Wednesday, July 11, 2007

La Vie en Rose

Traditional French culture seems to float in a scented bath of beauty and joie de vivre, so that people love, eat, drink, whine, cheat and betray one another, and occasionally commit crimes of passion within a hovering atmosphere of timeless sensuality and existential rectitude (now there’s an interesting phrase) that renders the particular events being depicted somewhat inconsequential, no matter how germane they may be to life or the development of the plot. The pervasive charm of the whole trumps the moral implications of the storyline, and the message is always the same: C’ est la Vie. We like the wine, the fresh bread, the streets of Paris, the rows of poplars leading up the drive to the country estate, and the commanding logic of l‘ Amour, which, for good or ill, obliterates everything in its path.

In recent decades—to judge from the films they’re putting out—the French seem to have lost their charm. No sooner are these words out of my mouth, however, than I’m reminded of Joyeux Noel, a truly charming French film about trench warfare. So all is not yet lost. Yet the trend is marked, and the latest French blockbuster, La Vie en Rose, only serves to confirm it.

Now, everyone ought to have an Edith Piaf record. (The question is, Does anyone need two?) Though her signature numbers tend to be a little strident, they evoke the atmosphere of Parisian cabaret life during the inter-war years, which is when Piaf rose to prominence as a popular entertainer. None of us were alive then, but it’s easy to appreciate the romantic, nostalgic, bitter-sweet and also hard-edged flavor of the music, and Piaf’s voice has no rivals in its power to get the mood across. There is enough crisp energy in a single one of her rolled “r”s to shatter glass, and her vibrato is so tight you could hang your wash out to dry on it. Piaf was only 4 ft 8 (the little sparrow, you know) and yet she could belt out melodies with remarkable intensity. No one who knows her music, I think, would hesitate call it “great.”

Yet alongside the music, there is also the Piaf myth. She was raised in the street, in a brothel, in a circus. She was “discovered,” she wowed chic and wealthy Parisians with her expressive power. She became famous, performed in America, was on Ed Sullivan eight times, and along the way became an icon of her own nation, like Amelia Rodriguez in Portugal or Frank Sinatra (?) in the United States. Yet through it all she retained the impulsiveness of her lowly origins (Good for her!) became addicted to morphine, frequently spat on her patrons and benefactors, and burned out at the tender age of 47.

At any rate, that is the story we receive from La Vie en Rose, which is a strange and unsatisfying film, in which Piaf comes across as an egotistical maniac. Why is there no mention of her (often successful) efforts on behalf of French prisoners during WWII, or her contributions to the fledgling careers of Yves Montand or Charles Avnesvour? On the other hand, Piaf’s affair with the Moroccan boxer Marcel Cerdan is elevated here to a position of Olympian devotion, “The love of her life!” yet she had so many affairs during the course of her career that no one could count them up. Piaf’s artistry always seems to take a back seat to her brash and arbitrary personal whims, though the film does underscore how important song-writers were to her success. And far too much time is devoted to her final years, when she was worn out and ill—she died of cancer. In fact, the director, Olivier Dahan, handles the many time-shifts as if he had just been watching The Great Train Robbery (1903) rather than Citizen Kane.

In short, Edith Piaf was a far more interesting and attractive figure than the one being presented to us here. Yet like most bio-pics of musicians, La Vie en Rose, for all its shabbiness, does holds our interest. There is always the next song, the next insult, the next overdose. A more sympathetic portrait, and a better film, is Claude Lelouch’s Edith and Marcel. And an excellent documentary was released in 1999 or thereabouts. I have a copy on VHS if you want to borrow it.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Last Days of Pompeii

In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted, hurling rocks through the rooftops of the surrounding villages and cities, and later spewing forth a rich and lethal flood of ash, fumes, and molten lava. Pompeii, the most famous of the cities at the foot of the mountain, was utterly obliterated, and lost to history for almost two thousand years. Early in the nineteenth century excavators began to unearth the streets, homes, and businesses of Pompeii, many of which had been preserved intact by the hardened volcanic material. And during the 1850s they began to fill the unusual cavities they found in the rock with plaster. When the rock was subsequently chipped away, the forms of men, woman, and animals were exposed, revealing the twisted, horrified positions these individuals had assumed the moment they were engulfed by the relentlessly advancing lava.

