Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Children of Paradise

To have lived and never have known Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty is a life shortchanged--a life deprived. Barrault and Arletty were two of the flaming stars of Les Enfants Du Paradise, perhaps the greatest movie ever made. And made it was under extreme difficulty in occupied France in the last year of WWII. The director was forced to employ French collaborators as extras in his large cast and their job was to report back to the Germans any hint of anti-Nazi sympathies in the story and direction. Jewish actors and technicians were carefully protected and sometimes hidden. Starving extras stole much of the food in the banquet scenes before a shot was taken. Forbidden then to make pictures over ninety minutes long, Director Marcel Carne created two movies and spliced them together when it was shown shortly after Germany was defeated. It's a long film but you don't notice time passing. I can't do justice to describing it here. Instead I'll hand that job over to Roger Ebert who wrote eloquently about it in a review a few years ago when Les Enfants was relased on DVD by the Criterion Collection:

Excerpts from Roger Ebert / January 6, 2002/Posted on Netflix

'All discussions of Marcel Carne's ''Children of Paradise'' begin with the miracle of its making. Named at Cannes as the greatest French film of all time, costing more than any French film before it, ''Les Enfants du Paradis'' was shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi occupation and released in 1945......

"That this film, wicked, worldly, flamboyant, set in Paris in 1828, could have been imagined under those circumstances is astonishing. That the production, with all of its costumes, carriages, theaters, mansions, crowded streets and rude rooming houses, could have been mounted at that time seems logistically impossible (''It is said,'' wrote Pauline Kael, ''that the starving extras made away with some of the banquets before they could be photographed''). Carne was the leading French director of the decade 1935-1945, but to make this ambitious costume film during wartime required more than clout; it required reckless courage......

"Despite the fame of ''Children of Paradise, most of the available prints are worn and dim. It used to play every New Years' Day at Chicago's beloved Clark Theater, and that's where I first saw it, in 1967, but the 1991 laserdisc was of disappointing quality, and videotapes even worse. Now the film has been released in sparkling clarity on a Criterion DVD that begins with a restored Pathe 35mm print and employs digital technology to make the blips, dirt and scratches disappear. It is likely the film has not looked better since its premiere. There are formidably informative commentary tracks by Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron......

"The movie is not a historical epic but a sophisticated, cynical portrait of actors, murderers, swindlers, pickpockets, prostitutes, impresarios and the decadent rich. Many of the characters are based on real people, as is its milieu of nightclubs, dives and dens, theaters high and low, and the hiding places of the unsavory......

"Carne plunges us directly into this world with his famous opening shot on the ''Boulevard of Crime,'' reaching seemingly to infinity, alive with activity, jammed with countless extras. This was a set designed by the great art director Alexander Trauner, working secretly; the credits list his contribution as ''clandestine.'' To force the perspective and fool the eye, he used buildings that fell off rapidly in height, and miniature carriages driven by dwarves. The street is a riot of low-life. Mimes, jugglers, animal acts and dancers provide previews outside their theaters, to lure crowds inside. One of the first attractions we see is advertised as ''Truth.'' This is the elegant courtesan Garance, who revolves slowly in a tub of water, regarding herself naked in a mirror. The water conceals her body, so that she supplies ''truth, but only from the neck up.'' This is also what she supplies in life....

"Garance is played by Arletty (1898-1992), born as Leonie Bathiat, who became a star in the 1930s and was, truth to tell, a little old to play a sexual temptress who mesmerizes men. Like Marlene Dietrich, to whom she was often compared, Arletty's appeal was based not on fresh ripeness but on a tantalizing sophistication. What fascinates men is that she has seen it all, done it all, admits it, takes their measure, and yet flatters them that she adores them. Even cutthroats fall under her spell; when the criminal Lacenaire tells her ''I'd spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds'' she looks him in the eye and replies, ''I'd settle for less.''

