28 February 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 2

Another installment in my translation of a cookbook for French schoolgirls, from 1895. In today’s journal entry, we are introduced to Madeleine’s know-it-all Tante Victoire, whom I find terrifying. Even the loving, wise Maman is no match for her!

And if you were unaware that there is a wrong way — several, actually — to peel potatoes, you’re about to find out.



MADELEINE’S JOURNAL
SECOND ENTRY

Thriftiness and Order Are Two Qualities of the Good Cook.


Around evening, the time we were preparing dinner, I was peeling potatoes when Tante Victoire came in.

Tante Victoire, as all of us at home call her, isn’t our aunt at all, but an old friend of my late grandmother. She knew Papa when he was a baby and we’ve always thought of her as a relative because of the great affection that she bears us and that we return. Tante Victoire is sixty years old; she is spry, with a clear eye and a strong stomach, she is always in a good mood and is the most obliging person you could meet. In her youth, she worked in a great household, taking charge of the servants and overseeing them. Through this job, she acquired great experience, and each time we have a problem, we go to her. We can be sure of finding the true solution. What a goldmine she is, Tante Victoire, of good advice and of every sort of recipe, and golly! we benefit from her willingness to contribute.

She saw me with my big, blue-canvas apron, looking so important, like a first-time cook.

“Well, well, here’s a good thing,” she said. “Madeleine is cooking! But it’s a real miracle. How did this happen?”

Maman explained that now I was finished with school and would be doing nothing but housework.

“That’s perfect,” said Tante Victoire with an air of contentment. “And how did the little one take to it?”

“The Little One,” that was I. I felt very proud and, without responding, I began to peel my potatoes even faster.

“Well,” said Tante Victoire, “I see that we’re off to a good start and we have only to continue. For you see, ma petite, willingness, industry, and above all the desire to learn and to do well are half the job. It’s impossible for a lazy girl to cook well, since a quick eye and a deft hand are indispensable in certain situations. Then … say, by the way, here is a little lesson that your mother would surely give you, if she weren’t in the next room, setting the table:

“Why, in peeling potatoes, do you not take care to remove only a very thin peel? You see, everything you are setting aside is still good. You’re going to throw it out, and that’s a shame. Give me your knife, and I will show you how to do it….”

And Tante Victoire, with matchless address, swiftly peeled a potato, removing only a peel that was almost as slender as a peach skin.

While peeling, she said to me:

“Remember, Madeleine, that there are two ways to be thrifty: one consists of knowing how to buy; the other, of knowing how to use what you buy. It’s all well and good to run all over the market to buy potatoes that cost two cents less per bushel; but it’s better yet, perhaps, to know how to use them without wasting anything, and that is the mistake you were making in removing too much skin. There … you see, I’ve finished. Compare your peelings to mine.”

The comparison didn’t make me look good. I admitted this graciously and I tried immediately to put into practice the good advice and the example that had just been given to me.

I didn’t quite manage to do it perfectly on the first try. You can’t imagine how much patience is needed to succeed at these little jobs! I would start off well and then, suddenly, crack! I’d make too rough a movement with my knife, and cut off a good chunk. Fortunately, Tante Victoire was there to keep me from getting too excited, since, without paying attention, I let the peelings fly left and right, so that the table and floor were covered with them.

Tante Victoire couldn’t help noticing and pointed this out to me.

“But, Auntie, I can’t do it any other way,” I replied.

“You are going to see, Miss Cook, how you can’t do it any other way,” Tante Victoire said with an indulgent smile.

So she took a big piece of paper, spread it on the table and placed all the peelings that she gathered up in a single pile.

“Now,” she continued, “finish up while taking care to add all the peelings to this heap. When you are finished, make a little bundle of it all, throw it in the kitchen garbage bin, and you’ll see your table is just as clean as if you hadn’t put anything there that might dirty it.

“Now wipe your hands, not on your apron but on the towel which is there by the sink.”

I did what Tante Victoire told me, and I even had the good idea to give a quick lick with a broom to the floor around the table, which put the kitchen back to perfect order.

Tante Victoire complimented me on this precaution, and my dear Maman kissed me as testimony of her satisfaction.

WHAT I MUST DO
(To copy and keep)


1. I will be thrifty with even the slightest things, I will not let anything go to waste which might be useful.

2. I will avoid messing up the kitchen while I am peeling vegetables, and I will sweep up as often as it becomes necessary.

3. I will receive with pleasure the advice of people who know more than I, and I will follow their opinions.



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23 February 2010

Fran Lee

Explaining why poop in the parks is a bad thing

I must have met the consumer activist Fran Lee on some occasion, for in addition to her other accomplishments, she was my beloved Madeline Lee Gilford’s big sister. But because I didn’t grow up in the Northeast, I wasn’t really aware of her work, and it’s only now that she has died, at the age of 99, that I begin to grasp how fully she embraced the Lederman family ethos — which is to take absolutely nothing without putting up a good fight.

Calling herself “Mrs. Fix-It,” “Mrs. Consumer” and “Granny Franny,” Fran Lee was a pioneer in consumer advocacy on radio and television, beginning in the 1940s. Clips on YouTube show a woman whose physical resemblance to Madeline is strong — and whose voice is even stronger, a booming bass-baritone where Madeline’s was a light alto. (Except when she was angry, and then Madeline could really plumb the depths of her vocal range. Maybe Fran was angry more often than her sister.)

The progressive spirit that informed so many of Madeline’s political crusades is recognizable in Fran’s drive to compel industry and government to protect people from bad things, including defective manufacture and toxic ingredients.

According to her obituary in The New York Times, Fran’s best- remembered campaign was against dog poop, not merely an aesthetic issue in her estimation but a health hazard. She’d done her research and discovered that poop often contains a tiny roundworm that’s especially menacing to small children. Once she’d raised the public consciousness, New York’s famous pooper-scooper laws were proposed and passed in the 1970s.*

Realizing that anybody who’d been a “television personality” for such a long time must be the subject of some YouTube clips, I looked them up. In this one, quite long, Fran begins by warning manufacturers to stop trying to intimidate her and the stations on which she appears. She then declares, most persuasively, that she will not back down.



