Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook is not, as I'd initially hoped, Roger Ebert's report of last year's Cannes film festival, transmitted from the Great Beyond via Ouija board and painstakingly transcribed by University of Chicago Press interns. The truth is much less exciting: it's a reprint of a 1987 book ostensibly based on Ebert's journal from that year's festival, illustrated with his own amateur drawings. It begins at Heathrow with Ebert en route to France, determined to turn two weeks of jet lag, screenings, and interview chasing into some sort of coherent narrative.
The festival is not all glamour, Ebert warns us at the outset: it's essentially a trade fair, with celebrities and tuxedos and, occasionally, transcendent art. Unfortunately, 1987 would not turn out to be an especially memorable year at Cannes: there were no riots, no scandals, not even the debut of an instant classic. (The Coen brothers' Raising Arizona screened out of competition, but Ebert didn't see it.) Ebert had decided to follow the sweatsuit-clad Israeli producer Menahem Golan, an outsider who was making a bid for Palme d'Or glory, but his two entries, Barfly (directed by Barbet Schroeder) and Shy People (directed by Andrei Konchalovsky), only won one award between them, a Best Actress statue for Barbara Hershey for Shy People.
This lack of drama may have been frustrating for Ebert back in 1987, when he had a story to cover. But now, nearly 30 years later, it turns out to be an advantage. Ebert was already a seasoned festival veteran (in his journal, he estimates he'd spent six months in Cannes, two weeks at a time), so he was able to pad out the narrative with reminiscences of some of the highlights of years gone by: the 1979 showing of Apocalypse Now, with two distinctly different endings; colorful festival regulars such as the press agent Billy "Silver Dollar" Baxter and the starlet Edy Williams; and ridiculous publicity stunts and memorable remarks that enlivened otherwise painfully dull press conferences. There are also some lovely, apparently offhand observations about the art and culture of moviemaking. (Two of my favorites: "Plot is theater, and the movies are not theater. Movies are time, and movies with people in them are behavior and personality in time"; and "I had seen [Hershey] on the screen in Shy People, and now I was looking at the person who had played that character, and the character was nowhere to be found.")
As a result, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun feels timeless. The names of the films and the people who made them are different, but aside from the vendors hawking cheap movies on videotape and Ebert's difficulties getting his copy back to his editors in Chicago, it's hard to imagine that the festival going on now is significantly different from the one Ebert saw. No one else will ever see it or write about it the way Ebert did, though. He's been gone three years, but reading this makes me miss him all over again. v