31 March 2011

Wouldn’t It Be Great If Susan Graham Guest-starred on ‘Glee’?

A Very Special Guest Star?

The success of Glee has left a number of American opera buffs wishing that the show would somehow incorporate their kind of music, instead of continually recycling Journey and Madonna hits. From what I’ve seen, most of these ambitions are flawed in one critical respect: they want the kids of McKinley High School to perform operatic numbers. Wouldn’t it be great if New Directions sang “Va, pensiero”?

Sorry, gang, it ain’t gonna happen. In some kinds of crossover, one party needs to travel more than halfway. We need a more subtle approach — a fifth column, if you will, to infiltrate Glee — and I believe I have hit upon the solution. We know that the show’s producers like stunt casting, and so what we need to promote is a guest appearance by a leading singer. My first candidate for the job is mezzo-soprano Susan Graham: she’s funny, a terrific actress, looks great on camera, and she watches the show. It’s a match made in fanboy heaven.

I’ve taken pains to construct a scenario, illustrating how this might work. Feel free to submit your own suggestions for Susan’s guest appearance on Glee: it’s an idea we can all support.

One day after school, we are introduced to McKinley High School’s French Club and its sponsor, French teacher Roxana Roswell — played by guest star Susan Graham!

It’s a contentious meeting, despite the fact that there are very few members: just Rachel Berry (who must join everything, and who is the French club president and secretary), Mercedes (who doesn’t have enough to do on the show), Kurt (who’s left Dalton Academy and returned to McKinley, which you know he’s going to do, sooner or later), guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (who studied French in college and hopes to brush up her skills, because really, she would) … and bad boy Puck.

Mercedes complains that Rachel shouldn’t be in the club at all, since she isn’t taking French class. Rachel counters that the club’s mission is to foster an interest in French language and culture, not to reward people for going to class. She expects she’ll probably study French when she goes to Juilliard, and besides, her accent is already good, since she memorized every song on the Je m’appelle Barbra album when she was six years old.

Amber Riley as Mercedes Johnson

Madame Roswell tries to keep the peace, but after the meeting is disbanded, she confides to Emma that she’s worried: enrollment in her classes has declined steadily. This year, she’s got only one class, with a mere five students, and Principal Figgins has assigned her to teach drivers ed to round out the rest of her schedule.

Cut to a shot of Brittany behind the wheel, with a terrified Madame Roswell in the passenger seat.

Emma agrees to do what she can to help, and later, we see her in her office, where a student is sobbing, “My grades are in the toilet, I have an eating disorder, my parents are getting divorced, my sister is turning tricks, and my brother has started a meth lab in the basement! I don’t know what to do!”

“Have you thought about taking French next semester?” Emma replies.

Heather Morris as Brittany

Meanwhile, Puck is still lurking around, and as he and Madame Roswell talk, it quickly becomes clear that he’s trying to put the moves on her. (After all, he’s always had a thing for older women.) Madame Roswell is amused at first, and she sings to him.

And here’s the genius part: she sings a Dalida song. Think about it. Dalida’s music is pop, it’s gay enough for Glee, it requires a real singing voice, it’s got big-scale emotional content, and it’s one area of French repertoire that Susan hasn’t explored.

My choice for the first number: “Bambino,” a gently mocking put-down of a young boy in love. Okay, maybe the random Italian vocabulary could be a little confusing, but it’s a great song, and Susan could nail it. And Mark Salling could accompany her on guitar.

Mark Salling as Puck

Then some other stuff happens. You know Glee, there’s always about six plots going on at any moment.

Later, we see Madame Roswell in Principal Figgins’ office. He’s just gotten the budget for the new school year, and he’s going to have to eliminate the French program. “There’s just not enough interest to justify it,” Figgins says. “This is Western Ohio: what good does it do anybody to learn French? They don’t serve filet mignon at Breadstix, you know.”

Jayma Mays as Emma Pillsbury

Madame Roswell stoutly defends the mother tongue of art, diplomacy, and love, but Figgins won’t budge. “My hands are tied!” he says.

