First of all, I want to say this is an excellent concise and correct history of Cannes, Venice and Sundance film festivals, but that is just the introduction of this funny, meandering odyssey that captures the thrill of festivals as told by an adventurous man who today during this time of COVID-19 is living as a guest in a hotel looking out at Mount Ararat in Armenia.
Alex Deleon begins this book with the first festival he attended, San Francisco 1975, where he was given a pass by the former artistic director Albert Johnson. He met Albert at the “fabled Mediterraneum Caffe in Berkeley”. This first paragraph hits two very special notes for me personally…
I never attended the San Francisco Film Festival which had a high level of prestige for cinema cognoscenti. It was not in my orbit in 1975 when I was beginning my film career at a famous talent agency in Los Angeles. But when I was privileged to be invited as a guest of Karlovy Vary Film Festival quite a few years later, I was introduced to Albert Johnson by a couple of Israeli journalists, Edna and Dan Fainarou. Albert had a “family” in Karlovy Vary he always visited. Albert was such a renowned, consummate film professional and host, telling wonderful film stories of his own adventures, I was in awe of him. I had seen him introduce film programs over the years, but meeting him was a high point of my professional life.
The second note hit is the mention of the Mediterraneum Caffe in Berkeley. As a student there in 1962–3, I lived close by, and to go to the Café Med was the ultimate of “belonging” to a coterie of international types who were the habitues. I went on a regular basis and found a special place there with my new friends which gave me a sense of belonging, something not always easy to do in Berkeley, such a huge school after my frosh year in Brandeis with a student body of 1,500.
Alex moves next to Filmex 1977 in Century City in Los Angeles. This event was the most exciting film festival — and my first experience with film festivals. Run by the two Garys, whom, as I grew into my profession, I was able to speak almost as equals, I remembered them from my senior year at UCLA when I was an art student. Next to the Art Building was the Quonset hut where the film school was held and Gary Essert and Gary Abraham would host a marathon of films that went on for three days without a pause. Film students would stumble out of the Quonsut hut which where the film school was. I always wondered if I could go and see what they were watching, but I never ventured in.
Alex left USA in 1977 for Japan, determined to become the western expert on the cinema of Japan. I left for Amsterdam to be the first woman in international film distribution, where 20th Century Fox was training me.
Every point of Alex’s narrative resonates with me as it recalls those past days when even Cannes was a relatively simple affair, when “old biplanes pulled long trailers containing the big red letters SUPERMAN at Cannes, a typical stunt of producers father and son, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and Pierre Spengler. In Deleon’s description of “the festival big time” almost every line brings me back to my own coming of age in the film business and I am amazed at how well he preserved memories of details I could never recall…except I don’t think that Screen International existed then. (His memory: “Everywhere you looked there were tables full of information on films and free copies of all the major fim magazines, Variety, Screen International, The Hollywood Reporter, Le Film Francais and many others….”)
I love his memories of having a cigar with Sam Fuller in Cannes when The Big Red One was playing. Today I relive memories of Sam when I visit his widow Christa Fuller in the Hollywood Hills of L.A. (Check out A Fuller Life) That she is German-born also resonates at this time of COVID-19 when I am camping out in my little pied-a-terre in Berlin.
During his first Cannes Film Festival, Alex was representing the Japan Times and so was very happy to see Kurosawa “copped a Golden Palm for Kagemusha, although he had to share it with Bob Fosse’s…All That Jazz”, but it was particularly gratifying to him because it was basically because of the articles he had written about the Kagemusha production back in Tokyo for The Japan Times that had gotten him a ticket to Cannes in the first place. “In 1980 Japan was just about the hottest country going. Big film market, hot economy, world famous directors, lots of money to back films with and all that kind of jazz!”. His commentary on Kagemushu is enlightening insider talk ending with his statement, “You don’t ask a famous seventy-year-old director to come halfway around the world and then send him home empty-handed.”
His telling the story of his possibly becoming an international sales agent by brokering a US$5 million deal for Australia to buy Virus by Fukasaku Kinji is one of those Cannes fever dreams that has hit all of us at least once. “At any rate, with one full Cannes Festival under my belt I was beginning to feel like a genuine film critic, or journalist, or something like that.”
