Friday, October 30, 2009


This chronicle is dedicated specially to Leila Whittemore, our guide and inspiration on this trip to Rome.

Rome? On Seville, Camilo José Cela wrote: una gran señora con la cara pringosa de literatura." (a great lady with a sticky face from all the literature). Rome is this wonderfully grand lady, albeit overripe, enveloped in picturesquely chaotic flowing robes, whom we would like scented with less patchouli, with a bosom that is a tad firmer, a girth more conducive to embraces, somewhat more attentive to personal hygiene and maybe more carefully coiffed before showing herself, but that we admire for her wit, generosity, opulence and welcoming smile; we know that she has made so many happy, and the scars of her many miseries are all too evident, and we perceive the smoldering fires in her eyes and heart, yes, she can and will make you happy too, if you have the courage to talk to her and the wisdom to break away before she possesses you. Her gifts are offered to all to the point of meaninglessness, but the wisdom of her hidden favors holds the sweetest taste and promise.

Lila Kedrova playing Bubulina in “Zorba, the Greek”? But Linda put it best: “We now know that Fellini was making documentaries.”

On a cool and crisp Sunday morning the only fitting thing to do was to wander into Saint Peter’s basilica, past the security checks, the magnetometers watched by inattentive blue blazered functionaries, into the stream of humanity. At some point a sloppy decision, mass only to the right, visit the architecture to the left; we went right, past the bronze doors, discreetly shepherded by impeccably clad young men in grey, with red ties. Rows of plastic chairs on the multicolored marble floors, mostly occupied, but with plenty of spaces to chose from. We were handed booklets, in Latin and Italian, from which we gleaned that the Holy Father himself was to officiate. Linda, always partial to royalty, rooted right there. From high above, from loudspeakers apparently made of marble, came soft angelic choirs. In our world electronics crackle and dissipate; not here, the sound floated down like dust from the hazy heights of the Bramante-MichelAngelo-Bernini-dellaPorta dome. Far away, but of a size that made it immediate, stood the Bernini “baldacchino”, the portal on four 100 feet tall elegantly twisted bronze columns shielding the papal altar. Sun was streaming in through the side widows of the cupola’s cylinder, leaving the rest of the immense space in half-dusk.

The music changed in texture and rhythm. This was going to be a mass to close the conference of African bishops, the Catholic Church's new frontier, and softly beating African drums underlaid Swahili, Kwa-Zulu, Twi, Afrikaans hymnals. The cyclical lyrics were underscored by swaying soft percussion, rounding and softening any primevalism, as if saying that the Church, mother to us all, expects its African children to lead it into the next centuries; it offers them redemption and a path to civility.

At ten o’clock sharp, a processional hymn preceded a bobbing stream of black heads in white hats and green chasubles, followed by cardinals in red. Finally, behind the cross on a staff, marched a small German gentleman all in white, also in a green chasuble. When he reached the baldacchino, he began the steps, evolutions and rituals of the High Catholic Mass. The choir worked through the Introito, the Kyrie, to the Homily. By the time the Credo came around, I was expecting a powerful blast of the organ pipes to “Credo in Unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem….”. But the Choir tastefully continued in the genteel tone of universal blandness. No Church triumphant here, but a kinder, gentler sea of thousand points of light.

We did not stay for the Eucharist, but discreetly stepped past the Swiss guards in their workaday powder-blue uniforms and képis, into the Bernini “columnata”, the twin ellipses of columns embracing the faithful gathered on Saint Peter’s square. Giant, high-definition screens provided a view, a highly and impeccably produced live view of the proceedings inside the Basilica. The cameras lovingly dwelled on the exotically clad black ladies in tall head-dresses, that brought readings and tidings from the Dark Continent. Vivid scarlet, blue, gold, stepped in and out of camera range. Close-ups of African nuns in grey white and blue veils bringing chalices of hosts for consecration. The German gentleman, who had counseled “corrrraggio” (courage) to his listeners with his guttural rolling “r’s”, very earnestly touched every chalice proferred. He looked slim, slight but without any frailty, a schist in a multisecular structure.

