Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Modern music in a Medieval setting

         After hearing about the jazz bar that Heimunn attended with her host family, I was anticipating a chic club with fancy cushions and elegantly dressed Parisians while on my way to a jazz concert at Caveau de la Huchette. However, when I turned onto a lively street in the Latin quarter, I realized that it would probably be a little different. After escaping from a drunk guy who asked me if I would go to a club with him, I found the entrance and followed the sound of the music that was coming from the basement. I entered a room that was supported by aged stone walls and stone arches that reached almost halfway from the ceiling to the floor. There were some slightly dusty lanterns attached to the walls and rows of long wooden benches extending from the bottom of the curved staircase. A possibly unintentional addition to the cave-like effect was the echoing sound of water droplets leaking from a pipe. The scène looked like it was built in the middle ages. Indeed, I found out that the room has been kept in its authentic state since the around the 16th century, when it was used as a meeting place for the Rose Croix and the Templars. Two secret passages led out of the cave during the Revolutionary period, when it was transformed into a courtroom and site for exécutions. In the 20th century, it was the first place where jazz was played and became the known as the most popular jazz bars in Paris.

          Today, Le Haveau de la Huchette is still considered among the best in the city, and its likely the favorite among many Parisians. I discovered throughout the performance that the setting was a major part of the overall experience. The music was amplified by the reflection off of the stone arches, and everybody was close enough to the band to catch every detail of the performance. I watched the bassist and guitarist when they held their ears near the instruments to tune them between songs. I could see the pianists’ fingers moving adeptly around the keyboard, playing mostly relatively simple chords with his left hand and a lively melody in the right hand. He finished his solo with a sequence that traversed the higher octaves of the piano and came back down near middle C. The audience applauded after each of the musicians’ solos, which were good but not outstanding. Similarly, I enjoyed the songs that the band played over the course of the performance without being overwhelmingly impressed. My criticisms are that I couldn’t hear the pianist very well except for during the solos, and one of the solos was accompanied by the drummers’ sharp pattering rhythm that was a little distracting.

         During the last song, a couple got up and started to swing dance in the large open space in front of the band. They skillfully spun and glided around the dance floor, bringing more engery to the animated ambiance. Overall, the music provided a relaxing break from all the work I’ve had recently, and I was excited to be in a jazz bar for the first time. I was thankful for the opportunity to go out and listen to music on a Monday night, when I would normally be working on an Econ problem set if I were back at Stanford. Also, it might be difficult to find a jazz club in California in a cave dating from the middle ages. 

Le Caveau de la Huchette

Now I know what made my previous jazz experiences subpar: never before had the jazz taken place in a medieval dungeon.

Le Caveau de la Huchette in the effortlessly chic neighborhood of St. Michel fills this void. Its building is one of the many in Paris that benefits from what a few students have taken to calling the Harry Potter effect. In one of the Potter books, the characters camp out in tents that look modest from the outside, but within are magically manipulated to be able to accommodate the population of a small town. Likewise, Le Caveau’s street-level façade gives way to a cramped, narrow bar, with concerts held downstairs, in the magically expanded dungeon.

From the moment the Nicola Sabato Trio began to play, their music resonated to fill the entire room, including each person in the audience. With the warmth of every sound, from drum solo to applause, the wine or beer that many audience members held seemed redundant.

Having previously been to jazz concerts that placed the audience in stadium seating or at small café tables, the profound effect of Le Caveau’s layout surprised me.

1957 photo by Willy Ronis

I sat where in the photo above a woman in a white dress and white high heels is sitting, behind the dancing couple, looking straight ahead at the band across the small dance floor. From there without turning my head I had a view of almost every audience member, except for those in the alcove behind me. This perspective kept my impatient mind occupied, for I was not alone with the music I knew I grasped imperfectly at best; I was part of a kind of salon full of friends and strangers, all there to enjoy separately yet together.

The audience members smiled, kept the beat with tapping fingers on their knees or toes on the floor, occasionally chatted, and directed almost tangible appreciation toward the musicians. The band featured virtuosic soloes shamelessly targeted at audience approval, as well as the periodic fixed gaze of Sabato himself as he played the double bass. He stared from time to time at a space just past the microphone, a few feet from the ground. I would have thought he was referring to the sheet music, except that there was nothing there.

Le Caveau de la Huchette makes an American art form quite natural in a Parisian context, turns a fragmented audience into a living, breathing whole, and would admirably house an enemy to the throne. Situated between the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and half a dozen crêpe stands, around the corner from the Notre Dame cathedral, it offers jazz performances in an impossibly cool and potentially revelatory setting.

A Human Look at Paris and The Americans

Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s exhibit “A Foreign Look: Paris/ The Americans” is a fascinating collection of photos at Jeu de Paume definitely worth seeing before it ends on March 22, 2009. The exhibit displays two sets of photograph series by Frank, “Paris” and “The Americans,” side by side.

His “Paris” collection consists of photographs that Robert took while in postwar Paris from 1949 to 1952. As the title implies, most of the photographs concentrate on the streets of Paris, and people or objects often fall in the background. There is a recurring image of flowers throughout the collection of images. This series is a compilation of snapshots of Paris, and it doesn’t tell a fluid story. Frank seems to spontaneously capture the moments on the move.

“The Americans” series, taken by Frank from 1955 to 1956, is quite different. Unlike the “Paris” collection, this series does tell a coherent story, a story of racism, financial inequalities, and change that the country was going through at the time. As this title implies, most of the images include (and concentrate on) people. Under each photograph is a description of where the photograph was taken (eg. Chattanooga, Tennessee). The images are political. The images bring about many different emotional reactions from viewers. Like in his “Paris” series, Frank also captures the photographs from “The Americans” while on the move. It seems as if the Americans being photographed did not realize that they were on camera. Many say that this series “changed the history of documentary photography.” It is that strong.

The major messages in Frank’s two series are quite different. For example, “The Americans” emphasize race as a major cultural issue. The strongest photo that expresses this matter, in my opinion, is one that shows a bus with, from the front to back of the bus, a white man, a white woman, a white boy, a white girl, a black man, and a black woman. The white boy assumes the exact same body position and facial expression as the black man, but the boy confidently holds a pole of the bus, whereas the man drops his hand over the bus, almost as if he is saying, “I give up.” “Paris” does not emphasize race as an issue. In one photograph, a black man holds a white woman’s hand, and in another a white and black man talk and walk down the street together.
Although clearly different in depictions and political messages, similar important and deep messages permeate both series. In my opinion, putting these series side by side helped to highlight these messages.

Frank clearly rejects materialism and the elite in both series. In “The Americans,” he photographs a woman from Hollywood, as he clearly marks below the image, who is draped in feathers, jewels, and rich fabrics that go well with her perfect hairdo. She is beautiful, and I cannot help but think of how lucky she must feel, especially when comparing herself to the woman shown two photographs later, who is also from Hollywood but working in a fast-food diner— her head down, he facial expression of boredom— and wearing an ugly white uniform. However, Frank clearly changes my opinion of the luck of the Hollywood star when, towards the end of his story (the series) he shows a woman resembling the first Hollywood woman, still dressed fancily. This time, however, there are many people in the photo who seem to be dressed much more humbly and not a single person watches her; it is as though she is unimportant. She looks distressed and stares downward. In the “Paris” series, Frank also seems to make a statement against extreme wealth. He captures a moment in which a woman dressed in silk and covered in pearls is at a fancy ball with men in suits and indoor columns. This is one of the only photographs in the collection without flowers in it, perhaps suggesting that the elite are not well connected with the rest of world.