When he enters the decade of the 1980s he describes the Manila Film Festival 1983 where his take on Imelda Marcos, the “flashy wife of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos takes the cake. She had unlimited funds at her disposal, and, being a former Philippine movie star and beauty queen herself, not to mention a supreme megalomaniac and arguably the vainest woman on the planet”…and “the mingling of Spanish, Malaysian, Chinese and other bloodlines has produced some of the most fantastic looking women I have ever seen, and the outgoing friendliness of the women toward foreigners, but that’s another subject beyond the scope of this book.”…and his mixing with “Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Robert Duvall, Dominque Sanda, Alexis Smith, Virginia Mayo, George Hamilton…wow!!!! what was unusual for a festival of this magnitude, was that it was very easy to mix informally with just about any of the celebrities there in the hotel lobbies, by poolside or at special events and screenings.”
I loved reading this book! I love Alex’s plain-spoken and evocative language.
I could go on and on quoting it and we haven’t even gotten near to his meeting Divine. But another illustration of who this man was, back then, is his experience in Cannes in May ’83…”the first night at the last screening of a cinema next to the Grand Palais, which ended shortly after midnight…I was sitting there with my sleeping bag under my seat, wondering where I was going to crash, an odd thought occurred to me…Only a few feet in front of me was the curtain and if I just stepped up behind that curtain, maybe I could roll out my sleeping bag right there and spend the night on the floor behind the curtain of the theater. And in fact, this is exactly what I did. The main thing was to execute the curtain move so swiftly that the people coming in to clean up the place after the last show didn’t notice. The other thing was to figure out how to get out of the building in the morning before the day shift came around again. In any case, I got all this worked out and for most of the festival, this became my ‘hotel’ — the ‘behind the curtain hotel’ at one of the better festival cinemas on the beachfront which ran a late show every night. I ended up seeing quite a few late movies in that particular theater.”
Oh, and on pages 22 and 23 he actually looks for Fassbinder and finds Divine.
His description of Berlin is another adventure in 1985.
And then comes 1991 to 2000 and his connection to Hungary which dated back to his student days in Berkeley in 1958! “At that time there was a wave of refugees in Berrkely from the Anti-Russian revolution of 1956 and their hangout was a certain Cafe, the “Med”, where I also spent much of my time.” (Me too!!)
His adventures continue back around to Berlin 1996 where he stayed in a hostel near the Zoo Palast where the Red Carpet was rolled out for the Gala Premieres. The Golden Bear Best Film Prize went to Ang Lee for Sense and Sensibility “a furry English film…For me personally, the main event of the week was a special screening of Andrzej Wajda’s latest opus entitled Wielki Tydzien (Holy Week) for which the Polish master received a well deserved Silver Bear for ‘an outstanding artistic contribution’ which indeed it was. Wajda once again returns to World War II and the German occupation, this time to address the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, but from the viewpoint of the ordinary Polish citizens outside the walls. The Polish civilians are basically unconcerned as the Jews in the Ghetto are being ruthlessly exterminated by the German army during the Easter Holy Week, the Wielkia Tydzien of the title. An uncomfortable reminder to both Poles and Germans of their unspoken complicity in the ongoing genocide of the time…From Berlin it was back to Poland to pick up my Study of Polish Film and the tricky language that goes with it…as mentioned earlier, a casual meeting in Warsaw with Yiddish speaking Norma Brewer in 1995 would lead to a major film event the following year. That event turned out to be a retrospective of long lost Yiddish films…”
At this point, on page 90, the book turns into another book completely. Yiddish films are a far cry from Fassbinder and Divine. Alex goes on to describe other films, such as Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary at the Berlinale 2002 and then watching 9/11 at a Polish film festival hotel. (At that moment I was in the lobby of the Hyatt at the Toronto Film Festival.) And so ends this 152 page book, actually two books, both very different and both fabulous…the second being about Yiddish films and how they speak to the soul at a time when the world is on the eve of a change culminating in today’s pandemic and political madness.
Give yourself a treat and read this book! It is available on Amazon. Only 2 left in stock (more on the way).