Spring in France

Spring is in full swing here in France. Four months of dark, foreboding skies filled with rain, sleet and snow have been taken over by warm, and sun filled blue skies. The French anticipated this season eagerly a few weeks before it actually began. Just as the temperature began to warm a slight amount, though the sky remained gray and bleak, I noticed a slight cheerfulness going around. The dress began to change. The thick, long, black coats were changed into lighter, sportier jackets. Scarves began to come down from nose level, and once in awhile you could catch sign of a bare leg. It was all as if the people knew spring was finally arriving and were ready to shed the oppressiveness of the long, cold winter.

Now that spring has truly arrived the change is more dramatic. Bare flesh is everywhere. The lovely French maidens have brought out their sexy wear. Their tops are tight and cut for maximum flesh and curves. All blouses seem to be sleeveless and low cut to show the most bountiful décolletage imaginable. What cloth there is fits firmly around the bosom and cannot seem to be stretched to cover the entire naval. Not to be outdone, the pants fit so low on their torsos that they expose the curvature of their hips and expose their delectable, lacy panties. The pants also remain so tight as to determine each girls personal likes, dislikes, and religion.

That’s if they wear pants, normally these lovelies prefer to wear a wide variety of skirts. Long skirts, short skirts, tight skirts, loose skirts, skirts of all colors and shapes now wander the streets flirting with whoever will watch. There are long skirts with slits up to places my mother warned me about. They have tight denim skirts that might as well not exist they are so short. Or they saunter about in short loose numbers that fly high above their navels whenever the tiniest breeze flutters about.

The men, not wanting to be left out have also deck themselves in the skimpiest of fashions. The light button-up shirts are buttoned down to expose the hairiest of chests. Or if their pectorals are peaking, they don skin tight pastel colored t-shirts to give everyone the best view of their long worked after, bulging muscles. Their pants are, of course, skin tight leaving nothing to the imagination. Unless of course they are at the park, then the preferable attire is either the skimpiest of jogging shorts, declaring their thighs to the world and barely covering what god never meant to see the light of day, or the mandatory Speedos.

Yes, gone are the days when the streets were filled with walking masses of bulky clothes. No longer are the massive coats covering every curve from neck to kneecap. Winter scarves have left the remaining neckline and facial features below the nose. Where once all that was visible were blacks of their eyes, the French have come out, so to speak, and announced their glorious bodies to the world.

It is a sultry, sweaty, flesh filled landscape these days. It is quite a change, and frankly, not one I’m sure we can all take. The American stereotype of French people is that they are curt, rude, and snobbish. Perhaps it is not a cultural anomaly, or a hatred of all things American, but rather something more simply. Perhaps they are simply sexually frustrated and must take it out on someone.

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DVD Review: Big Sleep

This classic film noir has very few of techniques generally associated with noir. It contains no skewed camera angles; and though it is darkly lit, it is not overcome with murky, obscuring shadows. The hero is not down-and-out, poor, or desperate. There is no retrospective narration, or flashbacks. Yet, the Big Sleep is widely considered to be one of the very best of this genre. It is a cynical, perverse, murderous world filled with loads of confusing action and unknown motives. It is, in fact, one of the great films of one of the screens greatest actors (for my personal top 10 actors list, click here), and most talented directors.

It was directed by Howard Hawks fresh off of the successful pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall in To Have and Have Not. The two star here again and it is easy to see why they made another two films together. Based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, many people complain that this film is incomprehensible. Somewhat famously it is reported that Bogart and Hawks, after arguing over who killed one of the characters, called up Chandler to get the correct answer. Chandler didn’t have the slightest idea, for the novel is rather vague on this point. It’s true that both the novel and film leave many plot points as to who did what to whom more than unclear, but there is so much style in both that it’s hard to make a convincing argument against them.

