miércoles, 26 de marzo de 2008

Lila Says

Lila dit ça (2005 DVD)
(Lila Says)
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
France, 2005
In French with English subtitles

Another solid flick from France. While the DVD cover made me worry that it might contain yet another cheesy teen love story, the movie itself is provocatively told and very well-acted by its two young leads (Vahina Giocante as the scandalous Lila, Mohammed Khouas as the shy Chimo). Set in a somewhat run down immigrant neighborhood in Marseille, the film uses this economically-depressed cultural backdrop to explore what happens when two worlds collide. Since what Lila says is almost always graphically sexual in nature, Chimo's character seems to take a long time trying to figure out whether Lila really likes him or is just putting him on or is a little off in the head--a state of confusion I found particularly believable. I also liked the subtle way in which the film touched on ethnic tensions, hinting both at Muslim suffering at the hands of the police and neighborhood intolerance of any outsiders who are different. The ending, with the brutal victimization of one character as the price of a ticket out for another, seemed a little too tidily wrapped up and telegraphed in advance for me, but feel free to let me know if you disagree. (http://www.sonypictures.com/)

lunes, 24 de marzo de 2008

"La Libertat"

"La Libertat" (1892)
(J. Clozel, lyrics; M. Theron, music)

Just a quick post tonight in honor of our Occitan-speaking friends (you know who you are). I don't know much about this song's origin other than that Clozel came from Marselha (Marseille), but I think the words and music speak for themselves...with the help of an online translation or two! Al còp que ven!

sábado, 22 de marzo de 2008

Pre-Noir Noir

Pépé le Moko (2003 DVD)
Directed by Julien Duvivier
France, 1937
In French with English subtitles

While a little less philosophical than a few of the other Criterion films I've seen of late, 1937's Pépé le Moko more than makes up for that with a stripped-down story that's just wildly entertaining instead. Sort of a pre-noir film noir, this black-and-white classic follows its suave but criminal antihero (Jean Gabin in a deservedly-legendary performance) through the "lice-infested" alleyways and mazes of Algiers' Casbah as he dodges the police, woos wayward women, and exudes charisma at every turn. A chance meeting with a beautiful Parisian society woman (Mireille Balin) leads to a love triangle between the gangster, the woman in pearls, and Pépé's equally attractive but desperately jealous Gypsy girlfriend Inés (Line Noro) that will eventually put the underworld kingpin's freedom at risk, but the story is told with such narrative and visual force that you end up rooting for characters you know are probably doomed from the start. Great fun throughout--but a cautionary tale for anyone who believes in love at first sight! (http://www.criterion.com/)

An old French movie still for Pépé

miércoles, 19 de marzo de 2008

The Spirit of the Beehive

El espíritu de la colmena (2006 DVD)
(The Spirit of the Beehive)
Dirigida por Víctor Erice
España, 1973
En español con subtítulos en inglés

El espíritu de la colmena es un auténtico clásico del cine de autor español, una obra maestra al mismo nivel que Cría cuervos de Carlos Saura (1975). Rodeada en los últimos años de la dictadura de Franco, la película nos lleva a un rincón de Castilla hacia 1940 en las condiciones que resultaron de la Guerra Civil. Con esta época como el telón de foro, un viaje interior empieza que llama la atención a las fronteras entre la realidad y la ficción y entre la vida y la muerte. El acercamiento a estos temas es tan magistral que el resultado es un film lleno de belleza y poesía.

Este viaje interior se narra por medio del punto de vista de una niña, Ana (Ana Torrent, magnífica como siempre, arriba). Después de haber visto el estreno de Frankenstein en su pueblo, Ana se da cuenta de la presencia de la muerte por primera vez. Perpleja, ella se sumerge en un mundo de fantasía donde cree que puede triunfar sobre la muerte por fuerza de su propia voluntad. Un encuentro con un guerrillero del maquis provoca otro cambio importante en Ana, pero no se trata de un argumento al estilo película de género. De hecho, el desarrollo paciente de los eventos por parte de Erice es tan lento y tan sublime que casi cada escena parece representar una lucha a muerte entre la realidad y la irrealidad.

