Saturday, March 28, 2015

C'est la Vie

I gave my derriere a breather, so to speak.

As devoted to the French Film Festival as I am, I couldn't sit in those Byrd Theater seats for another two films in one day like I did yesterday.

Besides, there was a cultural history exhibit opening at the unlikeliest of locations: a school.

Carver [ON] Record was taking place for one night only at Chesterfield Community High School, a place far beyond my usual range because it sits deep in the bowels of Chesterfield County.

How far out? Far enough that when I got out of the car, the din of happy frogs croaking in the misty evening air was in surround sound.

I knew it would be crowded because the parking lot had been full of cars and people making their way inside. There, I was invited to sign the guest book, given a program and directed to the gym.

Where usually sports are king was a huge installation marrying light and sound governed by how visitors like me moved their hands over posts with sensors on them. By drawing my hand up and away from the unit, I could make the images darker or lighter and the music louder or softer.

Hardly surprisingly, adults seemed slower to grasp the concept while high school students were creating compositions effortlessly in their digital native way.

The centerpiece of the evening was the hallway where certain lockers had been retrofitted with sound recordings of students past and present. What's particularly compelling about that is that the school was the sole secondary school for blacks in the county from 1948-70 so those students had a unique story to tell.

Standing at each locker to hear the reminisces of past students and the thoughts and hopes of current provided a glimpse into the past and future.

One former student talked about the hour and a half bus ride he had to take each way every day. About how if a kid played after school sports, he had no way to get home because his parents couldn't come get him so the only hope was a kind coach who lived in the area.

Another made the distinction between "black" and "African-American," saying one was a movement and the other an ethnic designation. Several mentioned the inherent inequality of "separate but equal" laws.

One man talked about the hierarchy of riding the bus. Apparently everyone knew who sat with whom, so he could count on boarding the bus knowing that no one had already sat down next to the girl he was sweet on.

I stopped to listen at each locker, sometimes with strangers and other times by myself. There were times groups of kids were laughing and shouting so loudly I had to listen to a tape loop twice so as not to miss it all. Or because some of the former students' musings were so eloquently put.

One of the lockers contained CDs made by a current student, Nas, and wrapped in pages of National Geographic magazine. His music was playing in that locker.

The final locker held the contents of the time capsule the students had collected, which will be buried and opened in 2065.

In it were all 12 cassette tapes holding the former students' full interviews (only snippets were used in the lockers) along with a cassette player, pictures and objects collected from the former students, things such as a microscope and a party dress.

The student standing next to the locker explained to me that all the memorabilia from the original Carver school had been burned when the school closed. It's hard to fathom that that ever seemed like a good idea.

In the cafeteria, a film played of some of the former students talking but with food and drink also in there, it was way too loud to hear any of it.

Instead, I moved on to the sound recording booth the students had built for the interviewing process. A student ushered me in, asked me questions and committed my thoughts on civil rights to a recording.

As I walked out, I stopped to listen to bits and pieces at some of the lockers I'd already heard. As far as I'm concerned, the coolest part of the entire project is that the lockers are permanent installations. Their sound boxes will live on in perpetuity and others will be added over the years.

By the time I left, it was clear that this endeavor was truly unique in capturing voices that might not otherwise have been available in the future. And the frogs were even louder, if possible, now that it was dark.

Only then, conscience raised, did I make my way north to the Byrd for tonight's FFF offering, "Parisiennes."

Sitting in my aisle seat noshing on popcorn, a man in my row stood and waved his hat until his friends spotted him and walked up to chat over top of me.

His first question was where they were staying this year (Linden Row, but in a courtyard unit because it was less pricey) and if they'd eaten at Max's on Broad.

The friends hadn't, leading to a restaurant discussion of where they should eat before they leave. I let it go on until I saw that the hat waver had seriously flawed opinions about local restaurants.

Only then did I share that I write about restaurants at which point the visitor had a dozen questions for me. Even once Peter, our FFF host, began speaking, he kept talking to me. His wife motioned that they should return to their seats and he stayed. She left.

It was only when the man in front of me nudged the guy and told him to fermez la bouche that he waved au revoir and returned to his wife, happy to have learned that he'd been right about wanting to eat at l'Opossum.

Tonight's film was introduced by the star, a lovely Japanese woman, and the director who was also holding the canine who had a bit part in the film.

The film told the story of a married Japanese novelist who goes to Paris -which she sees as a city of "free" women - seeking inspiration for her next book.

Through her five days in Paris, we see the women she interacts with as she tries to find someone to model her main character on.

Will it be the foul-mouthed female taxi driver who's obsessed with "Madame Butterfly"? The homeless woman who was a bouncer at all the hot clubs back in the '80s, turning Madonna away and sleeping with Prince? The ladies' room attendant who discovered a suicide in a stall? The lesbian butcher who hits on her?

Inevitably when she asks them about what's happened to them, they shrug and respond, "C'est la vie."

But with a French director, there has to be a man involved and this one is a Spaniard who is staying across the hall from her at the hotel.

He sees through her bravado when he tries to hit on her ("You think because you buy me dinner I'll sleep with you?" Without a pause, "Yes"), forcing her to acknowledge that she feels ignored by her husband and even telling him so by Skype.

"Maybe I'm here to remind you how lucky he is to have you," he says, making a good point.

Call me predictable, but one of my favorite scenes is in a disco where I got to hear club covers (not remixes) of songs such as "Sex on Fire" done as a slow burn and a languorous version of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," both by women.

Also notable about the film was that despite it being set in Paris, it wasn't a postcard to Paris, the city just happened to the the setting. It was kind of refreshing.

I wasn't sure how the film was going to be resolved, so when the husband shows up to try to right his years of taking her for granted, I was genuinely surprised. This can happen?

What wasn't surprising was that my derriere was completely numb at this point after two plus hours in a seat with springs that kept jabbing me no matter which way I turned.

But that's life at the French Film Festival.

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