The outside audience and spectacle rounded out the interior, more mystical and atmospheric proceedings, into a well-organized, highly engineered package. The mediated representation becomes the real world.

From St. Peter’s we walked across the Sant’Angelo bridge, under the shadow of Hadrian’s tomb and the piled on superstructure that conforms the castle from whose battlements Floria Tosca is supposed to jump into the river Tiber in the eponymous opera by Puccini. Sant’Angelo is probably the structure that best represents Rome: on a millenial base, peoples. locals, invaders, have wrought their best and worst, destroying, robbing, repurposing, rebuilding to the whims of their moments. In the streets, whenever a Roman monument protrudes, we look down ten or twenty feet to the excavated bases of temples. The present city is built on the rubble of all the older ones.

But it is glorious rubble. Hitler wanted to rebuild Berlin to emulate Roman ruins. He did not get the opportunity for the glory, just for the rubble. The German imagination has always tended to the Classical South. From Goethe’s “Werther” to Sandra Nettlebeck’s “Mostly Martha”, the German gaze looks to Italy. So did the British, with their 18th and 19th Centuries “Grand Tours” and the spate of ladies wandering through Tuscany and Firenze to relieve their widowhood; even Noel Coward sung the adventures of Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster (rhymes with “goosed her”) in Capri.

We understand today that historical taxonomy fails us here. You cannot talk of pre-Christian Rome as separate from Papal Rome or present-day Rome because they are so closely interwoven. The Pantheon may be the oldest fully preserved site of worship in the world, but already at its erection it was meant to encompass and digest all the deities (Pan denotes ‘all’, and Theos refers to divinity) past, present and in effect future, as there is a fully functioning Catholic church, dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, but known in Rome as Santa Maria Rotonda (the round one) and the worship has ben repurposed today into a secular movement that drives thousands of visitors under its “oculus” (round opening in the cupola).

Any and all of the noted buildings in Rome have been constructed using ideas and materials ‘borrowed’ or looted from somewhere else. As the saying goes: “quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini.” (What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini - a Roman papal family- did.)

The Barberini Arms

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The French flavor

What constitutes the charm of Paris? Which are the elements that have made it the tourist Mecca, the “must-see” capital of the Western world?

It is an ancient city, on a site inhabited continuously for over two thousand years; but other world cities, not only in Europe, have been occupied for even longer periods. Paris is built along and around a river, but this is rather common when you are thinking of establishing habitation. A river provides you with water, and with sanitation, as well as a means of transportation for people and supplies.

Does the attractiveness reside in the charm of its inhabitants? Many visitors complain that Paris would be perfect without the Parisians, of sharp and intemperate wit, and little patience for foreigners. Or in the leisurely pace of daily life? Paris is clogged with traffic and fast-paced crowds, like New York, London or Tokyo.

Yet there is no doubt that Paris is endowed with a distinct atmosphere, that makes its streets immediately recognizable and that has been imitated in many places around the world. The urban environment here is not strictly commercial and “bottom-line”, like New York, where art in the streets is added as an after-thought and a fiscal device. There is a deliberate effort by the people in charge of administering Paris to provide the urban furniture that will make life on the streets more pleasant and add the “flavor” that we so appreciate.

For instance during many years Paris was known for its “vespasiennes”, or “pissotières”, the public conveniences provided for the relief of urgent bodily functions, and so dear to the French novelist Roger Peyrefitte. The distinctive design covered the torso of the gentlemen inside, but left the feet and heads visible to passers-by. They have now been replaced by the automated concrete pill-boxes, flushed and sanitized after each user, that provide the privacy required to make them available to women. Initially they required the insertion of coins, but with the advent of a socialist Mayor, the fee was waived.

The most famous of the urban accoutrements on the streets of Paris are, without doubt, the Métro access stairs designed and built between 1900 and 1913 by the architect Héctor Guimard (1867-1942). Trained at the Êcole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, in the principles and theories of Viollet-Le-Duc, he is one of the European architects who defined the style of Art Nouveau, with Victor Horta in Belgium, the Hoffmann workshops in Vienna as well as, in Barcelona, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch.

