Tuesday, June 27, 2006

La Fête du Cinéma, Part III

Called on account of the World Cup!

Halftime score:
France 1
Spain 1

Allez les bleus!

Monday, June 26, 2006

La Fête du Cinéma, Part II

Theme: The two greatest cities in the world.

I saw two movies tonight. One made me ache for New York and the other made me never want to leave Paris.

Kramer vs. Kramer caught me off-guard. I hadn't read up on it ahead of time and, for some reason, I was expecting a light-hearted comedy. I was quite wrong. It's tragic and sad and difficult to watch at points and entirely worth it. Take Big Daddy, subtract Adam Sandler and all of the stupidity that comes with him, turn the melodrama into sincerity, transform the Hooters references into a hilarious conversation between a 7 year-old boy and a naked lady, and then make it great, and you have Kramer vs. Kramer. There's nothing dynamic or new about the film's style, but its content is so real and vital that, as hard and painful as it looked, part of me wanted to live the life I saw in it.

With Paris, je t'aime, on the other hand, I knew what I was getting into. 19 5-minute shorts, each by a different director, each on a different area of the city.

The list of directors is as follows (alphabetical order):
Olivier Assayas
Frédéric Auburtin
Gurinder Chadha
Sylvain Chomet
The Coen Brothers
Isabel Coixet
Wes Craven
Alfonso Cuarón
Gérard Depardieu
Christopher Doyle
Richard LaGravenese
Vincenzo Natali
Alexander Payne
Bruno Podalydès
Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas
Oliver Schmitz
Nobuhiro Suwa
Tom Tykwer
Gus Van Sant

In most cases, the notable directors just did short versions of what they always do - Tykwer's short is especially very reminiscent of his previous work on Run Lola Run - but they did it well and it turned out to be a charming film with a little bit of everything (it even had vampires).

More than anything else, it made me realize how much I've lived in this city, more here than probably anywhere else. I could see bits of myself and my life in most (not the one with the vampires, sadly) of the brief snapshots, and it felt nice, especially since I was sure that most of the people in the theater probably felt the same way. For that reason, I kind of doubt that this film will make it over to the United States, but if it does, go see it.

Hell, by the time it would come out over there I'd probably be back, so invite me along.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

La Fête du Cinéma Part I
and
The Myth of the Lost Post of June 2006

Today was the first day of La Fête du Cinéma, a three-day festival of nearly free film screenings in every movie theater in France. Of course, Paris - where on any given day you can probably find a theater playing any kind of movie you could possibly want to watch - is the glowing epicenter of all this movie-going and on a rainy day like today, nothing seems more natural than going to the movies.

Today, for me, had a theme: Italian neorealism.

I started the day off with De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, until today another entry on my aforementioned list of movies I'm ashamed to say I've never seen. True to neorealist style, the film is barebones bleak and it doesn't end happily. I thought it offered an interesting perspective on son-to-father hero-worship (especially in the wake of the collapse of fascist Italy) and the malleability of morality in dire circumstances, but it wasn't exactly fun and by the end I was in need of a break.

For an intermission, I watched a Franco-American gay couple have an argument rife with tragicomic language barrier misunderstandings in a cafe on Blvd St. Germain and listened to some Dutch people play some very beautiful music in a very pretty church.

Then back into the fray with Fellini's La Strada. Although technically not neorealist, it certainly feels like it, especially when compared with Fellini's well-known records of decadence La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. Parts of the movie feel like an Italian cross between I Love Lucy and Duck Soup, but for the most part it's painfully tragic, albeit somewhat reductive and misogynistic. Perhaps because some brief but resonating touches of the fantasy of these other films mix with and soften the film's classically neorealistic dim world view, I greatly preferred this film, even though The Bicycle Thief is certainly the critics' favorite of the two.

And that's it for now. Tune in tomorrow for more summary judgements. Up for viewing: Kramer vs. Kramer and Paris, Je t'aime.

And, yes, the myth: in brief, inspired somewhat by Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (one of the pieces the Dutch played in the pretty church), I've decided to let a post recounting some of last week's activities lie stagnant for a bit. I will finish it eventually and then retroactively post it under June 24, the date it was originally slated for. In the meantime, I'll give updates on my progress and offer you this teaser:

"Sunday Double Feature, la Fête de la Musique, and my very first business trip"
In which I encounter a melting Nazi soldier, dance in the rain, and sneak a knife onto a plane.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Yaourt

Continuing to play at journalism, I found myself standing out in the drizzle at Porte Maillot at 8 a.m. After five minutes of standing very still and blinking into the bleary morning light, I got on a chartered short bus and headed off to the Dannon (which is a French company and is really spelled Danone) factory. Theoretically this was supposed to be about engineered foods (Nestle, for example, is making a breakfast bar designed especially for diabetics, and I thought Danone was maybe doing something similar), but something seemed off. Everything seemed set to go very, very wrong.

