A screenwriter is frustrated at the Cannes Film Festival – until he stops caring about it. 3,283 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Ira, pleased with Bender’s free rewrite of his script, arranged a meeting with Tarik Azziz, a Moroccan film producer and financier, who would also house Bender for a couple of nights in his villa in Cap d’Antibes. Bender arrived at the Cannes Film Festival well armed. He had a script, an interested producer, and a room. It was now up to Bender to find a way to fuck it up.
As he wandered the Croisette, Bender wondered where he got his policy of walking out of waiting rooms after thirty minutes? What was the purpose, what was the result? From his seat on the Ikea couch of the office suite he could see the Moroccan producer talking on the phone in his office, ignoring Bender. Not a wave, not even a raised hand: Sorry, give me a minute.
Bender allowed himself one more pleading glance at the receptionist, who returned a minimal shrug. The ten minutes flew, he added another five, then five more and got up and left. No one pursued him down the hallway. No one flew after him begging forgiveness, clutching his sleeves, and begging him to return. As he stepped in the elevator it occurred to him that they might have thought he had gone to the bathroom.
Outside on the Croisette he strolled aimlessly past the crowded outdoor cafes and restaurants filled with women and men making deals, celebrating deals, all determined to keep Bender out of the movie business. Better to turn left, cross the street, take off his shoes, place them neatly on the sand and walk into the Mediterranean like Dirk Bogarde in Death In Venice. Instead, he squirmed his way through outside tables and made his way to the bar of La Ronde. A vodka and a cheese sandwich resorted his faith in humanity and his own cause. He would find someone else to finance the film. The producer who ignored him was probably a control freak and he would find a way to fire him, take the film away, or convert it into a musical with Justin Bieber. Better to get out now while he could. He would hike to the station, get his luggage, take the next train back to Nice, pick up his car and continue his European vacation, driving and eating in starred restaurants, his appetite enhanced by the joints he carried in his hollowed-out red Michelin Guide.
Bender’s screenplay, an homage to the French New Wave of Truffaut and Godard, was about Henry, a successful American commercial director in Paris whose wife, a beautiful model, leaves him. Disconsolate, Henry takes flute lessons in an attempt to get over her. He falls in love with his flute teacher while his wife falls back in love with him. Bender knew if he could get a bankable actor to play the lead he could find other financiers. But it was a small film, he would be a first-time director, hence, the desirability of independent financing and producer that the man he had just walked out on could provide. On his way out of the café he saw a familiar face at an outdoor table, Gary Norman, a literary agent based in London having drinks with a cast of interesting looking people. Gary waved and Bender was cheered as he made his way to the table. But Gary rose and met him a few feet from the table. signaling that he would not be invited to join them.
Gary was in Cannes for fun, and staying at a villa owned by one of his best-selling authors.
“By now, it’s a tradition.” Gary said. “And I assume you are here on business.”
“I’m meeting with a Moroccan financier.”
Back on the Croisette Bender no longer felt the depths of the
Mediterranean beckoning but he still wanted out of Cannes.
At the train station he was introduced to the first piece of bad luck that
was to plague him over the next twelve hours. Through a thick iron mesh fence he could see his Tumi suitcase. The sign said the office would reopen the following morning at six. He was stuck in Cannes until then. No matter. Once he booked a hotel room he could buy toilet supplies, stroll the Croisette, have a drink, enjoy a first-class dinner, retire early, pick up his luggage and get the fuck out of Le Dodge. La Dodge? He started with the best, The Carlton. A desk clerk politely informed him there were no rooms available.
“Perhaps The Grand?” Bender said.
“Of course, Monsieur, you may try.” Even with the accented English the subtext was clear: Are you out of your fucking mind? A hotel room in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival?
Bender thanked him and found the gift shop where he purchased a toothbrush and paste. Two hours later he had visited six hotels. At four of them desk clerks were kind enough to accept fresh twenties and call colleagues in other hotels but the verdict was the same: there were no empty rooms in Cannes. Bender wondered if he should repair to the red light district and hire a prostitute for the night? It would be his last resort.
