PARIS – Everything you ever wanted to know about my life and music but were afraid to ask – or maybe didn’t really want to know! – is now in a 50-minute video just released on Escargot Underground Radio’s site via YouTube and Escargot’s Facebook page. This was a riot to do, and makes up part of a series of such video interviews that these people are doing – all in French, so watch out! – of musicians that are part of their Escargot Underground open mic world in Paris in the last half decade or so….
If you enjoyed the interview, they will be posting more of them in the coming weeks, so check them out. Or go to the Escargot Web Radio pageand give a listen to the people they will be interviewing….
PARIS – At a recent party of a friend in Paris, I met a guy from Detroit who has lived in France for a couple of decades. We started talking about various personal projects, specifically film and theater. He had made a documentary film about a century of his family’s life in Detroit. His wife was playing in a one-woman show in Paris, the director of which also had his own one-person show. The man invited us to see first his wife’s show, then the director’s. Little did I realize that it was the beginning of a long string of attending one-person shows, readings, theatrical productions – and film – that would keep me musing for weeks on the meaning of one-person productions on stage, in film, with texts, without texts, the physical versus intellectual and emotional theatrical representation and other profound and less profound thoughts. Let me get to specifics:
The man we met at the party was Steve Faigenbaum, who has had a long and varied career in film and video, but whose recent documentary is his first full-length personal, big production. His wife is Yannick Rocher, a French actress, starring in “La Voix Humaine,” by Jean Cocteau, at the Théâtre de la Contrescarpe. The director of the play is Charles Gonzales, who is starring in his own one-man show in Paris, at the Théâtre de Poche in Montparnasse.
The idea of comparing these two linked shows was too enticing not to try. So it was that after Rocher’s show we then attended “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel“…and, as you may have realized, this might be called a one-woman show as well… or whatever. (Which set up more strands of musing.)
In between those two shows we saw Steve’s film, “Internal Combustion,” (called “City of Dreams” in France) a story based on his return after 25 years to his home city of Detroit, where he retraces his and his family’s past, but simultaneously tells the history of the city and especially its black and Jewish population. (And, through these, a certain history of the United States itself.) The documentary is in some ways a one-man show, since it focuses on Faigenbaum’s look at his own world where he grew up in Detroit; but it is obviously made thanks to a cast of hundreds, including the crew and the many interview subjects and people of Detroit, dead and alive.
Steve Faigenbaum from Internal Combustion
As a grand finale to all of this, we went last Saturday night to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see another one-man show, “Imagine-toi,” of Julien Cottereau. One of the reasons we chose to attend this was to have a direct comparison to the other shows: Because it was a performance told entirely through the movements of the body, and not through spoken language. Having said that, it turned out that Cottereau depends hugely for his communicative effects with the audience on sound. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
I now want to return to look a little at each of these shows in the order we saw them, and in the spirit of my Not-Reviews.*
Yannick Rocher at the Contrescarpe Takes the Neutral Approach to Cocteau
Yannick Rocher’s “La Voix Humaine,” written by Cocteau, and here directed by Charles Gonzales, was the first of the bunch for us. It was in the small, but very cool Théâtre de la Contrescarpe, off the place de la Contrascarpe (Hemingway called this “the cesspool of the Rue Mouffetard,” but it has changed since then, going somewhat upscale). The play is about a woman who has ended her relationship with a lover and is reminiscing with him on the telephone, in a call, or a series of calls. It must have been technically an original concept at the time Cocteau wrote it, to use the telephone as a device for a one-person show.
Well, it still stands up today, entirely. The first performance of “La Voix Humaine” was in February 1930, in Paris, at the Comedie Française, starring Berthe Bovy. One of the original aspects of Yannick Rocher’s production are the decision to portray the role in as neutral a manner as possible. Her voice remains mostly neutral throughout. It gives a modern sense of gravitas to the play that the original production does not have in the same way.