I’m not sure that any of the Lederman sisters** ever did back down on any matter of importance — and I’m equally unsure that, before knowing Madeline, I’d ever met anybody like that. And I worry that there aren’t enough latter-day Ledermans to carry forward their spirit, which dreamed of a better world, and fought so jubilantly for it.


*NOTE: Obviously France has no such person as Fran Lee, since dogs shit freely all over the country. We are resigned to dog shit — so much so that we tell ourselves it’s good luck to step in it, almost as if we look forward to it.

**A third sister, the actress Thelma Lee, survives. And it must be said that I’ve seen the Lederman spirit abundantly in Madeline’s daughter, Lisa Gilford, and granddaughter, Molly. It’s a privilege to know them.


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22 February 2010

Chez Picard

Ça caille là-bas!
This is Picard’s recipe for “Quail on a Mirror of Chocolate.”
Only the garnish has never been frozen.


When I moved to France, I fully expected to import the very skills I’d learned there from my maître, Henri Boutrit. I was certain that I would attack the streets of Paris as I’d attacked those of New York — as Henri attacked the Marché Central of Royan. One buys only what one needs for the meals of that day. One buys fresh ingredients. One does not buy everything from the same vendor. And one gets to know the vendors, not quite personally, but well, as neighbors, more or less. If you’d told me that a staple of my cuisine parisienne would be frozen food, I’d have walloped you.

Now is the time to confess my ongoing affair with the Picard stores.


Picard is a retail chain specializing in frozen food, everything from appetizers to ice cream, from individual ingredients and sauces to fully prepared dishes. I underscore that these are not TV dinners: there is not a Salisbury steak to be seen in the place.

The quality of Picard products is exceptionally high, the prices are reasonable, the convenience unbeatable. When I’m in Paris, and going to several movies in the course of an afternoon, it’s been helpful to know that I don’t have to confront the maddening evening rush at the market: I can go straight home, because I’ve got plenty of good stuff in the freezer to make a perfectly good supper. (In Beynes, we have only an icebox, so frozen food is out; I have to adapt my schedule to that of the supermarket.)

I’ve collected a few pictures from the Picard website, to give you an overview of what, in all likelihood, you are missing out on.

The American approach to frozen food is a block of ice. You have to prepare the whole package just to have a single stalk of asparagus, for example. The Picard approach is to offer bags of individually frozen asparagus. Thus you can take what you need, and put the rest back in the freezer for use some other time. (You are also spared the hassle of peeling fresh asparagus, my least favorite part of preparing one of my favorite vegetables.) They’re wholesome, too, with no added salt or preservatives. I keep a stock on hand at all times.

By the way, if you want just a little whole-leaf spinach, Picard sells bags of it in pellets. Terrifically practical.

Likewise, Picard’s seafood is always at the ready, and the prices are much lower than those of the fishmonger. The quality is good enough that many restaurants serve Picard seafood, exactly as if it were fresh. (Of course you can tell the difference, and I stopped going to one restaurant down the street, because they served frozen langoustines. I could prepare the same dish at home, more cheaply and without the pretentious attitude.)

If you haven’t got time or courage to make dinner from frozen-scratch, Picard offers an astonishing variety of prepared dishes. Many of these, need I point out, are French.

In New York, preparing fish en papillote was one of my standard practices: healthy, easy, not terribly time-consuming. In France, however, the grade of aluminum foil available is so flimsy that it’s almost impossible to create a papillote that will survive the cooking process. Picard uses sturdy paper (who knows where they find it), and all I have to do is pop the thing in the microwave.

I’ve had great success with these marinated cuts of meat (above, beef with shallots, my favorite, but the pork is good, too). I don’t have to wait hours while the meat marinates, and though the quality is as good as what I’d find in most butcher shops, I don’t have to dicker with anybody to get it. It took me a little while to figure out the correct timing for thawing and throwing the meat on the skillet: it’s possible, the first few times, to wind up with a tasty but grey and visually unappealing main course. Once you get the hang of them, however, these are very handy for special occasions.

One of my all-time favorites, Picard’s duck legs preserved in fat are virtually impossible to screw up — and, just as with “real” duck, you can save the fat for use in other dishes (especially potatoes). French friends like to point out that duck fat is actually good for your cholesterol.

For those who object to the random slaughter of innocent quackers, Picard offers vegetarian specialties, too, such as this lasagna with goat cheese and spinach. Admirers of authentic cucina italiana are often caught off-guard by the French approach (not only chez Picard but throughout the country): French pasta sauces, especially, are creamier, less garlicky, and not exactly robusto. But you get used to it.

Modern France is more and more a melting pot — or anyway, there are more ingredients to French society, even if they don’t mix very well. Picard addresses the more cosmopolitan French palate with North African and Asian specialties. I haven’t tried many of the Asian dishes (frozen sushi?), but the Mediterranean dishes are pretty decent.

Texan friends will want to know that Picard also sells frozen fajitas and chili con carne; by the register, one can buy unfrozen chips, salsa, and guacamole. I see no cause to waver in my longstanding refusal to eat Mexican food in France, however, so you will have to ask somebody else whether the Picard stuff is any good.

Making venison stew properly can take a very long time — if you can find the venison. Which, in all likelihood, you can’t, even at the butcher shop. (If you have a butcher shop, which Beynes does not.) Picard solves all problems.

Picard also offers recipes, giving customers fresh ideas for combining frozen ingredients. This tourte is made with boar’s meat, and with the exception of the salad on the right, the entire thing was made with Picard products. (They even sell pre-chopped onion — though I can’t imagine why.)

For months, I’ve kept the recipe card for this lamb dish. I haven’t tried it yet. My experience with Picard’s gigot has been quite good: it requires only a little preparation and roasting time. Most years at Easter time, Picard lowers the prices on its lamb products — while French butchers raise theirs.

By now, you are probably wondering about dessert. Picard’s freezers are bursting with them. Some of the offerings are very simple indeed (the apricot tartelette is a personal favorite), some almost painfully refined. Many require only a couple of hours in the refrigerator to thaw before serving.