A good deal of the confusion within the film comes from the production codes in effect at the time it was produced. Chandler’s novel deals with murder, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and pornography. At the time, these things were deemed unfit to show on a movie screen and so Hawks had to hint at them using various subtle methods. For instance, when Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is found by detective Phillip Marlow (Bogart) in the novel she is completely nude and sitting posed for a hidden camera. Since pornography is explicitly against code, in the movie she is dressed in a silky, Japanese gown. There is still a hidden camera, and its missing film becomes a catalyst for much of the action in the film. We must infer from the exotic nature of the gown that there was more than just pictures of a woman in a gown going on. There are many similar instances in the film like this. For an audience member who has not read the book, they must pay close attention to the subtext, or the film will seem baffling.

Personally, I am very much a fan of the book, and all of Chandler’s work. While I appreciate that some of the finer plot points are a bit vague in this film, I also understand that the film succeeds not in the details of the story, but in a sinister sense of style. The film oozes with a dark, disquieting atmosphere. Nearly everyone Marlowe meets is hiding something, and is of less than upstanding moral character. Hawks does a great job of keeping nearly every scene in the dark or in the rain, or both. There are so many characters coming in and out of the shadows and with their own shady character that it is difficult to keep up.

Bogart, of course, does a marvelous job as Marlowe. He seems to understand a lot more information than the audience is ever given. Chandler wrote Marlowe as a detective who sticks by his own set up morals, remaining somewhat of a noble creature trying to stay afloat amongst the muck and sewers of the city. Lauren Bacall does a very good job portraying Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, in a role that is much different than the one in the book. Like many films from this era, they create a romance that wasn’t really in the source material. I don’t mind though, because Bogart and Bacall really sizzle.

What can I say that hasn’t been said before? This is really classic noir at its best. It’s got Bogart and Bacall. It was directed by Howard Hawks, written by William Faulkner from a novel by Raymond Chandler. What more could a lover of classic cinema want?

Red as a Lobster

It has been quite sunny here the last couple of days. Having a couple(!) of days off from work, I went to the park and relaxed with a book. Today I even managed three parks! I’ll explain. I was stuck in the house all morning, washing dishes, cleaning up a little, and basically piddling around. Amy was gone for several hours at school working. When she got back we washed clothes and had lunch. By this time I was really jonesin’ to go outside and enjoy the day. Amy, being Amy, she thought she might like to go with me, but just wasn’t sure at the moment. How anyone can not be sure whether or not they want to take a walk is beyond me, but Amy moves at a pace that is not my own. After some heated discussion we finally decided that I would go out then, and maybe later we’d check out a little park on the other side of town. So, I grabbed my camera and headed out the door. I let my feet do the walking, which generally leads me to the Orangerie park. I go there so often that I’ve pretty much photographed everything possible there, so I just took a quick walk around. I next decided to walk to what I have dubbed “Laura’s park,” dubbed so because it is close to our friend Laura’s home, and she’s admitted to visiting it often. There isn’t much to photograph there, so I again just walked around it, enjoying life. I took the long walk home, returning after about 2 and a half hours of sun baking.

Shortly thereafter, Amy and I did indeed check out another park. It is on the other side of town, just behind Auchan. It has a little lake and there were lots of kiddies swimming, old men in Speedos, and contrary to popular opinion, no topless women. We sat on the bench for a good while enjoying the surf and sun.

All of this is to say, that I am one toasted fellow. I now joke that I am going to come home thin, sporting long hair (I haven’t cut a hair since being in France) and with a deep, dark tan. No one will recognize me!

We’ve just about figured out our travel plans for the summer. It looks as though we are going to head to Barcelona for a few days and slow meander through France making out way home after a week or so. I will really miss not being able to tour Ireland, or see Prague, but we just can’t afford to see everything, so cuts had to be made. Oh well, this gives us a good excuse to come back.

