Saturday, June 30, 2012

Out and About: Events: Savion Glover

Le hasard fait bien les choses. Fate does things well. It’s one of many French sayings I’ve learned over the years, and one heard often.
     Several of my Ann Arbor French-speaking friends have been working to bring Ionesco’s play Rhinocéros to the Michigan university town. And they’ve worked well, because it’s scheduled to play the Power Center in October. The production comes from the prestigious Théâtre de la Ville, which belongs to the city of Paris. It will be touring Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and... Ann Arbor!
     One of them - my French-speaking friends, not a rhinoceros - was in Paris a couple of weeks ago and asked me to accompany her to the theater to meet with its Administrator Michael Chase to discuss what we could do during their stay to make it more pleasant. And that’s how it all started.
     Being a gentleman, Michael offered both of us tickets for that night’s show. I couldn’t go, so he offered me a choice of one of two rainchecks. As my daughter was arriving shortly from America, and as one of her pastimes is dancing, I opted for the Savion Glover show.
     In spite of all the posters gracing all the hallways of the métro. I never would have gone to that show without this series of coincidences: the Rhinocéros production, the visit of my friend, the meeting with Michael, the arrival of my daughter who used to dance. But boy, am I glad I did. Le hasard fait bien les choses.

Savion Glover was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1973. By age 4, he started drumming lessons, probably having driven his mother nuts by borrowing her pots and pans to bang on. He evidently had a thing about rhythm. By age 9, he was at the Broadway Dance Center, by age 11 he had the starring role in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway, and by age 15 his performance in Black and Blue got him nominated for a Tony Award. If that isn’t a meteoric career, then I don’t know what is!
     This show - Solo in Time - is based on a fascinating connection that had never occurred to me but which is totally logical when you consider it. Glover linked traditional tap dancing with flamenco, which is said to have had its origin in India and traveled west with the native nomads we now call gypsies, through North Africa and into Spain, where it has attained cult status and become a national symbol. If you think about it, there is little difference between a tap dancer's shoes and the staccato heels of a flamenco dancer.  Or as Glover put it himself in the program notes, "I wanted to explore the rhythmic percussion of a style of dance which implies a history of percussion parallel to that of the Hooferz tradition."  And by Hooferz, he means Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, Bernard Manners, George Hillman, Buster Brown, Steve Sondos and Chuck Green.

In the first number, Glover came out onto a stage bereft of anything but some amps and three square platforms laid out so they touched, with one in back and two in front. In spite of the excellent seats Michael had graced us with, I couldn’t tell what they were made of but it looked like there might be two different types of wood: one for edging and one for the middle part. That’s of interest only because of the myriad different sounds he managed to get out of those platforms. (It reminded me of a scene in Tap where a young Gregory Hines was told to listen to the sounds around him, for inspiration.) Glover’s years of drum lessons certainly transferred to his feet, and he played those platforms exactly as if they were a drum kit, starting out soft and slow on the back one alone, then crescendoing into using all three of them. At the end, he just hopped off and the solo was ended. As simple as that.
     And that was the tone for all he did that night: simple... but unbelievable. No one’s feet should be able to move that fast!
     After the first number, Glover was joined by two flamenco guitarists. They played and sang, and Glover danced. They did two numbers like that. At times the tap dancing was reminiscent of flamenco "licks", at others it was traditional hoofing and at yet others it was pure invention. The thing that struck me as kind of "odd man out" was the arm movements. Flamenco is always very controlled, with arms close to the body, moving minimally. In tap dancing, the arms... well, they kind of flail, working as a necessary counterweight for the body shifting around as it must to make those toe-heel-toe-heel sounds. And Glover was aware of it, because at one point he mimed the flamenco arm poses, a grin on his face.
     That grin was there through most of the show, proving that he loves what he does. It was especially visible after the first flamenco pieces when he was joined unobtrusively on stage by a second dancer who just ambled out and started up. That was Marshall Davis Jr. and the two of them played off of each other as tap dance duets are wont to do, each trying to segue off the other, and sometimes out-wow the other. It lasted until I didn’t know how they could even breathe any more, and then Davis just hopped off his platform and ambled off stage. How much more low-key can you get, especially in comparison to the dazzling-ness they’d just performed!
     My daughter and I had made restaurant reservations around the corner for after the show, based on the estimated finale at 10 pm which the lady at the Will Call desk had given us. When finally Glover and company took their bows after more flamenco tap numbers, we looked at each other in surprise. That could not have been an hour and a half! But it was. It raced by for us, although there were a lot of rude French people who left after the first three numbers. I have no idea why. They obviously knew what the show would be. What part of "tap" or "flamenco" had they not understood? And how could they not have been impressed by the mastery of the dancer?
     As for us, we wouldn’t have left for love nor money. And surprisingly Glover did one encore, even though the house lights had come up already (probably because he had told the theater that was his stamina limit). The entire evening was magical and Glover’s genius for blending movement and sound provided food for conversation when we sat down at the restaurant.
     The people who left early have no idea what they missed!

