Sheldon Forrest on screen in Out of a Jam at TAC Teatro
AUBERVILLIERS – One of the beauties of live music is that every time you play the experience is something different maybe than you expected. That is, live theater, live music, live anything is unpredictable to a certain degree – some new nuance or moment will stand out and that’s what makes the experience “real.” I had been planning the projection of the Paris moments of my open mic film, “Out of a Jam,” at TAC Teatro for some time. I had been visualizing it in a certain way, anticipating it for what I thought and hoped it would be. In the event, two nights ago, it turned out to be nothing like what I expected, but so much more in so many ways. What a night!
It was a very intimate evening with some great musicians and other unexpected, and exceptional guests (my globe-trotting writer friend Adam Hay-Nicholls, who lives in London, blew me away with his presence), in a warm, thought-provoking moment of what was also a hugely nerve-wracking – but proud – evening of showing in public some excerpts from my film for the first time. A great core group of musicians from Paris showed up, as well as a surprise visit from the great science fiction novelist, Norman Spinrad, and his other half, Dona Sadock, who among many other things, once produced the Firesign Theater comedy troupe. I first wrote about Norman Spinrad in an article in the International Herald Tribune when he was selling the rights to one of his novels via the internet for $1. The book went on to find a publisher some time later, and he has continued to publish non-stop since. I last wrote about Norman Spinrad on this blog when I attended his 70th birthday party, in 2010 – which, when I re-read it, was a hell of a night!
Norman Spinrad and Dona Sadock and me in the middle presenting Out of a Jam at TAC Teatro
The film, “Out of a Jam,” was filmed the following year, but took me until now to complete the editing, and put it in what I consider its final shape: a 21-part series for streaming. Among the guests who attended on Friday night was one of the main “talking heads” of the documentary, Sheldon Forrest, who graced us with his presence despite it being a strike struck period in France and his living a couple of hours away from the Aubervilliers venue! I was thrilled.
The first truly nerve-wracking thing of the evening, though, was that my computer refused to boot! So there was no film. Fortunately I had brought my iPad, and while I could not show the Paris moments to start with, as we waited for more spectators to arrive and for my computer to boot, we watched the Istanbul episode of the series. After that, magically, my computer decided to boot. (Actually, it is not magic. Although I had just a few weeks ago replaced the battery for a similar experience, I think I have solved the problem: It is a Macbook Pro, and after losing my adapter, I replaced it with a non-Apple charger, which I think does not have the same performance capacity as the Apple charger, and so if the computer runs out of charge, it takes FOREVER to re-charge enough to boot!)
Earle Holmes on screen in Out of a Jam at TAC Teatro
I was therefore able to show the compilation of Paris moments from the open mic, which was a 37-minute film without form. But I got all sorts of great responses from the people present.
After that, Joe Cady, my violin-playing friend with whom I have play with several times over the years including at the F1 FanZone in London in 2014 – and whom I first met at Spinrad’s 60th birthday party! – suggested we do a song together, and the very-much-shortened open mic took place! I did “Mad World” with Joe, and it was amazing to play again together, and then Angus Sinclair played another cover with Joe, singing “Wicked Game,” in a wonderful rendition that made it his own.
The evening ended up being more about the film than the open mic and a couple of other musicians who came had to leave early so we did not go beyond that. So it turned out to be completely different than I either planned or imagined. And so much better, in the way it decided to be!
PARIS – It was 2011, and all through Paris, bands and musicians were playing at one open mic or another, honing their craft and crafting their hone. (A hone is a whetstone – very necessary to musicians playing late at night.) And I was filming it here in Paris and throughout the year all over the world. The open mic film series is now completed, is called “Out of a Jam,” and it is 21 episodes long, and more than 7 hours in length. Here I am presenting for the first time on the blog, the short video of excerpts that I made of some of the Paris moments. This is to give an idea to my readers who can be in Paris on 24 March 2023 (Friday in a week) what they will see during the big, giant, bursting at the seams open mic at TAC Teatro. Come to play, come to see the film! Come to have a drink and have fun!
