Why Cannes Matters, Sort of, I Guess

There were certain nightmares I had about being the Film and Press jury president at Cannes. Some, it turns out, come true.

On the last day of judging the print, for instance, we take a secret Grand Prix ballot and two things come out in a dead tie. Both sides hate the other thing.

On the last day of judging with the Film jury, we take a secret Grand Prix ballot and seven different things all get votes. Everyone feels strongly.

It’s festival night and, looking up at a bouillabaisse of people stretching back up into the balconies, I tell them to feel free to react to the work. As I do it, I can’t believe I am saying this. Somehow, there is no airborne fruit.

It starts weeks before you get there. Creative directors who have won more than their share of Lions send you shameless “for your consideration” reels. People call and just happen to mention things they’re hopeful about.

It turns out Neil French is leading a worldwide Ogilvy & Mather boycott of the show. This is not good. He says that last year’s president, Bob Isherwood, compiled a blacklist of the agencies liable to submit fake ads. I tell Neil that, even if there were a blacklist, I wouldn’t look at it. I call Isherwood, a likable and evenhanded sort of guy, who says there’s no blacklist. Again I call French, also a likable but slightly more, uh, flamboyant sort of guy, and tell him there’s no blacklist. OK, he says. O&M enters.

Reporters from Italy, Japan, the Czech Republic, and—I’m not kidding—Uzbekistan have somehow gotten my e-mail address. In the weeks before the festival, I am asked more questions than those Taliban prisoners in Cuba. Luckily, they’re all the same questions. I don’t tell the reporters this.

On the first day, I have breakfast with Roger Hatch uel, the fiery French man who runs the festival like a guy riding a mechanical bull. In France, he tells me, we are very used to the terrorism, so we will always use the back door to the Palais des Festivals, where we will go to make the judging.

This is how it is here, he says, we have to make these sacrifices.

The back door to the Palais is wedged open with a phone book, and we walk right past the security guards. The World Cup is on TV. They don’t even look up.

A lot of people warn me about the World Cup. The judges won’t pay attention to the judging, they say. They’ll leave the room for long periods of time. Sure enough, at dinner the first night, one of the judges says he absolutely, positively must see all of his country’s game the next day, it’s just how it is. I offer to let him watch the first half, tape the second half and come over to see the whole thing with the other judges back in my room. No, he says.

OK, I’ve got an idea, I tell him. If you don’t come back for the second half, please don’t come back for the rest of the judging. This is my first moment of diplomacy.

More big white boats are appearing in the harbor. Now I can’t get more than 10 steps into any party or restaurant without seeing someone I don’t necessarily want to talk to.

Do certain nations really vote as a bloc? Yes, they do. And maybe it does, some years, happen by design. But this year, I feel like people are voting the same way because their cultural backgrounds make them like the same things. For instance, the British, the Australians, the South Africans and the Americans, the ones who so vocally hate this practice, almost always vote the same way. Somehow, they don’t seem to notice this.

As we cut down the print entries, I see that none of the favored ads has any words in them.

As we cut down the film entries, I see that very few of the favored ads has any words in them.

Maybe we don’t have time for words anymore. Maybe print is becoming as much like TV as it can, and vice versa.

Whatever it is, the things in favor all seem like those wordless James Thurber cartoons. You are presented with a scene and you figure it out.

In the print jury room, things are deadlocked. Olivier Altmann, the humorous judge from BDDP et fils in Paris, explains the strategy behind the controversial Club 18-30 campaign in which people appear to be playing on the beach but on closer inspection are in sexual positions. They appear to be playing on the beach, he says. But they’re really there to have sex.

The campaign is tied with a series of ads from Hamlet in which dwarfs smoke cigars because they’re not tall enough to get on amusement-park rides. Really. Somehow the tie is broken.

In the Film jury room, we have taken several votes eliminating the weakest entry each time. Before us, in the end, are the Nike ‘Tag’ commercial and a spot from Xbox in which a baby shoots out of its mother across the sky, getting older as it flies, until it lands in an open grave.

“Life is short,” the end line says, “play more.” On the Nike commercial, there is a swoosh and just the word “Play.”

Just as I am thinking that it’s interesting that both campaigns ask us to play, one of the other judges points out that Xbox tells you life is short, please spend it in front of a computer killing aliens. That does it. On the next ballot, Nike wins big.

It could have been a house we built or a dinner we cooked together. Instead, it is an ad vertising show we’ve decided.

But certainly the proudest thing for me, about doing this at all, is the warmth the jury members feel toward each other and the clarity and comfort of their final decisions.

I give the Film jury the usual warnings about talking to the press, then head across the street to the Majestic. On the way in, the team that created the Xbox campaign, a couple of magnetic French guys, stops me. We are devastated, they say. The news has already reached the bar.

Out on the sidewalk, a stunning local girl in a floral dress is selling handmade bead jewelry. It’s the simplest, most beautiful thing in Cannes, she tells me, and when she says it, there’s no doubt about it. The advertising throng pushes around her to assume their places at the Majestic bar, to argue and celebrate the leaked results. The girl could care less.