And I did mention, did I not, that Picard sells ice cream, too? The range of flavors is impressive, and in addition to its own brand, Picard also sells products by “master ice cream makers,” such as this one.

So there you have it. Picard stores can be found all over France — but not, alas, in the United States. American notions of frozen food are so different, we may not understand that it’s possible to apply the classic principles of French cuisine to something so simple and convenient. Again — these are not TV dinners. So it might take some hard-selling persuasion for Picard to find a foothold in the American market.

Hélas!


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21 February 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 1

What follows is my English translation of the opening pages of a little 19th-century cookbook for French schoolgirls, which I found in a cupboard here at Beynes.

The most charming portions of the book are the entries in “Madeleine’s Journal,” in which our heroine, who appears to be about ten or twelve in the illustrations, overcomes her very 21st-century objections to cooking (it’s messy! it’s tedious!), and learns to be a model 19th-century housewife — with all that entails. Several of the recipes and helpful hints work in modern kitchens, too; I’ve tried.

If you like this apéritif, let me know, and I’ll translate a few more chapters.


THE FIRST YEAR OF COOKING

Precepts — Madeleine’s Journal
— Summaries —
Recipes and Cooking Terms

For Use in Girls’ Schools

By L. Ch.-Desmaisons


Fourth Edition

Paris, 1897


*
Chapter 1

Our Food

1. The most important and the sweetest task of the good mother is to make others love her household.

2. One of the best methods to do so is to cook well, that is, to prepare food that is healthy, varied, sufficient and pleasant.

3. Our food is healthy when it is composed of fresh ingredients and of good quality; it is unhealthy when it is composed of meat or vegetables that are not quite fresh or even spoiled. In the latter case, it is dangerous to the health.

4. Our food should be varied, since man by nature eats meat, vegetables, herbs, fruits; our health is much better when we accustom ourselves at an early age to eat what’s served to us.

5. The mistress of the household, the mother of the family who does not know how to vary the food of those for whom she prepares the meals, spoils their appetite, harms their health, and often spends much more than she should.

6. Our food should be well-prepared, and for that all women must learn to cook.

To know how to cook well is to know how to prepare every dish economically and pleasantly.

Not to know how to cook is to waste that which could be good, to displease our husband and our family, and to drive them from the household. [NOTE: An asterisk refers us to the Lexicon at the back of the book, where we learn that “waste” (gâcher) means to make something flavorless or carelessly, or to squander the ingredients.]

7. A young girl who pays attention, having the will and a good disposition, will always find pleasure in learning to cook well.

This illustration is from another book, which I gather was designed
to teach Mexican girls to cook more like French girls.
¡Au lait!



MADELEINE’S JOURNAL
FIRST ENTRY

I go marketing.

This morning, Maman called me and said to me:

“Madeleine, you have left school now, you have your certificate of studies and now you are doing housework. Will it please you to help me cook, clean the house, and do the laundry?”

I blushed a bit and I felt a momentary embarrassment. Since (I can admit it here) what I dislike more than anything in the world is cooking. I don’t understand anything about it, cooking doesn’t interest me. I think it must be really unpleasant to touch things all the time that get your hands and apron dirty, and that have a strong odor. However, I answered Maman:

“Since it is necessary, dear Maman, I must get started.”

“Good!” Maman said. “You are a good little girl; I see however that you only half-like to cook and that you don’t really dare to say so. But no matter, I know you are docile and attentive; I also know that you love me and that you’ll do anything to please me…”

“Oh, yes, dear Maman,” I cried, throwing my arms about her neck. “I will do whatever you want in order to please you.”

“Well then, my dear, you will begin right away. You will take the basket that you see hanging there and you will come with me to the market.”

As it was said, so it was done, and I left with Maman.

Along the way, I thought:

“We’re off to a good start. Going to the market, and especially with Maman, isn’t boring at all, and if it’s to be like this every day, I’ll be quite happy.”

Then I said aloud:

“Maman, don’t you get bored going to the market every day? And wouldn’t it be more convenient to go just once or twice a week? We could do all our shopping at once, keep supplies on hand for those days when we don’t want to go out, and ….”

“Ah! Certainly not,” Maman said. “I will never do anything so foolish.”

“Foolish…? Why?”

The Marché Central in Royan, the 20th-century market
where Henri Boutrit taught me 19th-century rules,
much like those that Madeleine’s mother imparts.


“Well, because that would condemn us to eating fresh food only once or twice a week. How, in the summertime, could we keep meat for twenty-four hours without its spoiling? How could we preserve the flavor of vegetables, if we leave them too long in the kitchen? And fish? And fresh butter? And fruits? All of that must be bought from day to day, to be pleasant and healthy.

“You see also that, in doing my shopping every morning, I can often find what we call a real bargain, of which I take advantage. Today, for example, there are many fish: I am buying fish because it is not expensive. Tomorrow, when the farmers’ wives come, they’ll bring vegetables in great quantity, and I’ll be able to choose: I will buy some and I won’t pay dearly. Because vegetables, fruits, and fish vary in price, according to the season and even according to the day.”

I understood immediately that Maman was right, and as we were arriving at the market, I found myself distracted by other ideas.

We did our marketing, or rather Maman did it all by herself, for I was too timid and too much a novice to dare to say anything. However, in coming home, I found that the basket was quite heavy, and I said to Maman:

“Didn’t you buy too many things?”

Maman began to laugh:

“Too many things! You’ll see how much is left tomorrow. We all have a good appetite at home and there are five of us: your father, you, your sister Juliette, your little brother and I. Even though our ages are different, the same food suits us all, since I take care to prepare only simple dishes, which every stomach can accommodate. This morning we will eat oeufs à la coque and a beefsteak. This evening we will make a cabbage soup in which we will stew some ham, which we will eat afterward. With that and some potatoes in gravy, we will dine very well.”

“Well, if I were the mistress of the household, I would make many small dishes [or appetizers], because that is much more fun to eat.”