The evening film would be starting soon, limos filled with stars and producers were inching their way to the Palais du Cinema, where fans and photographers were waiting alongside the red carpet. Bender saw Gary Norman coming towards him, dressed in a dinner jacket.
“We meet again.” Gary said.
“I wonder if I could ask a favor.” Bender said. “My travel agent screwed up and didn’t book a room for me tonight. Any possibility I could crash at your pal’s house tonight? A couch? Anything.”
“I couldn’t ask him. He’s a client and agents don’t ask clients for favors. It’s the other way around. I’d suggest a hotel. Sorry, have to run, I’m meeting people. Say hello to the family.”
Bender wondered if it wasn’t too late to return to the Moroccan financier and tell him he had trouble finding the men’s room.
The restaurant was almost empty. Bender was shown to a table facing the sea. He looked at his watch. It was eight o’clock, and he only had to kill ten more hours before he could claim his luggage and get a train back to Nice. Make this a long, slow dinner he thought. The waiter brought him a menu and the wine list. By nature, Bender was a speedy eater. He once got a writing job on a television show because the producer who took him to lunch marveled that Bender ate even faster than he did. It was with some effort that he forced himself to read the menu three times, narrowing his choices as he sipped a kir, then gave his order to the captain and discussed wine recommendations with the sommelier. He looked at his watch, it was eight-thirty, nine and a half to go and he hadn’t even eaten. Things were looking up. He started with a pissaladiere, a cold artichoke salad, then scallops in a basil sauce, and, as he was an unashamed tourist at heart, cherries jubilee. The whole meal, including two espressos, cookies, and a slowly delivered check only took an hour. Bender walked along the Croisette past the Palais du Cinema. Crews in blue jumpsuits and Day-Glo vests were busy sweeping up debris and stacking the barriers for the next day’s screening. Giant posters advertising films stared down at him. He felt small, out of the business, he was tired, he wanted a bath, a bed, and an Ambien. He missed Ellen, he wanted her at his side. She would cheer him, they would laugh at his misstep, and together they would find a way out of this mess. Bender allowed himself another minute of sadness for the sheer pleasure of it and then, as Dr. Gladstein had suggested in such situations, to look at the facts; Bender had just eaten a hundred-euro meal, he was wearing clothes by Armani, his wallet was thick, he was rich and homeless. Bender walked across the street and found a bench. Before him was the black near silence of the sea, only the sound of tiny waves slapping the sand, behind him crap music from cruising Ferraris, beeping horns, raspy motor bikes. Could he go horizontal on the bench and sleep? Did French cops slap heels with their billy clubs like their American brothers and say move, on buddy? What was French for move on? What about the beach with his jacket for a pillow? The melody of “Under The Boardwalk” floated in momentarily but erased quickly by the image of a gang of tattooed French thugs mugging him. Better to resume his search for a hotel room, or bribe a bellhop for a couch in the lobby and sneak a snooze. He didn’t have the energy. He took out his toothbrush and retrieved bits of his two-star meal. Somewhere between a thread of scallop and a spit of cherry skin it came to him. There was a place where he could spend the night, legitimately, comfortably, amusingly, and it was just down the street. It was the Casino Barriere Les Princes. Bender handed his passport to a man in a tuxedo and filled out the registration card. He was accepted and duly admitted to the Grande Salle where baccarat, roulette, and blackjack games were in progress under huge chandeliers. The women wore gowns, the men suits, everyone was beautiful. Bender wandered the room, saw producers and actors whose movies hadn’t screened yet. Earlier that evening they walked up the red carpet and found a back exit from the theatre having no interest in a film that wasn’t theirs. The room was a sea of perfect hair and makeup, gold cigarette lighters, scurrying waiters dispensing cocktails and overexposed breasts. Bender was in heaven. He could gamble all night. Screw Ambien. Was that James Bond at the baccarat table, shaken or stirred, he couldn’t remember. Bender dipped in and out of a blackjack game, not bothering to sit, losing one, winning three, moving to the roulette table where he bet black and even and for once enjoyed the slowness of the ball in the roulette wheel as it plunked from slot to slot until it finally came to a halt in twenty-six black. As he pocketed his chips Bender could see people drifting in from the screening. He checked his watch, it was ten thirty, tempus fugit. Bender sipped his martini, his back to the bar for a better view of the room. The woman on his left who turned out to be Abby, said, “American?”