In both series, Frank also conveys problems of financial inequalities that exist in America and in Paris. In “The Americans,” he shows Butte, Montana, a horizontal photograph that emphasizes the low, dark buildings that are poor and breaking down. The following photo vertically depicts a New York City shiny building that seems tall and modern with colorful magazine stands in front of it.

In “Paris,” Frank similarly reminds the viewer of wealth inequalities that exist in the world. In one picture, he shows a man selling single flowers in the middle of the street to cars in order to make money to eat, while in another picture he shows rich folks buying bouquets of flowers at a store.

Furthermore, Franks images side by side reminded me of my tiny size in this colossal world. In “The Americans,” following the image of the New York City tall building, he shows a small Los Angeles businessman leaning against a huge building with a magazine titled “Awake,” as if to tell me that the businessman needs to wake up and realize that his role in the world is not as powerful as he thinks it is. The way that Frank depicts large open spaces occupied by tiny people also reminds me of my minor size. In one ironic photograph, he shows people walking away from “Rue de la Sante” between a huge wall and gigantic trees. I interpreted this photograph as if Frank was telling me that even though the humans in this photograph were symbolically rejecting “health,” it did not matter, since health, as represented by the street, was a lot larger (and more powerful) than them anyways.

The artist also uses death to emphasize the insignificant nature of humans in the world. In “The Americans,” a dead man lies in a tomb while those at his funeral look beyond him as if to indicate that they have already moved on. Similarly, in “Paris,” Frank photographs people walking by without paying attention to a memorial with flowers around it. Another photograph shows plastic flowers with a sign that reads “Remember your loved ones: 69 cents,” suggesting that those memories of loved ones are not worth much.

In a few instances, Frank catches similar objects on camera and portrays very different scenes to being about the same emotion in me. For example, in “The Americans,” he shows six adults, all around the age of 80, sitting on two benches back to back. Not a single one talks to another person. I feel sad because their facial expressions seem so lonely and bored, yet they are not friendly with one another. In “Paris,” on the other hand, Frank shows one adult sitting on a bench with a sign that expresses that he wants to help people move in and out of houses. This adult also looks lonely and bored, and I feel sad because no one is reaching out for his help.

The many similarities illuminated by these two exhibits side by side serve as powerful reminders of how connected each human is to each other. Whether through financial hardships, struggles of loneliness, episodes of sheer joy and love, feelings of insignificance, or simply through sharing a space on a street, each person can connect to each other. Since Robert Frank delineates such a wide variety of people and places in America and Paris, I think that each person can intimately relate to at least one of his photographs. A French mother with three black girls cutely expressed to her children how they could relate to an image of young, rich white boys, “Ils ont une mamon comme vous.” I hope that the mother realizes that she would have found many more similarities between her daughters and those in the photograph if she had just spent more time absorbing the messages that Robert Frank was delivering.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jazz in Paris

I hadn't realized it at the time, but Le Caveau de la Huchette is one of the jazz clubs in Paris, at which the greats such as Lionel Hampton and Count Basie had played regularly. The building itself is fascinating; a 16th century building on one of the tiny windy streets in the Latin Quarter, rumored to have a been a meeting place for the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Later on, during the French Revolution, the extremist Jacobims had conducted trials and executions in the cellar. Naturally, the sense of intrigue was evident as we made our way into the dark club, then down the winding spiral staircases into the cellar.

The medieval cellar itself was interesting, with the walls and low ceilings of a typical French cave, but different levels even within the basement. Several tables were tucked away in the corners up a couple steps, while there was a big empty space on a slightly lower level surrounded by seats in front of the elevated stage. I was initially dubious about this layout; not only had we arrived too late to grab seats with a view of the stage, but I found the empty space in the middle of the room to be extremely awkward; I would imagine most other clubs would have filled this space with tables to create a cozier ambiance. Furthermore, despite the dim lighting of the bar upstairs, the basement was surprisingly well-lit, almost too bright for what I would have expected for an 'underground' jazz concert.

Soon after we arrived, the quartet featuring a pianist, a drummer, a bassist and a tenor saxophonist started to play. They opened with 'There Will Never Be Another You', which I took to be a good omen - after all, you can't go wrong with a Chet Baker standard, right? Unfortunately, the band did not live up to these expectations. Their solos were not impressive, and though by no means offensive, the rest of their set was ... comme ci comme ça.

However, the ambiance of the club more than made up for that shortfall. As soon as the second song started, a brave couple made their way to the dance floor and started dancing, quickly joined by others. The movement of the dancers filled up the empty space and helped to create the cozier atmosphere which had initially been missing. Together with the smaller tables tucked away at the back, partially-shielded by the stone walls, this created a unique intimate setting for the group without feeling like you were intruding into someone else's private space. In fact, it managed to placate my earlier concerns about the awkwardness of the empty space, and the lack of intimacy.

This was in stark contrast to my first Parisian jazz club experience at the beginning of the quarter, when my host parents took me to see a jazz trio at the Jazz Cartoon in Montmartre. Though it was also underground in a similar cave, and the songs being played were similar (albeit by, dare I say, better musicians), Jazz Cartoon created its own sense of intimacy by squashing in as many chairs into the basement as possible, keeping the lighting extremely dim with candles on each table. Despite everyone feeling as though they were being squashed onto someone else's lap, the darkness and the layout of the tables made it easy to focus on the music, and I quickly found myself mesmerized. In a somewhat conflicting manner, I felt wholly submerged in the music and almost oblivious to my surroundings, yet still conscious of the crowd around me who shared exactly the same state of mind.

Rather, at La Caveau de la Huchette, the emphasis was clearly on the ambiance of live music, rather than on the music itself. This was made apparent by the dancing, the mediocre band, the ongoing conversations throughout the evening and the layout of the cellar. It was definitely not at all the experience that I had expected, but I finally came to terms with that fact, and it was nevertheless still a highly enjoyable evening of jazz.

Jazz, 'Round Midnight

We went to Le Caveau de la Huchette with no idea of what to expect. We were looking for jazz clubs online and this was one of the few that we found in the Fifth arrondisment that we were going to scope out. All we had was the address. It turned out to be a great success.

I’m a relatively accomplished musician. I’ve been playing various instruments since kindergarten, including (in chronological-ish order,) the violin, mandolin, bass, clarinet, tenor saxophone, trombone, guitar, piano and ukulele. I played jazz trombone throughout high school, and I am now a member of the LSJUMB (which I wouldn’t consider one of my greater musical achievements). All that said, I think I have a pretty solid appreciation for music, particularly regarding jazz.

I’m still not sure who was performing when we went to the club. It was a four-man combo—tenor, piano, bass and drums. They started their first set a little before eleven, just after we arrived, with a song I recognized but have thusly forgotten. By my first impression I was not impressed. It seemed as though the front man (tenor sax) had not warmed up and his tone was quite atrocious. As the set progressed, he mellowed out, but I can’t say I was a big fan of the harsh tone.

Personally, I’m used to clubs like Yoshi’s and Jazz at Pearl’s, where the point of going is to see the musician. You could tell from the set up that this club was not about the musicians. When we went downstairs (where the band was performing), I was surprised to find that the greater part of the club was taken up by a dance floor surrounded by cushioned benches along the walls. Oddly, though the club was piping in swing through the speakers and the benches were relatively crowded, nobody was dancing. From my experience, this was somewhat strange. Typically, if there’s a dance floor, people are dancing, otherwise there’re tables taking up the space. It felt somewhat awkward, because the space immediately in front of the riser was completely empty. It seemed to me that the put more focus on the dance floor than the band. This became clear when couples flooded the dance floor in the long breaks between sets.