It's powerful stuff, and it has captured the imaginations of both children and adults for generations, making Pompeii by some accounts the most visited tourist attraction in Italy--a country that has more than its share. Recently, a few of the artifacts uncovered by the excavations at Pompeii were mounted into a traveling exhibit, along with scale models of villas, audio interpretation, and computer-generated images of both daily life in the city, and the more unusual events that took place on August 24, 79 AD, when all hell broke loose.

The chief drawback of the show, which arrived at the Science Museum in St. Paul a few weeks ago, is the price. It will cost you $20 to get in, though the fee also includes entry into the other sections of the museum and use of the audio device. Is it worth it? That depends on how interested you are in volcanoes and daily life in ancient Rome. I would say yes, though I used a museum library pass to shave $8 off the fee.

The show is modest in size, and a number of the artifacts on display are similar to things many of us have seen before--roman coins, amphorae, gold necklaces, funeral urns. The interpretation is clear but hardly brilliant, and anyone who studied Roman history in college will probably be thinking from time to time: "The Romans were far more interesting and idiosyncratic than this," but without quite remembering how. For example, the commentary about Roman burial practices along the roads leading into Pompeii seems to belittle the rituals and beliefs of the time, emphasizing the status-seeking motives of the survivors rather than their devotion to their ancestors, whom they considered minor gods deserving of gifts and veneration. Even this sort of mental jog is of value, however, and as you move through the museum the small but select exhibits about laundry, cooking, commerce, gaming, and other aspects of daily life contribute to a full-blown picture of a foreign, yet strangely familiar way of life.

The cooking and eating habits of the citizens of Pompeii are among the more interesting of the subjects covered by the exhibit. You can see carbonized walnuts and fava beans, baked bread that has somehow been preserved by the disaster( a little on the burnt side, to be sure), and handy little clay firepits with "burners" on three sides, under which the burning coals could be positioned once the fire had reached the desired degree of heat. Though the odiferous substance itself is not on display, the fish-paste called garum (a complicated mixture of fermented tuna and anchovy innards) is discussed at length. It was the salsa of Pompeii--fishy, salty, and no doubt very strange-tasting to us (though tapenade may harbor a dim modern echo.)

I found it interesting to learn that many homes in Pompeii did not have kitchens. People ate and imbibed on the run at fast-food outlets located throughout the city, while waiting to be invited to banquets at the homes of their wealthy friends. At such banquets guests ate while reclining--three to a couch. The less esteemed guests had to be content to sit on chairs.The furniture in the homes of Pompeii was scanty in any case, and was often moved from room to room as required by the occasion. (That's a habit I like.)

There were very few dioramas or models depicting city streets, which surprised me, but it seems that greenery was reserved for the interior courtyards of private dwellings. Among the statuary included in the exhibit two pieces stand out. One is a statue of one of the Muses that looks more Mexican than Roman--blocky yet powerful and handsome. I've never seen anything like it. And there are also two elegant ten-foot marble columns with floral patterns that are very nice. One case holds a display of small marble garden ornaments each of which depicts an animal tearing a smaller animal to shreds. (I prefer the plaster bunny that sits under the euonymus bush in my back yard.)

Even more striking are the frescoes that have somehow been removed and transported here to Saint Paul. We've seen these images before, or others like them, on the covers of paperback books containing the poems of Horace or the letters of Seneca, but it's something else again to see them in the flesh. Though the tales being depicted are sometimes bizarre, the people look just like us! And the animals and plants in the background look attractive, suggesting that although the Roman's were well aware that nature could be brutal, they also considered it to be a sort of garden paradise.

Nature's brutality is on full display in the last room of the exhibit. This darkened room contains a few of the plaster casts that have been made of the victims of the eruption. The casts are rough and white, like a George Segal imitation of Rodin's bronze representation of Balzac. But the positions are chilling, to say the least. One man holds a cloth to his face, another sits huddled in a corner with his legs pulled up under him. One man is in shackles. And one of the casts is of a couple with arms outstretched around one another.

The casts rest in beds of reddish pumice, and they are powerful examples of an art that is not art. We are moved by them, because without knowing anything about these women and men (there are a few animals too) we see and feel the pathos of the final moments they experienced before death overtook them. In their gestures, their anonymity, and their realness, they convey a depth of humanity that art seldom approaches.