PARIS – I had planned to celebrate the 3-week countdown to my giant open mic and film showing at TAC Teatro today with the publication here of a teaser of excerpts from a few of the open mic people and scenes from the Paris parts of the film. In other words, I wanted to show all my Paris-based friends the images of them playing music or being interviewed 12 years ago when I filmed « Out of a Jam, » the series about open mics around the world. But my computer yesterday, my faithful MacBook Pro, decided to fail me. At least temporarily. The battery died and I could no longer even start the computer. It is now being repaired at an Apple Store in Paris. (Marché St. Germain, where the old open mic of the Coolin’ Pub used to take place.
I was able to limit the damage to my life glued to my computer by discovering that the keyboard I have for a very old computer actually works on my iPad, which I use mostly for reading books and newspapers. (I hope to soon do a review here of the Bob Dylan book that I just finished reading yesterday about the philosophy of modern song!) But while I can write on this iPad, I cannot properly edit the film with Final Cut Pro – as the open mic film consists of 21 episodes of 19 to 22 or so minutes each. In other words, it’s a heavy m…. …..er.
But as soon as I get my computer back, within days I will try to have that teaser of the action in Paris up on this site and elsewhere. So that all my Paris friends – even those who now live in Timbuktu, can see themselves 12 years ago and have a taste of what is on offer on 24 March at the open mic at TAC Teatro.
Finally, I want to make if very clear here and now that this open mic and film showing is a one-time event. It’s not a new open mic. It won’t be repeated. So let’s make the most of it and turn out in the hundreds!
A view through the entrance to TAC Teatro in Aubervilliers.
PARIS – If you are in Paris on this date, please stop by TAC Teatro in Aubervilliers to participate in – or just check out – the open mic night we will be holding to celebrate the premiere of my Open Mic streaming series: “Out of a Jam.” This has now become an historic film of open mics in 20 countries over a one-year period – that year being 2011 ! This is my open mic film that ended up taking a year to film and a decade to edit into its final format: 21 episodes of between 19 and 23 minutes each. Each episode takes place in a different country – or some like NYC are spread out – and every one is structured with first, visit to the open mics of Paris – home base – and interviews with key people about a theme connected to the open mic; followed by a visit to a new country and its open mics, with interviews and films of the musicians there.
I have decided to show excerpts from the series for the first time anywhere, at TAC Teatro, and then hold our own huge open mic. In the coming weeks I will post more information about it all, including more details about the location – it will be a night to remember, as we will be able to play and celebrate in the theater, in the cabaret and in the courtyard. I want to give a few little tours of those spaces by video when and as I can. There will be beer and wine to drink for real cheap – a key to the success of any open mic – and I will create the best sound system I can. “Out of a Jam” open mic film series generique
I really want to see as many of the people who played in the open mic scene in Paris in 2011 as possible, since many of you will be in the film, and we can celebrate the time that has passed since then! And I want as many new faces, musicians and fans of open mics to attend as possible! This evening will be devoted to the open mic, and I will keep the film part to a minimum – unless people want more and more and more! – as my goal is to have as many of us play music, and talk and have fun, and I don’t want anyone feeling like a hostage in a cinema seat! That said, this series will be a real nostalgia trip for many of you, and the most complete look at the open mic phenomenon that I know of.
Inside the theater at TAC Teatro where the main stage of the open mic will be and the film will be screened.
I am giving you a little look at the opening credit video bit – above – that will go with each of the episodes. But keep in mind that while these little moments feature mostly me in different world settings, I repeat that the film is not about me. It’s about all of you who played or organized or attended as spectators the open mics at that time. During this evening in Aubervilliers I will focus as much as possible on the Paris parts where you can see yourselves – unless I have any of my friends from any of the other 20 countries showing up, and wanting to see their contributions… Japan, China, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey… etc…!