And that leads to the other bit of originality: The use of a recording of the voice of Berthe Bovy in the original production as a kind of backdrop, or dramatic ploy, which makes its “appearance” several times throughout. It’s an interesting concept, that forces the spectator to compare Rocher’s performance with that of Bovy’s. In other words, you have the lines being spoken by the creator of the role, and then you have the same lines being spoken by the actress in front of you, but in a completely different way. That is quite a courageous thing for any actor to dare to do, I would think, being compared simultaneously with the creator of the role. So kudos to Yannick Rocher.
Yannick, I learned later, has done the role elsewhere in recent years, including in the U.S., and she did not do the neutral approach – which fact I found interesting as well, as I thought it must be like trying different ways to sing and play a song I’ve been doing for years in a certain way, and just completely change it. Not easy.
And then we saw Faigenbaum’s Film about Detroit
The story behind Faigenbaum’s film “Internal Combustion,” is fascinating on its own: This is a film all about the city of Detroit and the life of its black and Jewish immigrant population. It is done entirely in English. But it was funded and produced entirely in France. As I indicated, this is a film that might in some ways also be called a one-man show, as Faigenbaum goes on a personal quest back to his hometown and relates his family life through his own words, and above all, those of other family members and local personalities he interviews.
Internal Combustion trailer
But the brilliance of this film is the way the director manages to go from the personal situation into the general one of the history of the city and the life of all of its inhabitants throughout the 20th Century. He charts the movement of the Jewish and black populations, as they move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the social developments. A previously Jewish neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. Some neighborhoods then get wiped out for new projects, highways, modern life that leaves no trace of the old, of the past.
Through it all, is a path of integration – or not – and for me it was absorbing to see an historical presentation – along with the family’s point of view – of the race riots of the 1960s, which I was aware of as a child while visiting relatives on the other side of the border, in Windsor, Ontario, putting a lot of things into perspective for me on a personal level. But I felt the biggest success of Faigenbaum’s film was that fabulous marriage of the personal with the universal, along with Detroit’s story mirroring that of the U.S. as a whole.
And off we Went to the Théâtre de Poche and the Camille Claudel One-Person Show
After the experience of seeing the one-woman show – although I’m not sure that’s the right term for a play with just one actor or actress – we were curious to see how the director, Charles Gonzales, would act and direct himself in a one-woman show starring himself, a man. For I think in some ways it has to be called a one woman show, his “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel.” Yes, it is a man performing the role of the lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and sister to the writer Paul Claudel. But Gonzales is clearly trying to live in the skin of a woman throughout.
Or maybe not so clearly. In any case, the story of Camille Claudel is one that has a particular resonance in France in a way that it does not elsewhere in the world. She feels in some ways like one of the great women heroes of the country, like Joan of Arc. And yet Camille Claudel’s story is not one of any sort of heroism that saves the republic. It is more some kind of tale with which the whole country identifies and feels pity and sorrow for. A sense of collective something!
A highly respected sculptress herself, the lover of Rodin ended up spending the last 30 years of her life in an asylum. And with a 19th Century twist to it, this 20th Century story is one suspected of having a grotesque lack of humanity attached to it on the part of her family – and society. Was she really crazy or just locked up for convenience?
The piece was written by Gonzales and has been performed in various different locations – he has become recognized as something of an expert in Camille Claudel. And as I understand it, he had special access granted to him by the Claudel family to letters and papers, from which he draws for the text.
Of course, the originality here is that it is a man playing the woman. On the other hand, I don’t know if it was my lack of adeptness in the French language – although I usually consider myself bilingual – but I could not really see anything in the show to indicate WHY a man is playing this role. I saw nothing in the text or stage actions to indicate the purpose. So I assume it is just the passion that Gonzales has for the Camille Claudel story that drove him to this. And it is clear that Gonzales comes to life through this story, and so carries the audience with him.
The Théâtre de Poche was packed, and with about 90 or 100 seats, that’s pretty good for a play that is running for several months a couple of nights a week.
And off we Went to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see Julien Cottereau in his one-man show
Julien Cottereau has a long and illustrious career in clowning and circus, including working at the Cirque du Soleil. He has also worked much in film and theater. This show, “Imagine-toi,” was actually first performed in 2006, and for it he was awarded France’s highest award in theater, a Molière. But it is the kind of show that cannot age. Full of visual gags and audience interaction, it remains as fresh today as if it was just created.