“Oh, no!” said Maman. “That would be more expensive. Think for a moment of the seasoning for each dish, of what the finest ingredients would cost, and in olden days, of how much coal you would use. At home, soup and one or two very simple, well-prepared dishes are sufficient. Your father works a great deal, your sister, your brother and you yourself are growing, you are developing, you need solid and nourishing dishes to sustain yourselves and to comfort you, one and all. Ah! If you were sickly or delicate, if old folks lived with us, your poor grandmother for example, whom we lost last year, things would be different.”

“Why, Maman?”

“Because sick people and old folks, whose digestion is slow and difficult, need food that is light and yet substantial. Neither cabbage soup, nor ham, nor potatoes would suit them. So I would buy fish, poultry, fresh eggs for them instead.”

“I understand,” I said as we reentered the house.

And, walking ahead of my mother, I entered the kitchen brightly, for I was eager to set down my basket, which had made my arm stiff. But deep down, how happy I was to have taken the burden upon myself, and thus to have relieved Maman!

WHAT I MUST DO

1. I will buy each morning the provisions for the day, in order to have the freshest items.

2. I will spare no effort to procure good ingredients, at low prices.

3. For old folks and sick people, I will buy fortifying and light food.

4. I will put all my heart into sharing my mother’s burdens.

Except where noted, photographs are of the kitchen, scullery, and servants’ hall of the Nissim de Camondo mansion, Paris. From the website of the Musée Nissim de Camondo, where you can learn more about this beautiful home, its art and furnishings, and the profound sorrows visited on the family who built it. It’s one of my favorite spots in France. Young Madeleine’s kitchen was assuredly much smaller and not so well-equipped!


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19 February 2010

Ghostwriting

Poelvoorde and Depardieu in L’autre Dumas

The profession of writing wouldn’t seem to lend itself to cinema: it consists mostly of sitting alone and still for very long, tedious hours. Writers can barely find the patience for this; audiences can’t be expected to watch it. This helps to explain the memorable sequence in Becoming Jane, in which Anne Hathaway manages to write the entirety of Pride and Prejudice in three nights.

Ghostwriting, on the other hand, at least introduces another character (out of which, dialogue) and the possibility — indeed, the probability — of dramatic conflict. Even if the person for whom you’re ghosting is a thoroughly lovely person, and gives you an enviable platform, you’re always wrestling with your ego. Because you don’t get the glory you’ve earned. Meanwhile, the person getting ghosted may feel that he’s merely a front, inadequate to tell his own stories. That’s tough, and it can lead to messy resentments and rash behavior on all sides. Trust me on this one.

Hollywood seldom takes much interest in ghostwriters. We like the stars better, and who cares about the little people behind them? In French cinema, however, ghostwriting is a sporadically recurring theme, as two current releases demonstrate.

Brosnan and McGregor

Actually, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which opens today in the U.S., won’t open in Paris for another two weeks. (Oh, goodie — I’ve got time to decide whether to boycott the director’s work.) We’ve seen the trailer, though, and the gist is that Ewan McGregor is called in to punch up the memoirs of a Tony Blair-type, played by Pierce Brosnan, leading to murderous intrigues.

My own principal experience as a ghostwriter — or, as my former boss might prefer, “uncredited collaborator” — involved a network anchorman. At the time, he enjoyed power substantially less than that of a British prime minister or American president, but greater than that of most political leaders. His was the power of influence, not action: Dan couldn’t declare war, he could only report on it; and he couldn’t assassinate me, though he might make me wish he would. Not much of a thriller in our story.

Much closer to my experience is that depicted in Safy Nebbou’s L’autre Dumas, in which we meet the author of The Three Musketeers — a certain Auguste Maquet, played by Benoît Poelvoorde. The credited author, Alexandre Dumas père, exuberantly played by Gérard Depardieu, revels in the perks of celebrity authorship: a lavish new mansion, fawning admirers, abundance of food and drink, and, above all, sex.

When a beautiful young woman (Mélanie Thierry) mistakes Maquet for Dumas, he’s unable to resist the temptation to live as his friend does. He winds up dragging them all into personal and political turmoil, on the eve of the Revolution of 1848.*

Indulgent: Dominique Blanc (right), a wonderful actress,
pretty much walks off with this picture.
One of these days, I’ll write a Field Guide entry on her.


The Dumas we see is not without talent — superior to Maquet’s, in fact, in certain kinds of description and in plotting the narrative. And we see that Dumas does contribute quite a lot, when he can find a break in his orgies. He seems genuinely to like Maquet and to enjoy their collaboration. If he could control his appetites better, and if people like his secretary/mistress (the sublime Dominique Blanc) and Maquet himself would indulge him less, Dumas would be a thoroughly decent fellow. He’s certainly good company. But he also keeps a private menagerie of exotic birds and animals, and we don’t see much difference between those creatures and Maquet.

Still, Maquet has reason to be contented with his lot. With his income from ghostwriting, he supports his family (ten children!) in comfort, and he’s got a terrific wife (Catherine Mouchet, for once playing a swan and not an ugly duckling). He seems to enjoy Dumas, too, and to admire his friend’s talent and joie de vivre. Poelvoorde does a lovely job of showing this with his bespectacled eyes, widening or crinkling but always observing, analyzing.

Baer in Mensonges…
My desk looks very much like this.


We saw a similar relationship between Edouard Baer (as the ghost) and Clovis Cornillac (as the ghostee) in another movie, Laurent Tirard’s Mensonges et trahisons et si affinités (2004).** There, however, the dramatic arc was toward Baer’s dropping his artistic pretensions (he snubs Cornillac constantly) in order to write better, and thus to become his own man. L’autre Dumas is more about Maquet’s learning to accept who he is, and who Dumas is, in order to continue writing books that the world adores.

The movie concludes with an affectionate tribute to Dumas, a direct quotation from the real-life Maquet’s will. Ghostwriting is a strange kind of symbiosis, in which each partner is always devouring some part of the other, in order that both may survive. But there are worse ways to make a living.

How Poelvoorde watches other actors.
With Catherine Mouchet (left) as Mme Maquet



*NOTE: You do know this one: it’s the backdrop for Hugo’s Les Misérables.