Savion Glover
until July 6, 2012

Théâtre de la Ville
2 place du Châtelet
Paris 4è

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits: Artemisia Gentileschi

One thing leads to another and you find yourself with yet another museum to visit.
     I saw the movie Artemisia at my neighborhood Studio 28 movie theater (see Feb 6, 2012), mainly on the strength of Michel Serrault acting in it. As the name Artemisia didn’t ring any bells, I didn’t know going into it whether she was a historic person or a fictional character. It proved a fascinating movie. Part costume piece (set in the 17th century), part love story bordering on soft porn almost... well, let’s say maybe just a realistic, artistic European view of the amorous habits of the time. Marvelous lighting, rich costumes, excellent acting, suspense... the movie had a lot going for it. Only when the end came and the explanatory titles ran did I find out that Artemisia had really existed and she really was an artistic genius, the first woman artist in Europe and quite the liberated woman.
     A few days later I met a friend at the Musée de Luxembourg to see an exhibit called Cima de Conegliano, Master of the Venetian Renaissance. I can’t remember why, but the name of Artemisia came up. My friend told me that there was an exhibit of her works at another of the Parisian museums right now.
     Being the curious type, and having some time while my daughter took a jet-lag recovery nap after her arrival today, I looked it up. It was on my métro line just on the Left Bank at the Musée Maillol. So I decided to go take a peek and broaden my horizons.  Broader horizons are always a good thing.

I don’t know nearly enough about Italian Renaissance painting, except that it’s basically divided up into Biblical subjects and portraits of the Rich and Famous, given that it was the Church (especially the Pope) on the one hand and the self-same Rich and Famous on the other who commissioned almost all of the art of that era in Italy.
Allegory of Painting,
and autoportrait
     Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 to the illustrious painter, Orazio Gentileschi. She learned her craft by watching him, helping him, posing for him and finally nagging him into teaching her all he knew. A gifted student who painted her first canvas at age 17, she then took her skills on to a whole other level. At a mere 19 years of age, she left her family for Florence and the court of the Medicis, where she painted her first masterpieces. (This was after the rape/love affair related in the movie.) Later Artemisia moved back to Rome, then on to Venice, Naples and even the court of King Charles I in London. Somewhere in there she managed to pick up a husband and four children, but I don’t know if she dragged them with her in her travels. She died in Naples in 1654.
     After remaining the darling of all the crowned heads of Europe well after her death and into the 18th century, Artemisia’s works fell out of fashion, as did those of many other great painters of the time. Even Caravaggio. Until Roberto Longhi rediscovered her and wrote about both Gentileschis, father and daughter, in 1916. Now Artemisia seems to be having a rebirth, with exhibits traveling around the globe.

This is a smallish show - about the same size as The Twilight of the Pharaohs - divided up between two levels. Interestingly, a good part of the canvases come from private collections. The explanatory panels are only in French, but there are brochures of those same texts in English and a few other languages available at the entrance.
     For something entirely different, walk through the rest of the museum. There is usually a second show by other artists on another level. And there are sketches and statues by the Maillol that the museum is named after. If you’ve ever walked through the Tuileries Gardens by the Louvre, you’ll probably have noticed one of the 18 nude bronze ladies of Aristide Maillol. They’re here and there, standing, reclining, sitting... all voluptuous, all woman.

Artemisia:  Power, glory and
passions of a woman painter
through July 15, 2012

Musée Maillol
61, rue de Grenelle
Paris 7è
Métro:  Rue du Bac

Open daily 10:30 to 7
Fridays open to 9:30

11€, 9€

Monday, June 25, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits: The twilight of the Pharaohs

In grade school, you’re introduced to the ancient cultures. Working backwards, I always found Rome boring. Too regimented, too military. Ancient Greece was interesting in an intellectual way. But before either of these there was Ancient Egypt.
     With Egypt, my mind would wander among the pyramids, the temples, the mummies and sarcophagi and hieroglyphs. Egypt left room for the imagination to soar, like Horus, the falcon god.
     I’m sure if I’d lived back then, I’d have hated it. Arid and hot, with the occasional asp. Yet in my mind, I was Nefertiti or Nefertari or Hatshepsut. But never Cleopatra (see asp above).
     So when I found out that the Musée Jacquemart-André was hosting an exhibit called Le Crépuscule des Pharaons - The Twilight of the Pharaohs - I just had to go.
     Jacquemart-André isn’t a large museum. It was once a private mansion and the main floor remains as it was when the owners bequeathed it as a museum, with the original furnishings and decoration still resplendent. Which means that temporary exhibits stretch over only six or seven rooms on the upper floor, the perfect size for someone who’s just about all museum-ed out.

The Twilight of the Pharaohs covers the final millennium of the rulers of ancient Egypt. One thousand years! That’s hard to get your mind around.
Ptolemy II
     And I knew very little about this period that stretches from the death of Ramses XI in 1070 B.C. to the takeover by Rome in 30 B.C. All I knew was Ptolemy and Cleopatra. It appears that during that millennium, Egypt was overrun by different cultures - Libyan, Nubian, Assyrian, Persian - and there were periodic break-ups between Upper and Lower Egypt. Scattered in between were periods of stability but they didn’t last long.
     Yet in spite of that, prodigious works of art were created. And in this exhibit, the Jaquemart-André has over 100 pieces on loan from the leading collections of Egyptian antiquities worldwide.
     I learned that there are differences from one period to another, and that was especially obvious in the sculpted heads. One red granite face had the same enigmatic smile as the Mona Lisa... 2000 years ahead of Leonardo da Vinci. Another looked like Gauguin might have carved it in Tahiti. The full-length figures were a bit more staid and rigid, but then again, maybe that’s because they all came from the same dynasty.

