Today marks the start of the London Film Festival. I am no great devotee of film festivals, but there is this to be said for them: They are not literary festivals. I have attended only two or three literary festivals in Britain, but that was six or seven too many. The writers had been lured from their customary hovels and invited to bask, for the duration of a weekend, in the rays of public acclaim. Contemplating a mass of fiction experts as they seethed and snickered in a hotel lobby, and watching them swarm toward the bar with a view to trampling on the already fragile profits of their publishers, I was struck by a roachlike thought: Novelists check in, but they don’t check out.
Then there are the readers. I must confess that I have never understood this open-mouthed desire to meet the creator of one’s favorite work. If you really love a book, then the love should be enough, and to go behind the scenes—to meet the great and powerful Oz, wreathed in green smoke—can only lead to vaporous disappointment. In the first century B.C., Horace surmounted this problem by admitting, in the poetry itself, that he was fat, balding, middle-aged and useless with a sword in his hand, but few of his successors have been so judicious. And so the readers line up, yearning to ask the poor author, who had until now prided himself on his powers of invention, exactly where he gets his ideas from. Worse still, there is the drama laid out in The Clicking of Cuthbert, where P.G. Wodehouse describes the lupine fans who prowl around a visiting Russian genius, at a literary tea in the English suburbs, and close in for the kill: “He realized that eight out of ten of those present had manuscripts of some sorts concealed on their persons, and were only waiting for an opportunity to whip them out and start reading.” It is an ugly scene.
There is little of this at a film festival. At Cannes, there may be young filmmakers who get within 50 yards of Quentin Tarantino and attempt to hurl a videotape of their debut feature, Rat Run, directly into his lap, but there are also kindly, efficient men the size of Humvees who are hired specifically to grab first-time directors by the seat of the chinos and toss them into the Mediterranean. Cannes has increasingly little to do with cinema, being more of a Surrealist attempt to combine the peace of an Indycar race with the natural shyness of a Miss Universe parade as run by Monsieur Hulot. I have reported, twice, on the atmosphere of Cannes, but I felt more like a roving robot on the surface of Mars, sniffing the air for nitrogen, than I did like a regular film critic. There is little point in discussing the movies on show since they will either be reviewed properly when they open in New York or else denied an international release, on the grounds of being five hours long and set around a village pump in Slovakia; either way, they do not meet my central—if dull—criterion, which states that I should write only about films that people can see for themselves. The future is therefore bleak, I regret to say, for any reader of TheNew Yorker who is thirsting for coverage of Fish Never Sleep, a six-minute short from the London Film Festival (“Naeko is an insomniac, living near the fish market in Tokyo …”).
Once upon a time, film festivals were starry enough to open and close with a bang; E.T., no less, was the climax of Cannes in 1982. These days, Hollywood seems to find no commercial, let alone critical, reasons to send its products into hostile territory; such blockbusters as do come our way have the slightly bleating look of sacrificial lambs. Certainly, nothing woollier was projected on to American screens this year than The Four Feathers, and, when it shows here next week, the producers must be hoping for a fresh start. I shall not be revisiting that noble work; the pleasure was too intense the first time. Instead, I have tickets for Polissons et Galipettes, which could be even more sinuous than it sounds. It is a collection of pornographic footage from the early silent era, apparently startling in its breadth and jollity, often shot on legitimate movie sets after hours, and at one point starring a dog. Now, those of us who review cinema are easily recognized by the Rorschach blots on our fingertips—the indelible outcome of the notes that we have taken in the inky dark. In the case of Polissons et Galipettes, I tremble to imagine the state of my hands after 67 minutes of speechless, unadulterated French filth. If all goes well, I should look like a Jackson Pollock.