A look at the courtyard at TAC Teatro during a recent event, and where the open mic participants can go to talk and drink and smoke while not wanting to disturb musicians singing!
The date is 24 March 2023. I’ll keep you updated as we approach the hour….
PARIS – I wanted to do two quick reports, one today, the other maybe tomorrow, just to round up the amazing week with TAC Teatro. It started last Monday with the long-awaited double header starting at 8AM at Paris’s legendary Théâtre du Soleil in the Cartoucherie with the equally legendary Odin Teatret, then Monday evening at the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers, where we screened my interview/documentary film with Eugenio Barba, the founder of Odin Teatret.
The morning event hinged around a couple of high moments: a conference given by Odin Teatret actor Julia Varley on the theme of the actor’s process of creation and training; which was followed by the actors of TAC Teatro performing excerpts from their latest show, Ajamola, for the spectators and for Eugenio Barba and Julia Varley.
Odin and TAC people at Theatre du Soleil
The conference was “prefaced” by introductions given by Ornella Bonventre, founding director of TAC Teatro, and by Raluca Mocan, a Romanian lecturer at a French university who is also a specialist on Odin Teatret. Varley’s conference was fabulous, starting with her echoing almost word-for-word what I’ve heard Ornella herself saying so often: As an actor she considers herself an artisan, not an artist. They build things – characters, plays, shows, etc., as an artisan might build a chair.
all Ajamola actors at Theatre du Soleil
Varley also spoke of the importance of the actual performance in unforgettable terms: Once you are on stage it is “not a democracy.” In other words, perhaps the actor can try all sorts of strange things during training and creation, but the performance is a dictator that requires the actors to follow the score laid out in advance and stay entirely inside the established character. I have certainly over-simplified that point, but that’s the rough idea.
After Varley’s grand performance as a lecturer, I felt a little worried about how the actors of TAC Teatro might be able to jump into their own characters from Ajamola and put on a convincing short excerpt from the show within confines that were far from anything even close to their usual performance space. As you can see from the video, it was a tight, obstructed space, where the actors did a fabulous job of reconstructing moments from the show – with Eugenio Barba, Julia Varley and others watching on. Ornella had planned this excerpt from the show as an homage to Odin Teatret, and there was every indication that it succeeded. Thanks to the actors, who did manage to get right into character and negotiate the space beautifully.
From the Théâtre du Soleil to the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers for the Screening of Eugenio Barba film
Eugenio Barba in film at Espace Renaudie
In the evening, we moved on for the second part of the Odin tribute to the municipal theatre in Aubervilliers called l’Espace Renaudie, for which TAC was supported by the municipality of Aubervilliers. Here we showed in public for the first time the TAC-produced film, an interview with Eugenio Barba, which is a film in which I have a half-hour long interview with Barba about his life and the Odin Teatret. I conducted the interview, Ornella filmed it, and I did the editing, splicing in all sort of documents, photos and films from Odin’s own archive, dating back to the 1960s.
It was a moment of great pride and wonder on my part to see the film on the big screen shown in front of a public in a 180-seat municipal theatre. Judging by the roundtable discussion that we then had following the film, it was a success. The roundtable was the chance to give all participants the floor to speak about the film, Odin and theatre in general. It went on for almost two hours.
Another Eugenio Barba in film at Espace Renaudie
I will return with the report soon of the production of Ajamola itself in this same theatre in Aubervilliers the next day – with photos and videos….
From Ornella in French: L’Odin jouera Thèbes jusqu’au 19, nous du TAC y allons le mardi 15, ceux qui veulent se joindre à nous sont les bienvenus (envoyez-moi un message). Toutes les informations ci-dessous.