     Something I’ve always found interesting is that Egyptian sculptures of human faces seem devoid of feeling (although they do vary from realistic to idealistic) and full body sculptures seem frozen. But Egyptian sculptors depicted animals in a more lifelike fashion, as if they’d just paused in their animal doings. Could that be because the personages sculpted were often pharaohs, and thus the representatives of God on Earth? That merits a bit of respect, I guess. But it also explains why my favorite pieces were near the end: the baboon, the cat, the ibis... and Horus, of course. Among my favorite gods is the sometimes-ugly-but-always-bearded dwarf Bes although I’ve never figured out why this war god would also be the protector of women and children. There was a carving of Bes in the exhibit somewhere.
     One room - appropriately a dead-end - stages the inside of a tomb. It holds two of the sarcophagi of the priest Ankhemmaat, along with his funeral mask and other objects. Totally dark, the room uses spotlights theatrically to bring out the glint of the gold decoration. There are also 78 lapis lazuli "ushabti" statuettes, all standing in a row, waiting to serve their master in the after-life. (Ideally a tomb should have 365, one for each day. Union rules.)

After touring the Egyptian exhibit, you might want to take a look at the furnishings on the ground floor. Or enjoy a cup of tea or coffee in the café, accompanied by a pâtisserie. At lunch time, the menu includes salads, a selection of quiches or the blue plate special (as we used to say for the dish of the day). The café is located in the old dining room, so you can look out the window at the garden and imagine yourself back in the 19th century, sitting down with the Jacquemart-André family.
     Or, your head filled with ancient Egyptian beauty, you could try to project yourself back to the time of the pharaohs!

The twilight of the pharaohs
through July 23, 2012

Musée Jacquemart-André
158, bd Haussmann
Paris 8è
Métro Miromesnil

Open daily 10 to 6
Mondays and Saturdays until 9 pm

11€ & 9.50€

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Out and about: Exhibits: Degas et le Nu

When I’m in the States and thinking of Paris, I tell myself "Next time I’ll be out every morning, doing things, taking pictures, visiting museums, seeing movies..." And then when I arrive, I somehow get caught up in everyday details and the days slip through my fingers.
     Paperwork is partially to blame. And cooking and maintenance on the apartment. And this time the bloody incessant rain! Now there’s only a week left and I’m trying to cram it all in before I leave.
     So I’ve given a lot of thought to setting priorities. Which is why I hopped on the métro to the Musée d’Orsay this morning, before the rest of the Things To Do started getting done.

This museum had a previous life as a theater and an auction house and a movie set, including for Orson Welles. But even before that it was a train station and there’s still an RER commuter line running right underfoot. You can feel it rumbling and kachunk-kachunking over the points at regular intervals as you walk through this marvel of an architectural re-make. (If you go, be sure to check out the Belle Epoque ballroom and the still-functioning bronzed-and-mirrored restaurant up behind that huge clock.)
     But back to the reason I’m here.
     Edgar Degas (actually De Gas) was born into the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1834 and earmarked to be something other than an artist. So much for his parents’ expectations. I thought I knew a lot about Degas, but I didn’t. For instance, his mother was from New Orleans and there is some lip service to the idea that his Scène de guerre au Moyen Age (War scene from the Middle Ages) is based on tales he heard of the rape of New Orleans women during America’s Civil War. An entire room is dedicated to this piece and some of the numerous sketches he made for it. All reflect his concern with portraying the naked body and his fascination with its contortions, which became his speciality.
     The show is very different from what I’d expected. Degas is remembered chiefly for his paintings of ballet dancers and race tracks. But his classical training instilled in him a fascination with the human body, which implies naked. He carried on this fascination throughout his career, and this show is all about that.
     At the entrance to each of the seven rooms there are panels in three languages explaining the theme covered. Displayed are more sketches than anything else, and explanations (in small print) for almost every sketch. I noticed a majority of those sketches are from American museums, with the rest from private collections but most of the major works come from the walls and reserves of the Musée d’Orsay itself.
     One entire room spotlights his ballet dancer statues, or rather stages of his statues. Half of them are original wax figures found in his studio after his death, some unfinished. The other half are bronzes cast posthumously from original wax models. All are nudes. While his ballet dancers ended up clothed, there are numerous sketches and studies of them, minus their tutus, on the surrounding walls.
Le Tub
      Degas’ philosophy was to do a scene again and again, often from different angles but also focusing more on a different detail. This is very obvious in what could be called the bather scenes. That makes up most of the exhibit and stretches over several rooms. One detail that appears again and again is the metal tub used for bathing in the old days. (I remember one my grandmother had at her summer cottage at The Shore where I took baths as a child in the middle of the kitchen.) The tub is the link (along with the newly-invented bidet) between a set of small sketches and pastels Degas probably made in the brothels of 19th century Paris and the later works of more respectable bathers. It’s in these later pastels that the contorted poses of the models and the artist’s visible strokes are most obvious.
Femme demi-nue, étendue sur le dos
     As with most art exhibits nowadays, the lighting is low, both for dramatic effect and to focus attention. At one point, the lights accidentally go out and there’s a brief moment until the emergency lights switch on. They obviously don’t include spotlights on individual works. Everyone seems confused. And then a few short moments later the problem is fixed and the "right lights" go back on. There’s an audible "ahhhhhh" that ripples from room to room. And that leads to some giggles as well.
     Another facet of the show is underlining the connection between Degas and other painters of the period. Especially Renoir, for the colors used to depict the voluptuousness of feminine flesh. Like other painters of the period, Renoir depicted his flesh outdoors while Degas innovated by placing his women in their natural indoors habitat - a fact that goes hand-in-hand with Zola’s literary naturalism of the same era.
     The show ends in one of the old reception rooms, with its high, ornate ceilings. It closes by making a link between Degas and the upcoming generation. There’s a canvas by Toulouse Lautrec (in fact, there are a few others through the exhibit, if you look carefully) and another by Gauguin, both of whom studied Degas’ art carefully, and each of whom took part of it and carried it forward into their own works.
     It’s a fascinating show, but perhaps not for those who need the Big Bang Factor. It’s more of a quiet walk through the developing genius of Degas, step by step. And a lot is learned while stepping.