First, I was surrounded by blonde French women who wrote for French women's health magazines. They were nice to look at and fun to talk to, but they were clearly there to write about dieting. This wasn't good.

Then we hit traffic. Lots of traffic. That's never good.

Third, we broke free of the traffic and it became clear that our driver had no idea where he was, but refused to admit it and acted like we were crazy for being upset with him about it. We actually drove several laps around one roundabout while we all argued and tried to figure out where we were.

When we did finally get there - almost an hour late - I was never so happy to arrive at a yogurt factory in the middle of the countryside in my entire life. It was a distincly French factory, filled to the brim with unnecessary architectural elements and all the yogurt products I could eat. Then the propaganda began.

There was power point presentation after power point presentation, each delivered by the most attractive person in his/her department. There was a tour delivered by a small man with a tic, where we saw lots of bubbling beakers and microscopes, but no yogurt. And then there were more power point presentations and more free Danone products. I forgot why I was there.

I was there to eat yogurt.

We all need to eat more yogurt. Yogurt is essential for our health. Eat more yogurt. Eat Danone yogurt.

I don't remember how I got home.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Another European Commericial

After this ad played for the third time over the course of one World Cup match, the New Yorkais wondered aloud why French commercials often lack dialogue and narration, focusing purely on the visual. We waxed philosophical on differences between American and French aesthetics and then got back to the game, certain that this kind of commercial was indicative of a profound cultural gap as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

Then I found the commercial online. You'll notice that, in this version, there is narration. In English. It was so obvious, I couldn't believe it. The reason so many French commercials lack dialogue is because they aren't actually French and when they're imported from other countries, the narration is taken off.

This is Europe: they don't necessarily have a higher appreciation for the visual potential of a culture; they just all speak different languages and so they need to communicate visually. Like I said, very obvious.

All the same, I really like the wordless commercials. Here's another one from a while back that features my favorite Jose Gonzalez song.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

PS

I found the video I linked to in the previous post on a blog that seems to be dedicated entirely to finding videos that use split screen. Interesting.

Conversations with Other Women

After a particularly long day at work last Wednesday, I was looking forward to going to the movies. Sitting alone in the dark always relaxes me and I come out refreshed. Little did I realize that Hans Canosa's Conversations with Other Women would depress the fuck out of me.

In brief, the movie is about a man (Aaron Eckhart) and a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who meet at a wedding. They talk, they flirt, they hint at a shared history, then they confirm it. They were married once, but they haven't seen one another in nine years. They've both moved on with their lives (nominally, at least), but their love hasn't faded, so, although they spend the night together, their reunion is fraught with a tragic nostalgia because there's little hope that things will work out for them; their thirty-something lifestyles and committments won't allow for them to run off together like they could when they were young. Like I said, depressing.

Nonetheless, depressing alone isn't enough and if that were all there was to the film, I'd say that Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset would render it completely redundant. (In fact, when we see flashbacks of the man and woman - we never learn their names - during their marriage, the younger version of the man looks much more like Ethan Hawke than he does like Eckhart.) Although the acting and writing are both quite good, the subject matter feels unoriginal in the context of Linklater's films. Thankfully, however, Canosa's visual presentation of the film is rather new: the whole film is shot in split-screen.

Frequently this means that the left half of the frame simply shows another angle of the same scene depicted on the right, which has the interesting effect of keeping the man and woman apart even when they're right next to one another. Other times, the split-screen compares the present with the past, or reality with what could be. Either way, what sounds like a gimmick when lazily described on a blog saves this movie from anonymous mediocrity and gives a hackneyed subject enough emotional force to, as I said (forgive me for splitting that infinitive), depress the fuck out of me.

It's way too hot out for me to sit in front of my computer and postulate about the significance behind the use of the split-screen (short attention span? a new internet-age ability to absorb more information at once? globalization?!), so I'll just put up a link. For a non-depressing split-screen experience, check out this commercial, which has played in every movie theater I've been to in the last couple months. I quite like it.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Madame de Stael, Hitler, Marie-Antoinette, and a certain Australian

My second week of work has come and gone in a flash, and I've fallen into a comfortable routine. It's a whole new Paris lifestyle, involving morning and evening commutes, lunch dates, evening drinks, and, oh yes, work. The regularity of it seems to be wiping away all the lazy flânerie and cinephilia (and blogging) that came before it. In a way, it already feels like I've been at this forever. For that and other reasons, this past week and a half has felt enormously long and I can only measure its length by certain punctuating events and people, the first of whom is Madame de Stael.

