Wednesday, May 31, 2006

We get crazies here in Paris, too

I was riding the Metro to work today and as we started to pull out of a station early on in my commute, I heard singing. This is nothing new, of course. Panhandlers frequently ask for money in exchange for unsolicited performances, but they rarely sing about...Jesus?

I looked up and, instead of seeing a shabbily dressed woman standing commandingly in front of one of the doors, I saw a shabbily dressed woman sitting unobtrusively on one of the fold-out seats, loudly singing in French about Jesus to no one in particular. In between songs, she'd give a little rap about how neither she nor God were racist and how, together, they loved everyone. To illustrate this she'd occasionally administer God's blessing to innocent bystanders. She clearly wasn't in this for money.

This continued for ten minutes or so until a cell phone rang (cell phones generally work in the Paris Metro). Her cell phone. She stopped mid-high note and answered. Rough translation/transcription of her conversation:

"Hello? Ah!, I'm in the Metro. No, I didn't hear about that! No! No, she didn't! OK, well, I'll be right there. In a few minutes. Calm down. OK. Bye."

She hung up, but the phone back in her bag, rapped a bit about how Jesus also loves the person who just called her on the phone and how she and Jesus both hoped that that person's problems were not as bad as she'd presented them in that conversation, whereupon she began singing again. A few stops later, she got off the train.

As we pulled away, I looked out the window and saw her walking happily down the platform, singing about Jesus all the way.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Da Vinci Code

The line "You can never trust the French," drew a stony silence from tonight's crowd at the Gaumont Parnasse. A stony, stony silence.

Other than that, I thought it went over quite well. I had a very good time. I'm glad I didn't read the book though.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Forget Ozu

This short YouTube film makes Japanese cinematic history. The title makes for a great showcase of the language's lack of an L/R distinction.

Credit for the find goes entirely to Jim, who is entirely shameless about using a photo I took without ever once giving me any sort of credit for it. You make a guy look really cool standing next to a bunch of skulls and it goes straight to his head.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Do you still not know what you want to be when you grow up?

Do you believe in love? Do you want it, yearn for it, but somehow find yourself afraid of it and aren't sure where to go about finding it anyway?

You should see Russian Dolls (Les Poupées Russes), Cedric Klapisch's sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole (Which you should see first, if you haven't already).

The first film tells the light-hearted story of Xavier's (Romain Duris from last year's The Beat That My Heart Skipped) year in Barcelona,* where he shares an apartment with what seems like one representative from each country in the European Union. I watched this movie the summer after I came back from my first stay in Paris and in it I saw myself. It's not a serious movie, but it perfectly captures the crazy, amazing experience that is study abroad and all of the scenes between the multi-cultural roommates were so similar to the kind of interactions I had with my neighbors (who were mostly Italian and Spanish) in Paris as to be uncanny.

Les Poupées Russes, I saw just last month and it had much the same effect. Xavier, like me, has gotten older. Like me, he's no longer a student, but he still doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life. And like me, he wants to live fully and leave nothing out, but he's not sure how.

A perfect representative of the Yeppie generation, Xavier goes through several jobs, girlfriends, and geographic locations (Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Moscow) over the course of the film, never content, never sure whether or not he has worked his way down to the last Russian doll, or whether it will open up to reveal another inside. In one impassioned monologue (which you can see in the French trailer, on the French site), he nicely encapsulates the whole mentality. I'll write it in French and then do my best to translate:

"C’est quoi ce bordel avec l’amour ? Quand t’es seul, tu te plains. Quand est-ce que je vais trouver quelqu’un ? Quand t’as quelqu’un, est-ce que c’est la bonne ? Est-ce que je l’aime vraiment ? Est-ce qu’elle m’aime autant que, moi, je l’aime ?"

"What the fuck is the deal with love? When you're alone, you're lonely. When will I find someone? When you have someone, is she the right one? Do I really love her? Does she love me as much as I love her?"

It's a new age of anxiety, but it has little to do with money or security. The question is happiness. Am I happy? If I am, am I as happy as I could be? Could I be happier if my life were different? Having thought that, have I ruined the happiness that I knew a moment ago because now I will be wracked by curiosity about the happiness I might find if I change?

There's a Samuel Beckett-esque absurdity to this line of self-interrogation and, if you really wanted, you could reduce it to a simple, immature fear of commitment, as David Denby does, but I think it's bigger than that. It speaks to our generation, which - if I'm a good example to go by - is defined by uncertainty, a desire to achieve a real-world happiness to match its college counterpart, and an adamant unwillingness to compromise. Maybe that is just an immature fear of committment, actually, but that's where I'm at and I don't think I'm alone on this one.

