Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!

Advertisements

Human Desire

July 16, 2011

Human Desire, another noir-ish effort from Lang, a German in exile who seemed at home in Hollywood.  It’s based on the Zola novel, La Bête Humaine, which I have not read, but I’ve read enough of  Zola to know the terrain.  As for that title…is there another kind of desire?  Zola’s title, The Human Beast, seems to capture the logic more accurately.

Zola’s realist novels usually present a milieu in tremendous detail, with lots of atmosphere:  a mining town; an enormous urban food market; a department store; and the setting is almost a character in the book.  In this film, the world of railroading is the setting, and we get into it by way of the credits followed by a long sequence that shows the men at work driving a train to its destination.  Glenn Ford plays Jeff, the Korean War vet, happy to be back home at work.

While riding home as a passenger on a train, Jeff meets Vicky (Gloria Grahame), the wife of a fellow railroader.  She has obvious charms…

…but he doesn’t know that she and hubby have just murdered someone on the train.  As in M, the killer has a special relationship with his knife and what it represents.  Vicky’s husband (Broderick Crawford) is much older than she, jealous, and not up to keeping her satisfied, but he’s very handy with a blade.

The whole town knows what’s going on between Jeff and Vicky.  While he’s been at war, the little girl in the rooming house where he lives has grown up, and she tries to save him from himself, for herself.  She comes to meet him at work, a little girl dwarfed by the big machine.  They have their talk, but Vicky has her hooks into Jeff.  She retreats, defeated, a nice contrast of womanly flesh and brute machinery.

Grahame is marvelous as a brassy fatal woman, but she just can’t get Jeff to knock off her husband, although he is tempted.

He’s a flawed noir hero, but not flawed enough for her.  He sends her walking.  As usual with Zola, there is a churning pot of sex, lust, greed, spiritual corruption, and violence, but Jeff is too good for it.  He goes back to the working life, and we know he will return to that spicy brunette who wants him.  Now I have to read the novel.

Grahame’s life might be the stuff of a Zola tale:  it was stormy, and included a divorce from one husband who caught her in bed with his thirteen year old son.


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


Sharp dealing peasants

April 16, 2010

Peasant is often used as an insult, the meaning being that they are a stupid, dull, and foolish lot.  Of course, they managed to survive for centuries under conditions that were far from comfortable, so obviously, they know a thing or two about life.  I happen to have a weak spot for novels, it seems they are all French, that feature sharp dealing by peasants, and I am reading one now, La Terre, by Zola.  The archetypal literary scene of peasant-dealing is for me, however, from The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Julien Sorel is the young son of a successful peasant who runs a lumber business in the hills.  Old Sorel beats his son, and despises him as a useless, arrogant, and snotty layabout, always shirking work, slight of build, addicted to reading useless books of Napoleonic history.  Through the offices of a local priest who notes the boy’s intellect, Monsieur Rênal, a local big bourgeois, decides to hire the boy as a tutor for his children, so Rênal goes to settle terms with the father.  The old man, grasping that his son is valuable to these people, and sensing there is money to be made from him, makes a deal on wages and boarding, but when the time comes to seal the agreement, he stalls Monsieur Rênal (italics original).

“Oh, very well!” said Sorel in a drawling tone, “then there’s only one thing for us still to settle:  the money you are to give him.”

“What!” M. De Rênal indignantly exclaimed, “we agreed upon that yesterday:  I give three hundred francs; I consider that plenty, if not too much.”

“That was your offer, I do not deny it, ” said old Sorel, speaking even more slowly; then, by a stroke of genius which will astonish only those who do not know the Franc-Comtois peasant, he added, looking M. de Rênal steadily in the face:  “We can do better elsewhere.”

I have the original French passage here:

— Eh bien! dit Sorel d’un ton de voix traînard, il ne reste donc plus qu’à nous mettre d’accord sur une seule chose: l’argent que vous lui donnerez.

— Comment! s’écria M. de Rênal indigné, nous sommes d’accord depuis hier: je donne trois cents francs; je crois que c’est beaucoup, et peut-être trop.

— C’était votre offre, je ne le nie point, dit le vieux Sorel, parlant encore plus lentement; et, par un effort de génie qui n’étonnera que ceux qui ne connaissent pas les paysans francs-comtois, il ajouta, en regardant fixement M. de Rênal: Nous trouvons mieux ailleurs .

Truly, a memorable moment in literary representations of the peasantry!  They survive against Nature, not always nurturing, and in a social realm that relegates them to the bottom of the heap.  Sentimentality is a luxury, and even family feeling often gives way to calculation.  Relations between father and son are often disrupted by lunges for the economic jugular.