Madame de Stael was a celebrated and controversial French novelist who lived during the Revolutionary period and famously butted heads with Napoleon. In between periods of exile, she was also the proud owner of a really nice house on rue Royale, just off of what was then Place Louis XIV (but, since the Revolution, is Place de la Concorde). Unlike much of the rest of Paris, her house didn't become a museum. Instead, it became an antiques gallery, which is pretty much the same thing except the guests are allowed to touch all of the really old stuff and then you get pressured with the hard sell on your way out the door.

The gallery is owned by a man named Marcel Gruspan and his family has been in the business of buying and selling masterwork furniture and art in Paris for four generations. I happened to meet his son Pierre, who now manages the gallery, at a dinner party a little over a month ago and he invited me to come around and have a look. Not many people come around anymore, he said; it'd be a pleasure to show me around. As I'm playing at being a journalist nowadays, I gave him a call. It might make for a good story, I thought.

I'll tell you, I don't think there's a story there, but goodness was that a trippy experience. As I walked in, I was met by a man with a lazy eye who explained that Pierre was running late and then led me up a grand staircase past marble statues, suits of armor, and grandfather clocks. At the top of the stairs, two women who were dangerously teetering on the point between "middle-aged" and "elderly" were chatting at a horribly out of place endtable, as if they were sitting at a sidewalk café and not on the landing of a meticulously maintained historical mansion. They did not acknowledge my presence, nor was I introduced.

I walked past them on the way out about an hour later and they hadn't moved.

We entered the grand salon. Only a few blocks from the Louvre, it was easy for me to get disoriented and think that that was actually where I was. The only things missing were the crowds and the velvet ropes. It was just me, the man with the lazy eye, and this chair that was built for Marie-Antoinette (I'll get to her in a minute), and the man with the lazy eye was urging me to sit down. Because I'm slightly afraid of people who bear such glaring physical irregularities, I did as he said. I also held the drawer that he pulled (rather roughly, if you ask me) out of the desk made for Louis XIV, rocked the crib made for baby Louis XVI, and hung my jacket on the coatrack that was made for nobody important.

Out of fear, I did all of this, but eventually Pierre showed up and the lazy-eyed man went away. Unafraid of Pierre, I decided to stop. These things weren't meant to be touched; they were to be looked upon and admired. But I couldn't stop, and so I kept at it - running my fingers along the mantles, testing seat cushions, caressing the ornate carvings on the wooden tables - until it was time to go. In a short time I had become addicted to this decadence and to my intimacy with it, and it hurt a little when I had to go, but the glare of the early evening sunlight shocked me out of it once I'd hit the street and I went on my way.

Having had this experience, I should have been a bit more sympathetic to Marie Antoinette (see how I seamlessly weaved that in there? You like that?), but I just wasn't. In the beginning of the movie, after undergoing just a small portion of the pomp, circumstance, and ritual that is to become part of her everyday routine, Kirsten Dunst's Marie Antoinette declares it all ridiculous, to which Judy Davis responds "This, madame, is Versailles." Listening to them both, I had trouble seeing why they weren't in agreement; they seemed to be saying the same thing.

Of course, that may just be the point. Both a very smart friend of mine and A.O. Scott point out the film's potential to serve as an allegory for the indulgent, yet often short-lived fantasy land existence of many of Hollywood's darlings. Personally, that didn't occur to me, but having listened to and read that argument, I think it makes a lot of sense. Still, like Manohla Dargis, I just think it's all way too overdone and that Sophia Coppola is, like Marie-Antoinette, a little too immersed in this decadent lifestyle to offer any sort of critical perspective.

As always, however, I did enjoy her cinematography and her choice of soundtrack.

There are other people who defined this past week, including Hitler - that sad vegetarian, of whose final days I saw an artful and sensitive depiction in 2004's The Downfall - and also the certain Australian who came to visit and, in addition to watching both of these movies with me, brought a good deal of fairly welcome drama into my life.

Sadly, my day is about to begin and I need to go, so I won't be able to finish. I'll only say that, like the one that (for me) preceded it, this latest German World War II movie was remarkable in its human portrayal of upper echelons of the Nazis. Until he started foaming at the mouth about the global Jewish conspiracy, Bruno Ganz's Hitler actually reminded me a lot of Josiah Bartlett from The West Wing.