The camera pulls back to show that, in fact, his hands are tied. For Sue Sylvester has taken him hostage, and now, just outside his office, she’s eavesdropping on the conversation. Threatened by (and strangely attracted to) another strong, intelligent, tall woman at McKinley High, Sue is engineering Madame Roswell’s ouster.

Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester

Then some other stuff happens.

Then there’s a special bonus scene. Rachel and Kurt are hanging out with Blaine after school, and Rachel, who hasn’t forgotten her famous kiss with the Teenage Dream, sighs teenage-dreamily, “Oh, Blaine, are there any more at home like you?”

“Why, yes, now that you mention it,” Blaine says, instantly producing his long-lost heterosexual brother, Jermaine, who is portrayed by guest star Wes Mason, the Darren Criss of opera. And all four of them sing something. [My suggestion can be found in the comments section below.]

Lea Michele as Rachel

Then we go back to Madame Roswell. The budget cuts are worse than expected, and the Lima school board votes to eliminate French classes throughout the district. If Madame Roswell wants to continue teaching, she’ll have to look for work somewhere else, possibly in that state where they’re still hiring French teachers. (You know the one I’m thinking of. It’s called … I’ll get back to you.)

So, while school districts across America are gutting programs and hacking away at budgets, this very special episode gives us a little topicality. Good.

Iqbal Theba as Figgins

Cut to Sue Sylvester in Principal Figgins’ office. She appropriates the French club budget — plus a box of leftover bérets basques and one slightly used crêpe pan — for the Cheerios. “You’re making this very hard for me,” Figgins protests.

“You think that’s hard?” Sue replies. “Try singing ‘Scherza infida’ flat on your back while sliding down some kind of a weird, dome-like structure. That’s hard.”

Naya Rivera as Santana

Before she leaves McKinley, Will Schuester invites Madame Roswell to join New Directions in a song. It is — naturally — a medley of two of Dalida’s greatest disco-era hits, “Monday, Tuesday … Laissez-Moi Danser” and “Mourir sur Scène.” On the stage of the school auditorium, the kids sing backup, and Brittany and Mike Chang dance like crazy.

Then, with a wistful gaze, Roxana Roswell hops onto her Vespa and scoots away — for now. (And I suppose that, if you’re really adamant about bringing operatic material to Glee, this would be an opportunity for Susan to sing “Adieu, fière cité” from Les Troyens.)

Fade out.

Your thoughts?

Chris Colfer as Kurt Hummel

NOTE: It was always my hope that Ana María Martínez might guest-star on Ugly Betty, portraying the Suarezes’ streetwise but glamorous opera-singing cousin and perhaps performing “I Feel Pretty” with Betty and Hilda as back-up. Alas, it was not to be.

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Le Glee

L pour Lyrique? Something is bound to be lost in translation.

The American series Glee has at last made its debut on commercial French TV, but due to technical difficulties beyond my control, I was unable to watch last night’s three-episode dose and therefore can’t report to you on what the show sounds like when it’s dubbed. (Musical numbers are preserved in the version originale.)

Ultimately, however, my opinion of the show is of less interest than the opinion of French viewers. And it will be a challenge for me to find out. While the show has gotten a little press (stars Amber Riley and Chris Colfer flew to Paris on a promotional tour), Glee-mania doesn’t seem to be sweeping the country as of yet. Will the French grow as enthusiastic about the show as the Americans are? Stay tuned.

American Westerns inspired Lucky Luke,
beloved hero of French comic books.

But consider that a great deal of Glee is very, very remote from anything that most French people have ever experienced, whereas the cultural imports that have fared best here are either those that closely reflect elements of French life (rap seems to speak directly to the banlieues and to fly white boys, and it’s been co-opted and adapted by the French) or those that project an appealing fantasy that’s completely removed from everyday life here (cowboy movies). Glee may not quite meet either standard.

The success here of Disney’s High School Musical franchise presents an instructive model. HSM targets a younger audience than Glee’s, and it’s backed by Disney’s formidable worldwide marketing strength.* Moreover, HSM requires less background knowledge from French viewers: its jocks play basketball, which is also a popular sport among kids here, and HSM features original songs, not covers.

