen, lurid attitude; the director, Michel Gast, is in no auteurist's pantheon. But, ma foi, did Marc Fossard's cinematography look glorious on a 15-inch hotel-room screen. (Fossard also shot such classics as Pepe le Moko and Children of Paradise.) Black-and-white lent a menace, a sexuality, to the actors' movements. It was the drama and the glamour of the film.