**Bear in mind that Romain Duris’ character in Cédric Klapisch’s Les Poupées russes is also a ghostwriter. So is Jalil Lespert’s in Robert Guédiguian’s Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars. Seriously, the French seem to find this line of work fascinating. (Or maybe they’re just looking for an excuse to use the old-fashioned term for it … which is the equivalent of the English “N-word.”)




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18 February 2010

Today’s Headlines

Elaborate Practical Joke Misfires,
Leading to Terrible Music Video

LOS ANGELES -- “I couldn’t believe these guys were falling for it,” said one eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous. “I mean, why would anybody want to hear ‘We Are the World’ again? Couldn’t they just look around the room at all these C-Listers — most of whom have no musical talent at all — and figure out the whole thing was a hoax? I mean — Vince Vaughn? In a music video?”

However, when Ashton Kutcher’s car was delayed in traffic for several hours, the Buzzkill camera crew had no choice but to keep rolling. The result was a music video that nobody in his right mind would want to listen to.

If the failed prank does raise any money for Haitian relief efforts, “So much the better, I guess,” said director Paul Haggis (Crash). “And at least by watching the video, people will understand what it feels like to live through a disaster of epic proportions.”

*

Most Olympic Athletes Can’t Imagine
Why French, Canadians Keep Laughing
During Halfpipe Competition


VANCOUVER -- To the mystification of teams from other nations, French and French-Canadian athletes were observed snickering, smirking and poking each other at any mention of today’s Olympic halfpipe competitions.

“Maybe they’re just exceptionally happy people,” said one cross-country skier, Lars-Erik Nordqvist, of Sweden.

When asked for comment, medal-winning French skier Jason Lamy-Chappuis was unable to respond, except by giggling and elbowing Vincent Jay, a French biathlete, in the ribs.

*

Study Shows U.S. Congress
30 Percent More Effective
During Snowstorm Closings


*

Sarkozy Visits Haiti,
Unveils ‘Major Package’


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Nicolas Sarkozy today became the first French head of state to visit Haiti since that nation won its independence from France in 1804. Sarkozy announced what he described as “a major [relief] package” that, adjusted for inflation, does not quite approach the reparations France demanded and received from its former colony in the early 19th century.

“The president of France is here? Putain! Now I know we’re in trouble,” earthquake survivor Toussaint-Marie Le Bon told a reporter.

“Haven’t we been through enough already?” asked his companion, Marie-Christine Duval.

In a press conference, Sarkozy remarked, “I am extremely proud of the major package I bring to Haiti, and Carla Bruni joins me in expressing her deep satisfaction today.”

UPDATE: Sarkozy briefly interrupted his prepared remarks. “Excuse me — I must adjust my package for inflation. There. What a relief. Let us proceed.”

*

Film Director, ‘Too Fat,’ Removed from Plane

FROM WIRE REPORTS -- “This proves that Kevin Smith is the Orson Welles of our time,” critic Roger Ebert told reporters.

*

Retiring Senator Decries Lack of Bayh-Partisanship

*

Area Burglar Surprised to Learn
Obama As Bad As People Say He Is


WASHINGTON -- Vic Fesenzac, a local burglar and father of two, told reporters yesterday he was surprised to learn during a break-in at the White House this week that, despite the outrageousness of many claims made in recent months, President Barack Obama’s fiercest critics are telling the truth. “If anything, they’re going easy on the guy,” Fesenzac said.

“It turns out he really is bent on the destruction of the American Way of Life,” the 44-year-old thief revealed during a televised press conference at a Washington police station. “He’s got the whole thing mapped out in this briefing book, sitting right there on a coffee table in the Private Residence, where anybody could see it!”

“Higher taxes, nationalized industries, socialized health care for illegal immigrants, pulling the plug on old people, the suspension of gun rights, brainwashing schoolchildren, surrendering to terrorists,” Fesenzac elaborated. “It’s really as if President Obama won the election simply in order to bring down the nation.”

According to the White House, the President himself apprehended the alleged sneakthief upon emerging from the shower. Wrapped only in a towel, the President proceeded to strike him with a golf club while shouting racial epithets, Fesenzac said, until Secret Service agents arrived on the scene.

“I don’t know how he could tell I was white,” Fesenzac said, “since I was wearing a ski mask and gloves. Maybe he just assumes that anyone committing a crime must be a honky.”

“You’d be amazed how much he truly, deeply hates white people,” Fesenzac observed, going on to reveal what he described as Obama’s previously secret plans to redistribute most property below the Mason–Dixon Line, and eventually to bomb Denmark, which he says the President apparently considers “too white.”

“I’m telling you, Glenn Beck doesn’t know the half of it,” Fesenzac said.

A professional burglar for most of his adult life, Fesenzac told reporters he hadn’t originally set out to break into the White House, but he was on vacation in Washington, “and it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He continued, “When you reach a certain point in your life, you need to set goals and career challenges for yourself.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed that Fesenzac was apprehended in the Private Residence at approximately 11:35 PM yesterday, but he refused to comment on the substance of the alleged prowler’s story.

Fesenzac showed reporters a number of corroborating documents, which he claims to have discovered during the course of the burglary, including the President’s Kenyan birth certificate and French passport.

“You’ve got to believe me,” the alleged White House-breaker said, in an emotional appeal to reporters. “Death panels — reeducation camps — solar-powered cars — they’re coming! Obama really is a committed Marxist–Stalinist foreign Antichrist who seeks America’s doom! You’ve got to believe me! You’ve got to believe!”

“Also, he really does have a Hitler moustache, but not where you’d expect.”



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15 February 2010

Van Dormael’s ‘Mr. Nobody’

Torn between choices:
And the name of the station is Chance.


The Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael doesn’t make many films: just three, so far. His first, Toto le Héros (Toto the Hero, 1991), holds the distinction of being the first film I saw in French without subtitles. My failure to comprehend great chunks of dialogue only added to the oneiric effect: Thomas, an elderly man, looks back on his life in regret, from the vantage of a nursing home in the dystopian future. Everything went wrong for him because, he is certain, he was switched at birth with his wealthy neighbor, Alfred. We join “Toto” in looking back, through prisms of fantasmagorical special effects, music, humor, and poetry.