What I realized after a few songs was that we were not at a jazz club to appreciate virtuosic musical performance. One couple started dancing on the second song, and from that point on, there was almost always at least two or three couples on the dance floor. It seemed pretty apparent that people went there for the atmosphere and the live music. Le Caveau de la Huchette had a particularly interesting atmosphere because it’s in a really old building that (according to the website) used to be a courtroom, prison and execution chamber. It was a great place to go to hang out and listen to some live music and have a few drinks and chat, but it was not at all what I would consider a concert hall.

The thing that interested me most about Le Caveau de la Huchette was the different focus. I feel like when people go to listen to live jazz in the Bay Area, it’s to listen to the band. People sit at their tables and whisper tidbits of conversation while the band is playing, and clap politely after solos and at the end of songs. From my experience in Paris thus far, live music is for the audience, not the musicians. It’s a nice change of pace.

Jazz Underground

This week I went to a small Jazz club by St. Michele Metro Station called Caveau de la Huchette, and as the name of the venue would suggest, the music was played underground in an old cellar. JW made the plans to go to this particular jazz club, so I actually didn’t know that the music would be played in a basement. Thus it was quite a pleasant surprise when we were directed from the bar down the customarily steep and winding stairs into the cellar. When we reached the bottom I found myself looking at a basement where the low-hanging stone arches and the musty smell reminded me of a cathedral’s crypt (of which I have seen my fair-share so far in Europe). This time, however, instead of feeling obligated to appreciate some variety of historical site I was thrilled to be taking in some jazz in such a different setting.

As I looked around the cellar more, I could imagine anything from a group of monks in prayer to an aristocrat’s wine collection filling the space. Additionally, the space had a very three-dimensional feel because of the number of different levels of flooring in the room. I counted six small sets of stairs throughout the entire basement that led to little nooks and throughout the larger room it had a number of small tables and chairs. It allowed for each separate group to have a very intimate feeling with their own group, but my only complaint was that there was a somewhat large open area with no tables directly in front of the stage. I felt that that took away from the intimacy of the basement, and that the audience could have sat much closer to the band. However, once the first fearless couple pranced onto the dance floor, the space appeared to shrink in size and I felt like I was closer to the band.

Not only did the cave-like feel of the basement venue add to the ambience, but I also really liked how the music sounded. It seemed to cascade into your ears from all directions, and the saxophone, in particular, sounded more robust than I think it otherwise would have. I thought about the IRCAM concert hall, where they can rotate panels in the walls in order to achieve a certain acoustic effect, and I wondered if it would be able to simulate the intimate feel of the basement. My romantic side wanted to say no, that technology couldn’t come close to replicating the feeling, but the more technically oriented side of my brain was already ruminating on how it could be possible.

Luckily, before I got too caught-up with theories of acoustics, of which I am acquainted with to a trivial extent, I realized that my head had been slowly rocking to the music while I had been thinking. So, if you’ve been wondering up to this point about the music I will start by saying this: it was “head-bob worthy”. Like I said, I found myself doing an absent-minded, slow head-bob. You might think “head-bob worthy” sounds like a non-committal, clumsy, or overly creative way of saying “good”. I am, however, going to stand by my use of “head-bob worthy” because I feel that it appropriately conveys what I thought about the music. I thought the music was tepid, inexpressive, and mild, although each performer had the chance to play a solo or two, they all lacked a feeling of connection with the music or an effort to express emotion. The music was good, the musicians were professionals, but in an effort to make the music dance-friendly and audience friendly I think it came out flat. Of course, the musicians might feel obligated to put on a show that would appeal to the widest audience possible, but I suppose I had been looking for more. Thus, as someone who cannot dance well, I found the music to be worthy of a good head-rock, but not rich enough to keep me from pondering the acoustic properties of the basement's low stone ceiling.

Spontaneity through Metro Music: A Brief View of the True Heart of Paris

Upon disembarking from my train at the Chatelet metro stop, one of Paris’ busiest subway stations, lively music met my ears. As I drew closer, I could see a group of men and women set up against the wall in the station on the walkway between line 1 and line 4. Their diverse group of instruments including the marimba, cello, violin, drums, shakers and flute, succeeded in creating a diversion for the throngs of people walking by. Although I have seen many talented single artists play in the stations, a violinist at the Louvre-Rivoli, a guitarist at the Place d’Italie, the atmosphere generated by this group was unique.

Perhaps it was the bohemian, Jamaican style piece that provided the exotic touch needed to infiltrate the minds and hearts of the Parisians. There was an incredible energy in this group’s movements as their shaking, dancing and swaying added to the liveliness, despite the character of the chill and laid back piece they were playing. A twinkle in each of their eyes and the enjoyment that showed on their faces led me to believe that they were playing for more than just the coins that were being thrown in their empty guitar case.

Upon hearing the music, I felt a bubble of happiness rise within me, and I could tell that I was not the only one on which this music had such an effect. Not only were these musicians musically talented, their art completely transformed the metro station, creating a relaxed atmosphere and bringing to life the dimly lit walkways. In our orientation, we were told that it is culturally taboo to smile at those we don’t know, and this philosophy has been evident upon viewing the straight and focused faces of the Parisians on the metro. Yet, this group caused each and every individual who walked by to smile and even pause for a minute to enjoy the scene that was unfolding around them.

Although this group didn’t make use of the common musical devices such as crescendos and tempo changes normally deemed necessary to create an artistically divine piece, I did not feel that this was the time and place to do so. Compared to other performances, this music was all about touching people in the few seconds that they walked by. The volume, rhythm and beat of the piece provided a stark contrast from the rush and constant murmur present in the metro stops, and it was this juxtaposition that succeeded in capturing my attention.

To me, this music was just as exciting because of the reactions it elicited as it was because of the artistry that the musicians exhibited. It represented the "real" Paris, a vision that is often not consistent with the tourist and guidebook definition, but rather, one that emphasizes the diversity, energy, and vitality that contributes to the true heartbeat of Paris. The beauty of it was the spontaneity of the moment and making the most of the opportunity when it was least expected.

Caribbean Music in Paris’ Metro (?!) : A Dreamy New Yorker’s Reality Check

I will begin this response by reminding my audience, as is my unintentional now-made-intentional habit every time, that I am a native New Yorker. As such, I grew up with an urban subway system. Gritty, dirty, and rat-infested as they are, they form the backbone to any large city. The subway was an everyday part of my existence commuting to school and around the city, so I saw all sorts of public space music. Performances ranged from Chinese guzheng to classical Western violinists, from Latin American wooden windpipes to hip hop that blared from boom boxes surrounded by somersaulting break-dancers in silver suits. Colorful, right? Diversity was assumed. New York is a melting pot and its subways performances are melting pots too.

But for some strange dreamy reason, I expected to hear nothing but accordion music in Parisian metros. Not just any type of accordion music, mind you, but accordion music just like Yann Tiersen’s compositions for the soundtrack for the movie Amelie. Maybe because I absolutely that movie and have watched it many times over, I have come to regard that and only that music as quintessentially Parisian public space / metro music.

Indeed, I lived happily in that illusion for quite a while. Before my arrival, I took care to upload the Amelie soundtrack on my iPod. The first thing I did when I arrived was drop off my bags at the hostel and immediately go out for a walk with my iPod. I wandered over to the Siene, crossed the bridge, and walked to Notre Dame, all while listening to that soundtrack. It was perfect. It was so… Paris. I was so excited. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. It was a long anticipated dream come true. I was such a romantic.