DVD Review: Harvey

Towards the end of the 1950 film, Harvey, Elwood P Dowd (played by James Stewart in an Academy Award nominated role) says this:

“In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

It is a memorable line, and one that sums up the film quite well. For the picture is filled with lots of smart people, and a few pleasant ones. It, in fact, seems to be the film’s central theme. Dowd is an alcoholic and mentally ill, all of which creates quite a disturbance throughout the film, but is ultimately washed over because he smiles a lot, allows others to pass through the door first, and speaks in a gentle, even voice.

Perhaps I’m being too unkind myself, it is after all a harmless comedy, slap stick and all. At that, it fairs well enough. The catch of the film, if you’ve somehow managed to not hear it before in the 55 years since its release, or forgot to look at the picture on the front of the DVD box, is that Dowd’s best friends happens to be an invisible 6 foot rabbit, named Harvey. Much of the film’s humor, and a great deal of it’s heart, come from that rabbit, which the audience never sees.

The conflict comes from Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hall) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). They have grown tired of Dowd’s antics with Harvey, and the embarrassment of having such a relative has caused untold grief for their social positions. Early in the film they decide to have Dowd committed to an insane asylum. Slapstick ensues when Verta is mistaken for the crazy one.

I found it to be a fine, humorous film. All of the cast members are firing on all cylinders and create a wonderful ensemble cast. Stewart and Hall are particularly fine as Dowd and his sister. The jokes work well enough, at least they are not particularly unfunny, and are pleasant enough. I think this is where my complaint comes in; it is all just too pleasant. Even the Simmons’ are rather sweet and kind while they try to put Dowd away.

It was slightly disturbing to me to watch a man with an obvious mental illness be touted as the film’s hero, and a character that we should all emulate. But again, I’m probably being too unpleasant again. I realize that the film is being more Peter Pan than Awakenings in this aspect. For Harvey seems more fantastical than hallucination, but Dowd never once hints that the giant rabbit might not be real. I know, I know, I’m being too much the tired cynic at this point. Dowd did give me the same brief desire of improvement that Atticus Finch give me while watching To Kill a Mockingbird. Though Finch never spotted giant rabbits, just a black man served more injustice.

It is difficult to complain about a film that really just wishes we would all be happy and kind to one another. Indeed a brief searching of the IMDB’s user comments finds an agreement with everyone that this is a wonderful, joyful film.

It is a heartwarming film, which only managed to kindle a low flame in my heart. This is a weird feeling. It is as I feel the chastisement of a million fans calling me a cold hearted son of a son of a sailor. It just failed to make me laugh enough, or move me enough to declare it wonderful. While I don’t have any hard complaints about the picture, it is not something that I’ll be placing on any top films list.

Best Concerts Ever

It has been awhile since I posted any top 5 lists. So, I thought I’d do something a little different today, meaning that this one is even more subjective than all the others. So, I present to you, my humble readers, the top 5 Concerts I have personally experienced.

5. Leftover Salmon – May 2, 2000 – Knoxville, TN

The Salmon are an eclectic mix of bluegrass, country, Cajun, southern rock and boogie. We go front row tickets at the Bijou and smiled every minute of it. There music is all about fun, and I danced my little rump off until the last cord. These guys made sounds come out of the mandolin and banjo I wouldn’t have thought possible.

4. Lucinda Williams – September 25, 2001 – Bloomington, IN

Lucinda is one of my all time favorite musical acts. We got there early and were rewarded with spots right off the stage (there were no seats) and to the left. Dressed in a low cut, red tank top and tight fitting blue jeans, Lucinda was dressed to please, and she did just that. I would have preferred it if the band had stretched some of the songs a bit, but what they left out in improvisation, they more than made up for with energy. She sang all my favorite songs, and a few that quickly became new favorites.

3. Ratdog – April 10, 2001

I’ve seen Ratdog several times before, but this was my favorite performance. I decided to go at the last minute, on a whim, and I’m glad I did. It was a mixed setlist, containing both songs I really don’t like and some of my very favorites. But even on the crappy songs they played tremendously.