In La Terre, the old farmer, Fouan, decides he can’t keep up his land anymore, love it as he does.  He and his wife decide to make a legal gift of it to their children on agreement that the children will pay the old couple an annual stipend on which they can live.  The two sons comprise a scheming rascal and an utterly dissolute drunkard, known locally as Jesus Christ because of his resemblance to images of the Saviour.  The daughter is an intelligent woman married to a hard working farmer, and she fears being diddled out of her share by her brothers.  The sons resent not getting the land outright:  they suspect that Old Fouan has a stash of money he can live on easily without their payments, and that he is just plain stingy.  At any rate, the two sons are constantly delinquent with their payments, especially Jesus Christ.

And then there is La Grande, the old crone, Fouan’s sister, eighty years old, tough as hickory, single, independent, who regards Fouan as a complete idiot for doing the gift.  She knows what children are like when money’s involved.  She sits in on a confrontation between Fouan and his sons, watching with utter, but silent disgust as Fouan demands the money owed him from one, only to forgive the payment owed by Jesus Christ, and in fact, letting him walk off with some of his brother’s money.  That one is the favorite of the mother!  La Grande declares, “You asked for it!  Don’t ever come asking me for even a penny!!”  She screeches like a harpie or an ignored prophetess in a Greek myth.

Finally, there are the two later novels, by Pagnol, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, better known here through their film adaptations.  These tell the story of the Soubeyran clan in southern France, where land is valuable, but water is the final arbiter of wealth, for without a well, land is worthless.  In this story, the battle for water, takes on a mythic cast, followed through several generations, with a hidden cache of gold as the final prize.  This is not social realism, but it is brutal enough.  In the end, the peasants’ grasping after water and wealth is frustrated by ironic twists of fate, complete with a local crippled prophet out of Oedipus, who declares the truth of the curse that floats over a town stricken by a dried up spring.


Money!

January 12, 2010

L’argent (Money), the 18th in Zola’s massive chronicle of France under the Second  Empire, finds Saccard scrambling to get back in the game, trying to put behind him the disasters that came after The Kill.  His is a world of financial chicanery – let’s say outright fraud – practiced on a colosal scale, pretty much in the open and with the benevolent neglect of Napoleon III’s ministers, of which Saccard’s brother is one.  As with Sebastian Melmotte and Bernard Madoff, the intent is to generate enthusiasm for a stock issue, hysteria if possible, rake in the cash, and put it away before the great crash comes.  Sound familiar..?

Saccard waxes grandiloquent as he allays the moral scruples of the adorable sister of the engineer whose great plans for the East he wishes to employ as the basis for his giant house of cards.  She is upset that he isn’t following the financial code to the letter.  She fears for the “little people” who will be crushed by his scheme, but after all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right?  In the passage below – no English version on the web – he gives vent to his empassioned devotion to the cause of money, as opposed to the Old Economy of landed wealth. 

«Mais, madame, personne ne vit plus de la terre…. L’ancienne fortune domaniale est une forme caduque de la richesse, qui a cessé d’avoir sa raison d’être. Elle était la stagnation même de l’argent, dont nous avons décuplé la valeur, en le jetant dans la circulation, et par le papier-monnaie, et par les titres de toutes sortes, commerciaux et financiers. C’est ainsi que le monde va être renouvelé, car rien n’était possible sans l’argent, l’argent liquide qui coule, qui pénètre partout, ni les applications de la science, ni la paix finale, universelle…. Oh! la fortune domaniale! elle est allée rejoindre les pataches. On meurt avec un million de terres, on vit avec le quart de ce capital placé dans de bonnes affaires, à quinze, vingt et même trente pour cent.»  L’argent

My inexpert translation here:

But, Madame, nobody lives on land anymore!…The ancient estates are an obsolete form of wealth that have lost their reason for being.  They just let wealth stagnate, the weath which we throw into circulation with paper money and with all those commercial bits of paper that financiers create.  This is how the world will be renewed, but it isn’t possible without money, liquid money that flows about and penetrates everywhere – not the application of science nor universal peace!  Oh, those old landed estates!  They’ve gone the way of stagecoaches.  A person dies with a million in land, but with just a quarter of that, placed to good use, at fifteen or twenty-five percent, he lives!

Saccard is also a jew-hater.  Zola treats us to an internal monologue in which he retails all the usual negative stereotypes of Jewish money-men that rattle around Saccard’s brain.  It’s an amusing irony because those qualities are precisely the ones that define Saccard himself, while the successful Jews he meets, and resents, are portrayed, at least in the beginning, as gentle and reasonable people.


