Friday, March 28, 2014

There's Only Today

Vive la France.

The French film festival began with two free screenings and we all know I am all about the free.

I arrived at the Byrd theater behind a woman who not only wanted to hear the names of the upcoming films, but the film run times as well. Mon cherie, that's what the program is for.

After scoring some buttered popcorn from a favorite Gallery 5 server, I found a seat at the end of an unoccupied row.

First up was "Cineast(e)s," a documentary about female filmmakers and their unique challenges.

Twenty French women filmmakers discuss whether or not you can spot a woman-made film, half saying you can and half saying you can't.

My favorite was the one who observed that if you looked at a film, you could see that it was either a woman director or a man in love. In the case of "Annie Hall," she said, it seemed like a woman, but was really a man in love.

Talking abut the challenges of a woman directing a predominantly male crew, several said you abandon heels and lipstick to take control.

Several disagreed, saying you put on make up and a dress and boss them like a woman, whether they like it or not.

Needless to say, no consensus was reached and filmmakers, some who began shooting in the '50s and '60s and some in the aughts, all held definitive opinions about writing and directing French film.

Approaching the bathroom after the film ended, I first saw a line and then heard a woman behind me say, "And so it begins."

The bathroom lines at the French Film Festival are always the worst part of the weekend, but the break between films was lightened when an unexpected French friend showed up with a box of dark chocolate covered marshmallows and took the seat beside me.

He joined me for "Il est Minuit, Paris s'eveille," a documentary about Paris' Left Bank music scene between 1945 and 1968, a cluster of clubs who began around midnight every night.

Unfortunately, director Yves Jeuland, who spoke before and after the showing, was presenting the 52 minute subtitled version rather than the 90 minute French version.

It wasn't the dumbed down version I wanted to see.

I fell in love with the opening credits done in a vintage '50s jazz style, with ovals of color against a black background, with the occasional drumstick tapping out a rhythm.

The film was chock full of old footage, gathered over a period of ten plus years, and showing the cellar and cabaret scene on the Left Bank.

With a post-war attitude of "live it up," the artists who performed at these 200+ cafes - Juliette Greco (looking like a young Cher with long, dark hair and bangs), Jacques Briel, Charles Aznavour, the Freres Jacques group - epitomized a post war attitude, singing songs with direct meanings and, even more shocking, average looking (or even odd looking) men singing them.

Shops that closed at 5:00 became cabarets at 9 p.m with as many people as possible flooding in to hear these new style singers.

I'd have loved these places, which didn't get going until midnight and featured music, poetry, theater and dance. Oh, yes, and mimes like Marcel Marceau.

My friend and I were amazed at how much vintage footage was contained in the film (including Orson Welles-shot footage of Paris streetscapes) along with current interviews of many of the former cabaret stars.

They were all so romantic about that period in Parisian history.

What was distinctive about that era was how it opened the door for non-traditional singers to come thorough. Good looks, height and a classical voice no longer were required to be a hit with the masses.

Absolutely no one thought Aznavour would succeed because he didn't fit the mold. The surprise was that the molds were being thrown away by this time.

How else to explain the oddly-eared Serge Gainsbourg and his instant hit, "The Ticket Puncher," with its allusion to suicide based on job frustration? Or the oblique "Be Pretty and Shut Up," a song which made a woman's role perfectly clear?

What was funny was the reactionary development of the Right Bank scene where all the tourists and bourgeoisie flocked to "experience" the cabaret scene in a safe and controlled environment. In other words, a commercial take on the swinging cellars.

No, thanks.

Eventually the film moved on from the '50s scene to the '60s, where singers got even deeper and more oblique.

We haven't finished talking about love
We haven't finished smoking cigarettes.

The how can we possibly call it a night?

When the lights came up, the Frenchman turned to me beaming and noted that the film had been far too short.

I agreed. It had flown by in the blink of an eye, making me wish for the French 90 minute version. Of course I was going to love a documentary about French music so did it have to be over so soon?

He bragged about recognizing nearly every singer in the movie, not to mention 95% of all the songs performed.

But then, he grew up over there.

Meaning he didn't need to wait for the translation of the director's comments during the question and answer period like most of us did.

Blinking against the light, it was tough to accept that the fun was over.

Wait, we hadn't finished hearing about love. We hadn't finished hearing about music. Time to go drink wine and discuss the things that matter.

Day one of the French Film Festival. And so it begins...

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