"Around Garance circle many of the movie's most important characters. The mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) sees her from her stage, defends her in pantomime against a pickpocket charge, is rewarded by a rose, and falls for her. So does Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), as an actor who dreams of doing something good--perhaps Shakespeare. And Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who with his ruffled shirt, curly hair, villain's mustache and cold speech is the Rhett Butler of the piece. And the Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou), who thinks he has brought her but discovers he was only renting.

"It is possible that Garance truly loves the innocent Baptiste, who triumphs in a bar brawl and brings her home to his rude rooming house, where he rents her a room of her own and retires separately for the night. But Frederick, who lives in the rooming house, has no such scruples--and, for that matter, Baptiste is no saint. He marries the theater manager's daughter, sires ''an abominable offspring,'' in the words of Pauline Kael, and cheats on his wife by still loving Garance. Lacenaire, who strides through the underworld like a king, basking in his reputation for ruthlessness, thinks he can have Garance for the asking (''you are the only woman for whom I do not have contempt''), but it is the Count whose money makes her his mistress. When Lacenaire pulls back a drapery so that the Count can see Garance in the arms of Frederick, so many men think they have the right to her that the actor observes, ''Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to none.''

"Carne's screenplay was by his usual collaborator Jacques Prevert; they not only set their story in a theatrical world but divert from the action to show the actors at work. Kael counts ''five kinds of theatrical performances,'' and they would include Baptiste's miming and a scene from ''Othello'' that provides oblique reflections on the plot. It is Baptiste whose art leaves the greatest impression. Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994), then a star at the Comedie Francais, is first seen in clown makeup, glumly surveying the Boulevard of Crime, brought to life only by his mimed defense of Garance. Later, he stages his own extended mime performance--only to see, from the stage, Garance flirting in the wings. No one's trust is repaid in this movie."

Easy to read and absorb subtitles.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays 2007

Our first blizzard swept in last weekend on its way to New England, but the snow didn’t stop us from going off and plunging into the heated blue waters at the Medina Rec, or from walking the indoor track and warming off in the sauna. It’s do or die when you get to our age. A new little boy named Noah arrived at granddaughter Julia’s house last February to live with 4-year-old Ben and dad Drew. Meanwhile granddaughter Jen’s reward for graduating college is living the good life downstate in scintillating Columbus. In Akron Wendy’s readying Peter Pan with real flying for spring production at the Miller-South School for the Arts. In Medina a splendid new main library opens soon and Phil’s efforts on the board have helped bring to our little village our own branch with fireplace nooks and windows overlooking woods and marshes. Growing up he always dreamed of a real library in his own back yard instead of a bookmobile. Over in the U.K. sister Sonia has become computer literate, making communication so much easier. Three miles down the road new neighbor, multi-millionaire Cleveland basketball player Lebron James, is building a house that is only a little smaller than the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and just as fortified. Haven’t given up yet on our yearly escape to the Blyth Festival in Ontario and Phyllis and Emerson Mitchell’s B&B breakfast feasts.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Holiday Letter from Row D, Seats 20 and 21

Jeeze! A month gone by since last I wrote here. My Christmas cards are on their way with my blog address included and nothing here to say for myself since the middle of November. Better do something quick. Unlike some moaners and whiners I enjoy the newsletters sent along with some cards and happily read the accounts of lives lived over the past year. Those epistles are the stuff of life--from friends and relatives who want us to know "We're still here."

This year we heard for the first time from the occupants of Row D, Seats 20 and 21 at the Blyth Festival Theater in Ontario. We know Don and Bernice from having adjoining seats for several years, and we've chatted before the shows and during intermission. We've tried to explain George W. Bush to them and why we spend our money on futile wars but don't have a universal health system like they do even though only a border separates us. Don and Bernice are in their 80s now. He's a spry fellow. She's been slowed down by a hearing loss. Both are very nice Canadians and I'm glad they are "still here" and hope they will be for years to come.

They are not online, and won't see this. But good luck, Don and Bernice. We'll see you next summer!