Van Dormael’s latest film, Mr. Nobody, is in English, and it opened recently here in France. More ambitious even than Toto, it explores similar themes and packs a comparable wallop. I recommend it highly.

From Toto le Héros, Toto and Alice
(Sandrine Blancke, Thomas Godet)


In Mr. Nobody, Van Dormael again focuses on an elderly man in a nursing home in the future (mostly utopian this time). Again, his story, like his idyllic childhood, is shattered and depicted in fragments; again, he’s got troubling, mature, and not at all fraternal feelings for his sister — or, anyway, people tell him she’s his sister. Van Dormael is a whiz at capturing both the unformed logic and the developing sexuality of children, while eliciting memorable performances from child actors. (The standout in Toto was Sandrine Blancke as the sister, Alice, pure fire onscreen.)

Nemo does have regrets — but with significant exceptions. From the moment he’s asked to choose between his divorcing parents, each time he arrives at a crossroad in life, he takes both the path taken and the path not taken. Thus, we get multiple storylines, playing out kaleidoscopically. The actor who plays Nemo as an adult, Jared Leto, says he plays 12 variations on the character, and of course that’s not counting the Nemos who are played by Toby Regbo (age 16) and Thomas Byrne (age 9).

Things are not always what they seem.

Doubtless this sounds confusing, and at times, it is — it’s meant to be. The first time you see Nemo marrying three different women, in three countries, or dying repeatedly in different ways, you do wonder what the hell’s going on. Van Dormael holds our interest, luring us deeper into the tangled thickets by scattering tempting morsels of humor, music, appealing actors, and evocative tenderness. One such moment, the simple brush of shoulders between two kids on a beach, sparks a desire that endures through (nearly) all of Nemo’s lives — and to a vacation on the planet Mars.

Yet even when we see a cargo ship crash in Martian orbit — and the cargo, hundreds of bicycles, goes spinning into space — Van Dormael isn’t using special effects and science fiction for mere thrills. He’s up to something more serious here, as we come to understand through snippets of a lecture Nemo delivers (in a studio, as if for a TV program) on the big bang and chaos theories, the nature of memory, animal behavior, the space-time continuum and the existence of eight dimensions of which we know nothing. That’s just for starters.

Regbo and Temple

Van Dormael keeps all this grounded in that recognizably human story, beautifully photographed. I hesitate to use the term “science fiction,” because the movie is as intimate as any auteur concoction. (Better, in fact, because this script doesn’t run out of steam in the third act, as so many French movies do.) No matter what’s going on, there’s something private, personal about all of Van Dormael’s films,* and it’s surely no coincidence that he and Nemo share a birthday.

He also manages to find child actors who look sufficiently like their grownup counterparts to be credible, and who can perform with comparable maturity and impact. Regbo’s scenes with Juno Temple, as the young Anna, are especially impressive, conveying erotic heat and adolescent rebellion that are simultaneously childish and profound, the foundation of adult feelings. (Regbo is an alumnus of Hogwarts; Temple played the redheaded cousin in Atonement.)

Leto and Kruger

Nemo meets each of his three wives in childhood. He marries Jean (Linh Dan Pham) when the two other women are unavailable, and he describes her as “safe.” (Indeed, we see that, as a girl, she saved him from drowning; as an adult, when he strays from her, he winds up murdered in a bathtub.) The very security that Jean represents leaves the writer–director with little to say about her, and the actress with little to do. But Sarah Polley (as Elise) and Diane Kruger (as Anna) register strongly. Polley is especially good at holding our sympathy as Elise wrestles with an extravagant, often ugly mood disorder. And I daresay most men would defy 111 dimensions to be with a woman like Diane Kruger.

Jared Leto’s strongest characterization is as the elderly Nemo — 118 years old. Something about all that old-age makeup seems to have liberated him, such that I wasn’t at all sure it wasn’t somebody else playing the character. Unmoored from the anchor of his unearthly beauty, he smacks his lips with infectious pleasure, distorting his body and voice while portraying internal transformations, too. Yeah, he’s solid as the Nemo his own age (those yearning eyes speak volumes, as Angela Chase knew so well) — but as the old guy, he’s a revelation.

Not an old man made up to look like Jared Leto,
but Leto as Nemo in old age


Like Johnny Depp, Leto must struggle against being pigeonholed as a pretty face. (Both got their breaks on TV, too.) Not all of Leto’s attempts to prove or to challenge himself have been successful: I admired his work in Requiem for a Dream but wasn’t convinced by Lord of War, for example, and like most people, I missed his performance as Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Sometimes his choice of films is more interesting than his choices within a scene; on the strength of his Nemo, I’ll keep watching, even if he falls short, some other time.

And I hope I don’t have to wait quite so long for Van Dormael’s next movie. Nemo is Latin for “nobody” and the name of two iconic heroes, as well: Jules Verne’s undersea explorer (many of this movie’s scenes are set in or around water) and Winsor McKay’s dreaming boy. By fusing these antecedents and adding much that is his alone, Van Dormael has created a worthy heir.

Random observation:
How agreeable to wake each day to see this in the mirror!
What a pleasure to shave in the morning!
(The young Leto as Jordan Catalano)



*NOTE: I know nothing about Van Dormael’s personal life, yet it strikes me that his interest in Down syndrome, a recurring theme, surely signifies something. Toto’s brother and one of the protagonists of Van Dormael’s second film, Le huitième jour, have Down syndrome, and the actor who played those characters has a small role in Mr. Nobody, as well.


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11 February 2010

Ian Carmichael

Carmichael, right, as Wimsey:
He’s playing a Scarlatti sonata, of course.
(Glyn Houston as Bunter, at left.)


The death of British actor Ian Carmichael brings me one step closer to adulthood, for when our role models pass on, it’s up to us to become what they were. As the televised incarnation of Dorothy Sayers’ aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, Carmichael was one of a handful of middle-aged actors who represented the kind of grownup I wanted to be: urbane, unaggressively masculine, clever, far from Texas. The girl I loved was a Wimsey fan, too, and together we read all the books and pictured ourselves in a lifetime of tangled mysteries and “talking piffle.” Only fear of getting beaten up (further) and the fact that my vision is poor in both eyes kept me from adopting a monocle, like my hero’s.