Un sportif typique: Cory Monteith as Finn

Glee’s repurposed pop standards are (mostly) well-known here, but its Broadway tunes aren’t. The memorable sing-off between Kurt and Rachel is liable to sail over most people’s heads, because “Defying Gravity” — like Wicked, the musical it comes from — is unknown in France, and the lyrics are in English. Since most of Glee’s musical numbers find their cues in a word or phrase in the song’s text, viewers will encounter additional obstacles to comprehension, in every episode.

American culture so saturates France that the trappings of American football are recognizable — even if the French consider it a slow, fat, and pointlessly violent variation on le vrai foot, i.e., the noble art of soccer. But there are jocks (sportifs) in French high schools (lycées), and audiences here should be able to grasp Finn’s character, though they won’t understand the rules of the game.

Why is this girl dressed so oddly,
and why is she wasting that strange beverage?
Dianna Agron as Quinn

Thanks to movies and TV, most of my neighbors probably are familiar with the concept of a senior prom, and they have an idea what une cheer-leader and her privileged status in American society are. But there’s no exact equivalent in this country, so that the nuances of one of Glee’s central themes — that the participation of three of Sue Sylvester’s Cheerios in New Directions is borderline revolutionary — are likely to be lost. Quinn’s abstinence club may puzzle French viewers, as well: it’s predicated on a notion that the French consider puritanical, and therefore alien.

Mercedes’ beloved Tater Tots look a little like pommes de terre dauphine (if you don’t look too closely), and while France doesn’t have Olive Garden chain restaurants, there are places here that more or less resemble the hallowed Breadstix. If there’s any purveyor of Slushies in France, I’m unaware of it, but the French should be able to make out that they are some sort of beverage or supersize granita. They may wonder, however, why McKinley High School’s bullies are so wasteful.

One in ten of these French schoolkids has been bullied.

But the French will recognize the bullies. In a remarkable bit of timing, the start of Glee coincides with the release this week of a UNICEF-sponsored survey that found more than 10 percent of French schoolchildren admitted to being bullied — “victims of repeated physical or verbal violence.” This came as a shock to many adults, not least since very few of the children had told parents or teachers about their problems; and the Education Minister, Luc Chatel, promptly set up a “scientific committee” to combat discrimination in schools. So Glee’s recurring theme of bullying is likely to strike a resonant chord here.

Will that be enough for French audiences to overlook the many cultural barriers and permit them to embrace a show that, to their eyes, looks as if it ought to be pronounced “GLAY”? Is the universe of McKinley High School inviting enough to the fantasies of French viewers? Will broadcasters need to distribute explanatory brochures to every household in the country? I’ll be watching to find out.

*NOTE: One measure of Disney’s marketing prowess: Zac Efron is a star here in France, believe it or not. A life-size poster for one of his movies has been hanging for weeks next to the DVD distributor on the Place St-Martin in Beynes.

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27 March 2011

Interview: Daniel Okulitch on ‘The New American Art Song’

When bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch strides onto the stage of Weill Recital Hall tonight, March 28, the occasion will be newsworthy for a number of reasons. It’s the young Canadian’s New York recital debut (and a rare appearance by him on any recital stage), in a program of art songs by four acclaimed, living American composers — three of whom will accompany him on piano.

That alone should be enough to spur you toward Carnegie Hall tonight. (As of this writing, some tickets are still available.) Yet even more exceptional is the fact that the performance coincides with the release today of an album that records this material and makes it available to an audience far beyond 57th Street. In an era when fewer and fewer record companies are investing in young talent, and when more and more singers are relying on new technology (do-it-yourself audio and video recording, YouTube, increasingly fancy websites) to make themselves heard, Okulitch has got a commercial CD, which you can purchase through Amazon or download on iTunes.

Isn’t opera glamorous?
Okulitch, under 50 lbs. of latex, as the Brundlefly, with Ruxandra Donose in Shore’s The Fly, Théâtre du Châtelet, 2007.

