French and New

Diary of a Moviegoer by Donavan Hall

The Moviegoer

Donavan goes to the movies...

21 mai. Maudite. At the Labyrinth yesterday there was a lot of buzz about the end of the world. Annabelle even knew the name of the guy that predicted the rapture would happen last night (while I was sleeping). I was surprised that Annabelle knew the guy’s name. I’m always surprised when I find that one of my intelligent friends also has the time to follow pop culture in addition to being clever. For me it’s a full time job to be clever. I have no time left over for side pursuits such as reading magazines about celebrities or following the posturing of the interminable Middle-East peace process. Process without end, if you ask me. It would have been nice for the Messiah to return last night. I’m sure he could have convinced the Israelis to be a little nicer to the Palestinians. Or maybe it would just end badly again. Sensible people, if not ignored, are usually crucified or slandered.

When I mentioned casually that I was translating Eric Rohmer’s novel, La maison d’Élisabeth, into English (obviously English since I know no other languages aside from French and Rohmer’s already written a perfectly acceptable version in French), Annabelle expressed surprise. “When do you find time to do all these things?” she asked. All these things being writing a book about Rohmer’s films, writing a fictional blog about what a busy writer I am, and trying to finish several honest-to-goodness novels that I intend to foist on a series of art house publishers in a quixotic quest to attain that which will never come and I don’t really want in any case: fame.

“All this activity comes at a great expense,” I said trying to sound both mysterious and martyred. The burden of authorship is one which I will humbly carry in service of my fellow man, I thought to myself with great amusement. In reality, I’m an insomniac who loves coffee and has a typing compulsion.

This morning I put the finishing touches on my chapter about Rohmer’s La boulangère de Monceau. I’m well into the theme of moral inquiry. So much so that I’m going to have to save Charlotte and Her Steak (a Rohmer/Godard short that predates Le signe du lion) for a later date. In fact, if this Rohmer project goes well, I might sink my teeth into Charlotte and Her Steak as the first course in a possible book on the nouvelle vague, as if everything that has been said about the French new wave hasn’t already been said, but I’m as audacious as I am imprudent (impudent?). And if I’m going to take on the nouvelle vague I’ll have to take up the nouveau roman also.

Speaking of translation projects (and I mentioned this to Annabelle also) I don’t think anyone has translated Éric Holder’s novel Mademoiselle Chambon into English yet. “Does it need translating?” asked Annabelle. I don’t know yet, I said. I haven’t even read it in French. I’ve only seen the Brizé adaptation. I’d be curious to see how the novel deals with Jean and Mlle Chambon, though I believe that Jean is not Jean in the novel, but a Portuguese emigrant with a different name, like Manuel, but maybe I’m not remembering correctly. It’s been so long since I read the review.

“Can you just translate a novel into English?” asked Annabelle. “Don’t you have to ask permission first? Like, get the rights or something.”

I shrugged. “The only thing I know about the business of translation is what I read in Bolaño’s 2666. An academic translates one of Archimboldi’s novels and publishes it. But perhaps the publisher of the translation coordinated with Archimboldi’s German publisher and the detail was just too mundane for Balaño to record in his novel.”

“What are you going to do with your translation when you are done?” asked Annabelle.

“I’ll put it with my other books,” I said.

“Where’s that?”

“On my shelf,” I said. “Or maybe I’ll put this on in the bottom drawer.”

“Which begs the question,” said Annabelle. “What motivates you?”

“The certainty of obscurity which ensures impunity,” I said.

“Where did you get that? A fortune cookie?”

23 mai. The sporting life. With a weekend at home (after so many on the road) I had hoped for some rest and relaxation. While I did get a lot written Saturday morning, that came at the expense of sleep. To reward myself for a productive morning I sat down to read (Proust). After only a page Christina asked me if I could come into the living room and play with her. (Erica was somewhere else in the house being quiet which is always suspicious.) I almost told Christina that I was busy and that she should play on her own, but my sentiment got the better of me. I imagined myself five years in the future and wishing that Christina would take some time out of her busy schedule to spend a few quality moments with her pop. Seize the moment when you can for you do not know what tomorrow brings. Perhaps it was too much philosophizing for a Saturday morning, but I had been writing, then dipping into Proust, so I suppose I deserved it.