Now I am middle-aged, and I wonder how close I’ve come to the mark that Carmichael set when I was a boy.

Sure, other boys wanted to grow up to be rock stars or ball players, but I wanted to be like Ian Carmichael. He was far too old in the mid-1970s to play Wimsey, and the penchant of other characters to address him as “young man” was mitigated only slightly by the casting of the venerable Isabel Jeans as his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. This may be why romance was downplayed in the television shows, and Wimsey’s prolonged conquest of Harriet Vane was reserved for another series of (thoroughly delicious) adaptations, in the 1980s, starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.

But oh, what a marvel Carmichael’s Wimsey was! Impeccably elegant in white tie or tweed or a Harlequin costume. An accomplished musician. An expert on everything from wine to French literature. (One mystery hinges on a reference to Manon Lescaut, of all things, and readers and viewers alike were presumed to understand, without explanation.) Carmichael’s Wimsey drops his Gs and says “ain’t,” and he’s given to long quotations in Latin and French — and from Lewis Carroll, for as Lord Peter once observed, “The mark of a gentleman is his ability to quote the Alice books from memory.”

Not least of Lord Peter’s charms for me was his wordplay; his puns danced like sugarplums on Carmichael’s tongue.

Most of the heavy work here was done already by Dorothy Sayers, who created Wimsey as a kind of seriocomic Arthurian knight, forever questing after Truth. As the novels build upon each other, Wimsey’s a paragon, an ideal: more than a few critics have rightly observed that Sayers fell in love with her own creation, and it’s no accident that, when Lord Peter does find his lady love, she’s a mystery writer.

But Carmichael brought to the role a number of assets: physical grace, a resonant voice, a love of language, and — quite possibly — a burning desire, after years of playing silly fops and Bertie Wooster, to portray a character who is that and something more: a hero, a man.

Even if I didn’t turn out much like him, I’m glad of his influence. And as we continue to share the mysteries and piffle of our lives, the girl I loved seems glad of it, too, all these years later.

Placetne, magistra?


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10 February 2010

Crazy

Every now and then, a wonderful singer comes up with an interpretation so wrongheaded that you can only scratch your head and mutter, “What the hell?” Music lovers keep lists of such moments; for a long time, mine has been dominated by (but not limited to) Renata Scotto’s florid account of “Over the Rainbow,” on the occasion of Beverly Sills’ retirement. A lovely gesture to a colleague went horribly wrong, because the great Italian soprano couldn’t locate the correct style: simplicity.

Now another singer whom I admire, the French soprano Natalie Dessay, has topped the list. Her style isn’t bad, but the meaning of Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” eludes her entirely. What makes her rendition most troubling is that, on the evidence I’ve heard, other, younger French sopranos are now copying her travesty, in the not unreasonable belief that anything Dessay does must be right.

Dessay has been mangling this aria for a few years, but it’s only recently that I’ve identified the source of her misinterpretation, courtesy of the title of her latest album: Mad Scenes.


In its original context, “Glitter and Be Gay” finds the heroine of Candide in despair. She’s been raped, losing in the process not only her virginity but all her plans for a noble marriage back in Westphalia; she’s now a courtesan in Paris. But she takes comfort in the rewards of her new profession: jewels. Lots and lots of them. Which make her not only rich but even more beautiful. She stops crying and starts to laugh.

In an operetta that makes a frontal assault on many of the conventions of grand opera, “Glitter and Be Gay” shows us the soprano unhinged. Musically and dramatically, the song is a parody of the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust, and Cunegonde’s skipping, staccato “Ha-ha-ha” reflects Marguerite’s “Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir” (I laugh to see myself so beautiful in this mirror).

Dessay takes what ought to be a fou rire (giggle), maybe a little bit hysterical, and turns it into something madder. She doesn’t even articulate the “Ha-ha-ha” as laughter at all. She lands so wide of the mark that I couldn’t understand her intention, the first times I heard her sing the aria. And that’s unusual, given that she’s an exceptionally smart and communicative musician, whose English is fluent, and whose husband (the baritone Laurent Naouri) happens to speak nearly as well as I do.

What the hell? Then her new album came out: Mad Scenes. Oh. That explains everything. Almost.

So Dessay thinks Cunegonde is outright crazy — like Lucia di Lammermoor, Ophélie (in Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet), and Bellini’s Elvira. Never mind that, if Bernstein wanted to write a parody of a mad scene, he’d have done so; instead, he wrote a parody of the Jewel Song. Even out of context, Dessay’s interpretation makes no sense — and she’s missing a terrific opportunity to poke fun at one of the hoariest clichés in French opera. (Even the Tintin comics mock the Jewel Song: it’s the only number in Bianca Castafiore’s repertoire.) I can’t imagine why that prospect didn’t appeal to Dessay.

Maybe it’s the fault of the record company. Wanting to spotlight a gallery of loony ladies in Dessay’s growing repertory, and to sync with her Metropolitan appearances as Lucia and Ophélie, they may have originated the “Mad Scenes” concept. But there weren’t enough arias to round out an album. “We need one more,” they said. “I don’t know any,” she replied. “What about ‘Glitter and Be Gay’?”

I’m guessing here. But to paraphrase another American musical comedy of the same generation, “So wrong! Farewell, auf Wiederseh’n, goodbye.”



I’ve heard a number of good singers do right by “Glitter and Be Gay,” starting with Wendy Chatman, who played Cunegonde in our college production of Candide, and continuing through Erie Mills, Harolyn Blackwell, and Diana Damrau; I’ve always regretted that Sills herself never sang the role. While June Anderson struck me as a tad Wagnerian, and Kristin Chenoweth a bit steely, they surely understand the song, too, and I’ve enjoyed their interpretations.

To my pleasant surprise, the best of the lot turns out to be Madeline Kahn, who sang Cunegonde in a gala concert performance of Candide to mark Leonard Bernstein’s 50th birthday. Her friend Michael Cohen has told me that together they prepared “Glitter and Be Gay” even before she auditioned, so that it’s no wonder she’s note-perfect. (The rest of the cast, heard on a pirate recording, is less polished.) Madeline has all the notes and all the humor, with some touches I’ve never heard elsewhere. “Bracelets, lavaliers!” she growls with contempt, before imploring, “Can they dry my tears?”