2. Furthur Festival – June 25, 1998 – Atlanta, GA

Through various circumstances I was never able to see the real Grateful Dead in concert. What I have to live with is their various incarnations minus Jerry Garcia. In the second year of the Furthur Festival, a touring festival featuring members of the Dead as well as other Dead influenced bands, the remaining members of the Grateful Dead (minus drummer Bill Kreutzman) formed The Other Ones. This was the first time since Garcia’s death that all of them were playing together, and the first time they set out playing the old classic Dead songs. It was not a disappointment. The jams were hot and smooth, in fact much of the three hour show seemed like one giant medley of music. It was a perfect time, perfect place and I enjoyed some great music with even better friends.

1. Willie Nelson
I’ve seen Willie Nelson twice: Once at the Brady Theatre, in Tulsa, OK and again at the IU auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana. They were completely different types of shows, and yet I cannot claim that one was better than the other. In Tulsa they took all of the seats out of the theatre to give it a livelier atmosphere. The bar was running plenty of drinks out and the crowd acted like it. Willie’s music was up to the task. He played a huge medley of all of his classic hits without taking a break to say a word. It was loud, obnoxious and fantastic. I’ll never forget Willie standing on the stage with a wrinkled face, and broken guitar running through a Amazing Grace and Uncloudy Day with about 20 bras having been thrown on the stage and the audience saluting their beer mugs to the gospel music. It was quite a time.

In Bloomington, the atmosphere was completely different. It was an academic auditorium and the people were all dressed appropriately. Willie played his songs as songs, pausing between each one to say thank you. The audience sat politely in their seats, except a few moments when they gave an ovation to the giant American flag and his tribute with some patriotic songs. It was vastly different than the crazed party scene I had witnessed before, and yet it was still a wonderful night of music.

That was really tough. There are another of concerts that just barely missed the top five. The Indigo Girls, Sam Bush, and Jamgrass were difficult to cut out. But that's what a top list is for, I guess.

Google News

I wrote my first piece for Google news today. Let me explain. I’ve been writing for Blogcritics for a couple of months now. Mainly I’m posting the reviews I write there over there, but there have also been a couple of music essays as well. Many Blogcritic authors also write on current events, such as the Michael Jackson court case, the new Pope or whatever happens to be going on in the world. A lot of those posts are picked up by Google news which is subsequently picked up by just about everybody. I’m not really cued into any current situations of the world, thus I’ve stayed away from posting anything. Until today. I just heard that Dark Star Orchestra’s keyboardist recently passed away and felt moved enough to write about it. I must say that I’m not particularly a huge fan of the band, but I know enough people dig them that it is newsworthy. I feel a little opportunistic taking a tragedy and using it to put my name a little further into cyberspace, but I suppose that’s the breaks. I guess, really, I happened into this information and realized it had not been posted on Blogcritics, so I took that opportunity. Read my post here.

Plans

Wow! That was a lot of reviews. I guess with a week off for vacation I had a lot of things to review. I still have a couple more to write, but I may wait a day or two. Things have been pretty tame around here the last few days. The weather has been crap too. Lots of clouds and rain.

We finally purchased our plane tickets home. We will fly into Louisville on July 21. Amy did a great job of looking all over creation for a decent price, and found none. It cost us just over $2000! With that cost we have had to rethink our European tour plans. I just had a good long talk with my sister and her husband about it. We have decided to do a 3 day packaged tour of Ireland, then fly into Barcelona for a few days. We plan to take a slow train through France, hitting various smaller towns throughout before we make our way to Paris. We'll take a couple of days there and then head on home. Should be fun.

Book Review: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

On the back cover of my copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Everything Is Illuminated, it says that it is “a work of genius,” and for lengthy sections of this debut novel, it really is, but ultimately his lofty ambitions are not fully met by his pen.