PARIS – I’m already bubbling over with excitement about the premiere of my short, 30-minute, documentary/interview film with one of the giants of world theater of the last 60 years. I am talking about the work I did with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro – of which I am a company member since 2017 – and our interview with Eugenio Barba, founding director of the Odin Teatret of Denmark. The film will be screened next month, on 7 November, in the Espace Renaudie, a municipal theater in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris. It is part of a double-bill of activities with members of the Odin Teatret and TAC, beginning in the morning at the iconic Théâtre du Soleil of Paris.
That’s a lot of stuff to pack into your brain in the first paragraph, so let me backtrack now a little: Eugenio Barba is an Italian-born director and writer who after working with the Polish theater master Jerzy Grotowski in the early 1960s, went on to create Odin Teatret – based in Holstebro, Denmark – and to become one of the great theater theorists of our times, as well as the founder of the International School of Theatre Anthropology. Odin has always been at the forefront of avant garde theater in the world, innovating in the area of what is often called “physical theater,” as it speaks as much, or more, through the movements of the body as it does through text. And even the spoken word itself – or the music – is considered a kind of physical action in the performance.
The company was founded in 1964, and some of the actors that still make up the company have been with it since the 1970s, others for several decades. They are coming to Paris next month to put on their latest show, “Thèbes au Temps de la Fièvre Jaune,” at the Théâtre du Soleil. (The latter is another of the world’s great avant-garde theatrical institutions, also founded in 1964 and still directed by Ariane Mnouchkine.)
The morning event with Julia Varley.
The Odin show will run there from 8 to 19 November, and TAC Teatro, in collaboration with ARTA, Association de Recherche de Tradition de l’Acteur, and the Aubervilliers mayor’s office organized two events that will take place the day before the show opens, ie, on the Monday 7th November at 10AM in the Théâtre du Soleil, and the film premiere at the Espace Renaudie starting at 18PM, with, following the film, a roundtable discussion. The event starts by featuring especially the intervention of Julia Varley, one of the Odin Teatret actors, who will give a conference about the process of training and creation for the actor in the morning part of the program at the Théâtre du Soleil. Ornella will take part in that too, along with Raluca Mocan, a theater expert and member of the Husserl Archives of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
I am very pleased to be able to show this documentary interview film that I did with Eugenio Barba the last time Odin Teatret visited Paris, with their previous show, called, “L’Arbre.” The interview was conducted outside at the Cartoucherie, and Ornella filmed it – and organized it – and also intervened with some of the most interesting questions – when I think I took over the camera briefly! It was a wide-ranging interview with Barba covering his life story, his theories of theater, the history of theater and of Odin, and even comments about the state of Paris’s theater landscape in general. It also contains a lot of footage and photos of Odin’s work through the decades.
Brad Spurgeon interviewing Eugenio Barba.
Taking place at the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers starting at 18PM, the screening is free of charge, and there are about 200 seats in the theater. So if you want to come, best to reserve in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at: 06 14 06 92 23
By the way, this is the same location where the full production of AJAMOLA will be performed several times this year and next – so if you like what you see in the performance extracts at the event at the Théâtre du Soleil…don’t hesitate to book for the show too!
PARIS – I highly recommend to anyone interested in either Jim Haynes, or a look at the counterculture world from 1959 to 2021 to take a look the documentary “Meeting Jim.” It is still being offered free for another three hours from the time this post goes up today. I saw it last night, and loved it for many reasons, not least of all because of all the reasons I wrote about in my post about the life of Jim Haynes after his death in early January. If you miss the free offer that goes until 7PM Paris-time today, then you can actually pay for it as you would any video on demand – and it’s still worth it. I won’t even go into any details about the film now because I want to get this post up as quickly as possible – suffice it to say that it is a feature-length documentary filmed in 2016 – but with a nice amount of historical footage too – that covers Jim’s whole life, and the above mentioned cultural period that it spanned and that he so fabulously contributed to….
PS, to see the film, when you click on that first link I put above in the second sentence of this post, you will come to a “Meeting Jim” dedicated page. Scroll down the page to see the links to watch the film free from wherever you may be in the world.