Okulitch’s commitment to contemporary music — and contemporary composers’ commitment to him — is hardly new. In addition to the world premieres of Howard Shore’s The Fly (Paris and Los Angeles, 2007) and Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket (St. Louis and Wexford, 2010), he’s garnered praise for his roles in Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, to name only those that spring first to this writer’s mind.

For the new album, Okulitch performs song cycles by Lowell Liebermann, Ricky Ian Gordon, Heggie, and Glen Roven, the mastermind behind the project. Eager to tell me more despite the hectic schedule of preparations for both the album and the recital, Okulitch — a guy so unfailingly nice that he makes other Canadians look like rude bastards — took time to answer a few questions by e-mail.

Glen Roven: Conductor, composer, performer — and record producer

WVM: How did this project get started? Who approached whom? Where did you record?

DANIEL OKULITCH: Glen Roven actually approached me nearly two years ago out of the blue by sending me some of his pieces and a bio, saying he was interested in working with me. Honestly, I didn’t give it too much thought at the time, since I’ve been approached before by composers and had their music not turn out to be anything I wanted to work on, but I did agree to meet up with him when I was next in NY, which was several months later.

We met, and he played through a fair amount of the songs he had written, and I was immediately more interested. They were interesting, beautiful, unique, and imminently singable. He also said the magic words that he wanted to do an album with me, since he had recently been given the position of Head of Classical/Broadway/Children’s music at the boutique label GPR records.

Jake Heggie
When I like a singer, I give her a cartoon.
When Jake likes a singer — often the same singer! —
he gives her a song cycle.
Life is unfair.

We decided on a the theme of contemporary American composers, and narrowed the list of composers to include Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon and Lowell Liebermann, whereupon I contacted each of them to see what I might want to record.

It was a long process of finding the repertoire I responded to, then finding times when we could all actually get together to record, and when, also, a date might work for the actual recital, since the main point was having the composers themselves on the album and at the recital. As it happens, we did get all of the composers on the album, and 3/4 on the recital. Given how busy we all are, I think that in and of itself was quite a feat.

We recorded over a 2 1/2-week period in NY in February and March in the Sound Associates studio in Hell’s Kitchen. Those were some intensely long days.

As Willy Wonka in the world premiere of Ash’s The Golden Ticket
Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2010

WVM: Is it important to you to document your voice at this stage of your career? Why (or why not)?

DO: There is no way any singer, I suspect, is ever 100 percent happy with their recordings. But, if I wait until I’m perfect before I record anything, I’ll never step in front of a microphone at all. I believe I’m growing into my instrument more and more ... I think of myself as a late bloomer in that regard, and with that comes much more ability to make the musical choices I want. I don’t think of recording as leaving a sort of legacy, simply trying out a new medium (for me) to express myself.

WVM: How did you select the material for the album? Why these composers, why these song cycles?

DO: Jake, Ricky and Glen were all composers I was familiar with, but it was Glen who recommended I listen to some of Lowell’s works, which I was immediately impressed by. The selection of pieces was strictly intuitive; if I had an emotional response to them, and felt like I could bring something to them, they went in one pile. If not, I moved on.

Ricky Ian Gordon

Ricky and I actually sat down in a few sessions at his apartment while he played through piece after piece to see how they felt. Somehow what we came up with was a cycle of pieces that thematically seemed to flow, and felt somewhat autobiographical. (I stress “somewhat.”) There were experiences in my life that the pieces mirrored, and so the cycle Quiet Lives was born. It isn’t all previously unrecorded material, but it is material never before presented as a cycle. He, as was the case with each of the composers, was very open to adjusting the keys to suit my range. It was a luxury.

WVM: Of the composers whose work you’re performing on the album, Glen Roven’s is least familiar to me. What can I expect? What’s it been like to work with him?

DO: Glen’s music is wonderful to work on because it is very emotional music — it’s direct, vibrant, and very much interested in communicating the poetry. Some of them are very operatic, and others more irreverent and fun. He’s very easy to work with, in that he is happy to adjust notes, keys, tempi, to suit the singer, and has a continually upbeat and supportive attitude. He really is the driving force behind this album.