No puedo hacer justicia a todos los méritos de la película, pero me gustaría decir algo sobre la fotografía lírica de Luis Cuadrado. Dentro de una obra que estima una estructura pensativa más que una narración tradicional, este cinematógrafo merece un aplauso especial para sus tomas espectacularmente artísticas. La foto de Ana y su hermana arriba, por ejemplo, sugiere la soledad y la tristeza de la meseta castellana en cuanto al mundo de los personajes. Por su parte, el retrato abajo hace lo mismo con una perspectiva que algunos creen digna de un cuadro de Vermeer o Zurbarán. Esta interacción de luz y sombra constituye uno de los rasgos típicos de la obra porque refleja el claroscuro visual y emocional al centro de esta preciosa película.

El DVD de Criterion viene con dos discos, uno con la película y otro con varias extras. Intentaré escribir un post sobre el segundo disco antes del fin de semana, ¡pero no les prometo nada! (http://www.criterion.com/)

martes, 18 de marzo de 2008

Carmen Belen Lord on Modernisme in Barcelona and Sitges

Interior of Els Quatre Gats, ca. 1899-1904

For my second post on the Barcelona and Modernity theme inspired by the catalogue of the same name, I'd like to move ahead to Carmen Belen Lord's submission on "The New Art: Modernisme," which can be found in William H. Robinson, Jordi Falgàs, and Carmen Belen Lord, eds., Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí, New Haven and London: Cleveland Museum of Art in Association with Yale University Press, 2006, 34-41. Before taking a closer look at her study, I'll let Belen Lord get us started with her contextualization of Modernisme:

"Arising from the charged context of the Renaixença--the most illustrious revival of Catalan political identity and culture since the Middle Ages--and supported by the region's concurrent prosperity, Modernisme nonetheless rejected the general conservatism of the Renaixença as well as its Romantic concentration upon the historic past. Instead, its proponents sought to establish a visual language uniquely expressive of Catalan modernity, of the dynamic of the new, within Spain, which at the same time acknowledged the region's ancient traditions. It is this concept of innovation that unifies the divergent forms assumed by Modernisme, rather than any defined style" (Belen Lord, 34).

She then goes on to explain the role of the magazine L'Avenç (home of the first writers to coin the term Modernisme) and the 1888 Exposició Universal in forwarding Barcelona's modernist art and social agendas at the time. Noting the influence of Paris on many of BCN's artists and intellectuals, she also discusses how many of the latter city's artistic landmarks were created by those who had been influenced by time spent in France--citing the well-known example of Els Quatre Gats café, which was inspired by the City of Light's Chat Noir and quickly become ground zero for bohemian Barcelona.

Museu Cau Ferrat, Sitges

While much of this will undoubtedly be familiar to Modernisme freaks, I was surprised to learn that L'Avenç sponsored several Festes Modernistes in nearby Sitges between 1892 and 1899 that are now given credit for bringing wider popularity to the movement. In other words, Modernisme was BCN-centered but not exclusively so. In fact, painter Santiago Rusiñol, one of the biggest movers and shakers of the movement and also famous for being one of the four gats who founded the eponymous café, even created a new residence/studio in Sitges to house his collection of works made in iron. Built out of former fishermen's homes, the decidedly modernist Cau Ferrat (Den of Iron) now is a museum bearing the same name.

El Greco-La Penitencia de Maria Magdalena (1587)

Interestingly given its avantguardista street cred, the Museu Cau Ferrat is also home to a couple of El Greco canvases including the beautiful one above. What did the old master have to do with Modernisme? Apparently Rusiñol bought two El Greco paintings in Paris, bringing them back to Sitges as one of the centerpieces of the third Festa Modernista in 1894. Belen Lord shares a wonderful anecdote about this, revealing that people tossed flower petals off the roofs during the procession from the train station to Cau Ferrat in celebration of their installation there. She also adds that Rusiñol felt that "El Greco provided an ideal role model for Modernistes because of his defiant individualism, unrestricted intellect, and cosmopolitanism" (Belen Lord, 39)--probably as good a place as any for me to end this post on Barcelona and modernity. Fins aviat.

sábado, 15 de marzo de 2008

Canso d'Antioca II

Château de Lastours

The Canso d'Antioca: An Occitan Epic Chronicle of the First Crusade
Translated and edited by Carol Sweetenham and Linda M. Paterson
England, 2003

The Canso d'Antioca, composed by the Limousin miles Gregory of Bechada of the castle of Lastours sometime early in the 12th century, is an Occitan chronicle on the First Crusade that was once celebrated for its length and vigor. Sadly, what's left of the work now--a mere 19 laisses containing 714 lines of verse, themselves the victims of extensive remaniement according to Sweetenham and Paterson--can easily be read in the time it takes to wash and dry your clothes in a public laundromat. Hardly the stuff of epic legend!

