The Toronto Film Festival is on this week. Without me. Between that and the publication today of my new book, The Incredible Shrinking Critic, I’m reminded of all the film festivals I’ve covered over the years where it seemed impossible not to gain weight.
Poor thing, you say. All that free Champagne and fine French food; my heart bleeds for you.
OK, so it was an enviable problem, how to make it past the patisserie located next to my hotel. Movie reviewing mentally engaging, but physically passive. Now, imagine sitting on one’s derriere most hours of the day in the middle of the Riviera with only rich sauces to revive you.
In past years covering Cannes, I’d stop in at the next-door patisserie as routinely as I did at the hotel lobby to check for messages, and when things got rough – deadlines, boring movies, foot-in-mouth disease at some cocktail party – I’d squirrel away éclairs in my room. Even when things went well I felt like I was in the trenches; “Incoming!” someone would yell before lobbing a fusillade of pastries.
The first time I managed to turn that around was at Cannes one year after I was fortified by a visit to the Hilton Head Health Institute, where Bob Wright, the director of Lifestyle Education, entrusted me with his trademark coping phrase for high-risk situations: Unwise, better, best.
I’ll say this for Bob: For all his wonderful qualities, he’s not much of a sloganeer. It’s unclear how many of the catchphrases used at HHHI are Bob’s invention or holdovers from the original program by founder Peter Miller. Some might even be cobbled together from the nutritional stylings of Dr. Phil, who advises in one of his books to “stop living like a lazy slug.” When the Dept. of Health and Human Services says Calories Count, it’s simple and elegant and has the whiff of a pun. Meanwhile, Bob continues to come up with phrases that don’t exactly trip off the tongue, like “If you fail to plan, you’re planning not to succeed.”
Nevertheless, “unwise, better, best” is a winner. In dangerous eating climes — like covering a film festival with its long days and endless platters of pass-around, deep-fried finger food – the goal is not to be perfect but to make choices along a spectrum of unwise, better, best. At Cannes, “better” meant one mini-éclair at the buffet, whereas “unwise” would have been a plateful. (The fact that Will Smith and the alarmingly skinny Angelina Jolie were one table over that year helped my resolve; I didn’t want Will saying, “You know, Angie, the Mediterranean is lovely this time of year, but what’s with that chick and the éclairs?”)
There’s no judgment attached to unwise, better, best. It’s about making a reasonable effort under difficult circumstances. Which ties into another HHHI precept, “degrees of on,” in which you are never “on” program or “off” program, merely attached to a different extent at all times. Ideally, you strive for the upper end, where “on” is a neon halo. But as long as you’re on to some degree, there’s a spread of what’s acceptable in terms of calories, behavior, and exercise adherence. Being connected to a healthy lifestyle to some degree at all times is more efficient in the long run than being “perfect” a fraction of the time . The problem with rigidity (aside from alienating friends) is that when you fail to meet lofty, arbitrary, self-imposed standards, the tendency is to give up entirely and go back to bed with the cellophane wrappers from Hostess cupcakes crinkling beneath you.
Another specific new goal of mine for covering film fesitvals without calorie creep was to go to the gym – again, just to keep a sense of connection to my usual routine so it wouldn’t pull apart later like the pastry layers of a millefeuille. My hotel, the evocatively named Modern Waikiki, was lucky to have a one-person elevator, let alone a fitness center. For that, I had to go across the street to the Majestic Hotel, which charged a majestic day rate of 25 euros. I went every other day for complete cardio and weight workouts, often alongside the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt By the Sun), whose work I admire even though he yelled at me in bad French to close the windows of the gym. What, no fresh Mediterranean air? Wasn’t he accustomed to the frozen tundra or the steppes of his homeland?
Colleagues pitched in with suggestions for where to score quick salads. Indie film reporter Mary Glucksman was really helpful until she told me where to find free dark chocolate squares. This is not the kind of advice the Incredible Shrinking Critic needs. And anyway, Mary, they weren’t on the fourth floor of the Palais like you said.
At restaurants, I ordered grilled seabream (a local fish) instead of steak frites, salade Niçoise instead of Caesar. And French yogurt is to die for.
Every pharmacy in France has a scale. When you insert a half-euro coin, it spits out a receipt that gives your weight in kilograms, your height in centimeters, and the number of calories you really ought to be eating. I expected a hand (with a French manicure) to reach out from the machine and slap my face: Stop eating zee food!
Pascal at my hotel did the math for me, changing kilograms to pounds. After two weeks in the South of France, faced with every temptation from the overeater’s torture pantry, I hadn’t gained an ounce.