The latest of my illness-in-the-media shocks has come after watching, and loving, the Netflix series about the fictional female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon,”The Queen’s Gambit.” Almost every day for the last month or two, in the news feed of my telephone, I have seen articles relating to the series. While some of the articles or even television shows or other filmed interviews have drawn for reactions to the series on some of the world’s greatest players, including women players – such as the interview by Christine Amanpour on CNN with Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar – there is a much, much bigger trend that is the part that is shocking, and sickening me. Almost daily I find articles by every level of media, from personal blogs to traditional newspapers, using the Netflix series to introduce to the world “the real-life Beth Harmon.”
So who, you will ask, is the real-life Beth Harmon and why does this bother me?
First, I want to put into a few words the premise of the Netflix series for those readers of this post who have not seen it. In a nutshell, Beth Harmon is the fictional character in the novel of the same name as the series, written by Walter Tevis, an American novelist, and published in 1983. It is the coming of age story of a girl whose father has abandoned her, whose mother dies, and who ends up in an orphanage and discovers the game of chess through the janitor. She finds she has a talent for it, and she goes on to build a career in the game, rising to win the U.S. national championships, and culminating in a tournament in Moscow against the top players in the world.
Beth Harmon also has another essential aspect to her character, which is her addiction to drugs and alcohol, which began with her force feeding of various medications at the orphanage. In another nutshell, I want to say that while I loved the series – watching it became my own short-lived addiction – there were some fundamental parts to it that were indeed pure fiction. No drug addict under the influence is going to play chess the way Beth Harmon did. (And while this made her character interesting for fiction, it is questionable as an example for other young women seeking to find themselves in today’s world, where drugs are more accessible than in the fictional day of the 1950s and 1960s in which Beth Harmon lived.) Beth’s rise quickly through the ranks without actually having any chess teachers or coaches of any note was another aspect to the fiction that was farfetched. Also, there was a huge mismatch between the player rating level (called an Elo) we heard she had at one point – something like 1800 – and the kinds of players she was supposed be beating. The top players at the time were already pushing for the 2700s. The final outstanding aspect of this fictional character is that she is a kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman, portraying a kind of man-beating femme fatale of the chess world.
While the chess world is excited to see attention paid to it like nothing since when Garry Kasparov played – and lost – to the Deep Blue computer more than 20 years ago, and while it is being reported that the Netflix series has led to a massive new demand for chess sets, books, and people playing the game online (at sites like Chess.com or Lichess.org ), there is another way in which coverage of this Netflix series is doing no good at all.
How so? First, my shock: In those almost daily articles about “Meet the real Beth Harmon,” the subject of the articles is usually not only a million miles away from ever having achieved any of the exploits of the fictional character, but worse, the subject of the article is rarely even within the Top 100 of rated women chess players in the world (or even the Top 100 “girls,” which is for women under 20 years old). I had considered naming names and putting up links to some of the subjects of these stories, who hail from countries all over the world – every country is seeking to show its very own “real Beth Harmon” – but the goal of this blog item is not to point the finger at any one particular person or media. Let me just continue outlining the broad brush strokes of this con game. Every time I have found an article about the latest “real Beth Harmon” I have started by doing research to find out what the “phenom”‘s rating is. Most of the time, as I said, the women are not even close to the Top 100 lists of women players – which may be found on the site of the world chess federation, at FIDE.com – and in many cases, the women do not even HAVE an international rating.
What they do almost invariably have, is a great presence on the social media, with photos of their undeniably feminine good looks – à la Beth Harmon. They are usually featured looking sexy sitting over a chess board, often in clothes that match the black and white squares of the game, or some other chess-related image. They have online followings and their image is more important than their chess success. Still, some of them did have at some point in their lives periods playing the game at local, or even national level, and met with some success in tournaments, even if they never achieved any kind of internationally recognized results or ratings.