Lowell Liebermann

WVM: Already you’ve performed in an impressive number of contemporary operas, including two high-profile world premieres. What changes in your approach when you’re singing Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking as opposed to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro? Do audiences respond differently?

DO: You know, I’m still working on making less difference in my mind between performing my contemporary operas and my classic repertoire. There are some vocal challenges, to be sure, but the main thing is mental.

There is an immediacy with the language in, say, Dead Man Walking [libretto by Terrence McNally], that makes me more bold, more free as a performer. This is turn affects my voice, and I’m trying to bridge this gap, to feel as free in Mozart as I do in Contemporary. With each passing year I feel I get better at it. When I’m 70, I’m sure I’ll be a master, but by then it could be people won’t want to hear me.

Okulitch as Heggie’s Joseph De Rocher
Dead Man Walking, Fort Worth Opera Festival, 2009
Photo by Ellen Appel©

I feel audiences do respond differently to the contemporary repertoire, simply because the language is more immediate and accessible. And, in some cases, the plots are too. Not always, mind you, but in some cases. I think a good production, honestly presented with compelling direction, can be enthralling no matter what the era, however.

WVM: On the album, you’re performing material in your native tongue, including settings of poems by truly great poets, such as John Milton and Gwendolyn Brooks — with a couple of surprises, too. (Spike Milligan! Dorothy Parker!) Do you read much poetry apart from lyrics? Is there a particular poet whose work you’d like for someone to set to music so that you could perform it?

With Robynne Redmon (Sister Helen) in Dead Man Walking
Fort Worth Opera Festival, 2009
Photo by Ellen Appel©

DO: I’m somewhat erratic in my poetry reading ... if someone sends me works of a particular poet and I like it, I’ll devour their work for a time, but then go many months without reading another poem, save for lyrics. Recently I read James Kavanaugh, There are Men too Gentle to Live among Wolves, and was struck by much of it. I’d be interested in having someone set parts of it to music, absolutely. It’s a tricky thing, though, when one has a connection to a poem .... you almost want to have several composers set it and then you get to choose which you like best.

WVM: The most important question of all: how can my readers acquire the album?

DO: The album is available through Amazon, and on Itunes. Available March 28th!

NOTE: Daniel Okulitch spoke to me about portraying Mozart’s Don Giovanni at New York City Opera in November 2009. That interview can be found here.

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La Nostalgie: Le Minitel

Yes, I own albums by Gainsbourg and Brassens, and I know by heart more Trenet songs than I can count; yes, I do sometimes visit the shopping mall in Plaisir, and I pay for my purchases with a Carte Bleue. But while watching the documentary show “50 Years That Changed the Way We Live” the other night, the really personal burst of nostalgia for me came when I saw the humble Minitel.

Originally intended as an electronic replacement for the telephone book, the Minitel was distributed free of charge upon roll-out, in 1982, and it quickly became a forerunner of a personal computer on a primitive version of the Internet. Using a dial-up modem, charged to your phone bill, you’d connect to the Minitel universe, where you could (and still can!) look up the information you sought: store hours, train schedules, ticket prices, and so on.*

Soon, almost every company and organization in France had a Minitel number, most of which were prefaced with the figures “36 15.” Minitel has the capacity for chatting and mail, too, and for on-line shopping with payments made by credit or bank card. Thus, the French were actively on-line even before the World Wide Web turned the rest of us into screen-addicted zombies.

Minitels are still in use, though I never see them anywhere.
The home page for Ségolène Royal, Socialist candidate for President in 2007:
As I say, the graphics aren’t state-of-the-art.

The ugly little Minitel boxes were meant to be portable — on most models, the keyboard folded up for easier storage — because if you left it hooked up, then you couldn’t use your telephone. The Minitel wasn’t supposed to replace a word processor, and I’m not sure I ever saw one that hooked up to a printer.