I will agree with Mr. Denby that both of these movies are, in content, little more than light comedies, but they are so immersed in this time in history and this time in a person's life, that they can't help but invite viewers of a certain age to identify with them completely. I don't feel like I'd be exaggerating if I said that these two films were cultural touchstones for our generation, just as American Graffiti was for all those old people I can't identify with.

Klapisch romanticizes and idealizes things a bit, as is always the case with light-hearted comedies, but he also taps into something true. Go see these movies.

*Which, as I write this, has just beaten Arsenal in the final round of the League of Champions. Yeah, I don't care much, either.


And speaking of cultural touchstones: I don't care what A.O. Scott says. I'm going to see this one.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

German World War II movies

History is written by the winners, or, at least, that's a conclusion you can safely draw from Hollywood's treatment of World War II. As the last of the "good" wars, World War II has seen itself transformed from a tragedy that nearly destroyed all of Europe to a cinematic goldmine, the ideal material for an uncomplicated war movie: a good guy who is without a doubt good, a bad guy who is without a doubt bad, and a battleground that is sufficiently foreign for us not to feel too bad about seeing it reduced to rubble.

It's from these movies more than any history book that I learned to equate the German language and accent with fascist brutality and machine-efficient genocide. I watched Indiana Jones cringe and say "I hate Nazis" and I said "Damn, right," and when he said "Nazis" we both knew it meant "Germans as a whole." Even French World War II movies, which are necessarily more complicated due to the four-year period of occupation and collaboration, paint all of World War II Germany with the red, white, and black of the swastika flag.

I was, of course, aware of the fact that not all Germans were Nazis, that most weren't, but that fact didn't rest in the front of my thoughts as an emotional reality, hiding somewhere in the back as more of an intellectual abstraction. The idea that a non-Nazi could still be pro-German was an even more foreign of an idea. The reason why, I realized, was that, before last night, I had never seen a German World War II movie. I had seen movies about the aftermath - like Germany Year Zero and The Murderers Are Among Us - but nothing that actually took place during the Nazi regime, so Sophie Scholl came as a bit of a surprise for me.

The movie itself is not overwhelming. It's a compelling and competent recounting of the final days in the life of Sophie Scholl, a real-life German university student in Munich, who was caught, tried, and put to death by the Nazis for distributing pamphlets that criticized Hitler and his war. Apart from Julia Jentsch's performance as Scholl, very little about the style and production of the film is revolutionary or remarkable; what's shocking is its content and the perspective that comes with it.

I disagree with Andrew's argument that the message of the film is bleak. While it's true that Sophie and her two partners in so-called crime are processed through the Nazi judicial system so quickly that their trial and execution could not even make enough of a splash for them to become martyrs in their own time (they are now, however, considered national heroes), the film's presentation of their deaths does not dictate that they must be in vain. I think she does get victory, in her own way.

When she's alone in her cell and the reality of her rapidly approaching death sinks in, she lets out a disturbing animal wail that overflows with self-pity and frustration. In public, however, she never drops her mysterious Mona Lisa smile, which seems to infect everyone around her, from her police interrogater Robert Mohr who falters in his Nazi dogma and offers to help her demand clemency from the court (an offer she refuses) to the audience of uniformed Nazi officers who emit a low, disquieted murmur (rather than foaming at the mouth with fascist vitriol, as the judge does) when she argues her case.

The subtitle of the film is "The Final Days," so we know going in that Sophie will die, but the film is full of moments that offer the audience hope: the music that sounds like it belongs in an action thriller, keeping the tension high and the spectator on the edge of his/her seat; the confidence with which Sophie handles herself throughout her interrogation; the side-view depiction of the interrogation room that dwarfs the desk separating Sophie and Mohr and sets them on equal footing with one another. We know, however, that she will die, so this hope that the movie offers is the hope of a silver-lining, and I think the movie delivers.

Not only does it succeed in creating a set of sympathetic Nazi-era German characters in Sophie and those who die with her, but it also offers that not all Nazis were all bad either. Robert Mohr (whose dialogue, like Sophie's, was lifted almost verbatim from the official transcripts of the interrogations) visibly softens and tries to safe Sophie's life. Anthony Lane argues that "a drooping dullness in [Mohr's] eyes confirms what we always suspected - that Mohr was dead long before he met Sophie Scholl." I'm not sure I agree with that characterization, but if he is dead in spirit, Sophie revives him - if only a little - and he finishes as not quite the bad guy that the swastika pin on his lapel would have us believe, and the same goes for the mob of Nazi officers who seem more than a little uncomfortable with the death sentence handed down.