But the most important aspect to writing about it here is that where I say this was a show that has no text, no words, a show that depends wholly on visual gags, movement, it is in fact a thoroughly modern show that could not have been performed at the time of Vaudeville when the idea of a modern sound system did not exist. In fact, it could not have existed through most of the 20th century either, as the key to this show’s main effects is the small microphone attached to Julien Cottereau’s head, and into which he makes his noises.
Julien Cottereau in his show
These noises – sounds of bouncing balls, roaring animals, barking dogs, squeaking window cleaning cloths – are also occasionally treated or added to by a sound man at the back of the room, who appears to add reverb or volume and other effects, when needed. So it may be a visual show based on movement and visual gags, but without those popping, bursting, barking, roaring sounds we would just have a mime. Granted, for me this is a mime of a much more dynamic, modern style than the classic Marcel Marceau. Cottereau’s show is just uproariously funny. And I noted that it was enjoyed equally by children, adults and others.
Together, all of these stage productions really got me to thinking about the nature of living theater. What makes a stage production. The importance of movement. The importance of voice. The importance of sound. Emotion. Of text. And, in fact, as it turns out, since seeing these productions we attended in the last couple of days two other shows that were readings of text alone, one of which in a language we could not understand. Seeing a pure “reading” was a perfect counterpoint to provide us with a comparison to the classic stage production and show the utility of memorisation and stage action in holding an audience’s attention.
* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.
They were the big, daring stars with a halo of danger surrounding them, a sense of not knowing what might be going through their minds for driving at speeds of 300 kph and more in a sport where death was a regular occurrence. Their series was the highest level of its kind, both technologically and in human skill. They travelled from country to country, including in far-flung places away from their home base. They feted their victories in posh parties. And when they lost their racing jobs, they became journalists commentating on the series – and as such were given less respect, or were considered like hyenas smelling blood.
Watching John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film “Grand Prix,” for perhaps the fifth or sixth time last night, I was not only struck more than ever by how little Formula One has really changed in the 51 years since the film was made, but for the first time I also found myself loving the human story that I had always thought was the film’s weak point. And it was really only while watching it yesterday that I suddenly began to do the math and to discover another human story not stated in the film that gives the tale an even deeper feeling of gravitas.
The human story, mixing the racer’s competitive urge and taste for taking risks and the way it affected their personal lives, as well as the technological story and the presentation of the series itself all work in lock-step to produce the greatness of this film. Until Ron Howard’s film “Rush” in 2013, it was commonly felt that there had only been one good film made about the Formula One series, and that was “Grand Prix.” But watching “Grand Prix” with the perspective now of having “Rush” – the story of the 1976 battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt for the world title – there is another layer that may be added to the 1966 film. The scene in which the driver named Scott Stoddart, who is played by Brian Bedford, tries to recover from his horrible accident and injuries could be seen as a model for the even more horrendous Niki Lauda recovery scenes in “Rush” were it not that the Lauda scenes were based on the true story of Lauda’s life, whereas “Grand Prix” is fiction.
Yves Montand in Grand Prix
And yet “Grand Prix” also uses history to weave its tragic tale, including in the parallels to the death of Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961 during a race that should have brought him the World Drivers’ title. Instead, he crashed, killing himself and 15 spectators, while the world title then went to his teammate, Phil Hill, the American driver at Ferrari (who also appears in the film). In “Grand Prix,” it is Jean-Pierre Sarti, the Yves Montand character, who was heading for the title at Monza, who crashes and dies, and so gives the title to the American driver, Pete Aron, played by James Garner, who drives for a Japanese team.