La curée – Fonda & Vadim

December 31, 2009

I enjoyed this film version of Zola’s novel, The Kill [see here and here] from 1966, released under the English title, The Game is Over.  It focuses on one part of the story, the love affair between Maxime Saccard and Renée, the young wife of his wheeler-dealer tycoon father, his stepmother.  In the book, part of Renée’s attraction to Maxime is her revelling in the crime of incest, but that’s dropped in the film – more modern times, the swingin’ 60s!

My only other knowledge of Roger Vadim is Barbarella, a thoroughly awful film, so I was prepared for the worst.  In fact, this film is quite restrained, and it closely follows the narrative of Zola’s story, while skillfully updating it.  Maxime’s and Renée’s characters, their total immersion in their affair, and their privleged place within the swirling realms of the super rich are very nicely shown.  Too late for me now to know if I would have dismissed it as a piece of junk, as this NYTimes reviewer did, or if it stands up on its own regardless of whether you have read the book.  Certainly, it’s pretty good if you read, then watch, as I did.

Dogs are everywhere – Jane does a video avant la lettre…

Two kids who like to play, sometimes with guns…

Mama and the boy get serious…

As in Zola, much of their affair is carried on in the huge hothouse of the mansion.

“He’s going away!  We can do what we want!”  “No – I can’t deceive him when he’s not in the house.”  Huh??

On a rural retreat, they get their car stuck in a pond.  To retrieve it, they seek help from a friend whose brother works in a factory.  Production actually happens here, unlike with Daddy’s financial chicanery.  Looks to me like a sulfur plant – the color is great, and all that brimstone!

She confesses her love, he plays with his favorite toy.  Meanwhile, at home, the dogs prowl.

Sometimes, I could just shoot that boy!

A tête-à-tête, and she decides to ask the Boss for a divorce.

Reality intrudes again.  “Sure thing, babe, do as you like.  Oh…what will you live on? ”

In the end, papa fixes up his son with a rich, pretty friend whose father is loaded.  That will tide the Boss over until his schemes pan out.  Renée is just darned inconvenient now.  She tries suicide, but changes her mind.  Back in the gym, during a costume ball, the Boss talks sense to her.

What follows is a “smash zoom” shot of her alone, a simultaneous dollying-back of the camera with a zoom-in, choreographed by cinematographer Claude Renoir, that is very unsettling to watch.  As one reviewer writes, “To the best of my knowledge, no one was aware that Vadim had employed the smash-zoom, indeed what little serious writing about Vadim is primarily about who he filmed, but not how he filmed.” Maybe he’s worth a closer look?

Game over.


Wild Abandon!

December 24, 2009

Zola as prefiguring film noir – now there’s a thought.  And if you think his writing is limited to depressing catalogues of social realities, remember, he can be damn funny too, in a dark, satiric way:

He was a man of superb stature, with the white, pensive face of a great statesman,  and since he was a marvelously good listener, with a deep gaze and a  majestic calm in his expression, it was possible to believe that he was engaged in a prodigious inner labor of comprehension and deduction.  Of course, his mind was completely empty.  Yet he had a disturbing effect on people, who had no idea whether they were dealing with a superior man or an imbecile.  [One of the fellows madly on the make, in The Kill]

And the city as one giant bubbling pot of money and flesh:  what does The Naked City have that Zola lacks?

Meanwhile, the Saccards’ fortune seemed to have reached its apogee.  It blazed like a gigantic bonfire in the middle of Paris.  It was the hour when the hounds were ardently devouring their share of the spoils [La curée, translated as The Kill] …The appetites that had been unleashed at last found contentment in the impudence of triumph, in the din of crumbling neighborhoods, and fortunes built in six months.  The city had become a orgy of millions and women.  Vice, come from on high, flowed through the gutters, spread across ornamental basins, and spurted skyward in public fountains, only to fall again upon the roofs in a fine driving rain.  And at night, when one crossed the bridges, the Seine seemed to carry off all the refuse of the sleeping city: crumbs fallen from tables, lace bows left lying on divans, hairpieces forgotten in cabs, banknotes slipped out of bodices – everything that brutal desire and immediate gratification of instinct shattered and soiled and then tossed into the street.  Then in the capital’s feverish sleep, better even than its breathless daylight quest, one sensed the mental derangement, the gilded voluptuous nightmare of a city driven mad by its gold and its flesh. Violins sang until midnight.  The windows went dark, and shadows fell upon the city.  It was a like a colossal alcove in which the last candle had been blown out, the last vestige of modesty extinguished.  In the depths of the darkness, there was now only a great gurgle of frenetic and weary love, while the Tuileries, at the water’s edge, reached out its arms as if to embrace the vast blackness.

Not quite a new story for Paris.