Degas et le nu
 March 13 - July 1, 2012

Musée d’Orsay

1, rue de la Légion-d’Honneur
Paris 7è
Métro: Solférino


Open Tuesday - Sunday 9:30 - 6
Thursdays open until 9:45 pm

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Passe ton bac d'abord!

Monday at 8 a.m. continental European time, students all over France - 703,000 of them, all seniors - sat down, fear in their stomachs, ideas swirling in their heads, palms wet, mouths dry, for an exam that will determine a great deal of their future.
     What am I talking about?
     The bac philo.

If you speak French, let me specify that by bac, I don’t mean a ferry boat. If you know anything about French culture, you’ll probably have guessed that.
     In the final year of high school, all students undergo a rigorous round of exams to see if they’re worthy of a diploma. They are tested in all subjects except French, which they will have been tested in already at the end of the previous year.
     And when I say "test", I do not mean true-or-false or multiple choice questions. The bac is all about essays. And it lasts four hours.
     Not only that, but as with all things French, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. I found that out at my expense when I wrote my first essay at the Sorbonne. In America, I was taught to write with links from one paragraph to the next, each opening with words such as "In addition..." or "However, ..." or "On the other hand, ...", back and forth on both sides of the topic. And I got quite good grades doing it. But my professor in Paris said that was "journalese" and therefore unworthy. Brrrrpppp, thank you for playing, this way out.
     What you’re supposed to do is start with an introduction and then proceed with thèse / antithèse / synthèse. Or in plain English, you run down all the points in favor of what you introduced, then all the points against what you introduced, then you pull it all together into a conclusion.
     And then comes what I call The Quaint French Part: vous ouvrez une fenêtre (you open a window). Translation: you say something, often in question form, that some other poor slob can then use as the introduction to a whole new thèse / antithèse / synthèse.
     And when you’ve learned to do that well, you’ll be as French as they come!

But back to the bac philo.
     High school in France has different educational tracks. They’ve changed over the years but are now literary (L), scientific (S) and economic/social (ES). Depending on what you want to do in life, you specialize in one of them. You cannot become a doctor with a bac L, but you could become a teacher with any of the three. It’s somewhat like doing pre-med or pre-law as of high school.
     Depending on which type of student you are - L, S or ES - the questions differ but you have to choose one of two subjects, and finish by dissecting a text that the exam board has chosen. Those questions are short on words but long on the thought required to answer. Here are the questions for this year’s bac philo.

Literary (L):
What is gained by working? (Que gagne-t-on en travaillant?)
Are all beliefs contrary to reason? (Toute croyance, est-elle contraire à la raison?)
Plus a text taken from Spinoza’s "Political Theological Treatise"

Scientific (S):
Would we be more free without the State? (Serions-nous plus libres sans l’Etat?)or
Do we have a duty to search for truth? (Avons-nous le devoir de chercher la vérité?)
 And the text is taken from Rousseau’s Emile

 Economic and social (ES):
Is it possible for natural desires to exist? (Peut-il exister des désirs naturels?)
Is working merely being useful? (Travailler, est-ce seulement être utile?)
With a text by the philosopher Berkeley.

You’re graded on a scale of 0 to 20. I was told upon entering the Sorbonne that 20 is for God and 19 is for the professor, so the most you could possibly hope for would be 18 (and between you and me, there are bloody few of them handed out). You’ll need to get at least 10 to pass.
     But the torture doesn’t end there. Depending on the track you’re on - the old L, S or ES - your grade will be multiplied by a coefficient when recorded in your total points toward graduation. Scientists don’t really need philosophy; it would only hamper them in toying with genetic engineering or building a better bomb, so your grade will be multiplied by a coefficient of a mere 3. Philosophy is deemed more important to those specializing in economics or anything societal, but only minimally so, and therefore their grade will be multiplied by 4. But philosophy is an integral part of a literary person’s training, n’est-ce pas? As a matter of fact, for the literati, philosophy is the most important subject with the highest coefficient: a whomping 7! So if you don’t do well on this exam, you’d have to excel in all your other subjects to pass your bac.

      And that, dear readers, is why there has been cheating... and on a very high level. Last year the subjects were stolen by a few enterprising people who then sold them to students so they knew what to study beforehand.
     This year there’s no chance of that. The forms with the questions on them are wrapped in three different plastic films. Count ‘em. Three. They were shipped by truck out to the test centers with an escort vehicle to make sure no one hijacked them en route. At 7:50 a.m. the forms are taken out of the safes in which they reposed overnight... under guard. Students are not allowed to bring any documents into the test room, or any briefcases or backpacks or even fanny packs. No cell phones. No iPads. No nothing. Just your ID. Your pens. Yourselves. Period.