Ambition is something this book has in spades. It is a complicated, heady novel whose narrative stretches, bends, and breaks. It is really three stories tied together by a small Ukranian village whose past is linked to several characters’ destiny. The first story involves the history of that village as far back as 1791 and moving forward until it was horrendously destroyed by the Nazi party. The second story consists of a character named Jonathan Safran Foer, an American searching for a woman who lived in the village, Trachimbrod, and who may have information concerning his grandfather. This story is told by his Ukranian guide, Sasha, in a hilarious broken English. What makes up the third story are letters from Sasha to Jonathan detailing bits of his own life and commenting on the other two stories. All three stories are intermingled with one another giving an odd sense of both being off kilter and well balanced.

Adding to the ambitiousness of the three intermingled stories is a peculiar use of the typed page. The titles of chapters often swirl, curve, and dance off the page. There is gratuitous use of ALL CAPS, pages that are indented well beyond the others, and even several pages consisting almost completely of elipses (…). All of which is designed to give meaning and an emotional response. It is mostly effective in doing so, though at times, it seems a little too showy, as if the author is jumping up and down waving his hands shouting Hey look….THIS IS ART.

The central story of the city is silly, hilarious, sometimes moving and mostly an outlandish caricature of ancient Jewish life. It is also more standard in its narrative. For it is a straight told story, using the typical use of type setting. It creates several moving pictures of Nazi atrocities on the town, though anyone not being able to create emotion out of the holocaust is a poor writer indeed.

The remaining stories are also quite interesting, humorous and moving. There is a lot being said about our concept of perceptions and truth. Several things that Sasha tells us in the beginning about himself, he later admits to be false. Just as he details that he will make changes to his story that Jonathan requests due to putting him in a negative light.

It is not a novel that I would consider to be enjoyable, or an easy read. The narrative structure as well as the type structure is often difficult and confusing. While it is a novel showing a great deal of talent in its author, it never quite lives up to its hype or ambition. Though there is much to admire and it is well worth the time to read.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

On February 13 and 14, 1945 US and British troops firebombed the non-military German city of Dresden, killing somewhere between 35,000 and 135,000 civilians. In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote about his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombings in Slaughterhouse Five. It is a beautiful, hilarious, bizarre, horrifying novel or your average Kurt Vonnegut book.

It is a true Vonnegut novel in that it isn’t straight fiction. Who else would write a novel about a fire bombing that includes a time traveling, alien abducted, hero and barely says a word about the actual fire bombing? In his introduction the author describes how it took him several years to be able to write his Dresden book. He visits fellow witnesses, drinks lots of booze, and generally has a rough time of it. Then he proceeds to tell us exactly how his story begins and the words that conclude the novel. It is as if the narrative itself isn’t important, but rather its underlying themes and ideas.

The narrative itself involves Billy Pilgrim, a bumbling, incompetent replacement soldier. He started the war as a priest’s assistant, but finds himself being moved closer to the front. He doesn’t manage to get far before he is captured by the Germans, and sent to Dresden. Mixed in with this simple narrative is Pilgrim’s abduction by aliens and his ability to travel through time, albeit without any type of control. The novel weaves throughout periods of Pilgrim’s life. From the war, to what would be called the present, to the future where he spends his time in an alien zoo making love to a dirty movie star. This is dusted with a dry philosophy that time is meaningless and individual destiny is a myth. What happens happens, and so it goes.

It is a breezy, novel written in a seemingly stream-of-conscience style. But one shouldn’t let the novel’s ease of reading confuse it with a simple throw away novel. No, Vonnegut obviously spent a great deal of time and skill crafting a novel that is deceptively simple, yet serves a thick plate of ideas. It is written in the third person from Vonnegut’s own point of view. Several times the author stops and let’s us know that the character he has just described, or quoted is, in fact, himself.

The firebombing of Dresden itself it given but few details. We see the bombing as Vonnegut himself did, from underground in a shelter. The little we do see is the aftermath, the rubble and destruction. But the massacre is never far from the author’s lips. While detailing the adventures of Billy Pilgrim, whether marching with fellow soldiers, on route to Dresden via putrid trains, or sitting naked on an alien planet, we see the end, we can almost smell the charred masses after the bombing.

