10 mars 2010

MOMENTS OF OBLIQUE ATTENTION, Cannes – between fleeting impressions and casual participation

Nothing makes the idea of oblique attention so clear as watching Jacques Tati’s films. The camera always seems to be seeking out a host of narratives parallel to what would “naturally” constitute the heart of the story for most of us. For the director of Playtime, the creaking doors in high tech. blocks of flats, the shadows cast so surprisingly, the efforts spent by everyone to maintain the apparent order of things are just so many pieces of deceptively obvious reality that shape the setting we evolve in with such blissful unawareness. They constitute a system of values of their own, a vision the classical criteria of cultural consumerism are happy to see as off-key. This vision, or oblique attention, so aptly described by sociologist Richard Hoggart, is undoubtedly one of the surest routes to capture all these casual interpretations often far removed from the monolithic view of the world the dominant cultures try to construct and impose. These casual interpretations “take a bit here, leave a bit there” in the way they recreate another version of the story, which is just as coherent but imbued with distance and mistrust, and through which we sometimes reach a better awareness of what they’d like us to believe is at times the centre of society, at times peripheral.

Cannes Festival as an event, or more accurately, the images and media signs trying to build up an unambiguous and therefore prevailing vision of it, aim to focus the attention of all the participants onto a few selected points of the event and do not look kindly on casual approaches. In fact, within the centrifugal force of the media images of the festival there lies a pretty paradox that forms the basis of the participant observer’s excitement in Cannes. Hence the dark windows of the luxury limousines, especially when closed, serve as a constant reminder, delivered in excess to everyone here, that there might always be something better to see than whatever Festival officialdom is urging us to watch. To see, see better, see worse, see more, see more or less, see faster, see what’s visible and what’s invisible, see through, see round, see what one isn’t supposed to see, see how others see, see oneself, see again, see oneself again, to have been unable to see, seeing as truth, awareness of the blinding truth of seeing: each year the Festival builds up a veritable anatomy of seeing glutted with symbols that cover a large part of the town and apparently define the limits in space as well as time of what is taking place there.

If you go to Cannes in late December rather than during festival fortnight in May, you’ll find a town that looks like all the other holiday resorts along the French Riviera1: inhabited only in its most native places and essentially by natives of the area. The Croisette will be deserted. The neon signs of the Carlton and the Martinez are the only reminders that the terraces here can exist for reasons other than the Festival. Nearer the centre, if you linger a moment on the Georges Pompidou Esplanade, just in front of the Festival Palace, a Palace that at this time of year when it is bared of its regalia, looks more like a huge blockhouse than a rather too solidly built Palace, you can just see a few curious visitors trying to fit their hands into the casts of stars’hands studded across the flagstones around the building. Stars’hands cast in concrete, a few all-year-round signs, some large, uninhabited buildings… In winter it requires the full resources of your imagination to picture what happens here in mid-May each year, when, transformed, it becomes the venue for the greatest cinema festival in the world, an event that no longer exists on this winter scene except at the back of some bookshops or on a few postcards no-one buys between Christmas and the New Year. The word Cannes is not yet synonymous with the Cannes Festival.

The Festival Palace hasn’t yet become that sacred temple of the seventh art and the strollers along the Croisette not yet the pilgrims in contemplative quest of the fleetingly exposed bodies of real flesh and blood stars. For as Edgar Morin said as early as 1955: “It’s a well-known fact that the real show at the festival is not the one going on indoors in the cinemas and screening rooms, but that going on outdoors, outside those places. […] The real problem is the confrontation between myth and reality, appearance and essence. By its extravagant staging and all the pageantry surrounding it, the Festival tends to prove to the world that the stars live up to their legend. Cannes is the mystical place where the imaginary and the real are reconciled. […] Marvellous images, exquisite in their spontaneity yet as ritualised as those in films. Everything helps to create the image of an Elysian life. Creating the image is the correct term here, for what’s involved is posing for the benefit of audiences in Cannes and the whole wide world with the aid of photography, television and newsreels. The duplicate of the real Festival world is the one that really matters.