And now it’s the big day. You’ve been milling around outside the school for up to an hour, talking to your friends. Asking a few last questions.
     The doors open. You file in, wishing each other luck.
     It’s 8 am.
     Drivers, start your engines.

                                                                   * * *

I forgot one important point:  the "why" of it all.  Why do the French feel it's important to put their children through this trial by fire?
Here are some comments made on TV Monday morning by those who rule over such things:
- It's important to be able to put some distance between your reasoning and your opinions.
- People need to hone the critical thinking that it necessary to democracy.
- Philosophy is the love of wisdom.
And who could argue with any of that?  After all, the bac has been going on since Napoleon created it by decree in 1808!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Star-Studded Montmartre

Until the movie Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (or Amélie, as it was known in English), Montmartre was a mix of blue-collar workers, shopkeepers, artisans and a few of the rest of us. You could easily find a plumber or an electrician, and food stores were way more numerous than clothes shops.
     But Montmartre has always been a neighborhood of choice for artists and those in show business.

Way back in the 17th century, Claude de la Rose was a famous actor in the Comédie Française, the troupe of the great Molière. As a matter of fact, Rosimond - his stage name - took over the troupe when Molière died. In 1680 he bought a country home with a vineyard on the north slope of Montmartre. The vineyard is still there - or more accurately there again - and the house is now the Musée de Montmartre, although connoisseurs still call it Rosimond’s House.
Renoir's house
     Until modern times, the Butte provided artists with cheap digs. In the late 19th century, Jongkind and Pissaro were among the first to move in. During his Montmartre years, Renoir lived in the little house on the corner of my street before moving uphill and upscale, and Monet rented several different places over the years. Van Gogh shared some shabby rooms nearby with his brother Theo for a while. And then there’s the building called the Bateau Lavoir. Its owner turned it into an artist colony where almost every one of the post-Impressionists lived until World War I: Gauguin, Picasso, van Dongen, Juan Gris, Brancusi, Modigliani, Derain and many others.
Utrillo's house
     Maurice Utrillo was born and raised in Montmartre. Among other places, he lived for many years with his mother Suzanne Valadon, ex-model and an artist in her own right, in that pink house near Rosimond’s vineyard. Toulouse-Lautrec moved around the neighborhood many times but always stayed a short distance from his favorite subject: the Moulin Rouge.
     And then there were the artists who followed Lautrec’s lead and specialized in poster design, such as Steinlen - famous for his Chat Noir poster - and Poulbot, with his over-the-top-kitschy but popular orphan drawings.
     There were some writers as well. Poets seem to have a particular affection for the heights of the Butte. African-American poet Langston Hughes managed to eke out an existence for about half a year in Montmartre, although they were indigent times for him. And Max Jacob held up the French side of the poetry scene.
     Even musicians found Montmartre to their liking. Hector Berlioz lived and composed in a house that no longer exists, victim of the urban development of the Butte that continued up until the Great Depression put an end to real estate speculation... thereby saving what little was left to save. Erik Satie lived in the house next to Rosimond’s for eight years, including his six-month fling with Suzanne Valadon. See how neatly it all ties together? Just like in a village... which is exactly what it was then.

But all that was before my time. By 1970, when I moved into the neighborhood, that crowd had been replaced by a new generation of The Famous, and they had already lived here for years. Especially the French street-style singers such as Patachou, Mouloudji and Jean-Roger Caussimon, none of whom are probably known to those of you who haven’t lived in France. Patachou did us all a great favor by buying a building that McDonald’s had set its sights on, snatching it right out from under their corporate nose by outbidding them and sparing us those golden arches as a garish backdrop for all the photos taken daily of the quintessentially-Parisian, artist-and-easel-clogged Place du Tertre. And then there was pop queen Dalida, an Italian born and raised in Egypt until Nasser came to power and frowned on "colonists". She ended up with a stellar career, a huge house at the end of my street and a posthumous statue in bronze.
     Montmartre also had dancers galore - still does, and they rehearse endlessly in big cold rooms with huge north-facing windows on the boulevard that marked the border with Paris until 1870, and still is the boundary of the 18è arrondissement. Among the most famous dancers, were ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina and the multi-talented Jean-Pierre Cassel, discovered by Gene Kelly, and the father of actor Vincent Cassel of Black Swan fame. Both followed upon the heels of the famous Nijinsky, who is buried down the street in the Cimetière de Montmartre.
     Even the circus was represented in Montmartre, with the Cirque Medrano, an octagonal building that Toulouse-Lautrec painted often... and was still standing when I moved here. It was named after the famous clown Girolamo Medrano, who is also buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre.
     As for the stage, Georges Feydeau, the turn-of-the-century playwright of comédie de boulevard farces, is buried there as well. His rival, Georges Courteline, lived in that little quirky house across from me on the rue d’Orchampt - the reason for me finding my hidden atelier-with-garden, but that’s a story for another time. Not far away still lives Gisèle Casadesus of the Comédie Française founded by Molière. Her son Jean-Claude, who is now the conductor of the Orchestre National de Lille, was born and raised there.
     Some actors, like Mme. Casadesus, went back and forth between stage and screen. Sacha Guitry was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and became a sought-after French theater and movie actor famous for his melodious baritone voice and his many wives. There was also Guitry’s eternal rival Louis Jouvet, one of the most famous of all stage and screen actors before and after World War II. But Montmartre’s constellation of movie stars stretched over many different eras. There was Jean Marais of La Belle et La Bête fame, who turned sculptor in his later years and built a statue of "The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls" to further immortalize a character from the pen of Marcel Aymé, another Montmartre resident.
Théâtre de l'Atelier
     Marais was the long-time lover of playwright and director Jean Cocteau, whose plays were staged on Montmartre’s famous Théâtre de l’Atelier. Even more recent resident stars include Jean-Claude Brialy, who always played the handsome young man in movies when I arrived in France. More recent still is the eternally-flummoxed comic actor Pierre Richard, who lived on Avenue Junot. And also Roland Giraud of Trois Hommes et un Couffin, who lived above the pastry shop around the corner, in the same building as the Casadesus family.
     Actors aren’t the only ones from the silver screen who choose Montmartre as their home; there have been film directors living on the Butte as well. Cocteau for a while, and also Henri-Georges Clouzot, the French Hitchcock. Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter and director of such French classics as La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu, was born in a manor house near the top of the Butte called the Château des Brouillards. Some directors are still here, notably Claude Lelouch (remember "A Man and a Woman"?) who bought the Ciné 13, a pocket-sized theater that was once part of the Moulin de la Galette painted by Renoir and so many other Impressionists. Lelouch also paid for the restoration of one of Montmartre’s two remaining windmills, with the proviso that he would be allowed to build an apartment underneath it with a view out over all of Paris... and he did.
     Even when they die, many of the famous artists and entertainers spend eternity in Montmartre. For proof, just take a walk through the Cimetière de Montmartre on the edge of the Butte. One of the most famous French directors of all time is buried there. I won’t tell you which one, but you can guess from this photo which gives a clue from one of his most famous movies, Le Dernier Métro - dozens of métro tickets.

