"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Cannes was abuzz upon my arrival, its skinny streets swarming with visitors and their suitcases, thousands more flooding in each hour. It was a very pretty seaside town, for sure, neat and tidy with a big blue skies and big blue waters and big sandy beaches. Designer shops, too, dozens of them stacked along the boulevard, with swanky clientele fluttering in and out, designer handbags and designer plastic bags clutched by jeweled fingers and freshly painted nails.
It was maybe a bit too extravagant for my taste, but then again, I knew what I was getting into; this was the south of France after all, an annual hub for the cinema elite, a place known for its style and its decadence. And nowhere in town was style and decadence more abundant at that moment than along the beach, with red carpets rolled about at all angles and photographers already flashing their bulky cameras at whomever strolled by, with hundred of little white tents set up to cater to ticketholders or otherwise sell their wares, with police posted on each and every corner of the small city. It was already a scene, spectators lined up along the fence outside of the main venue, where in three hours the sixty-seventh Cannes Film Festival would officially begin.
Looking down the coast, I spotted a series of parapets up in the hills, and found whatever was going on up there vastly more intriguing than my current surroundings, so I escaped the busy downtown and hiked through narrow, steep alleyways to a lovely little landing with a church and a museum and an old fortification, a lovely little landing with an even lovelier view of all of Cannes below, the spotlights and the camera flashes just tiny little twinkles against the sparkling sea.
I sat up there for a while, reading and reflecting, then returned to town as the sun began to creep behind the mountains. I passed a barber shop on my way back in and went aside, long overdue for a bit of a touch-up after beginning to grow out my hair for the first time in over a decade, hoping the friendly barber spoke English but disappointed to find he did not, but accepting his offer to have a seat anyway and carrying about in a mutual miming that left me feeling one part confident and two parts dreadfully uncertain that we were on the same page, and then he pulled out his clippers and went to work, and I was relieved when he didn't chop it all off in one fell swoop, destroying my month's work, but carefully and tenderly and artfully began to work around the edges and trim what needed trimming, leaving me fifteen minutes later feeling clean and refreshed.
And then back outside I went, and I was amazed to find an even more chaotic city than the one I had left just moments ago, a divided city, a tale of two cities, one made up of the haves and the other the have-nots, one with tickets and tuxedos and tourists in tow, the other holding signs reading "EXTRA TICKET S.V.P.?" and following the stars around like fanatics. The city had been divided into two another way, as well: physically, literally, the main boulevard cordoned off like a Checkpoint Charlie, spectators unable to cross from one side to the other until the walk down the red carpet was over.
I'd planned to leave around this time, but morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I grabbed a sandwich and stuck around to observe the observers, to watch the watchmen.
I find the notion of celebrity a fascinating one, a novel one, one I truly don't understand. It seems strange that we worship idols, particularly idols who are merely doing their jobs, reading lines written by someone else on a camera being handled by someone else, doing a great job, sure, but just doing a job, plain and simple. I have great respect for cinema, to be clear, for all the artists of all the arts, but respect and worship are different islands all together. If we are to run through the streets chasing anyone to hoist upon our shoulders, let it be humanitarians, or teachers, or public servants, let it be community leaders and sanitation workers and the migrant farmers who do the hard work we no longer will; what is it about someone being broadcast to the millions that makes them suddenly important to the millions?
I didn't like what I saw at Cannes, as those actors and actresses walked down the red carpet. For one, many of them made that walk with phones in hand, socially sharing the I'm-walking-down-the-red-carpet-at-Cannes moment with their friends and followers and thus nipping the potential for a great moment in the very bud, a tacky show of self-aggrandizement that left me feeling sorry for those lost souls, those who somewhere lost the ability to live in the here and now.
And then there were the fans, the fanatics, rushing the fence and pushing up against each other and throwing phones and cameras and camcorders high above their heads to capture a shot, any shot, of some star, any star, some glimpse of celebrity from fifty or a hundred feet away, so as to say, "I was there and I saw an important person and thus I am now important."
And then Nicole Kidman arrived, elegantly stepping out of her limousine, and the great masses squealed and cried, literally cried, and they pawed over each other to be the best documentarian, did the best they could to angle their cameras around the fifteen professional videographers actually documenting the event, and as this all happened in its chaotic glory, the theme music from Kidman's latest film, the one opening at Cannes that night, played over the speaker system, a slow, somber, profound piece that set the score just right for the pandemonium before me, such desperation, and for what?
I turned full from the red carpet to the people at my back, and I began photographing them, their strained faces and their strained arms, in the process capturing a haunting shot of an old man holding his phone up high with a sad look on his face, the next frame with his eyes trained on me, as if silently asking, "Why are you photographing me? Don't you see what's happening in front of you?"
But then something beautiful happened, something I couldn't capture on film. I put my camera down and looked at the man and he looked at me and he put his camera down, and then, as if I had silently asked him "Why are you photographing this? Don't you see what's happening behind you?", he turned around and he did the same, he raised his camera and he found subject matter to shoot, real art, the raw, pained emotion of those behind him.
Keep in mind the score, the beautiful score filling the air, and I hope you'll understand how powerful that moment felt, meaningless as it may have been ten seconds later, when I left the man and his crowd, when he very well may have gone back to shooting hundred-foot-shots of Kidman's left side. I suppose I'll never know, but I take comfort in an alternate possibility.
So I left the chaos, because I had taken too much of it, and retreated to a quieter section of the beach, where I sat and read until the sun went down. I still hadn't figured out lodging for the night, didn't feel like getting back on a train and confident that I could find neither affordable nor available accommodations in Cannes, so instead I returned to my overlook from that afternoon and set up camp in a quiet corner of the church's courtyard, happy to finally be putting my tent to some use.
The courtyard didn't remain quiet, unfortunately; I slept a short night interrupted by loud and strange noises, nocturnal birds who cawed like monkeys and French travelers who spoke in whispers outside my tent that I couldn't understand, crouched frightfully inside. By early morning, I was ready to leave, so I caught a 5;40AM train to Italy and found myself in Genova by eleven.
Genova was merely a transfer point, but I had ample time to take in a little of the city, so I got off the train at one end of town and hopped back on at the other, wandering about Genova's shadowy alleys for a few short hours, and then I returned to the rails, rocketing eastward, away from the new world with its glitz and its glamour and returning to the old, to the rugged Italian coastline, to the five villages of Cinque Terre.