One of these days, I’m going to dub that recording and send a copy to Natalie Dessay.




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08 February 2010

Chartres

The filmmaker Wash Westmoreland has the uncanny ability to find images to illustrate my innermost thoughts — often before I’ve had a chance to think of them. This is how he sees the light at Chartres.
Photograph by Wash Westmoreland©


Among the many resolutions I made but did not keep when I moved to France was to make an annual pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres: it’s nearly five years since I set foot there. But this week, chance brought me to its door, on a sunny afternoon, when there were few tourists about and, as we made our approach by car, the Cathedral rose up majestically above the surrounding farmland, like a great frigate on the high seas. I hadn’t planned the visit, but how could I resist?

The Cathedral is built on a hilltop, and such is the esteem in which it is held by local landowners that, not only in town but in the surrounding countryside, as well, nothing stands taller. Depending on which route you take, you will always get this unobstructed and awe-inspiring view. It is especially impressive on those days when the light is golden, the sky steely, and the fields all amber and emerald. My luck this time wasn’t quite so good, yet I know what medieval travelers must have felt, as they drew near the town and saw what is still the principal landmark in the area.


Between my first visit, as a high-school student in 1977, and my second, in the early 1990s, I studied the Cathedral, as part of an art-history course in Gothic architecture. My professor required that we be able to distinguish, from a single photo of a statue or a piece of stained glass, one saint from another, and to identify the church it came from. Though I passed the course, nowadays I know only the most famous saints by their most familiar attributes (Wheel = Catherine), and the surest means of telling which cathedral they’re from is to go there.

And so, as I contemplate their mysteries, it’s clear that, if I’d just look a little longer, and think a little harder, they’d divulge their secrets. I might even be able to name the Old Testament kings.

This visit to Chartres was a pit stop, really, and afforded me minutes, not hours, to study. I concentrated on inspiration — breathing in the atmosphere. The best part of this is to play in the light that shines through the stained-glass windows, and it was here at Chartres that I understood the significance of that light to the people who worshiped here first.

In the Middle Ages, most people owned no glass of any kind, least of all on their windows; the properties of colored light (so humdrum to us who are surrounded by neon, television, computer and movie screens, and so on) were exotic to my ancestors, and the colored glass must have resembled the jewels of kings, which peasants seldom saw at all.

So they came to Chartres, which rose higher than any other building they knew or thought possible, its masses of stone majestic and yet not heavy, climbing purposefully toward the unreachable heavens. And once inside — on sunny days — the people might stretch out their hands to see their skin splashed with red and gold, and even bleu de Chartres, in light that moved with the sun, slowly. Do you wonder that they took this for proof of God’s grace?

For that matter, do you wonder that, on my first trip to France, I learned to genuflect and to make the sign of the Cross, because I wanted to be part of whatever had made anything so magnificent? Nowadays I simply accept that art is my religion, and that, by sheer coincidence, many churches are also temples of art.

Since I first saw the place, the stones of Notre Dame de Chartres have seemed washed with India ink, but on this visit I noted that a cleanup is underway, and parts of the church interior are as bright and white as if brand-new. I’m not entirely happy with the prospect; so far the results are a little too perfect, and one thing we admire about Chartres is the sublime imperfection of the place, starting with its mismatched towers.

The old dark stones seemed to throw the stained glass into sharper contrast, and to carry us back to the (literal) Dark Ages; the cleaned stones look more like a modern replica than like the real cathedral. And since Viollet-LeDuc, we’ve had the chance to see, in a few privileged locations (as at Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris), the kinds of wall paintings that the medieval French used to decorate their holy places: I’m not sure the original congregants would have approved of the bright, bare stones, either.

But I’ll reserve judgment. Airiness and light were among the principal goals of the architects of the great cathedrals. Maybe the cleanup will help us to appreciate the degree to which they succeeded.

Sometimes I try to imagine the conversation at the city council, back in the twelfth century, when construction of the cathedral was first proposed. “We’re going to build a gigantic church; it will require the efforts of the whole town, and in all likelihood, the project won’t be completed when our grandchildren themselves are grandparents. We’ll never see the fruit of our labors.”

This in itself would provoke no complaint, but the fact that, in Chartres and elsewhere, other grandiose churches had been built, only to burn or collapse, would surely have been discussed.* In the case of Chartres, someone must have mentioned the Veil of the Virgin Mary, a relic that miraculously survived a couple of fires in the church. Was this not a sign that God had elected the people of Chartres, and that it was their duty to build something magnificent?

Besides (someone undoubtedly said), a cathedral would be good for tourism. It still is. Chartres does have other economic engines, but they don’t compare with Notre Dame. For example, each time I come to town, I take coffee or lunch at La Reine de Saba (the Queen of Sheba), next-door to the cathedral. It’s a nice little restaurant, and reasonably priced, but it would not be a regular stop on my itinerary if its terrace weren’t a few meters from the south transept. Even in bad weather, the view is sublime.

I didn’t see Malcolm Miller on this visit. He’s an English art historian who, many years ago, consecrated his life to Notre Dame de Chartres, not like a priest but like a husband. Today, in the twilight of that marriage, he knows by loving heart each and every detail of his spouse’s body and soul. He’s written several books, and he gives little one-hour tours of the cathedral, balancing the needs of the uninitiated, the dilettante, and the expert.

I took his tour once, when a friend was visiting from Texas, and what impressed me most, perhaps, was this: Miller wasn’t bored by his own spiel, after all these years and several recitations per day.

Even when Miller’s not around Chartres, I think of him. I wonder whether I will ever know anything — or anyone — the way he knows that cathedral. Yet it’s not my competitive spirit (far from it) that keeps bringing me back.


*NOTE: After all, the flying buttress isn’t something you invent because it’s pretty. You resort to it after other methods have failed: it is what prevents a very high wall from falling outward, as many walls presumably did, prior to the distinctive innovation.



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