Slowly, however, I realized that Paris is not a one-dimensional-accordion-music-everywhere city, but a multicultural and diverse city. Opera singers replaced accordion music in the metro. Ok, I said to myself, this is still quite European, I can still deal with this. I’ve certainly never seen opera singers in New York subways, so it’s different enough to still be “Paris”. Opera singers were then replaced by sad-looking violinists and somber-looking cellists. I do see them sometimes in New York, but not quite as often as other sorts of performers. So, I could still deal with that. It was still “Paris”.

Then, for this response, Aleema wanted to write about a Caribbean band that she kept seeing in Chatelet between Lines 1 and 4. We had been excited to write about metro music since literally Week 1, but had never talked about exactly what type of metro music. I didn’t have the heart/guts to push, “But why not do something more Parisian?” (a.k.a. accordion music! Like, duh!) After all, her group is also Paris. With that, my Parisian accordion dreams were shattered.

…It was a large group, the largest band I have seen in the Paris subways thus far. Music from the marimba, wooden flutes, and drums echoed off the tile walls, filling the metro hall with heady flavor. The musicians’ energy radiated onto the audience. I’m not knowledgeable enough to identify the exact genre- was it Caribbean but also with some Latin American influences? At any rate, it was all so vibrant and so alive, quite different from the sad violinists and lonely opera singers I have seen, whose music makes the metro seem empty rather than full! As I watched and listened, entranced, my thoughts began to wander. This music sounds like something I would hear in a big subway station in New York, such as Union Square, Grand Central, or Times Square. Then it struck me: wait, Chatelet is the Parisian equivalent of those stations -- it’s one of the biggest Metro/RER transfer stations in the city. Oh the parallels! Oh wait- did I just feel like I was back in New York City? Was I just, ever so slightly, kind of homesick?

Thus, this Caribbean band has led me full circle. For a brief moment I forgot that I was in Paris. That brief moment made me realized that Paris is more similar to New York and other cosmopolitan cities than I had wanted to believe. This is a theme Mark had mentioned in class, but only now do I fully understand what Mark meant.

I still have some more questions though. How far away can we really get from a world cosmopolitan culture then? How diverse is Paris, exactly? I’m still trying to figure this one out. Is it a melting pot just like New York is? No, it can’t be AS much as New York, for historical, political, and geographical reasons… and also because I still haven’t seen my hip-hop blaring boom boxes and somersaulting break-dancers in silver suits. When I do, maybe I will reconsider that New York statement.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Les Egouts: The City Below

We sure picked a good day to go underground. Snow blew into my face, somehow circumventing my umbrella, soaking my coat and freezing my hands as I emerged from the Metro. The only above ground indication of Les Egouts was a small kiosk near Pont de l’Alma with a relatively unobtrusive sign, announcing “Visite des Egouts de Paris.”

After buying a ticket, we took a narrow stairwell until we reached a platform somewhere below the street. The hot humidity would have been welcome if it weren’t infused with the smell of sewage. The tour began in this front hall, with a long line of amateur-looking posters outlining the history of the sewers and how they worked, how they were cleaned, etc. Given the smell and the murky look of all that was around me, my first reaction was to be wary of the tap water in Paris. As we advanced through the museum (of sorts), however, my appreciation for the sewer system grew.

A cultural and historical difference that confronts me time and time again in Paris is how old Europe is. Although that statement seems completely obvious, I have found that Americans have trouble wrapping their heads around the deep, deep history of European civilization. This depth, however, was well explained in Les Egouts, as I read about how the sewer system evolved from nonexistence in the Middle Ages to its relatively sophisticated form today. It was truly developed out of necessity, as the city’s population grew and the Seine could no longer naturally absorb and filter the waste produced. It wasn’t really until Napoleon I in the nineteenth century (!) that a semblance of the current system was created, when he had 19 miles of pipes laid underground. Before then, waste disposal had been much the same since the fourteenth century—which is to say, horrible. I read that this was perhaps the greatest achievement of Napoleon I: his accomplishment that gave the most back to the French people.

I believe it. Les Egouts really are an underground city. Thousands of people are involved with quality control, engineering, and maintenance work, among hundreds of other jobs. There are even boats that ride the sewer waters, cleaning the bottom and carrying workers from one place to another. Another cleaning method that I find interesting but don’t quite understand are the giant boulders rolled along the bottom. They dredge the accumulated sediment with some kind of suction action, a seemingly primitive method of cleaning, but have apparently stood the test of time and are effective. I was just generally impressed with the subculture of this subterranean world; this world that affects everyone in Paris everyday, but that remains largely unseen and unappreciated.

The visit did a good job of showing how Les Egouts are inextricably intertwined with history, literature, and Parisian life, even if people don’t know it. They had a display from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Les Egouts have been immortalized. Posters hung from the ceiling over rushing, fetid water, detailing the history of Les Egouts from political and social viewpoints. The exhibit, overall, firmly established a meaningful context for Les Egouts.

Although I thought the visit was generally effective, I can understand how it could be intolerably boring if one does not enjoy reading posters. All information was essentially disseminated through this route and even I found it extremely tedious at times. I think that perhaps having more interactive displays throughout the exhibits could greatly enhance the experience of Les Egouts. Perhaps an introductory video at the beginning would pique the visitor’s interest. I would also have appreciated seeing a full map detailing the sewer system. Knowing mileage is interesting, but I think more visual aid would help visitors to appreciate how extensive the sewer system really is. With that said, I think part of the charm of the visit comes from its amateur vibe. After all, we’re only catching a glimpse of this subterranean world and it wouldn’t feel nearly as novel or original if it were a huge multi-media production.

Like the sewers themselves, the museum is underground in multiple senses.

Don't give me that crap, this shit's not art

(Pardon the cursing.)

All joking aside, I don’t think Fabienne should be allowed to reimburse me for my visit to les égouts. Before we went, I had the impression that we would be seeing clean, tidy, artfully-designed sewage facilities. I thought to myself, “this is Paris” - meaning I thought  that even if it was a tour of the treatment centre, it couldn’t help but be beautiful.

Wrong. I don’t think that there was much artistry involved in any aspect of the Parisian égouts. First of all, it was hard to understand what was going on. Nearly all the signage was in an inaccessibly high form of French. Either that, or it was a poster meant for kindergarten students describing the way water and evaporation works. If I can’t even understand what I’m looking at (in this case), I’m bound to not gain a deep appreciation of it.

Les égouts was underground. We went to Pont de l’Alma, took the stairs down, and ended up in what looked like caves. The walls seemed to be perspiring, and the smell was atrocious. The passages were unevenly carved, and seemed to have been planned haphazardly. There were grills set over open sewers, and before I realized I shouldn’t stare too long at the open grates, I saw a few things float by that I wish I hadn’t. The sewer museum was a tourist trap. There was no guide, no pamphlet to read, no nothing. There were cheesy light-up boards showing where water comes from and which pipes take it to the Seine, as well as creepy mannequins decked out in sewer-worker attire. There were also stuffed rats for effect. I didn’t need to go down into les égouts to read all of the suspended bristol boards covered in text describing the development of the sewer system. I could easily have googled it on my computer, instead of reading it in a poorly lit, nondescript cave.

The one aspect of the tour that I found interesting was seeing the giant ball that they use, Indiana Jones-style, to scrape off all of the sand and déchêts that have accumulated on the bottom of the tunnels. I thought it was impressive that these seemingly-archaic practices have survived until 2009.

After typing that, I suppose I could say that there is a certain artistry in les égouts. After all, Victor Hugo was a close friend of a sewer worker (either a manager or a planner or a worker, I can’t remember) which has been shown to have inspired his character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. I also think that there is a certain notion of setting for me, that I find quite interesting about the égouts. Although I don’t think the museum itself has much merit, as a creative writer, I could see the some potential for the dark, moist, sinister atmosphere to inspire some unique work.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Robert Frank: A foreign Look. Paris/Americans

Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924 to a wealthy Jewish family. As a child, he became interested in the art of photography and formally entered into an apprenticeship with photographer and designer Hermann Segesser. During his formative years, Frank was introduced to modern art, in particular the works of Paul Klee. Later, Frank became interested into documentary genre by exploring themes of everyday life.

