It’s hard to process an experience that will go down as one of the best in my life so soon after it’s done. The Cannes Film Festival, which ended on May 27, has always meant to me, a film-lover, what the Vatican means to Catholics, what Mecca means to Muslims. Cannes is my Xanadu. This is the place where Fellini showed his films, where Taxi Driver was given its highest award, where Catherine Deneuve and Antonioni premiere their movies, where Almod³var is considered royalty. I’ll be honest with you: Never in my wildest imaginings did I ever think I was going to be attending this festival, and least of all did I ever dream that I would be working behind the scenes at this venerable institution.

And so imagine my reaction when I was able to secure two tickets for the gala celebration of the 60th anniversary of Cannes. That day, I had been working nonstop at the American Pavilion, where I was programming director, putting together a series of panels and conversations. At around 5 p.m., one of the events I facilitated-a conversation with director Wong Kar Wai and Grammy Award-winner Norah Jones, the star of his latest film, My Blueberry Nights-had just wrapped up. The temperature was hot, unseasonably muggy.

I rushed back to my room, exhausted and still jetlagged from my flight from the States. I showered and, still sweating, put on a tuxedo I’d bought especially for my visit to this festival. I dashed to the Palais des Arts-the Parthenon of film festivals, with its legendarily thick and lush red carpet-yet I was feeling tired and cranky, my shirt and jacket soaking wet.

Why did I have to wear a tux at 6 p.m. in the middle of a heat wave and stand in line with people pushing and shoving? I hadn’t gotten a bite to eat all day, and my crashing sugar level did not help my deteriorating spirits. The doors opened to the Palais and I was ushered to my seat-way up high in the balcony. “Rats!” I said aloud. I was joined by Jeremy Platt, the S.B. International Film Festival programmer who had flown in to assist me at Cannes. I was in such a foul mood I told him to not even speak to me. “What the heck are we doing here?” I asked him.

And then I looked up.

On the screen there was a live feed of the red carpet arrivals outside the theater. Anouk Aimee-the goddess who starred in A Man and a Woman and 8½, my favorite film of all time-was walking on the red carpet. Well, not walking-she was floating, like an apparition. “Wait,” I thought to myself, “right behind her is Claudia Cardinale, also from 8½! And Gerard Depardieu is two feet behind her-and, oh my god!-is that really Michel Piccoli?”

One after another, international movie legends were materializing, recalling the surreal parade of characters in a Fellini movie. Then I started sweating again, this time from real excitement, but that wasn’t sweat rolling down my cheeks. I felt flushed and fortunate and glorious and swollen with uncontrollable emotion.

If that wasn’t enough, the curtain inside the Palais went up to reveal a row of movie seats looking at a smaller screen. Gorgeous Juliette Binoche entered the stage and went on to introduce the 33 characters seated in those chairs. It turns out the Cannes Film Festival had commissioned the world’s top directors who’d been to the festival in its 60 years to make a three-minute film that captured what the movie house meant for them. One by one these directors got up, and involuntarily I covered my mouth with my sweaty palm. Alejandro Gonz¡lez I±¡rritu, Wim Wenders, Walter Salles, Emir Kusturica, Ken Loach, Jane Campion, Takeshi Kitano, and on and on-the greatest filmmakers of our time, all of them standing facing us. And Roman Polanski.

I can’t possibly put to words what was going through my mind and body. I can simply come up with a cliched sentence that I had died and gone to heaven. Everything bad that has happened to me in my life totally vanished from my memory because any struggle was insignificant to the joy and honor to be in that room, at that moment, with all these legendary people who have lived in my dreams and who have sheltered me and have challenged me and have made me a better man.

Cannes is a dream factory, all right, from the glamour and history of its red carpet to the care and passion that goes into its selection of films. And its 60th anniversary slate was an impressive one. Stand outs included the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which I consider one of their best. There was the latest film from Fatih Akin, whose earlier film Head-On had been a hit both at 2005’s S.B. Film Festival and worldwide. But with his latest, The Edge of Heaven, Akin proved he is an international auteur, a force with which to be reckoned. And then there was Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which won him the best director award. With all my duties, I was only able to see about 24 films, but what I saw was fantastic, thrilling, and inspiring.

What I will always take with me from my visit to Cannes is the reverence to film that is so palpable there. As you walk around its halls and the host city, you feel as if you’re walking on hallowed ground, where people speak in different tongues, but they all share a common language: a passion for film.

I had clouds beneath my feet for the days I was there. And I ain’t touching the ground for quite a while.


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