If the Canso's almost complete disappearance over the course of the years was certainly unlucky from both cultural and linguistic points of view, we're very fortunate to have the remaining fragment--discovered at Roda in Aragón in the 19th century and now preserved in Madrid's Real Academia de la Historia --available in this English translation presented side by side with the old Occitan. Part chanson de geste/part historical narrative, the so-called "Madrid fragment" is a hybrid beast that seems to represent one of western Europe's earliest surviving attempts at vernacular historiography--and in poetry at that.

While the passages that are still extant are a little unimpressive from a purely literary standpoint (i.e. don't read them expecting a mini-Cantar de Mio Cid or a Chanson de Roland junior), the careful study that accompanies the translation helps make up for that by considering the fragment's textual history, the "vernacular epic tradition of the First Crusade," the poem's value as history, and the intersection between poetry and history in vernacular literature of the era. Heady stuff for those interested in medieval, Occitan or medieval Occitan letters and an impeccably-researched tribute to a poem almost lost in the mists of time.

Sweetenham, Carol and Linda M. Paterson, eds. The Canso d'Antioca: An Occitan Epic Chronicle of the First Crusade. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. (http://www.ashgate.com/)

miércoles, 12 de marzo de 2008

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows (2007 DVD)
(L'Armée des ombres)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
France and Italy, 1969
In French with English subtitles

"mauvais souvenirs,
soyez pourtant les bienvenus...
vous êtes ma jeunesse lointaine..."

Third knockout in a row I've seen from the famous cowboy hat-wearing iconoclast Melville. While sandwiched in time in between two of his excellent gangster films, Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970), the recently-restored L'Armée actually has to do with an altogether different type of shadow world: the French Resistance in the German-occupied France of 1942-43. Based on Joseph Kessel's autobiographical novel of the same name, this movie works as well as a thriller as it does as a morally-complex remembrance of troubled times. From its powerful opening scene (a shot of goose-stepping Nazis slowly turning in front of the Arc de Triomphe before heading down the Champs Élysées for their daily parade, seemingly hell-bent on a collison course with the camera and--by extension--the spectator) to its equally devastating final frame (an outcome I won't reveal here), the film immerses you in a grim, paranoiac world where the lines between heroism, savagery, and even justice aren't always totally clear (since both "patriots" and "traitors" suffer at the hands of their captors during the course of the film, the DVD cover's image of a man slumped over in a chair with his hands tied behind his back is a lot more ambiguous than it might seem at first glance). An exceptional film, aided and abetted by an outstanding cast and with a haunting score by Eric Demarsan. (http://www.criterion.com/)

1969 L'Armée des ombres trailer for the original French release (above);
2006 Army of Shadows trailer for the US theatrical debut (below).

lunes, 10 de marzo de 2008

Canso d'Antioca I

Joan deu Peiroton's superb Lo blòg deu Joan remains my favorite place to encounter modern Occitan as a living language on its own turf. With posts in Gascon, Lengadocian and even Catalan, there's something for everyone here; however, I find Joan's at his best when writing about cultural-linguistic matters having to do with regional identities (for example, frontier communities that are half-Catalan/half-Occitan) and/or language issues that are somewhat complicated in nature themselves (i.e. what the standardization of Gascon would entail). The only "problem" is that Joan's blogging so much these days that I find it hard to keep up with him even with the trusty online dictionaries he provides on his site!

Because of my interest in older Occitan literature, though, I've also been reading a translation of the twelfth-century Canso d'Antioca put out by Carol Sweetenham and Linda M. Paterson a few years back. While I don't have my "review" ready just yet, it's no secret that this epic from the Lemosin (French Limousin) deals with the crusaders' victory at Antioch during the course of the First Crusade. In anticipation of a follow-up post on the work later in the week, here's the first six verses from the opening laisse of the poem. I hope it gives those who might be new to the language at least a little taste of medieval Occitan's inherent aesthetic "coolness."

La batalha renguero lo divenres mati
pres la bafumaria al cap del pont perri.
Reis Corbarans de Persa demandet Arloÿ,
al cortes dogroman qe enten so lati:
'Quals es aqesta gens que vei estar aisi?
On vai, ni que demanda, ni qe quer, ni qe ditz?'

[On the Friday morning they drew up the order of battle,
near the mosque at the end of the stone bridge.
King Kerbogha of Persia asked Herluin,
the courtly interpreter who understands his language:
'What are these people I see standing here?
Where are they heading, what claims are they making,
what do they want and what do they say?']