The Frank exhibit is currently situated in a stately building in the Jardin des Tuileries (Métro: Concorde). The exhibit focuses on two main bodies of Frank’s work where he concentrates on the narration of Parisian and American life in the fifties. The Paris photographs chronicle the years of 1949 to 1952, or the end of the era of WWII. Most of the photographs are centered on capturing moments in the street, which evokes the idea of Benjamin’s “flâneur” (street saunterer) casually strolling down the street and observing passersby. His shots are varied and inventive. They chronicle shopkeepers, churchgoers, flower sellers, and restauranters. They focus on mundane objects such as rusty metal folding chairs and taxis in the street.

One in particular showcases Notre Dame in the hazy background, but the real focus of the photograph is the suited man on the bicycle ready to cross the plaza in front of the well-recognized building. In this juxtaposition, Frank suggests that fleeting moments of small human activity can be just as interesting as huge monuments. Another shocking picture is one taken in a butcher shop of a suspended horse, the elegant beast taking up much of the photograph and hanging with such a weight that you cannot help but stare at the picture twice, or even thrice. The subject of the photo is compelling and unique. With this photograph, Frank reminds us that Paris, like any other city, has a wide range of moments, some of which do not fit in with a current romantic conception of the “city of lights.” Any of these happenstances can be found daily, in the street.

The series of photos on American life evoke the same type of sentiment of the “flâneur.” Frank, financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, travelled with his family on a photographic journey of American. Frank similarly chooses the street as his main subject and elaborates his thoughts with a picture from Chattanooga, TN. In this photo, a well-dressed couple crosses the street while looking left to avoid oncoming traffic. In fact, the picture is so similar to ones in the Paris series that the answers to the question “What is Parisian?” and “What is American?” become more ambiguous and blurred. When comparing the two series of photos, one finds striking visual similarities that Frank’s work suggests. As a current inhabitant of Paris, I too find that it is hard to strictly define what makes Paris “Parisian” and what makes America “American.” Yet Frank also culls some images of America that Paris does not possess. His pair of photos depicting highways US 30 and US 285 showcase the expansiveness of America’s land. The two photos give a visual reference to and realization of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road that underlines the sense of limitless travel.

Reactions of visitors to the exhibition were fascinating. The room holding the American series of photos was packed, with many people jostling for position and craning their necks to get a better view of the photographs. They too seemed to possess the desire to answer the question, “What is American?” Meanwhile, the room showcasing the Paris series of photos was relatively quieter and less crowded, which made the viewing of the photos less complicated. In fact, by meandering from picture to picture, I felt that I was reenacting Franks’ “flâneurism.” Other exhibition-goers looked more introspective while accessing shared memories or memories of their own about the city. In all, the exhibition cleverly juxtaposed two series of photos that explored daily human interaction and questions of American and French identity.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Celebration of Procreation

Surrounded by “Sexodrome” signs, catcalls, and lingerie costumes, I entered the Musée de l’Érotisme unsure if I was actually going to museum or instead going to my first encounter with porn. I am pretty sure I received a 2-in-1 package.

The museum definitely displayed porn. Sitting next to a couple around my age holding hands and an old white-haired man, I watched a video of two girls and two guys having sex together until the oldest man orgasmed. Again without realizing what I was getting myself into, I also observed a scrapbook with glued-in pictures of Japanese men and women making love. If that movie and scrapbook were not porn, then I must be more naïve than I thought.

I realize that one could argue the artistic value in these two porn pieces. Film and photography are in fact art forms. Furthermore, the images are … creative… and they definitely led to emotional reactions. After viewing the massive orgy, I felt disgusted and my eyebrows tightened, whereas the couple next to just felt turned on, as evidenced by their thigh rubs and slow kisses. In any case, those two pieces were among my least favorite pieces in the museum, and I found many others much more humorous, intellectually exciting and beautiful.

Some of the pieces of artwork portrayed sex to me in an amusing light. One sculpture, “The Unfuckables” by Thierry Stock, consisted of clear penises with pigs, cork screws, and barbed wires, hinting to me to avoid men who are pigs, men who will screw me over, and men who are either harmful or put up a sharp barrier between themselves and the world. Another sculpture, from 20th century Népal, shows a woman pulling a man’s hair while he pleases himself.

Other pieces of artwork reference strong connotations that one may have with sex. For example, high heels, cakes, and wine glasses are all sexy in my opinion. The museum displays all of these objects in the shapes of penises and vaginas, emphasizing the strong sexual connections that I associate with these things.

The majority of the paintings, sculptures, and photographs portray mutual sexual participation by the woman and the man. However, various artworks demonstrate the sad realities of many sex lives, that of abuse and one-way pleasure. In one photo titled “Abandon,” a skinny black man penetrates an obese white woman who has ropes around her arms and feet trapping her to the bed. The woman’s shackles and facial expression indicate to the viewer that she is not consenting to sexual participation. The title suggests that she will be abandoned after this act is over, and the fact that she is obese interestingly causes the viewer to make a correlation between a woman who is not “ideally” beautiful and sexual abuse.

In many of the artworks, women are displayed as subordinate to men. The men play the role of what art critic and author John Berger would label “typical” men in his essay on art criticism, Ways of Seeing; they are powerful and they are the ones taking action (47). They complete the sexual act not looking at the viewer, while the women just bend over staring at the viewer, inviting the viewer to stare at them as though she was a displayed object. There are a few pieces of artwork that really emphasize the penis as a representation of power. In one photograph, a woman rests her head underneath a penis and prays to it while holding jewels, as if to suggest that the penis would bring wealth.

In the trippiest piece that I saw, “Date of Creation” by Emmanuel Rodoveda, the woman in the photograph is displayed as an object—naked with arms perfectly positioned to show all of her private parts, staring at the viewer and therefore asking to be looked at, with a mask hiding her true identity and jewels in the background. Her nonhuman qualities are further emphasized by the fact the photograph stands upright on a counter, almost as if she is in a display case, and by the wires in front of her that outline the shape of her body. The shadows of the wires fall just next to her breasts and private part, so the viewer is immediately drawn to those areas. In contrast to the modern, objectified woman, a man carved of wood as though he was made in ancient times lies beneath her, his body curved so that the viewer cannot see his penis well. He seems to be pleasing himself. After about ten minutes of analyzing these images against each other, the speakers holding the wires outlining the woman start playing a sound of the woman having an orgasm. It is as if the woman is a modern-day perfected machine that the man operates in order to please himself (to me, the orgasm seems forced in order to satisfy the man’s sexual fantasies).

Because their bodies are made of up projected images of rocks and wood, the women in Joel Simpson’s pieces of artwork initially seem much more naturally and less artificially beautiful than in “Date of Creation.” In “Detached Bark,” peeling bark with a smooth surface underneath is projected over the woman’s body. However, although the image connects the woman with nature, it still displays an imaginary image of a woman. It appears as though her wrinkles, cellulite, and tired skin, are the bark, and underneath is her smooth, more perfect body. She has no head; only her body shows, and thus she is dehumanized and still being displayed. I wonder if it is even possible to have artwork display naked women without seemingly objectifying them.