What am I getting at? What’s the problem with all of this? Certainly it is great publicity for the game of chess to be talked about more than it has perhaps, in fact, since the biggest international battle of wits in the early 1970s Cold War match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Certainly, for the noble, intelligent game of chess that helps form young minds to be learned and discovered by more people than ever before is a great thing.
But what bothers me here is that another of the themes of almost every one of these articles about the “real Beth Harmon” is that the women are invariably asked to speak about how difficult it all was as a woman in a man’s world, and how much sexism they faced by paternalistic male players who could not accept being beaten by a woman. Fine. Judit Polgar – who in fact is as close to being the “real Beth Harmon” as any woman could be, since she was the top woman player for decades, and also sat within the top 10 amongst men players for many many years – has spoken about her own encounters with such sexism. So, yes, this is a natural subject. If only the articles would not be hypocritical on another level….
In my description of the “real Beth Harmon” that I discover almost daily, you will have noticed that all of the women are beautiful, that they flaunt that beauty, they flaunt the femme fatale aspect of their image, as well as their social media image popularity. But on the other side of all of this is those lists I have mentioned of the world’s current Top 100 woman and girl players. Very few of those players are using their feminine attractiveness to sell their image. They are devoting their lives to learning how to play and win the game of chess. And they are succeeding. The Top 100 women players – lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the “real Beth Harmons” that I am reading about in the media (including many, many reputable, traditional media) – are great chess players, women or not. But they are being, for the most part, ignored by the media that wants to exploit the image that the Netflix series is exploiting: Beautiful, sexy, fashion-model-like woman beats man at man’s game.
Therein lies the problem for me – one of the two main problems – which is that in the guise of saying that women are equal to men and not being reduced to their physical attributes, these articles are doing the very opposite. They are only presenting us with the woman whose image is that of Beth Harmon – sexy young women looking like fashion models and with a great social media presence – rather than showing us the REAL REAL BETH HARMONS! Those Top 100 at most, but really, say, the Top 20 women or “girls” in the world. Let me introduce to you Hou Yifan. She is currently No. 1, and a little like the Judit Polgar of our day – as Polgar has been retired for several years – by being far ahead of the second placed woman player in rating.
So what is actually happening here is that the media is indeed again using women’s beauty, women’s physical attributes, their image, their sexiness, as the thing that makes them worth talking about or not. These media are not sticking to the reality of whether or not these social media objects are actually great chess players by the standard of the world’s top-rated players!
This now leads me to the higher level point of this whole rant: It is again and clearly the kind of shorthand that passes for a story in today’s media that is actually leading to what in another area would be referred to as “fake news.” People are reading mainstream media – as well as less mainstream, but perhaps just as popular – media and if they know nothing about chess, then they cannot know that what they are reading is fake news. The woman being portrayed as a “real life Beth Harmon” is nothing close to a real life version of the fictional mastermind, BUT…but…but… a little more honesty would reveal that there are indeed many other real life Beth Harmons who are NOT being written about because they do not flaunt their bodies, faces, images, online in social media or otherwise talk about themselves as women men-beating geniuses.
So I take this to the final level: It is only because chess is a world that I am very close to, and very familiar with – I have a very low international rating, and I have played online for years as an addiction, but my son was a highly-placed national player in France for years until he quit age 15 – that I am not being duped by all these stories about the “real life Beth Harmon.” But what does this mean for all the other aspects of world politics, science, geography and social life that I know nothing about and which I am spoon-fed untruths or exaggerations daily without realizing it?
I hate to think what the answer to that might really be.
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?
I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together. Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today
There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.
The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.
Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.
But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!
The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers. Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.
Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication. He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!
The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.
The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.
Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all. I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.
The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”
Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world. (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily. When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)
Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.
And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.
What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!
And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?
When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.
But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:
“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist. I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it. He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy. I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”). But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”
The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.
We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.
There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?
The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.