“Does it show?” Bender said.
“I guessed Russian. Boy, was I wrong,” the woman on his right who turned out to be Martha, said.
“I couldn’t be Russian?” Bender said.
“You look Russian,” said Martha who was at least six feet tall. Abby, who was about five-five said, “Are you from Hollywood?”
“Do you have a film in the festival?”
“No. Do you?”
“As a matter of fact we do.”
“Why don’t we get a table and you can tell me about it,” Bender said, for he was tired of looking up at Martha.
They were both stunning in their own ways. Although he was at first partial to the towering red-haired beauty of Martha, Abby had the livelier personality. She touched, prodded, pinched, and caressed Bender on every sentence. She a thin scar across her cheek and said it was the result of a duel in Heidelberg and when she laughed at something Bender said he melted. Martha was analytical and knew the inside scoop on every film in the festival. She wore a low cut black dress with a silver jacket and the promise of her breasts made Bender wonder if he should hand her his screenplay. Then again, Abby had a raspy voice that seemed to jump octaves in a very sexy way. Could he fall in love with two women at the same time? Bender suddenly didn’t regret that Ellen wasn’t with him.
“The film?” Bender said.
“We’re documentary producers from D.C. It’s about a family that’s been harvesting oysters for four generations in the Chesapeake, that has to deal with warming waters. We have some interest from Arte and Canal Plus.”
Abby said, ”You like oysters?”
“Let’s order some.”
“Absolutely, And they are on me. Shall we have them with champagne?”
They ordered oysters and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck, followed by quiet time on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean with a killer joint that Abby had stashed in her pocket. In the casino Bender danced with Abby and then Martha who said it would be more fun if the three of them danced together. They gambled, but modestly, and when Martha hit three blackjacks in a row doubling down on each she got up and said, “I quit. I have enough for a new refrigerator.” They returned to the dance floor and when they tired of dancing they ordered another bottle of champagne and passed the joint under the table to each other but no one seemed to care. Abby said, “Marth’, I’m really high and when I get high I get honest. I think we should tell him the truth.”
Martha leaned over and bunked her forehead against Bender’s. She smelled of Prell and her breasts were resting on his arm and he was losing interest in Abby.
“Okay, I’ll tell him the truth.”
“You can’t handle the fucking truth.” Bender said.
“There is no ‘fucking’ in the speech.”
“There isn’t? Abby?”
Abby said, “She’s right. No fucking.”
“Okay, no fucking,” Martha said. “Too bad, you’re kinda cute.”
“You’re drunk Marth, I’ll tell him. There is no film. We are not documentary producers.”
Bender said, “What are you?”
“Lawyers in the Department of Agriculture.”
“Martha’s in Market Services and I’m Foreign Agricultural. We both
wanted to go the Cannes Film Festival. Go to screenings, premieres, receptions, and not be tourists behind the ropes.”
Bender saw Gary Norman. He was alone and at the sight of Bender and the two gorgeous women, he waved and started towards them. Bender smiled, waved back and gave him the finger.
“I’m sorry, you were saying.”
Martha said, “We created a production company, made up a fictional film, did all the paperwork and got accredited as participants in the Cannes Film Festival. Want to see our passes?”
“Didn’t the Festival people want to see the documentary?”
“Sure. It’s a real tragedy that it got held up in customs. Should be here any day.”
“Tomorrow’s the last day of the Festival.”
“How did you pull this off?”