What amazes me the most is the universality and eternality of love that the museum portrays. Love, represented by sex, has spanned continents and centuries, from the Mochica civilization’s vases with sexual images that people put in tombs in 500AD, to Inca texts, to drums from Bali, to France’s modern-day fountains of a naked man and woman. In the museum, love is displayed in all forms, from bowls, to sculptures, to photographs, to playing cards. Of course, love and sex mean different things to different cultures and even to different people within one culture. In ancient Rome, the meaning of the phallus derives from the Latin word “fascinum” or to “distance bad spirits,” and images were supposed to represent a protector of the household. In Africa, sexual organs were cult objects, and images were to be displayed in religious ceremonies as well as in domestic life. In Japan, sexual images were mostly limited to sexual manuals in order to train the young, and the images of women only included the “ideal” feminine beauty: “white skin, a high face, the paleness of which is heightened by powder, thick eyebrows replaced by several centimeters higher by a thick black line.” In modern religions, sex is seen as the emanation of all evils, whereas in the east, sex represents health and happiness.

Although different cultures represent the sexual act in different ways, there is still a commonality that spans the images. I think that Joel Simpon’s exhibition in the museum best represents this commonality. He visited a 14000-year-old Paleolithic site and projected the images of rock and wood that he obtained from the site onto the bodies of women, alluding to the idea that humans have been similarly using the body for thousands of years. We all continue the cycle of life, and images displaying this eternal cycle seem to celebrate the body as a basis of procreation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hors de Prix

“Hors de prix.”

Literally translated, it means “outside of price.” Figuratively, it means “Priceless.” The title of the film plays with the idea of price, value, and money. What does it mean to have a price? Does money have an inherent value? How does money link with happiness?

Audrey Tatou and Gad Elmaleh both star in this romantic comedy where the answers to the previous questions are broached. Tatou plays Irene, an impatient, classy gold-digger hoping to score a guy who can set her up financially for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, she has a one night stand with a waiter Jean in a fancy hotel (Elmaleh) who she mistakenly believes is a high-roller baller. He is way out of her league, and in a comic scene, the rest of the hotel staff walks in on the couple and Jean’s real financial situation and occupation is revealed. Throughout the movie, Irene tries to get rid of Jean, but he remains dogged to win her back. The tables are turned when Jean finds himself in the inverse situation with a wealthy older woman, but it is clear that all he wants is Irene’s affections.

Two main ideas emerge regarding the overall questions. First, a warning is given to males about high maintenance women about their ability to take all of their money and then leave. Money is not enough to buy happiness in the long term, despite the fact that it might create an illusion of happiness in the short term. Love or affection, is “priceless,” something that cannot be bought. That doesn’t mean that love lacks value, it’s just that it’s “outside of price,” outside the means of paying. There must be something else that attracts two people together.

The second idea is that for those attracted to the idea of being a gold-digger, it really can pay, that is if you’re ok with selling your body and leaving a trail of broken hearts in your wake. Irene skillfully navigates this love battlefield and we see the sly maneuvers that she employs to exploit her relationships with well-off men. Perhaps you can’t buy happiness outright with money, but that doesn’t matter. You can get a huge amount of money from exploiting relationships, and there’s no reason to get to the next level – happiness. There is a certain challenge in this pursuit, and it can be satisfying in other ways.

Of course (to hammer home these themes) the real genius of the movie lies in the little tête à tête’s between the two main actors. Tatou proves to be a versatile actor (vis à vis her celebrated performance in Amelie), and Elmaleh’s control of his facial expressions is fascinating. Since the main themes of the film center on the psychological mechanisms of happiness and emotion, it makes sense that the film focuses on the verbal interactions between each other.

But what is remarkable and perhaps more subtle is the scène that the director chooses for his film. Most of the film is shot in a grand, luxurious hotel, and there is a certain amount of brand whoring. Watches, dresses, gold curtains … abound in the film. The effect is that at the end you leave the film with a sick feeling in your stomach, and a resolution not to enter into that ridiculous world. There must be easier and less risky ways of attaining the affection of others.

Finally, is there something “French” about the movie? Is this a typical French movie? According to the reviews on rottentomatoes.com, there is a “French froth” that pervades the film. The simple answer would be that the film is in French, set in France, and exploits the “French” ménage à trois. But, there are universal lessons in the film that can be applied to many other countries, cultures, and situations.

Wie gehts? Comment ça va? Do you feel good? (yeah, I bet you do)

Kander and Ebb have spoiled me. When I heard a cabaret suggested, without even thinking I expected this:

Le Cabaret Lido, however, does not trade in the dirty glamour of self-destruction. Le Cabaret Lido trades in Bonheur.

The ubiquitous nudity is not in any way pornographic. In fact, Bonheur’s version of sexuality is almost laughably sterile, like a party for undressed mannequins, or Las Vegas. The revue goes to great lengths to create one unified backdrop or aesthetic impression out of dozens of dancers. Its effects recall those in Busby Berkeley dance numbers, but without the benefit of overhead views.

(Relevant extract begins at 2:10.)

At this abstraction I felt a discomfort that rarely bothered me while watching a Berkeley confection. I was not at ease with such an erasure of individual personality in color rather than black and white and in person rather than projected on a screen. I don’t think I was the only one. Kai and I both chose favorites from among the background dancers, followed them visually from one song or placement to another, and noted the particularities that distinguished their performances from the virtually identical ones around them.

I wanted to undo the careful, professional work that has made Lido the largest and most celebrated cabaret in Paris; I sought out each tiny deviation from the slick, airbrushed-in-real-time veneer. One of the lead performers was covered in freckles, and one background dancer had a cartoonishly square jaw. These glimpses of reality sustained me through the more slick, candy-coated parts of the show.

The other breaks from glossy collective perfection came from a juggler, an acrobat, and a pair of figure skaters. During their respective performances, they were alone on the stage, and their achievements were startlingly individual. The personality and responsibility of each of these performers were key to their acts; the juggler’s misses increased the suspense and made the audience cheer him on, the rapport between the figure skaters defined their effect on the audience, and the acrobat’s virtuosity kept the spectators in awe of his personal strength and skill. They resisted the revue’s attempts to group them with a faceless, coherent unity of Lido performers.

Though these acts pretended to sex appeal far less than the polished dance numbers, they had far more success in attaining it. As one member of our party said about the acrobat, who wound floor-to-ceiling ribbons around himself and himself around the ribbons and rose and fell in mesmerizing rhythm, “Je voudrais être son corde.” Amid high-polish collectivism, the eroticism of individual strength, talent, and personality came to the fore.

Le Cabaret Lido afforded me fewer thrills than it sought to, but it provided a valuable occasion to reflect on what I often look for in art and in life: the failure of artifice. The rough patches of genuine humanity interest me more than a shiny picture come to life, but a production that unites flawless technique with human insight will hold my attention every time.

However counterintuitive it seems, I can thank the nameless, voiceless dancers of Le Cabaret Lido for affirming my love of cabaret’s talky, pretentious cousin: theater.

Not the first place you'd expect to see me

How would your parents react if you told them that sex is essential for washing away your sins? I can’t even imagine what mine would say, and I think most other parents would not take that statement very seriously either. Yet in many primitive civilizations, sex was an integral rite of passage that was prevalent in religious beliefs and ceremonies. Sexuality represented the effort to achieve equilibrium between the body and soul. In contrast, many modern day religious associate sex with guilt and sin in multiple circumstances. These vast differences between the role of sexuality in religion and everyday life throughout history were very evident in the displays at the Erotic Museum that I visited this week. As you can probably guess, the museum was located in the red light district among the numerous sex shops lining the street.