The difference between Cannes in winter and Cannes Festival lies in the way a town that is nothing more than a small, very ordinary sub-prefecture on the French Riviera brings itself up to scratch for the occasion of the Festival with a sparkly décor of sequins and spangles intended to inflame all the fantasies attached to this place that is an absolute must when one belongs to the film world; in other words, a place where the film world has to be present to confirm it still matters to the outside world. For instance, Brian De Palma’s recent film, Femme Fatale, that uses the 2001 Cannes Festival as its setting, is the perfect illustration of this job of making the festival décor comply with the expected standards of the public. And in fact, those who are used to going to the Festival Palace will find it as they’ve always known it, the overall background scenery being quite sufficient to make a film décor; one thing, however, they will notice if they’ve been regular visitors to the Palace, is that one tiny venue of the story has been entirely re-created and rebuilt by De Palma – the toilets. Presumably, having the real toilets in the film would have jarred with the image of Cannes the director tries to rework for the benefit of the film’s audience; for the toilets in Femme Fatale, supposedly in the heart of the Palace, are treated as restrooms worthy of the most luxurious Arabian Nights harem, and a far, far cry from Festival reality. The care taken by the director to enhance the Cannes myth as far as these bowers of retreat are concerned should be appreciated. Those who’ve never been into the Festival Palace can nonetheless accept the De Palma version as real for the simple reason that it does not jar with the prevailing images generated by the media in Cannes.

Indeed, Cannes questions us about our tendency to believe in these endlessly repeated hallowed signs so pregnant with meaning they seem to exclude all possibility of shunning what Julien Gracq calls “a silly symbolic phantasmagoria”. Certainly, it would be far too naïve to consider the signs in Cannes solely from their symbolic angle. “The symbolic explanation is, generally speaking, such a farcical impoverishment of the overriding part of contingencies in real or imaginary life, that in all cases, and here in particular, one might substitute for the symbolic explanation the raw and very accessible idea that each event is characterised by strong or weak circumstances that exclude any interpretative drive.” “Being aware of this”, continues Gracq, “ought to spur us on once and for all towards a decisive act of purification” with regards to all these loaded symbols that so often corrupt our glance. In this sense, and because they stem from oblique attention, Vincent Leroux’s photographs – like Tati’s films – clearly perform the function of decisive acts of purification of Cannes’symbolism. They take shortcuts through the weak circumstances where fleeting impressions of shadows, echoes and reflections belonging to Festival events but in a distant, almost quiet way are to be found, thereby authenticating the reality of the Festival to which they forcibly belong. “Smile, you’re in Cannes!” In these photos you can see the cameras of official photographers not yet erect, like so many signposts in waiting, as well as moments and places peopled by the first on the scene or the last off, which almost amounts to the same thing; both, even if they seem lost or have wandered from the heart of the Festival, are still a manifestation of its genuine presence.

Cannes is a festival where the public is on guard, and in this sense, the multitude of screens, windows and mirrors allows the onlooker to stare discreetly at any movements of the crowd. And whoever adopts the oblique attention posture will easily understand why Cannes proclaims its existence first of all in this wealth of shadows, reflections and echoes. Walking up the steps keeps the idle passer-by and the festival-goer busy for a mere hour per day, the passage on the red carpet from the moment of getting out of the official car right up to the moment of stepping through the palace portals takes a bare ten minutes. This is in fact the only part of the Festival that’s truly visible, a part that’s worn to shreds by the media of every kind. After that, we’re led to assume, everything takes place in the darkness of the projection rooms. And yet…
A great film-lover, Gary is a building worker who has spent his whole working life in Cannes. He proudly recalls how he took part in the construction of the current Palace, and yet he has never been at the nerve centre of the bunker during the Festival. His job had always placed him high up, overlooking everything, in the towers he was due to build or in cranes on the many sites always to be found in the streets parallel to the Croisette. As for the stars, he’s always guessed, imagined or created them but from the distance he’s chosen because of his self-imposed, far-flung observation posts far from the madding crowd. This means he’s never been near the pulse of the event and only ever heard a muffled, indistinct beat. Gary always had, and still has, a taste for echoes, reflections and shadows. For him, these fleeting impressions represent the best possible way of stimulating the roving imagination he’s been cultivating for such a long time. Actually, he makes it a point of honour to justify the origins of his liking for the “distant gaze”.

In 1969, Gary was a teenager and his parents did not yet possess a TV set. Thus on the 20th July of that year, rather than go looking for a screen so he could watch Man’s first steps on the moon, as many of his close friends did, Gary chose to sit down on the Carlton Hotel beach and let his thoughts drift as he stared at the moon. Of course he was there, of course he watched the event just like the rest of the world, but he watched it inside himself, he endowed it with “additional density” by obliterating what might be called the historic image the others were busy sharing, and by using the powers of his imagination fuelled by the moon’s brightness. The image of the moon seen from the earth was worth more in his eyes than any television picture. Therefore Gary never had any doubts about whether the landing on the moon really had taken place. His overall view had no need of unreliable technological mediation, and certainly a particular image can always satisfactorily take the place of other images. Thus the force of the images of Cannes can be measured, there more than anywhere else, according to the blind spots they touch in each of us. For the function of images is not to represent or signify, their main function is (this is what we think, but often forget) to make us generate symbols.