Veterans remember moments in fest's history

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics on baby boomers, 330 people an hour turn 60, making that milestone a ho-hum occurrence.

But the world can’t help taking notice as the one and only Cannes Film Festival turns 60 this year. We spoke to veteran film critics who have watched her age — while remaining spry and film-obsessed themselves.

When David Robinson came to Cannes for the first time, in 1958, he was not yet Charlie Chaplin’s biographer or film critic to the Times in London.

“I had arrived too late to see ‘The Cranes Are Flying,’ ” Robinson recalls, “but the press office said, ‘Oh, we have another show for half a dozen people if you don’t mind watching with them.’ “

Robinson entered the already darkened screening room. “At the end of the film, the lights went on,” he recounts, “and there were only four other people with me: (the film’s director, Mikhail) Kalatozov, (Russian director) Sergei Yutkevitch, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.”

“Cranes” went on to win the Palme d’Or.

Robinson says his maiden screening “illustrates what a small and intimate event Cannes was. For the mayor’s party, everybody at the festival — stars, press, staff, etc. — all got in a little boat and went for lunch at a restaurant on St. Marguerite Island.”

A cozy, clubby atmosphere ruled. “At the Blue Bar, there were always the same old faces — Cocteau, the Begum Aga Khan, Elsa Maxwell,” Robinson says. “They didn’t seem like celebrities, just folks.”

Before the new, bunkerlike Palais opened in 1982, the rue d’Antibes was where most of the action took place. Mary Corliss, who first went to Cannes with husband Richard in 1973, penning an annual Cannes Journal for Film Comment through 2003, reminisces: “The competition films played in the old Palais, where the Noga Hilton is now. Everything else was screened in a dozen or so small theaters along, or just off of, the rue d’Antibes.”

Roger Ebert, who first hit Cannes in 1972, laments, “Sadly, Cannes has lost some of the excitement of the market with the rise of DVD, and the rue d’Antibes no longer is jammed with hustlers selling their films. But there is a glamour and a prestige you find nowhere else.”

Jim Haynes, who covered Cannes for 25 years for the Los Angeles Free Press, remembers taking in a screening one sunny afternoon on the rue d’Antibes. He recalls watching a film “so bad that I said out loud: ‘This is such a terrible movie we shouldn’t be watching it, we should be back in our hotel rooms making love.’ ” A woman agreed with him and, taking their cue from any number of implausible European art films, the duo repaired to Haynes’ hotel. Haynes avers that “nothing of the sort had ever happened to me before or since.”

Bernard Chardere, gearing up for his 47th consecutive Cannes, first went in 1961 representing a prominent provincial daily. He had founded seminal film magazine Positif in 1952 and would later launch the Lumiere Institute (now run by Cannes’ Thierry Fremaux) in his native Lyon.

Chardere recalls that Cannes’ central post office had a section where you could hand in a story written in longhand and typists would type it up and transmit it via “Belino” — a newspaper-industry precursor to the modern fax.

Chardere and fellow Positif stalwart Michel Ciment note that in the early decades, the Cannes lineup was held hostage to national selection committees. “It’s a rotten way to pick films,” says Chardere. “If the movie is an ambassador to the outside world for an entire country, you’ll usually end up with something academic or consensual.”

“Things picked up with Maurice Bessy and then Gilles Jacob, who were devoted to film,” Ciment says.

Of course, as the films got more “dangerous,” so did getting in to see them. “At the screening of Bertolucci’s ’1900′ (in 1976), the crush was so great that it broke through a glass wall,” Ebert says.

“The uproar over Marco Ferreri’s ‘La grande bouffe’ (1973) was intense,” says Ciment, who also remembers helmer Dusan Makavejev “being viciously attacked by hardline Communists at the premiere of ‘Sweet Movie’ (1974).”

Chardere vividly recalls having a front-row seat in 1968 as “Geraldine Chaplin and Carlos Saura physically tugged on the curtain to prevent their film ‘Peppermint Frappe’ from being shown. Revolution was in the air,” he laughs, “so after Cannes shut down, we piled into cars and went to Nice to occupy the Victorine Studios!”

Despite Gaul’s Cartesian tradition, never assume reason will sway the no-nonsense personnel who man the doors at Cannes.

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