It is an anti-war novel that doesn’t wear its position on its sleeve. There are many moments of laugh out loud hilarity. It is read so fluidly that it is hard to stop during the more poignant moments to feel the sting of emotion. There are no gung-ho moments of war bravado. There are no heroes to be found in the novel, and as Vonnegut says in the introduction, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…" It does give us a moving portrait of your average soldier fighting a war he doesn’t understand, seeing atrocities he cannot comprehend. Yet somehow he (and we) are supposed to continue living our lives as atrocious massacres are somehow normal, acceptable things.

And so it goes.

DVD Review: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc Review

What happens when you take a talented French director, his model cum singer cum actress wife, one of the greatest actors of the 70’s and makes a movie about one of the most renowned saints of France? You get a giant mess is what. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is loaded with lots of talented people, is filmed gorgeously and is mostly a lousy, muddled film.

The story of Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc as they call her in France) is well known just about everywhere. Joan is a poor peasant living in a small village in France during the Hundred Years War with England. She begins seeing heavenly visions that tell her she is God’s messenger to rid her country of the bloody English. Somehow she convinces Charles, the Dauphin with visions of being king, to give her an army to storm Orleans. Using unconventional methods she leads her army to victory. The Dauphin is crowned king and mostly forgets about Joan. She leads an unsuccessful siege on Paris is given over to the English, tried and burned at the stake, several hundred years later she is sainted by the Catholic church. The Messenger covers most of this relatively faithfully, and beautifully.

Luc Besson is a talented director filming such classics as Le Femme Nikita and The Professional. His talent is presented here in his ability to create interesting and beautiful shots, but is lost in creating a cohesive story. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the story about the young saint. In parts it seems earnest in it’s recreation of this revolutionary with heavenly visions, but then it sinks into near parody of itself and in the ends sinks towards a reinventing of the events themselves asking Joan herself whether or not her visions were real or mere psychosis.

Milla Jovovich is a pretty face who has mostly been in forgettable, silly comedies and the Resident Evil franchise which might as well be considered a silly comedy for all its worth. Here, she has two modes of acting, a strange amphetamine delivery of her lines as if she couldn’t spit them out fast enough, or a snarled scream as if acting was merely being the loudest person on the set. It is not a nuanced performance. For the entirety of the film she seems completely out of place.

The battle or Orleans is tame at best. There are virtually no scenes of real ambitious spectacle. We are given nothing to inform us of her revolutionary forms of combat. Instead her method seems to be screaming a lot and jumping a horse over the enemies fence. Later the storming of Paris is so humorous it is sad. Joan screams and screams that she needs back up while a few soldiers randomly knock on what must be the Paris gates. These soldiers are so bewildered a pathetic looking they seem more out of a Monty Python sketch than a serious film about war.

Beyond the visual elements the only saving grace is Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the Grand Inquisitor or Conscience. It is a fine performance from a fine actor, but it is a peculiar character. He spends his time questioning Joan’s own sanity. Could her visions in fact be some form of psychosis or fantasy? Could crucial moments in her life like finding a sword in a field in fact be simple coincidence? Good questions in the history of the real Joan of Arc, but they seem out of place here. Nowhere in the film are we led to believe Joan is nothing but the real thing. Why bring these questions into play during its climactic ending. The film would have worked much better believing whole heartedly in Joan’s purpose and vision. Or questioning her visions from the beginning, a revisioning of the myth could be very interesting. Instead it kicks its legs out from under itself by bringing her into question so late in the film.

What we get in this portrayal of Joan of Arc is some pretty visuals and a find performance from Dustin Hoffman. Try renting one of Luc Besson’s earlier films and pick up anything from Hoffman’s hey day in the 70’s, they will be worth your dollar and your time far more than anything thing to be found here.