The tragedy of Sophie Scholl's death is undeniable, but the force of her personality as a martyr is valuable, because it reveals that Nazi-era Germany wasn't defined entirely by darkness, violence, and hate, and it complicates the tradition of World War II movies, maybe making for something new.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I was going to write about Psycho

But I don't have the kind of nimble fingers necessary to blog (articulately) at the speed of thought. I went to see Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho for the very first time last night. It was one on a gradually shortening - but nonetheless painfully long - list of movies that I, as a self-proclaimed movie buff, am ashamed to say I have never seen. A lot of times I come out of these movies thinking that they aren't worth a quarter of the sound and fury surrounding them, but Psycho delivered. I knew every major plot twist and had even seen a few of the key scenes before setting foot in the theater, and it still had me glued to the screen. Rear Window is still my favorite Hitchcock for all-around quality film-making, but Psycho wins best screenplay.

I had more to say, but that's all you're going to get. Why? Because of A.O. Scott.

From a glance at Clay's, and then Jim's, blog, I found out that next week's New York Times Magazine will publish a list of the best American novels of the last 25 years. I won't comment (not here, at least) on the contents of the list, partially because too many of these books I just haven't read (another list I need to get to work on) and partially because Jim and Clay do it just fine, themselves. Mostly, however, I abstain from commentary because A.O. Scott submits an essay to accompany the list and I have a thought about that instead.

The bulk of the essay just explains the premise of the contest and then offers a bit of insight into the top five selected, which is fine, but what interests me here is the end. Scott observes that the top five writers (or, rather, the writers of the top five novels) are all currently over 6o years old. Where are the babyboomers? The GenXers? The GenYers? It was 1965, he notes, the last time there was a contest such as this, and precious few of the selected authors on that list were above the age of 50. So, what has changed since then?

Scott asks: "Is this quantitive evidence for the decline of American letters - yet another casualty of the 60's? Or is the American literary establishment the last redoubt of elder-worship in a culture mad for youth?"

The second question, for me, holds no water, but the first is compelling. It's late and I'm tired so I won't interrogate this idea as fully as it deserves, but I think (I considered using the word "fear" there, but decided against it) the reason for the list's domination by the half-century club is that literature is gradually losing its alluring sheen. You can couch it in both positive and negative terms, but either way, our culture is becoming faster and more visual; several generations of creative and artistic people have begun to think in two-word phrases instead of sentences,* images instead of words, and, dare I say, movies instead of books?

Which is why I think it's interesting and just a little funny that it was the newspaper's senior film critic who wrote this very literary essay.

*Have a look at a four year-old interview with Kurt Vonnegut on McSweeney's.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

I just won't be defeated

Upon returning from a weekend in Rome, I found this e-mail waiting for me:

From: Unemployed Adam
(name subject to change pending news of employment)
To: Me
Date: May 9, 2006 5:08 PM
Subject: go see a concert

if the Go! Team and the Pipettes played a show together in new york, it would change my life. they're playing in paris tomorrow night, at a club called Trabendo. I know you've been traveling, but if you're back, this is not a thing to pass up. you have to trust me.

hope all's well.


Way to send me a last-minute e-mail, jerk.

I almost didn't make it for the following reasons:
1) I was absolutely exhausted
2) My Paris friends are lamer than I am, so no one was there to drag me kicking and screaming to what would undoubtedly be a good time.

Almost didn't make. At the last minute, I pulled myself together, played Ferris Bueller to my own Cameron Frye and talked myself across a dodgy part of town over to the concert venue.

I haven't been to a proper concert in quite some time - it may very well have been the Decemberists show I went to with Quimby the night before my very last college exam, which was just about a year ago - and this is the first time I've ever gone to a concert alone, so I was a little unprepared for what happened.

When I got there, the Pipettes were one-and-a-half songs from the end of their set, but that was enough for me to see that they were the coolest trio of British chicks to ever grace a stage. Neo-sixties matching dress-wearing girl groups are the next big thing, I'm sure of it. But I digress.

After their set the lights came on and I moved down to the mosh pit area in front of the stage, at which point there was gunfire. A shot rang out and the French girl standing next to me screamed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her fly backwards a foot or two. I turned, steeling myself to see a body lying in a steadily expanding pool of blood.

But no, she was fine. It was just the sound technician fiddling with an amp, but it really did sound like a gunshot. We all had a good laugh about that (although I don't think that particular girl ever thought it was very funny.) So, yes, I was lying when I said there was gunfire.

After that, the Go! Team came on. Let me tell you: these people are crazy people, but they know how to put on a show. Equal parts Motown, funk, old school rap, and Schoolhouse Rock, with a dash of Urban Outfitters cheerleader thrown in for taste, they just don't stop. I really mean that, they don't ever stop moving. I've never seen a band run around stage so much, which may be the reason why I didn't take a single picture of their show, but here's a photo I took of the empty stage after the "gunshot incident."