            My visit at the museum began with displays of erotic objects from ancient cultures. One object that really stood out to me was a wooden creature from Africa. It was painted red with thin white lines outlining its huge ears and two columns of horizontal lines from the neck to the bottom of its stomach. It was making an angry grimace and sticking out its tongue. African erotic objects such as these were used to stimulate the females during ceremonies while they danced and sang. Sex had multiple functions- to satisfy instincts, protect against demons, and honor the gods to name a few. Next to the African objects, there were three enormous, abstract and slightly grotesque masks from Mexico. Two of the masks contained small naked figures in various sexual positions. In Mexico, males and females were considered enemies, and men would often assault women in the streets while women targeted younger males.            The relationship between the two sexes was the opposite in China, where females were actually superior to males due to their ability to bring new life into the world. Men and women aimed to achieve complete harmony and transcendence through sex. They were complementary parts, Yin and Yang, which needed to merge in order to complete each other. I was surprised to see small sculptures of Buddhas that were making love to humans. Similarly, I saw figures of Hindu Gods who were occupied with not only just one mortal, but sometimes multiple people simultaneously. However, I learned after reading about these cultures that sexual pleasure symbolized holiness and the effort to reach enlightenment, so these artifacts depict that element of sexuality in these civilizations.

            In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, sex was an “unrestrained and rejoicing freedom.” This liberal attitude seemed to be conveyed by the black ceramic plates that showed people facing each other in the act with their legs hanging freely in front of them as if they were on swing sets in a playground. Sexuality in Japan was explained in manuals that contained instructions on how women should submit to the desire of their lords or masters. These widely used “pillow books” were designed specifically for teaching adolescents. So we weren’t the only ones who have found a little book on our beds from our parents as teenagers.

            The second floor of the museum contained photographs from France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were descriptions that explained the development of French brothels, which were established in the early 1800s. They were very controversial in the 1920s, when moralists conducted investigations and wrote articles in an effort to imprison the brothel members. One artist who became famous for sketching brothel scenes was Marcel Vertes. He depicted customers in bars and dance halls as well as the women who were working there. Degas also drew pictures of women in brothels that were pretty disturbing and emotional. The women in his pieces had solemn facial expressions and fatigued bodies that were slumped over as they sat in large groups on the beds after their nights had ended.

            The next three floors had temporary modern exhibitions by Joel Simpson, Jean Demelier, and Laurent Benaim. Joel Simpson’s photographs had slightly abstract images of nude female bodies superimposed onto buildings or other natural backgrounds. There was a cave filled with stalagtites and stalagmites, a huge leaf with all the veins, and even one of the White House that had a small picture of George W. Bush. The partly translucent female body that was placed on top of both natural and manmade objects provided an interesting contrast between the two environments. Jean Demelier's works consisted of drawings, paintings and collages, many of which employed young boys as the subject. These colored drawings showed relatively realistic images of nude boys that seemed to be on the brink of puberty. One piece that really intrigued me was a framed painting of the French flag with a view of somebody from behind on the white stripe who wasn't wearing paints. Laurent Benaim created mostly black and white drawings showing very thought provoking scenes. For example, there was a profile of a woman who was praying with a penis resting on her forehead. There was another woman who was being suspended from the ground in an uncomfortable upright position, her nude body both supported and bound by ropes. 

The sous-sol, or basement, had other contemporary pieces by various artists. The one that interested me the most was a large painting of two naked women who were kissing with their bodies wrapped around each other. In the background, it looked like there were other females who were also engaging in sexual activities on the floor of a large, elegantly decorated room. Along the wall next to the staircase, there was a series of fascinating sketches of attractive young females in which the male artist's hands were visible. In one drawing, the artist's left hand was holding the woman's breast and the right hand was drawing the curve in her back.

If I had not taken this class during my quarter in Paris, I am pretty sure that I would not have visited the erotic museum. However, I am actually very glad that I went and it was interesting to see different representations of sex and eroticism in many different countries and time periods. Some of the object and images really stuck in my mind and made me think about how sexuality is perceived by religion and the differences in how it is experienced between men and women. 

Hors de Prix-not so "Priceless"

I’ve had some good encounters with French cinema—mainly quirky romantic comedies along the lines of Amelie, Chocolat, and Jeux d’enfants. So, after a week of viewing experimental films where goat carcasses are dragged in pianos alongside Catholic priests, I figured I’d return to something a little more mainstream. Earlier in the week I saw Espion(s) with my French language class, a supposed spy thriller, but ultimately a film that proved to have no twists, no exciting action or love making scenes, and poor dialogue. Moreover, the plot just seemed to drag on. An aspect the French audience seemed to love or at least endure, but something us Americans couldn’t sit through. A little dejected, I gladly agreed when Heimunn suggested the lighthearted “Hors de Prix,” a romantic comedy starring Audrey Tatou as a gold digging mistress hunting her next wealthy monsieur. The tagline is "She only dated men with money...until she met a man with a heart." In retrospect, maybe not the greatest choice for Valentine’s Day weekend.

The movie starts off by juxtaposing the lives of Irene (Tatou) with that of Jean (Gad Elmaleh). Irene straps on new Chanel shoes, diamond dangly earrings straight from the display window, and stunning dresses that conceal little of her petite build. Meanwhile, Jean walks seven dogs, deals with their self-absorbed owners who seem to think their dogs have more personality than Jean, carries bags as a bellman, and falls asleep at the swanky hotel bar where he works. One evening, Irene wanders downstairs to the bar and mistakes Jean for the wealthy man he was serving, and naturally Jean plays along with the beautiful woman’s supposition. Of course, one morning when Irene and Jean are still wrapped in the sheets of a hotel room Jean only pretends to occupy, the manager of the hotel gives a walking tour of the suite to an American family of five, two parents and three young impressionable boys who gawk at Irene’s compromising situation. To get even, Irene agrees to date Jean, who has fallen for her beauty, by agreeing to have dinner with him while simultaneously emptying out his savings account at what could be a three star Michelin restaurant, chic boutiques, and nothing less than a five star hotel. As Jean (and his bank account) cannot keep up with the charade for long, Irene moves on to her next prosperous beau leaving Jean with nothing but debt.

His solution? Agree when an affluent woman takes him on as her very own young stallion. For the rest of the movie, Irene and Jean cohort behind the backs of their providers to receive the most extravagant gifts. They simply have to stare off in the distance, whisper the magic words “Je voudrais…J’aimerais…” and voila! A diamond studded Rolex. Skipping forward through more unnecessary scenes that the French love to drag on, eventually the two realize their infatuation with one another is worth more than their gifts and escape together on Jean’s motorino (that his sugarmama bought).

All in all, a pretty standard romantic comedy with some rather comedic scenes. Mainly when Jean responds to all the commands of the hotel staff since he is not used to not working. Thus, when he hears someone say pick up bags, he does so at the snap of a hand, and he carries a tray of champagne with agility and grace. One redeeming factor of the film, however, was the stunning costuming and accompanying set design. Each scene was exquisitely designed with decor that matched the clothes the actors were wearing. Furthermore, the lighting of the scene had a wash of the scene’s theme color. For example, in a tranquil scene in the hotel room, Jean wears a light blue chemise, Irene has some blue jewelry on, the vases are a similar pastel hue as the couches, and the light in the room glows with a cyan tint. The blue theme helps to give the scene a relaxed feel that contrasts it to other hide and seek scenes that have more vibrant reds and yellows. Outside of the impeccable detail that pervades throughout the color schemes in each scene, there is little about this movie that is morally or intellectually stimulating, let alone romantic. At the end of the movie, sure, the two lovers ride off into the sunset with nothing more than the clothes on their back. But their clothes are designer and the motorino is pretty chic too. It seems evident they will continue to sell their souls and their bodies to continue on with their lifestyle. But then again, French culture ultimately is about "paraitre" not what happens behind the scenes.