Some days ago I travelled with a friend of mine to GHM, a foundry east of Paris, in the little village of Sommevoire, where the Guimard entrances to the Métro were cast, and where the moulds are kept. This foundry was established here in 1840, on the site of an older foundry going back to about 1157. The iron ore was available without mining, on the surface, and abundant woods provided the fuel, while a small river assured the water. This conjunction of inputs gave birth in these areas to a profusion of large and small foundries and metallurgical workshops. Pont-a-Mousson with its steelworks lies a bit further east, on the Moselle river.

On the western approaches to the Alsace, this is flat and pleasant countryside, very much “la douce France” (sweet France), worked and reworked by the plow, providing the rich produce that is essential to Frenchness. The small villages cluster around old churches, there always is a bar or an inn, a boulangérie, a monument to the village dead in one or all the wars of the last two centuries. If you step out of the car you will be assailed by the smell of freshly baked bread, of the cattle near by.

Sommevoire is a company town. Most of the population works for the foundry and the jobs are handed on from father to son.

GHM has provided the urban furniture for Paris for more than a hundred years. In addition it owns the moulds to hundreds of figures and monuments designed by its own and other artists. The heyday of the industry came after the First World War, when any village of any relevance needed to put up monuments to its dead in the awful carnage of the Flanders battlefields.

From the GHM workshops also come the charming four caryatid green water fountains found in many Paris streets (one of them flows in the rue Saint Paul, near to my flat), as well as the candelabra on the Pont Alexandre III between the Invalides and the Grand Palais. GHM has provided lamp-posts to cities in the Middle East, and all over the world. On the day of my visit visitors from Morocco were looking at a range of fixtures to be installed on the streets of Rabat and Fés.

Near Sommevoire, on a little hill, lies Brienne-le-Chateau, site of the school where Carlo Buonaparte deposited in 1779 his 10 year old son, Nabulio, to be trained for an army career. Thirty-five years later Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Brienne with an army of 30,000 raw recruits to stop the advance of the Prussian army of the Sixth Coalition on Paris. Although he is reported to have won this battle, he abdicated for the first time on the 30th of March 1814. The school closed long ago, but the old chateau houses a small Napoleonic museum, where you can find, among other things, a hat that Napoleon might have worn.

In France, wherever you go, somebody or something is related to Napoleon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Let's go to the movies!

Since the Frères Lumière held their first public exhibition of the “cinématographe” to a paying audience on December 28th 1905, in the basement of the Grand Café at the Boulevard des Capucines, Paris has been the city of movies. You may think that Los Angeles or Hollywood deserves that name, but where else than in Paris can you find 500 films shown per week in 365 venues? Where else can you catch up on any film that you may have missed, you lazy movie buff, in the last fifty years? And I don’t mean video, but real 35mm, 24 frames per second, film. Does Los Angeles have an authentic hundred year-old Chinese pagoda with attached cinema? Don’t give me that, Grauman’s is but a fledgling pastiche.

As I speak, Billy Wilder, Robert Aldrich and Truffaut retrospectives are running in three separate venues, Chaplin’s Gold Rush is to be seen at La Pagode. Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart go cheek to cheek at the Action cinemas, while the latest Tarantino and Soderberg blanket the city. Every Friday at midnight the Rocky Horror Show happens at the Studio Galande, (, both on screen and in front of it. At the downtown monstrosity of Les Halles the UGC complex houses 23 screens with current movies, while two bays away the Forum des Images remasters and shows all the films owned by the Paris Municipality, some 6500, since the beginning of the 20th Century. Digitalization is proceeding as we speak, 5000 hours of films are already available in digital form, to be watched on demand in individual booths, group cabins or large screen.

Then there is, of course, the Cinemathèque Francaise, located in a made to measure building by Frank Gehry in the new Parc de Bercy. It is the love child of Henry Langlois, who undertook in 1936 to preserve, collect and show the best of the world’s moving images. This institution and the publication of the “Cahiers du Cinema” (Cinema notebooks), an unavoidable publication for filmmakers, film theorists, critics and film buffs, established Paris as the world capital of the art of cinema.