And so Little Has Changed as Formula One Returns to Malaysia for its Final Race outside Kuala Lumpur
As Formula One prepares this weekend to run its final race in Malaysia, after nearly 20 years at the venue outside Kuala Lumpur, our memory in sport remains very short. Watching “Grand Prix” can remind those who like to criticize the series for not being what it once was, that little has changed. Malaysia was one of the many circuits that so-called “purists” liked to say had no place on the calendar of a series that was born in Europe, since the Southeast Asian nation had no racing culture, no car culture, no fans…. But in the film, the series already travelled to Mexico, and in another 10 years it would go to Japan. In fact, a Japanese manufacturer was involved in the film – as was Honda in reality – trying to win races after a couple of seasons without success, and seeking the best driver and having undergone far too much humiliation through losing. Echoes of Honda in the series now.
Too much money linked with Formula One today? In 1966, the tracks around Europe had sponsors plastered everywhere, but they were mostly car-related sponsors – Champion spark plugs, Castrol Oil, Goodyear Tires, etc. Today, it is watch companies like Rolex, Hublot, IWC and many others, or alcohol companies, technology companies, and dozens of other non-racing companies.
Grand Prix film crash
It is commonly said that Bernie Ecclestone built up Formula One from a kind of gentlemen’s club in that period to the global business it is today. But while it is true that he organized it and made it into a very powerful global sport – one of the most-watched behind the Olympics and World Cup soccer – it is also true that this can be seen in some ways as a natural progression for what was ALWAYS the pinnacle of automobile racing. It has just expanded, developed, and become MORE of what it was, as well as diversifying.
Very few of the underlying narratives have changed, and even most of the circuits from the film are still part of the series, but built up and improved: Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring (although it was not the same circuit), Mexico and Monaco. The glitzy after-party in Monaco still goes on today.
The cars of the day were beautiful objects, and while they are primitive by today’s standards, they were the highest expression of the technology of the day, as with today’s cars.
Nearly Half of the Real Racing Drivers in the Film Would Die Violent Racing-Linked Deaths
But the most shocking part of the film is something we do not see, or we only see if we know the history of what followed. And that brings me back to that bit of mathematical counting I started to do while watching the film. Just over 30 of the drivers of the day were used in the film in small roles, as extras or just on camera as they raced. It was a brilliant blending in of the star actors with the fictional drivers. The most obvious ones being people like Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt or Jim Clark. But knowing what fate held for them is a hugely poignant thing.
Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, with James Garner and Yves Montand, in Grand Prix film
Of those 30 or so drivers, 13 would eventually die in racing accidents – or, as in the case of Graham Hill, while flying his airplane in poor weather returning from a racing test session; or in the case of Giuseppe Farina, after running his car into a telegraph pole while driving to the French Grand Prix of 1966, when he was acting as the double and adviser to Yves Montand in the film.
Also in the film, where Stoddart suffers a huge crash near the harbor in Monaco, the following year, at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, Lorenzo Bandini, who was also in the film, was killed in a fiery accident also by the harbor.
And here is the point: While Formula One remains a deadly series, as the death of Jules Bianchi two years ago from injuries in an accident the previous year at the Japanese Grand Prix has shown, it has incontestably become safer than it was. The series depicted by “Grand Prix,” while so similar – or familiar – in most other ways to today’s series, no longer, thank goodness, takes the lives of some of its drivers nearly every year.
MILAN – And the dreams continue! That project I worked on with the TAC Teatro in Milan to help create and to film edit the evening of wandering around the Via Padova quarter of Milan to ask ordinary people of all walks of life what their dreams are, has now been made into a neat little exhibition at a public library in the Via Padova area at the Biblioteca Crescenzago.
I worked with Ornella Bonventre to put the exhibit together, too, and I was proud to now be able to see how it looks – although it will only last a few more days until it ends. The plan is to do another exhibit in the fall, using many more dream collections from different Milan neighbourhoods.
Dream Video Station in Milan Via Padova Library
But it is already great to see this first exhibit, complete with photos of the people interviewed – including many that were not in the final edit of the video – as well as the video itself on nearly permanent display in the library on a dedicated computer. (Although it is off-screen in the photo above, since there was another video being shown in the same room at the time of the photo.)
Part I Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library
And so it is that the film, “Acchiappa Sogni – In Via Padova,” sits near the front of the library, and next to it sits the original “dream” box that we carried around in the film to collect peoples’ dreams. The box is filling up now with many of the dreams of the library users – and we hear that there are many, many children making contributions.