Costuming at Lido

So, this week I thought I had dropped the ball on finding something to look at/listen to/analyze/...etc. with someone else. Pretty much everyone I know had planned to go to the cabaret night, but I didn't have a ticket until just the last minute. One might ask why I didn't have a ticket, to which I reply: I would describe my organizational skills as sometimes sub-par (please don't read this future employers), so the fact that I actually had to purchase a ticket for the cabaret show ahead of time didn't sink in until it was too late. Having been in some tricky situations like this before, the gears started turning...and after some thought I had an idea. I figured out how I could write about something involving the Cabaret without actually going in to see the Cabaret. I thought that if I went and waited outside while people formed a queue, then I could observe the styles and fashion people wear when going to a night of cabaret in Paris. So, it looked like fashion would be my focus for this week.

Fortunately yet disappointingly, all the thinking about how I could get around my problem of not having a ticket was for naught, because I was actually able to get an extra ticket. It looked like I was going to go to the cabaret, but it seemed like a shame to throw away what I thought had been a clever idea to focus on the styles people wore to the cabaret. At the same time, it didn't make sense to focus on the audience's attire if I was actually going to see the show. Finally, too stubborn to throw away my idea to analyze fashion, but aware that I had more options now that I had a ticket; I decided to comment on the costumes of the performers even before I saw any of the show.

Some might think that deciding to comment on the costumes the performers wore, even before seeing any of the show, is somewhat restrictive or an overly-simplistic lens with which to remark on the show. However, for me I think it created a good baseline for me start thinking about the performance. Honestly, I don't think I would have been able to tell someone the difference between a cabaret (the performance I saw) and a Cabernet (a type of wine) before I saw the show, so it allowed me to find some reference point when watching the show. And indeed I think my ignorance about cabaret theater was manifested most prominently by the costume pieces, and in particular what the costume pieces lacked. Of course, I told no one this at the time, but I actually didn't realize that's what cabaret theater involved. So, the first surpise came from the costuming, maybe I had chosen a good aspect of the show to focus on.

From the opening number all the way until the end, I was quite glad that I chose to concentrate on the costuming, because the costumes were completely stunning. The number of different, ornately designed costume pieces I saw that night was incredible. I counted 12 different numbers with different costumes for all the performers. I was continually stunned by how quickly the performers made their costume changes within a minute's time from what seemed like two completely different costumes. Sometimes I tried to imagine what it must be like back-stage to accomplish all the costume changes; I imagined that the backstage choreography necessary to accomplish such a feat would need to be practiced almost as often as the actual dances.

Despite how amazed I was by the number of costumes and how elaborately they were decorated, I was not actually very impressed with the dancers wearing the costumes. As Jen also thought, I found their performances lacking in emotion and a feeling of investment in the work. Perhaps this is how cabaret is supposed to be performed, with a coy indifference. If so, the performers pulled it off successfully, but I didn't enjoy the performance as much as I could have had the performers seemed to be more invested in the show.

Ironically, the performances I enjoyed the most where when the performers weren't wearing very elaborate costumes. For instance, in my favorite performance the entertainer wore only a loin-cloth type costume as he did a kind of acrobatic routine on drapes. Of course, it would be very difficult to execute such amazing acrobatics wearing an elaborate costume. Yet, I also feel that, without an elaborate costume to hide behind, the acrobat displayed more of an investment in and connection to the performance.

At one point, Christina leaned over to me and commented on how impressed she was by one of the actress's beauty, and I responded, "well I guess we are in Paris". I think that also sums-up how I felt about the costumes. Most of the time I was blown away by how ornately decorated they were, how quickly the performers changed, and how many different high-quality pieces there were. Yet, the costuming was also just the outside, and it couldn't completely hide some of the emptiness in the performance.

Hors de Prix: the Art of Gold Digging

I LOVE romantic comedies. Sure, I can appreciate an epic dramatic masterpiece or a good quirky independent film; but at the end of the day, nothing makes me happier than a good old chickflick, where the guy finally gets the girl and everything ends happily ever after. Hors de Prix, or 'Priceless', is exactly that.

The charming Audrey Tautou stars in this updated French version of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' as the gold digger, working her way across the Côte d'Azur through a series of sugar daddies in luxurious hotels to finance her extravagant lifestyle. Her materialistic lifestyle revolves around champagne, caviar, and the latest designer dress, and could not be more different from that of Jean's, played by comedian Gad Elmaleh, a shy and slightly dopey-looking waiter working at one of these grand hotels. Irène mistakes him to be a millionaire and seduces him, and beats a hasty retreat upon discovering the truth. The smitten and lovestruck Jean follows her around the Riviera, and tries to woo her by spending all his savings on trying to keep Irène in the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed to.

The movie takes on an interesting twist when the tables are turned and Jean finds himself taken in as the boytoy of a wealthy widow, Madeleine, and is surprisingly adept at Irène's trade. He and Irène become equals, with Irène teaching Jean the "tricks of their trade." Though they become closer emotionally they are kept apart physically due to their circumstances, with Irène unwilling to give up her lifestyle and Jean unwilling to give up Irène.

While there was a never a doubt about how the movie would end, the director Pierre Salvadori manages to keep the movie light and refreshing. The actors' performances are fantastic and they seem extremely comfortable in their roles, creating loveable characters who would seem despicable on paper. Tautou charms the audience into sympathizing with Irène despite her selfish and scheming ways, then magically transforms before us into the insightful soul who is finally able to follow her heart and ride off into the sunset with the penniless Jean. Likewise, despite being consistently out of his league, Elmaleh's facial expressions, deadpan demeanour and incredible sense of comic timing renders the audience helplessly empathetic to Jean's plight. With his hangdog dog expression and blatant longing for Irène, Elmaleh creates a loveable and delightful Jean. One of the frequently repeated scenarios in the movie is where Jean, not used to being on the receiving end of the hotel service, automatically picks up other people's orders, or carries other people's bags for them. Elmaleh carries this off with a blank-faced vulnerability that you cannot help but laugh.


The French Riviera is almost a third character in the movie, with endless shots of the beautiful skylines, the crystal clear waters, the stunning beaches, the gorgeous women and the luxuirious hotels. The background mimics the sunny spirit and feathery tone of the film. In addition, Tautou's wardrobe is exquisite, as she wears one sensational designer dress after another. One of my favourite scenes in the movie is where Irène has commandeered Jean's credit card and starts ripping off the price tags of her purchases: Chanel, Hermès, Gucci. 600 Euro, 1500 Euro, 750 Euro. While this sort of behaviour may be the norm on the Côte d'Azur, Elmaleh's stunned expression perfectly describes the striking contrast between this extravagant lifestyle of the wealthy and his own meager way of life.


With the cinematography and under Salvadori's direction, the film glides easily and we are encouraged to see the characters in the best possible light. The story itself may not be all that French or all that unique - I could easily see this same movie being reproduced in Hollywood - but something about the sense of humor and the effortless ease of the actors keep the film refreshing and different. I can't imagine the dialogue or breezy romance would translate well into a Hollywood romcom, which would simply come off as cheesy or even nauseating. In fact, it is interesting to note that the material could have easily presented the main characters as cruel and mean-spirited, manipulative and sleazy as they sell their "company" for a fabulous lifestyle, but the French humor throughout, and the understated sexiness which the French can muster up even without gratuitous sex scenes, keep the mood upbeat and uncomplicated. Hors de Prix may be your typical romantic comedy, but its irreplicable French sense of frivolity and lightness give the film a certain Je ne sais quoi, a delightful and charming flair.