The Minitel’s screen wasn’t designed to display photos; instead, your programmer could put up a sort of computer cartoon, much like a Lite-Brite image. (At first, the screen was chalkboard green-black, the letters white, but well before the Minitel declined, a wider range of colors became available.) Because you couldn’t see clearly what a purchase item looked like, it was hard to shop on-line — but some French people tried it anyway, especially for things such as air and rail tickets.

Tout de même, these were minor annoyances! They’d all be addressed in time! The possibilities of the new technology seemed endless, and for several years, the Minitel’s success seemed guaranteed. Surely everybody in the world would start using one!

The French were so confident that, Tortoise-and-Hare-style, they lagged behind in other telecommunications innovations — and that’s why I’m posting this from a Mac.

This is the Magis, the basic model in the latest Minitel line.

*NOTE: The one time I ever used a Minitel, I got information about a play I wanted to see. I found the process exhausting: it would have been easier to walk to the Théâtre de Ville and ask in person. On the other hand, this was back in the day when I didn’t know how to use the Web, either. It would be interesting to compare the two systems, now that I’m (slightly) more tech-savvy.

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La Nostalgie: Le Distributeur et la Carte Bancaire

An ATM of the Société Générale
As the sign suggests, you can make withdrawals but not deposits.

While I was watching the documentary series on “50 Years That Changed the Way We Live” (or whatever it was called), this tidbit came as a surprise: the French launched automatic teller machines all the way back in 1968. The banks had planned to start up in May, but talk about bad timing — Paris became a war zone that month, in an uprising of students and workers. Wisely, the banks waited until July to unveil the new machines.

The original machines used punch cards (on paper), which the bank would return to you the next day. Later, cards with magnetic coding came along, and you could use them not only at the bank but also at certain stores. Since then, the French started using puces (fleas), microchips implanted in the card; you don’t sign a paper, but tap your ATM code into a machine. Since almost nobody anywhere ever checks signatures, using a code ostensibly reduces the incidence of fraud.

Hey, guys, I’ll be right with you — I just have to run to the bank.
May 1968

Puces have made bank cards irresistibly practical, and payment by carte bancaire is now more popular than cash — except at the doctor’s office, for example, because a credit card somehow strikes the French as less professional and more commercial than currency. (The pharmacist will happily accept your card.) At the market, my fishmonger takes bank cards, but my veg vendor does not, because his goods are typically cheaper; both merchants accept checks, a practice that is on the decline.

Bank cards are also referred to as Cartes Bleues (blue cards, abbreviated as “CB” in signs but not in conversation). Cartes Bleues are infinitely preferable to the cartons rouges or jaunes that signify penalties in soccer. Or anyway, that’s what people tell me the red and yellow cards mean. What do I know about sports?

Co-co-ri-co: A bank card from the Crédit Agricole, showing the cardholder’s support for the French soccer team.
The puce is the gold area on the left.

American credit-card companies have dithered over microchips for years. At one point, there were rumors that American Express would begin using them — back in 1995 or so. And we’re still waiting.

So this is why, mes chers amis américains, none of your credit cards will work in the ticket machine at the train station, no matter how hard you kick it or how loudly you cuss at it. This is also true in the parking lot, and almost anywhere else there’s no living human being and a ballpoint pen to process your transaction. You are warned. Everyone will see at once that you are an American, and they will whisper and point.

(Your American bank cards should work, however,
in a French ATM.)

Finally, I observe that, though it’s hard to believe, ATMs used to distribute francs, once upon a time. The conversion to the Euro, in 2002, is another phenomenon I witnessed firsthand, and I can’t explain how I made the transition so easily. Really, it’s not like me. Some French people are still traumatized, and you see them in shops and on the street, making mental calculations, trying to convert Euros back into francs. Groceries and many other stores still post prices in both currencies. Which goes to show that, even for people who speak the language, paying for stuff in France is an adventure.

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26 March 2011

La Nostalgie: Le Centre Commercial

The Place Carrée, inside the Forum des Halles

Americans are often surprised to find shopping malls in France. But the French invented the department store,* so they naturally pounced on the American concept. And to a degree, a mall is just a variation on the theme of the French passage, parallel rows of independent shops that face each other, under a roof covering or skylight. And the passage itself evolved (in the 19th century) from stately arcades.