The Man Who Could Walk through Walls

P.S. The opening line of Marcel Aymé’s Le Passe-Muraille is one of my very favorite ever:

"In Montmartre, there lived an excellent man named Dutilleul
who had the singular gift of being able to walk through walls
without being indisposed."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lights...Camera... Action!

My street today
When you live in my part of Montmartre, you never know what you’re going to find when you open the door to the street.
      Once it was a tragi-comedy involving cars, tow trucks, a German, and a French lady in a bathrobe (see "The Early Show, Paris-style", Sept 9, 2011). This morning it was a film crew. Yet another one.

We had been forewarned. Those red traffic cones appeared up and down the entire street last Friday. Production crews put advance notices on all the windshields and on each building, asking people to remove their cars by Monday.
     This particular shoot will be a film called "Boule et Bill", who are French comic book characters - a boy and his dog. The notice said it would be filmed in "period costume" - as the comic strip takes place in the Fifties or Sixties - so they would be very grateful if we would please not park our "contemporary vehicles" on the streets. They would even pay for parking from Friday through Monday, and they left their cell phone number. They even stipulated where the two closest parking structures were. Now there’s a production cost I bet you’d never thought about!
     They begged our forgiveness for any bother this occasioned and said they would be as discreet as possible. Knowing film crews, that wasn’t going to be very discreet but it’s usually fun, especially when, like me, you don’t own a "contemporary vehicle". (Although I was tempted to go out and rent a vintage car and park it there, just to see what they’d do.)

The most famous movie filmed in the neighborhood was Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain in 2001... or just plain Amélie as it’s known in the States. Thanks to that movie, property values soared in the neighborhood and even more foreigners moved in. I can tell you where every single scene of that movie was shot, Montmartre having been my home now for well over 30 years. Right around the corner is Collignon’s grocery shop and down the way is the café where Amélie worked. The park with the merry-go-round and fake phone booth is right across from my old place.
     And then there are the other anonymous film shoots, such as the movie set that I discovered being built in the rue de l’Abreuvoir one day. I’m not sure what it was supposed to be because parts of it looked like a Western, but it was probably something from the turn of the century.
     It’s always fun to happen upon these shoots, especially as my son was in movies for about ten years here in France. It is truly a world unto itself.

                                                                     * * *

Monday morning the trucks showed up. The equipment ones first, parking in my street for their staging area. A lot of young guys ran around with wires and lights and rails for the traveling shots.

     Then I had to go to visit my dentist near L’Etoile. It was almost lunch time and a cantina of sorts had been set up in my street.

     As I crossed the small square that had been commandeered for the shoot, it was obvious that many people had been working very fast since early morning. The square was decked out with easels galore and it looked strikingly like the artists’ colony up on the Place du Tertre, except it was listing heavily to starboard. By the stairs, track was being laid down for a traveling shot and there was red-and-white ribbon to keep passers-by from getting in the way, with a few guys left to guard the area and the equipment.

    Later, as I was walking back to the métro with my teeth a-sparkle, I saw a caravan of three huge white trucks marked StudioPhil on the side. Obviously make-up and costume trucks. Although there may be several films shooting in Paris on any given day, and I was about two miles from my neighborhood, I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew just where these trucks were headed.
     Sure enough, when I got out of the métro and walked up the hill toward home, there they were, trying to back into position in a side street. I felt like Sherlock Holmes - finger on the pulse of the French movie world.