COPENHAGEN – The reason I came to attend the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival this week – which I have been reporting on extensively on this blog – is because it has a special section called “Sound & Vision,” that focuses on music documentaries, as well and another part to it that draws together interesting music groups and visual things – such as the concert by Tindersticks in conjunction with an old documentary, Minute Bodies; or a concert by a Danish band called Shiny Darkly at a film about the career of rock photographer Mick Rock. The man who is the head of both of these musicl sub-categories of the festival is a 32-year-old Dane named Adam Thorsmark. Adam studied film, but is above all a music lover, and has always combined in his career the mix of film and music. In addition to writing music reviews for various publications and other music and film related jobs, it was therefore no surprise that since 2011 he became the head of these music activities at the festival, also known as CPH:DOX.
I had the great luck to find myself being allowed to meet and interview Adam yesterday in the restaurant of the main festival hall. My original idea had been to write a Q&A for this blog from the interview, but suddenly I realized that for a Sound & Vision section of the film festival, it made much more sense to edit the half hour interview down into a podcast. So here is the interview, and please excuse the ambient noise of the restaurant… or perhaps it is a better idea to appreciate it and hear just how lively is this CPH:DOX festival. And to appreciate through the sound of his voice, especially, Adam’s enthusiasm for his job, the official title of which is: Head of Regional Activities & Music.
COPENHAGEN – Just about the only really good thing that comes out of a three-hour wait at an open mic to get behind the microphone and be “allowed” to sing only ONE song because there’s no longer any time left in the evening at just after 11 PM is that you have a very good reason to want to put your whole heart and soul and physically being into the song you sing. And that is what happened to me last night as I sang “Mad World” at the Tjili Pop open mic, called Speake’s Corner, in Copenhagen.
I was the first or second musician to arrive for the open mic at 8:30 p.m., but the open mic takes place after a “concert” of four different bands or musicians from roughly 8:30 to what ended up being after 11:00 p.m., and buy the time I got behind the mic it was 11:20 and I was told that I could only do one song. All the participants of the open mic only did one song. Then, of course, my Seagull guitar failed to work through the sound system – the only place it has worked out of the three open mics I’ve done in Copenhagen so far is at the first, and best of them: CPH Listening Room. I wonder if there is a reason for that! First at Tjili Pop in Copenhagen
Anyway, the Tjili Pop bar is otherwise an absolutely fabulous room, cramped, cool, hippie-like, and broken up into different sectors, so if you want to talk you can go to another room, away from the music room. Not that many people did!
I did managed to fill my time waiting with three beers – I really only wanted one beer and three songs, but … – and a fish and chips meal that was not bad at all. Fourth at Tjili in cph
The place was crammed with people, and by the time I got behind the mic and belted out Mad World – I think I was the only person to sing a cover song all night, but I did that as a rebellious statement (!) – I was really not happy, and really ready to take full advantage of the pulpit and go crazy. All the alcohol helped too….
It had otherwise been a great day at the CPH:DOX film festival. In the morning I had attended a conference about the question of whether or not to serialize a documentary film – i.e., turn it into several films – with the highly experienced and interesting Thom Powers, who selects the films for several important film festivals among many other things. Another at the Tjili open mic
I also did an interview with the man who selects the films and music for the CPH:DOX festival, Adam Thorsmark. I will be posting that interview in the form of a podcast very soon in a separate post….
Anyway, despite my frustration with the crazy Tjili joint, I have now done three open mics in Copenhagen, and there are plenty more available. So ultimately, I am absolutely delighted with what this city has to offer in the way of open mics, and I never expected so much.
COPENHAGEN – It was tight timing, but it was a reflection of just about everything else in this tightly organized festival and my trip to attend CPH:DOX and play at open mics: I had a film at 7 p.m., followed by a film at 9 p.m. followed by an open mic at 11 p.m. And despite the rain, hail, snow, freezing weather and wind, I managed to achieve all three things. (I exaggerate only slightly on the cold, horrible, depressing Copenhagen weather.) The most fun in all that? Maybe all three, the totality. From the “Sour Grapes” documentary about a wine fraud, to the snippets of a cameraperson’s filming life in the film called “Cameraperson” to the open mic at Mojo with more Copenhagen singer songwriters, it was all about as good as it gets….