How the French used to do it:
The Galerie Vivienne, one of Paris’ more famous passages.

According to the French documentary series I saw the other night, the first centre commercial in France opened on the outskirts of Paris in 1969, and it was quite a chic affair. For the first time, big-name fashion designers opened stores outside central Paris, and prosperous French families flocked to the place. Saturday at the mall became a family tradition, and soon, there were shopping malls all over the country — including the town of Plaisir, not far from Beynes. Most, if not all of these centres commerciaux are less expensive than the original, but chances are that all would look familiar to you: apart from the brand names, you’d hardly know you weren’t in America.

P'tite photo of the Grand Plaisir mall, near Beynes

Suburban malls tend to focus on one “grande surface,” usually a hypermarket such as Auchan, Carrefour, Marché U, or Le Clerc, with other, smaller shops around it. The mall in central Paris, the monstrously ugly Forum des Halles, is too big, perhaps, to be dominated by any one store: it goes down four levels, and includes a swimming pool, multi-screen movie theater, municipal library, subway and commuter-rail stations.

Since France banned indoor smoking in public places a few years ago,
this atrium at the Forum des Halles has become a refuge
for nicotine fanatics.

The Forum mall replaced the city’s central food market, Les Halles, a bustling yet beautiful collection of soaring, cast-iron pavilions that Emile Zola once compared to a Gothic cathedral. Though the pavilions had deteriorated by the early 1970s, tearing them down — and transplanting the market to the nearby town of Rungis — stirred plenty of controversy and really did change many people’s way of life. In the neighborhood around les Halles, for example, small cafés served hungry market-workers at all hours: apparently a bowl of onion soup at 4 A.M. was a popular ritual, all but vanished today.**

There goes the neighborhood:
Construction site at the Forum des Halles

I despise the Forum des Halles and go there as seldom as possible. That antipathy informs my desire to see Touche pas à la femme blanche (Don’t Touch the White Woman), Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film starring Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. A burlesque of American Westerns and Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, it was shot on the construction site of the present-day mall. But it doesn’t seem to get revived much; I’ve never managed to see the picture.***

*NOTE: The world’s first department store, Au Bon Marché, still operates on the Left Bank in Paris. Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames is a fictionalized account of the rise of the department store and the devastating consequences it had on mom-and-pop stores in Paris — comparable to what Americans saw more than a century later, when Wal-Mart came to town.

**Because Paris is emphatically not “the city that never sleeps,” it’s hard to get a cheap meal after midnight — or after 10 or 11 P.M., really. The neighborhood around les Halles still boasts some all-night restaurants, but they’re comparatively expensive. Les Halles is the setting of Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris).

***As the Forum des Halles undergoes renovations today, much of it has been turned into a construction site again, looking very much like pictures I’ve seen of Ferreri’s film. (Except there aren’t any French guys dressed as American cavalry, or white guys dressed as Native Americans, or Catherine Deneuve. Otherwise — just the same.)

Deneuve as the titular white woman in Touche pas

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25 March 2011

La Nostalgie: Dead Poet Societies

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” as Simone Signoret observed in the title of her (wonderful) memoir. What strikes me is how much nostalgia depends on who’s around to feel it.

Brassens: Un copain d’abord
He described himself as “Le pornographe du phonographe, le polisson de la chanson,” but really, his songs aren’t dirty.

For instance, France is now commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of Georges Brassens, a sly and gifted songwriter about whom I’ll write more, one of these days. We just finished an exhaustive series of tributes to another songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg, who died 20 years ago and who has been the subject of countless “Un an déjà,” “Dix ans déjà” and “Quinze ans déjà” retrospectives. Among the tributes to Brassens is an exhibition at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, co-curated by Joann Sfar, who made last year’s fever-dream biopic, Gainsbourg, vie héroïque.

Gainsbourg: Vingt ans déjà
His songs can get pretty raunchy sometimes.