As the day wore on, great progress was made. Dozens of extras milled about, getting their hair fixed and their make-up touched up, their Sixties clothes set a-right. The director’s assistants paced back and forth, script in hand, making sure everyone knew their spots. The crew scurried about testing the camera’s tracks, adjusting the klieg lights, orienting the big white reflectors that distribute the light evenly. It was almost like watching the NASA crew right before a rocket launch.
      The acting part only started around 4. But I had to wash my hair before my dinner appointment, so I stopped my periodic forays around the corner to the set and missed out on the actual shooting. Which is probably just as well. They’re an irritable bunch between "Action!" and "Cut!"

When I left for the restaurant this evening at 7:30, people were packing things back up in my street. No mean task! The crew was saying their good byes, moving on to tables at cafés where they would dissect the day’s shoot while someone raced the film to the laboratory. By the time I got back from dinner at 10 o'clock, all the trucks were gone and the "contemporary vehicles" had reclaimed every single parking place on the street. You’d never have known the neighborhood had survived a whole day of raucous siege by an entire movie crew.
     All that fuss for probably just one scene.
     It will always amaze me, when I see a movie, how much work goes into creating those two hours of make-believe.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Recipe of the Month: Sole dieppoise

There are many French ports on the English Channel where people used to take ferries across to England. Chief of them is Calais, the closest French town to British soil. There are also many beaches in northern Normandy that were, or still are, popular with people in search of summer and casinos. Deauville springs immediately to mind. Between the two there’s some "other stuff" which includes Etretat, Fécamp and Dieppe.
     Dieppe is the beach closest to Paris, which perhaps accounts for its only notoriety. It’s also the oldest, the place where the king was told to go in 1578 to recover his health.
     But before the French decided to paddle around in the ocean, they fished it. And pirated it. Dieppe was a center for all this, and more. In 1942, it was the site of the first incursion of Allied Forces against Hitler. In Operation Jubilee, 7000 men, mostly Canadians, came to free their ancestors’ native city. The raid failed, but valuable lessons were learned which later spared many lives on D-Day.
     Of all the fish in the English Channel, the most famous isn’t named after a French town; England gets that honor, with Dover sole. But sole don’t stay just on the British side of the water; they’re found off the French coast as well. And the French know how to make this delicate fish really délicieux and totally guest-worthy.
     I’m giving the Long Method, as stolen from one of the gods of French cuisine, Raymond Oliver. But if you need short-cuts, you can use a ready-made fish stock. And to make life easier, have your fishmonger prepare the sole by removing all the skin and filleting and trimming the sole. But have him wrap those trimmings up for you so you can use them in the stock (if you’re making the stock yourself.)
     Then all you have to worry about is the sauce, which is absolutely wonderful, but not if you’re counting calories.

  • 2-lb sole, in fillets
  • ½ lb cooked shrimp
  • 2 T fine dry bread crumbs  
  • 2 carrots, minced
  • 1 large onion, minced
  • 2 T peanut oil
  • 2 T butter
  • trimmings from the sole + shrimp shells
  • 1 bouquet garni (bay leaf, thyme, parsley)
  • 1½ c dry white wine
  • 2½ c water
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T flour
  • 2 c fish stock
  • 1 c heavy cream
  • salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 c dry white wine
  • 1 c fish stock

If you’re making the stock yourself:
- Shell the shrimp and save the shells.
- Cook the carrots and onion slowly in the hot oil and butter until they’re soft. Add the sole and shrimp trimmings, bouquet garni, wine and water and let simmer for about 30 minutes.
- Strain it through a fine sieve into a bowl so you can use it in the sauce.
Otherwise, just follow the instructions on the ready-made stock package.

For the sauce:
- Melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook until golden, stirring constantly.
- Gradually stir in 2 cups of the fish stock until the sauce is thick and smooth. Reduce it slightly and stir in the cream. Reduce some more until it thickens slightly, then beat with a wire whisk until the sauce is very smooth. Season lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Now put it all together:
- Place the sole into a buttered baking dish. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and remaining fish stock. Cover with a sheet of generously buttered parchment or brown paper. Cook in a preheated 350°F oven for about 12 minutes.
- Drain off the pan juices and use them to thin the sauce, if necessary. Pour the sauce over the fish and arrange the shrimp around the sole. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and brown quickly under the broiler. Serve very hot.

Accompany with a dry white wine.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On the Road: Fast Track to Amsterdam

Two generations of Thalys
Which is the newer one?
A French train is a wonderful thing. It leaves on time, for starters. And most of the time it arrives on time. If it’s more than 30 minutes late through faults of its own, it will reimburse your ticket. The only time that happened to me, it was because the bullet train hit a deer and we were stopped on the tracks for about an hour. I thought that should be considered their fault because they obviously had an opening in their Anti-Deer Fence somewhere along the tracks, but they said the deer was one of the Good Lord’s Creatures and that made it an Act of God.
     Anyway, here I am on the fast train to Amsterdam for a long week-end. And in first class, no less. With French Rail (SNCF), the cost of the ticket depends somewhat on supply and demand. So if second class is sold out but there are seats galore in first, you can buy a first-class ticket for only a few euros more... or sometime for even less that a second class ticket. First class no longer comes with all the bells and whistles, but still has its advantages. It’s far more roomy than second - three seats across instead of four, more legroom, with a wider aisle for your luggage to roll down. Plus they offer a selection of free newspapers when you get on. But don’t bother looking for Huma (the Communist Party’s paper) or even left-wing Libé; those must not be newspapers First Class People would want to read.
     So here I am, seated in an almost empty car, only 20 minutes out of Paris and the Goodies Cart has already been down the aisle.. Free stuff to drink and a pastry or a mini-sandwich served by a friendly lady in chic navy blue SNCF uniform. And this is only a snack; there’ll be lunch between Brussels and Amsterdam. All this included in the price.
     As we speed by Roissy-CDG Airport, an Airbus is taking off. Looks for a moment like it wants to race us. But then it’s gone and there are only the flatlands north of Paris that grow so much of France’s food. Crops aren’t very high in the fields yet because it’s been a hugely wet and cold spring. But soon there’ll be wheat and lots and lots of sugar beets. And alternating with the fields are woods. I think France has the most forest of any of the European countries. That’s because the King loved to hunt and such forests were generally the property of the Crown. When the head that bore the Crown was detached at the neck, the forests became the property of the government, which has protected them from destruction ever since.