Martha said, “It was easy. We are lawyers, you know.”
Bender told them how he had walked out of the meeting because he was kept waiting and how he couldn’t get his luggage out of storage. Martha agreed that it was self-destructive. Abby said it would work out for the best. Bender said that it already had since he met them. Bender looked over at the bar and saw that Gary Norman was sitting alone. He looked unhappy. “Well, what now?” Bender said.
“Too bad we checked out. We could have gone back to our hotel room,” Martha said.
He checked his watch, four more hours to go.
“We could tour.” Abby said.
The women had rented a Peugeot convertible. With the top down Bender stretched out in the narrow back seat, entirely comfortable, stoned, and stared straight up at the sky. Martha drove. They headed north for Moulins Mougins with the idea of a sunrise breakfast. Along the way Abby asked Bender if he would like to come with them to Monte Carlo.
“You have a car in the Grand Prix?”
“Don’t be silly. But we are covering it for our boss who is thinking of making a movie about it.”
“Who’s your boss?”
“You’re getting full access to the race?”
“We’d have to get my luggage first,” Bender said.
“No problemo,” Martha said.
Bender sat up and turned around. They were higher now, in the
mountains above the sea. The lights of Cannes dimmed as dawn spread across the Mediterranean. Bender felt happy in the company of wonderful women. Cannes, Monte Carlo, where would these two beautiful con artists take him next? To Rome, the Vatican, as accredited emissaries of Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles? With special permission to see the Sistine Chapel after hours, or the papal apartments with a private tour by Il Papa himself It was tempting and Bender regretted it as he watched them speed off from the rail station without him.
A year later Martha quit the Department of Agriculture and came to L.A. to find a studio job. Bender invited her to stay in his house in Benedict Canyon. When she moved out she was on a fast track to become VP of Production at Sony. In the last two months of living with Bender she was seeing an Englishdirector who would direct Mandrake The Magician. She was also pregnant with his child but this information she withheld from Bender. He had no luck when he called the Department of Agriculture for Abby. A part of him wished she was the one who had come to Hollywood. Bender ran into Martha at a screening during Oscar season. She told him Abby was ill and had moved back to Michigan to be with her parents. “Whatever happened to your French screenplay?”
“I have a new producer. He’s looking for money.”
“It’s not for us but if you have anything else let me know.”
In his bed after the screening Bender missed Martha’s soft length. He was merely a part of the calculus of forged documents, cribbed resumes, beauty and charm. Cannes, Monte Carlo, Benedict Canyon, and Sony. Nevertheless, Bender awoke filled with the clarity and energy of a man who has slept well, dreamed happily, and in those dreams found solutions to life’s problems. The neatly stacked pillows on the other side of his bed reminded him that he had spent another night alone, and his mood returned to a more familiar, less bearable misery. If Ellen was here she would have already finished her asanas, made coffee for Bender, and if she was in the mood, invite him to shower with her and make love amid the swaying loofas. The memory of Ellen was, as always, a worse one, for it was accompanied by: Why.
Bender tried to recall his dreams: were there any clues to the mystery of his divorce, any that could shed light on why Ellen had left him? Any that Bender could present to Dr. Gladstein? Bender wondered if shrinks get bored, but they are taught not to say, “For God’s sake, Bender, not that again, can’t you talk about something else, besides your ex-wife?”
He found his watch, it was six a.m.
Bender made his own coffee and walked out on to his deck overlooking Benedict Canyon. He stood naked, wondering if the hawk floating above him was aware of his misery or just searching for a plump field mouse.
As always, there would be no sunrise for Bender to admire. His deck faced west, the sun rose behind him. Yet on this clear day he could see the gray black water of the Pacific turning into an endless shimmering mirror as the sun made its way over the roof of his house. Bender, cheered by the view, stretched three ways and took his morning piss over the edge of his deck onto an agave cactus.
This story is an excerpt from the author’s just completed novel, Bender Finds A Way. An earlyier version of this story first posted on May 4, 2016.