The wine film was a delight, as I have a very strong interest in wine as well as in wine frauds, as one of my very first unsold novels, “Bacchanalia,” dealt with an imaginary wine fraud story in the 1980s, and was inspired by the true-to-life wine fraud over fake bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. (I posted my many-times-rejected article on that very story of the Thomas Jefferson wines on my blog a few years ago.) This film is a similar, but actually much wilder story of a young Indonesian who ingratiates himself to the wine world in the U.S. in the 2000s and ends up selling 10s of millions of dollars of fake wine to collectors before being caught and put in prison. A lively story, and one of the most amazing aspects is how his victims fail to believe it is really possible that this guy did this, even once it has been made crystal clear by the discovery by federal agents of all the evidence they needed in the man’s home. Cameraperson trailer
From that film I rushed over to another cinema – both cinemas and the open mic bar were close walking distance to my hotel – and attended the film “Cameraperson,” which is a series of outtakes and other moments from documentary films and reportages that Kirsten Johnson, a filmmaker and cinematographer, put together over her career. It includes some sad, touching moments with her mother during her final period with Alzheimer’s Disease. Johnson asks us to see the film as her version of a memoir. It is full of some very touching and strange moments of film – as for instance when she is filming a woman in the throes of anger against her mother’s suicide, when suddenly a huge mass of snow comes sliding off the room of her home outside the window, as if the mother was trying to communicate from the other side….
“Cameraperson” lasted longer than I had expected, and so I did not get out of the cinema until 22:49, and while I had planned to run back to the hotel, grab my guitar and return to the open mic, I was now faced with the reality that I would arrive at the open mic after 23:00 if I did that, and I had been told that it started at around 23:00. It took place in a blues bar called Mojo, and while it may be famous as a blues bar, the Monday night event is a singer songwriter open mic. So I was really looking forward to doing it, and decided I had better go first, without my guitar.
Besides, it was yet another night of rain in Copenhagen, where it has rained every day I have been here. Moreover, the rain was at its worst – as far as I could see – at that moment. So I walked over to Mojo, walked into this nice, warm, mainly wooden, cowboy-saloon-like joint, with a beautiful little stage across from the front door, and I found that the open mic had not yet begun. Sour Grapes trailer
I eventually met the MC, the organizer of the open mic, Kira Martini, and she told me that it would run from shortly after 23:00 until about 1 a.m. So I had plenty of time to return to my hotel to take my guitar. I could also use hers, she said. But since it was a nylon-string guitar, I chose to return to the hotel. I immediately regretted that decision when I walked into the hail of gale-force winds and finally arrived at my hotel with soaking wet feet and jeans. But somehow I felt great that I would have the security of my own guitar. another at mojo open mic in Copenhagen
The open mic, when I returned, was in full swing. It had a similar vibe to it to the CPH Listening Room open mic of the night before in that the audience, for the most part, was there to listen, and the performers performed only their own songs. And most of the songs were fairly quiet, personal, singer songwriter songs – as opposed to anything rockin’. The only person who decided to do a cover song was Kira, who at the request of a client, sang a famous Brazilian song, as the last one of the night (I think). It was a beautiful moment even so – and I still think there is a place for doing cover songs, even in a singer songwriter night. (Joe Cocker, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and a few others would no doubt have thought so too!) first at mojo open mic in Copenhagen
Anyway, I was, in the end, ecstatic about having achieved all of my goals in that very short period of time available. What an amazing week so far, at the halfway point of this visit to Copenhagen for me. Oh, the only problem was that after all the effort of going back to my hotel to take my guitar, no sooner did I finish doing my presentation of the first song than my guitar – which had worked on the soundcheck – suddenly decided to pull a temper tantrum and not speak through the pickup. We had to mic the guitar separately. But in the end, I think it sounded better that way! Kira at Mojo