      Suddenly, standing tall against the blue sky, are the first windmills. At least a dozen huge white giants, their three arms turning with slow determination. There will be many more wind farms before we reach the French border. They’re a far cry from their frail ancestors. It always seems like it would take a powerful lot of wind to budge something so big. But turn they do and France gets most of its non-nuclear energy from wind power.
     As we speed along, there are the requisite number of little towns (some only visible on the horizon), each with its own church spire. But they fly by so fast you barely have time to see them. And sometimes we race the cars on the superhighway. French planners figured "why ruin two landscapes" so they ran the bullet-train close to the highway. The rails are more of a straight line though. It’s quite a feat of engineering to turn a train traveling at 300 kilometers per hour (180 mph) and it requires serious canting and constant maintenance of rails, ballast and infrastructure.

An hour into the trip and there are more and more factory smokestacks in view. And more windmills. The church spires have changed shape and the sky has clouded over. We must be in Belgium by now. Yes, definitely Belgium. The houses and especially the roofs are totally different. It’s amazing how much you can tell about where you are in Europe based on architecture alone.
     And now not only does it feel like Belgium, but we’re slowing down, so it must be almost Brussels. And if it’s Brussels, it must be Saturday. (Old insider’s joke). Then comes confirmation over the loudspeaker, first in French, then in Flemish, then in English. It’s 11:45, which places Brussels only an hour and 20 minutes away from Paris. Very handy if you’re French and work for the European Union. Some people make that long a commute from the Paris suburbs to their jobs in town!
     The Brussels South station is dreary but functional; I’ve gotten off here many times. But this time I’m headed through. The staff changes and the chic navy blue uniforms give way to more militarily-tailored dark grey and burgundy. The "hostesses" are sweet as can be and one chides me for having left my purse in the seat across the aisle, as a grandmother would do, even though she’s half my age. True, thieves love to travel the trains and steal things and pick pockets - the profits are well worth their investment in a train ticket.
     The train crawls through town. And until Antwerp it continues to dawdle at a more traditional speed. The old rails under us make that familiar ka-CHUNG-ka-CHUNG sound as we roll over the points. They haven’t been modernized on this stretch yet. Very soon, a lovely lady comes by with another meal trolley and serves us up chicken-or-eggs... all cold, all very Flemish, with mustard sauce, but so artistically arranged, and served with such a warm smile. (On the way back to Paris the choices are "vegetarian-or-meat" - in this case wonderful cured ham.)
     After Antwerp (12:30), the continuously welded rails start up again and the train is back to its 300 km/hr race, but only for a short time. We sail across flat country with a backdrop of industry and more modern windmills. When we enter the Rhine delta, with water everywhere, we’re already into Holland. Another few minutes and at 1:00 we pull into Rotterdam, having passed a huge mosque with two minarets. Both Antwerp and Rotterdam were badly bombed in World War II - especially Rotterdam which was bombed to the ground - so both are quite functional and relatively modern, at least the part visible from the train. Announcements since Brussels have been in Flemish first, then French and finally English. But most everyone in Amsterdam speaks English, as it’s taught as of early grade school. And the person I’m off to visit was born and raised in France, so understanding and being understood won’t be a problem.
     Before reaching Amsterdam, I decide a pit stop is a good idea. The premises are rather small, and I seem to have butt-dialed the motion-operated faucet with my elbow while closing the door.
     The train rolls on slowly now, through long tunnels, past soccer games and bicycles, over pocket-sized green fields, with more and more hothouses stretching far out on either side. Definitely Holland, green grocer to much of Europe.
     One final stop at Schiphol Airport - how civilized that the train should pull in right underneath the terminals! And finally a few minutes later, we pull into Amsterdam Centraal station, and the wonderful smiles of my hosts. European train travel is a true pleasure.
Amsterdam Centraal

(.order reverse in read ,trip return the For)

Addenda for those who are curious about this sort of thing:
- The service personnel changes in Brussels; don’t know about the actual conductor. The "stewardess" between Brussels and Paris (can’t say flight staff because we never took off, in spite of the speed) works this leg of the trip five times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. Sometimes the hostessing is done by French staff working for the SNCF; sometimes it’s their counterparts wearing Flemish colors.
- Now that borders are a thing of the past in the European Union, the only way I could determine the moment we’re back on French soil is that my cell phone started chirping at me. As I don’t have roaming service, calls don’t arrive outside of France. And the poor little thing just wanted to let me know that it had still been working while I was having a fine old time in Amsterdam. And now I have a whole backlog of calls to go through!