Poor Charles Trenet had the bad luck to die exactly 10 years after Gainbsbourg, and moreover, he died an old man. Many of his fans were hardly younger than he, and by now they’ve followed him to the Great Beyond, whereas Gainsbourg died young, with an even younger fan base. And so, on the anniversary of Trenet’s death, you didn’t see a single TV report or magazine cover to commemorate him. I’d like to do my part to correct that omission, and I encourage you to follow the links above to other articles I’ve written about him.

Le vieux chantant: Trenet in old age

The other night, I caught a nostalgia-tinted documentary series with an unfortunate title, something like “50 Years That Changed the Way We Live” — as if any half-century would not have meant change. But in looking back at these developments in France, I was surprised to see how many have become part of my life; some of them, I witnessed more or less from the get-go. In the next few entries, I’ll examine these extraordinary phenomena: shopping malls, bank cards, and the legendary Minitel.

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23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

My father used to complain bitterly that, when he was growing up, the actress Elizabeth Taylor was routinely identified in the press as being older than he — until by some mysterious means, she became two years younger than he. True to form, Taylor died at age 79 today — on my dad’s 81st birthday.

With Taylor passes a kind of Hollywood stardom; it’s hard to imagine another actor’s ever attaining comparable stature. Our notions of glamour are so changed, studio controls more limited, and stars’ relationship with the (vastly expanded, less disciplined) entertainment press so much more contentious. Does any movie star today know how to work the press as expertly as Taylor? Has any star been schooled, as Taylor was, since childhood?

Taylor got bad press in her time, of course, but she knew how to keep herself in the public eye for seven decades, and she did so by choice, with specific goals in mind. Celebrity drew audiences to her movies, which in turn gave her the bankability to make more movies; later, she used celebrity to promote the organizations she supported and the causes in which she believed.

Her ability as an actress was almost beside the point, and I, for one, wasn’t particularly an admirer. Her line readings were most often unnatural, and her voice grates on my nerves. She did come up with a handful of good performances, though not always when you expect her to do so, and the directors who used her most wisely (and least riskily) were those who presented her simply for what she was, an object of beauty.

With Clift in A Place in the Sun

In George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, she functions primarily as a symbol of the elusive American dream. Of course Montgomery Clift yearns to possess her! And yet what throws the movie’s dynamic into another sphere isn’t what she says or does but that she looks so much like him. When he looks into her eyes, he sees himself, another, better self, with all the rough edges polished away: richer, more graceful, pampered, and more feminine. None of this has anything to do with Taylor’s acting talent.

Clift was one of her favorite co-stars, and while most of the tributes written to her in the coming days will focus inevitably on Taylor’s love life, I find her relationships with gay men to be in some ways more indicative of the woman’s true character (in so far as I can divine it). She forged lasting bonds with gay men early on, beginning with Roddy McDowall, and she seems to have learned plenty from them. Not least, this: that if people were going to be judged on the basis of their love lives, she’d be in trouble, too.

With Hepburn and Clift in Suddenly, Last Summer

She showed her loyalty to Clift by putting up her own salary as a guarantee when no studio would touch him; she showed her concern for another co-star, Rock Hudson, by becoming an AIDS activist in the mid-1980s.

At the time, this was hardly a chic or easy choice. Hollywood was so ignorant, and America so terrified, that another of Hudson’s co-stars worried publicly about a kissing scene. Our Hollywood President wouldn’t even mention the disease. But Taylor didn’t back away, and she wound up forging the path that other stars have followed since.

Caring for the sick and wounded:
As Rebecca in Ivanhoe

Through her time, effort, and example, Taylor didn’t merely raise public awareness of an epidemic — though that would have been enough to earn her my grateful respect. She raised money, lots of it, accepting contributions the way she used to accept gifts on the movie set (daily — or else!), and she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research, amfAR. Hollywood never offered her a role more heroic or dramatically effective.

And yet, as we review her well-publicized life, it becomes clear: one couldn’t have had the do-gooder without also having the glamorous star, the serial wife, the perpetual tabloid headline. I’m sorry to see her go.

With Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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