And in what other city can you find a street named “cours du Septième Art”? (reference to the Confucian six arts -rites, music, archery, charioteering, reading, writing, and arithmetic- and the seventh had to be added). It is in the 19th arrondissement, and I walked on it this morning.

I am trying to put together a list of historic venues, meaning movie houses that have been operating continuously for seventy five years ( a totally arbitrary number), and my spreadsheet contains over twenty already. Some of them are still run by the great-grandchildren of the original owners, and have suffered vicissitudes as the film industry has evolved. They have survived so far because of their owner’s passion for this art form, because there will always be a public who needs help in understanding the human condition and because a film lens is a wonderful instrument in skilled hands to examine its splendour and miseries.

You encounter film on the streets of Paris. During one of our walks Linda and I stopped to have coffee on a terrace, near the Gobelins metro station. At the next table sat a man, with retinue, who looked very familiar. We spent the evening searching for who he was: an elderly movie director, we concluded, and went down the list of alive 80 year olds. We discarded Claude Chabrol and Woody Allen, and settled on Eric Rohmer. But we did not muster the courage to bother him at his table, to find out who he might be. How do you do that? Ask him: “Ahem, we know that you are famous, we have enjoyed your work, but who are you?”

Meanwhile we have figured out that it was not Rohmer but Jacques Rivette, one of the surviving Nouvelle Vague film directors, director at some point of the Cahiers du Cinéma, and a seminal figure in film theory.

Immediately after this fortuitous encounter we watched the latest Tarantino. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, as Linda and I were walking south of the Jardin des Plantes, into the high-bourgeois Boulevard Arago, Glacières and Gobelins. We had been discussing some days ago whether I should see the film on my own, but as it came along in one of the cinemas we passed almost at starting time, she volunteered to come in with me and spent most of the film hiding her face on my shoulder while QT spilt everybody’s guts on the floor.

The way I read it Tarantino wanted to make the ultimate Nazi-hunter film, to end them all, while he is really talking about moviemaking and loving movies. He spoofs the Audie Murphy legend and film as well as all the John Wayne/Stallone Green Beret stuff. And the good guys are all Jewish and this is how they should have behaved instead of walking into those nasty camps. This is how wars are won, guys, not with your namby-pamby situation room meetings, and assessments and Congressional committees. In the end Hitler gets blown-up while watching a movie in Paris (sorry, I blew up that surprise) and the Second World war ends in Europe one year early.

There is a much-talked-about part of SS Col. Landa that Christopher Waltz hams way over the top, while Brad Pitt is spoofing John Wayne. There are graphic scalpings, people smithereened by machine gun fire (have you ever wondered how German machine guns never jam) and explosions galore, all that fun stuff. Nemesis turns out to be a blonde Jewish girl. Brother, that clever QT must have had a great time making this one!

As contrast watch, as we had done some days before at the Forum des Images, Truffaut’s “L’enfant sauvage” (The wild child), an ungimmicky retelling of the universal story of abandoned children reared by animals. Remember that Rome’s founders. Romulus and Remus, were reared by a she-wolf. Rudyard Kipling used the image to create Mowgli, child of the jungle, and Kim of India, and its most notable representation is, of course, Tarzan. The Anthropology Museum at the Quai de Branly, in Paris, recently staged a great exhibit on the latter.

But Truffaut’s film takes as a base the extant writings of Dr. J. G. Itard, considered the father of special education. In 1798 three hunters capture a naked boy in the forests of the Aveyron, of an estimated age of 11 or 12. Itard takes charge of him and tries to reincorporate him into the human species by providing the boy with sensory stimulation, and developing his communication skills. The film is a wonderful meditation of the things that make us human, on our basic animal instincts, on the predominance of nature/nurture in our humanity.

Films have formed all of us, influenced our outlook on life, shaped our opinions, our way of dressing, loving and living with each other. Each of us carries in our mental repertory images, a bit of dialogue, an attitude, a certain look or aspiration that we have learned, drunk or received from some film that we watched somewhere sometime. That was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”