While playing with Christina I noticed her bare feet. The shape of her left foot is just like a small replica of Alice’s foot with that slight gap between the second and third toe, and with the big toe that curves at the joint sharply to the left. The foot, so small and delicate, a reproduction in miniature. The observation stirred something in me. (The pool of sentiment?) And to think that I could have missed it by refusing to enter into a child’s play.

Alice and the twins had some errands to run later and I decided to tag along even though my time could have been spent taking a nap, reading a book, or writing. The lesson of the morning still lingered fresh in my memory. My reward for going along was a trip to the bookstore where I found Syliva Plath’s The Bell Jar and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (a Norton Critical edition) and acquired them for my home library. I’ve not read The Bell Jar yet. I’ve read Faulkner’s book a couple of times, but those were library copies that I was reluctant to mark in.

In the bookstore I read the first few pages of The Bell Jar and immediately liked the style and the narrative voice. Then inspecting the book further saw a photograph of Sylvia Plath on the back cover and was shocked by how young she looked. My mental image of Sylvia Plath had always been of a middle-aged woman. I was completely unprepared for the youthful and charming smiling girl with her hair pulled up and neatly trimmed bangs. She could have been a character in a Rohmer film. Sylvie of La boulangère de Monceau perhaps? No, that Sylvie was more elegant. Sylvia (Plath) in the photo on the book cover appears to be a friendly country girl, someone who might wear big black rubber boots and carry a bucket out to feed the pigs. I found the same photo of Sylvia Plath, but the one on the book is cropped. In an expanded view of the photo Plath is holding a child, her son Nicholas Hughes (who in 2009 joined his mother as a suicide).

Jeudi, 20 Octobre. Nathalie Granger. Last summer I began work on an ambitious project, a four volume review of my favorite French films. Volume one is devoted to the films of Éric Rohmer. Volumes two and three to the Right and Left Bank nouvelle vague and the fourth volume to accommodate the films that don’t easily fit in the classification scheme of the first three volumes. I have planned a similar work which treats a set of French novels that are often classified under the umbrella term nouveau roman, principally the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Both of theses authors have film credits as well. Each collaborated with Alain Resnais in the late fifties to produce two astounding cinematic works, L’année dernière à Marienbad (Robbe-Grillet) and Hiroshima, mon amour (Duras), [see also “Electric Marienbad” & “Adam’s Bomb”]. These authors went further than collaboration, each went on to direct films of their own.

Last night, I watched Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972). Luc Moullet produced the film (a connection to the Left Bank “new wave”). Vincent Canby reviewed the film for the New York Times after its October 6th, 1972 debut at the New York Film Festival. Canby didn’t like it. He writes: “You can’t skip through `Nathalie Granger.’ To see it you are forced to watch it for as long as it lasts, while, in turn, it watches its characters, rather as if the camera were a Siamese cat whose feelings had been hurt.” And after a mocking summary of the film, concludes with “Such are the discoveries of ‘Nathalie Granger,’ a dead-end movie that, I confidently hope, few of us are ready for.”

Nathalie Granger was Duras’ fourth film. It’s the first one that I’ve seen. Having read a number of Duras’ novels I expected that it would be enigmatic and deliberately paced. What I didn’t expect was Gérard Depardieu putting on an amusing, engaging, and utterly real performance as a reluctant washing machine salesman. He’s so deeply emotive oscillating quickly between hope and despair, that in contrast to the robotic, deadpan women (Lucia Bose and Jeanne Moreau) creeping around Duras’ house (the film was shot in Duras’ home) Depardieu’s entrance is like throwing open window to let sunlight and air into an oppressively stale closed-up room. Of course, Depardieu’s acting chops aren’t in question.

While watching the opening twenty minutes I wondered if the film wasn’t an opportunity for the viewer to confront their own attitudes about boredom. Anyone who is the slightest bit uncomfortable with boredom will be driven stir-crazy by this film. However, if you’re the type of moviegoer who doesn’t mind admiring masterful cinematography and working out your own story from hints, then there might be something in Nathalie Granger for you.

Because of the piano the film reminded me of Moderato Cantabile a novel by Duras. In the novel a mother brings her son for piano lessons, but the obstinate boy resists the teacher. Nathalie is just as obstinate as the boy from the novel. A minimalist piano score (improvisations by Duras herself) haunts the film.