This text and translation can be found on pages 192-193 of the fine study by Carol Sweetenham and Linda M. Paterson, eds., The Canso d'Antioca: An Occitan Epic Chronicle of the First Crusade, Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003.

sábado, 8 de marzo de 2008

The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees
(Il Barone Rampante)
by Italo Calvino
Italy, 1957

I didn't know where Calvino was going with this until about halfway into the novel, but it didn't really matter much since his prose is so effervescent even in translation. A shaggy-dog story about a 12-year old baron, Cosimo, who takes to the trees for the rest of his life after resisting his parents' orders to consume a nasty plate of snails, this half-farcical/half-profoundly astute "memoir" penned by the baron's infinitely more-grounded younger brother, Biagio, uses this unlikeliest of vantage points to cast a cockeyed glimpse at the role of self and society in "the age of Voltaire." If the eternal tug of war between idealism and compromise sounds like grim reading to anyone just out for a quick page-turner, rest assured that Calvino kind of follows in Cervantes' footsteps in sending his willfully-stubborn protagonist out on a series of highly-entertaining adventures that will take him out to sea to fight Turkish pirates and all the way into Spain to meet another "tribe" of tree-dwelling nobles in exile from their Granadan home. While this idiosyncratic approach may require more acquiescence than usual on the part of the reader, those who give in will be rewarded with cameos from Diderot, Napoleon, and Voltaire himself in this love letter to storytelling from one of its acknowledged 20th-century masters. Bravo!(http://www.harcourtbooks.com/)

miércoles, 5 de marzo de 2008


Desiertos Mares (2005 DVD)
Dirigida por José Luis García Agraz
México, 1993
En español con subtítulos en inglés

Un melodrama poco elegante sobre un cineasta chilango y sus varias luchas con el alcoholismo, el fin de su matrimonio, y algunos recuerdos dolorosos relacionados con la muerte de su padre. Aunque el largometraje fue premiado con tres Arieles mexicanos incluyendo los de mejor dirección y mejor argumento original, yo diría que es una obra de nivel telenovela más que nada. Hay una parte particularmente ridícula que tiene que ver con una película dentro de la película, que presenta al personaje del padre del protagonista en el papel de un conquistador del siglo XVI, pero lo peor es que la música de fondo enfatiza los aspectos más "tristes" del guión con la sutileza de un martillo. Una peli olvidable y sobreestimada. (http://www.desertmountainmedia.com/)

martes, 4 de marzo de 2008

Barcelona, the Catalan Renaixença, and Francesc Fontbona

A BCN "Postal" I Really Like

I went to a great exhibit on "Barcelona and Modernity" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year and finally picked up the hefty catalogue for the exhibition earlier this year. Since Barcelona is my favorite city anywhere in the world at the moment, this $65 (and nearly 65-pound!) tome on some of its marvels should provide lots of armchair entertainment while I pay down the credit cards enough to arrange another proper visit. For now, it'll have to do.

While reading Francesc Fontbona's contribution on "The Renaixença in Art" (see Fontbona, "Renaixença," in William H. Robinson, Jordi Falgàs, and Carmen Belen Lord, eds., Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí, New Haven and London: Cleveland Museum of Art in Association with Yale University Press, 2006, 22-26), I decided that it might be fun to do an occasional series of postings inspired by the different catalogue chapters from time to time. We'll see where all this idea-stealing laziness eventually leads me, but in the meantime you've been warned: the "inspired by Barcelona and Modernity" blog mania begins here.

Claudi Lorenzale i Sugrañes: Creació de l'escut de Barcelona, 1843-44

This canvas by Claudi Lorenzale i Sugrañes, referred to as The Origin of the Coat of Arms of the House of Barcelona in figure 1 of Fontbona's article, "shows the moment when, according to legend, Charles the Bald (Charles II of France) dipped his fingers into a bloody wound suffered by the Catalan count Wilfred the Hairy and drew them across the count's gold shield, thereby creating, so tradition has it, the national flag of Catalonia, which consists of four red bars on a yellow field" (Fontbona, 23). I had heard the story about the Catalan flag's origins before, but I wasn't aware of this particular painting about it until I came across it in the catalogue today. In his brief study (the first of two on the Catalan Renaixença in the work), Fontbona places it in its historic context in a way that should appeal to art lovers, to people interested in Catalan history, and--truth be told--to those who just feel like mentioning Wilfred the Hairy every once in a while. A great name like that should never go out of style!