I already said this, but it bears repeating: the Go! Team are crazy. I kind of hope they were on speed during the concert because, if not, they are just the happiest, most energetic non-real estate agents I have ever seen, and that idea kind of creeps me out. They're a little too fond of the call-and-response thing, but other than that I loved them all too well. I would write more about them, but I have no photos to go with it and this post is already rather long, so I'll just skip to the end.

Their show ended just as wildly and suddenly as it began, with the male guitarist jumping into the pit and crowd surfing for a while before being swallowed up by the mob, all of whom wanted a piece of him. At that moment, all the lights went out.

I'm not sure if my life has been changed, but I had a really great time. I was happy when I walked out of the club, and so I took this photo:

Thursday, May 04, 2006

On the verge of a nervous breakdown

Women, that is.

I've just come home from watching that classic Almodovar film at the Cinémathèque Française. All of that drama, color, and gazpacho made me realize that summer's finally here. It's suddenly turned warm in the past few days, and the effect has been paralyzing. For the first time in months you really don't need a jacket anymore, so I end up sitting for hours in the Jardin des Plantes with a book in my hand, turning the pages, pretending to read, unable to move. When I do move, it's slowly and lazily, as if I'd been drinking some of Pepa's sedative-infused tomato soup.

It was cooler this evening as I walked back from the movie - still warm enough for me to be comfortable in a t-shirt, but nowhere near as hot as it had been just a few hours before - so I felt more awake than I had all day and I moved briskly. After a week of unspeakable congestion, my allergies have finally started to calm down and I savored the air I was breathing, filled with the smell of wet sidewalks and newly-grown leaves.

I just have a few months left here, and they're going to be completely different than the ones before them. Tourists are spilling into the city and pretty soon I'm going to start working. I will no longer have the time to leisurely wander and duck into repertory cinemas in the middle of the day. Instead, I'll wade through crowds of summertime Eurorail backpackers every morning and night, the time in between spent behind a desk in an office by the Arc de Triomphe. Certainly not the worst way to take my first step into the working world, but it just won't be the same. I will lose the luxury of believing that Paris is mine and mine alone; I'll have to cede the greater part of the city to summer vacationers who won't know her like I think I do - hell, damn the torpedos and screw accusations of snobbery - like I'm sure I do.

At the same time, I am rather excited to experience a different side of Paris, even if it means regularly waking up in the early a.m. hours. I like the idea of meeting friends for a drink after work, of taking a deep breath and lazily loosening my tie as I call it a day. I'll probably never wear a tie all summer long, but that's beside the point. The point is I see a certain element of romance in everything and I'll believe it until experience tells me otherwise.

And should experience disappoint, I have another idea in the pipeline that, if feasible, will be a perfect capstone to my stereotypical year as a stereotypical American-in-Paris. On that cryptic note, I will loosen my imaginary tie and call it a day.

Film Shoot

That's me on the right dancing with the dippy redhead.
Photo credit goes to William Charles Baker

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

My Adventure in the Movies

After living a movie-drenched existence for the last eight months, I decided it was time to take a look at the other side of things. I needed to move on from just watching movies. I needed to start making them.

Writing, however, seemed a little hard. Directing...moreso. As for all of the other stuff...well, I just don't have the necessary skills. Acting, however, seemed just about right.

And so yesterday I had my big acting debut. I went to the shoot location, where I met the beautiful American producer, who shortly thereafter burst into tears and mysteriously disappeared, but not before she brought me over to the beautiful Polish makeup girl, "to have my face done." After that, I moved to the marginally attractive, but quite stylishly dressed French hair guy, who filled my head with so much gel that my hair actually crackled as I absent-mindedly ran my fingers through it later in the day.

After this brisk morning jog through the cosmetic gauntlet, I was ready to step in front of the camera. Sadly, the camera wasn't ready to be in front of me. The Jordanian director was too busy coaching the Slovenian actress on how to smoke her cigarette to take note of the fact that the Mexican cinematographer, the Scandanavian AD, and the Israeli continuity girl all seemed to think that they were directing the film and were viciously scrapping it out amongst themselves in his absence. In the meantime, the French art director alternated between wandering around smoking cigarettes and wandering around poutily looking for her cigarettes. I, meanwhile, chatted with a beautiful Cameroonian model who complimented my French and told me I should consider a career in modeling. What a delightful woman.

After that, I danced with a dippy American redhead for a while and helped myself to a series of free drinks at the bar. There was also a deaf guy milling around. I'm not sure what he was doing there.

Somewhere during that time period (which accounts for about 5 hours of my day Monday) I was in front of the camera making cinematic history in a 10-minute student film. What I learned from the experience:

1) Making movies isn't quite as glamorous as even my fairly low expectations might have led me to believe.
2) I'm still fascinated, and not just because:
3) You get lots of free food and drinks
4) And meet beautiful Cameroonian models and dance with dippy American redheads.