I saw Children of Paradise (1945), which was at some point voted the greatest French film of all time, in a new print at the IU Cinema a few days ago. It is absolutely gorgeous, the luminous newly-restored print as blemish-free as a new movie (as if a movie like this would be made today). The film, about bohemian theater folk in 1820s-30s Paris, is often described as the apotheosis of what the French New Wave was reacting against: a thoroughly luxurious, labor-intensive, classical cinema in which every shot, performance, and piece of design was obviously planned with extreme care and forethought. It “marks the culmination of France’s Golden Age of moviemaking. Never again would the French cinema produce a film so unashamedly literate and lavish” (Edward Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema, 1989). Because the Nazis, occupying Paris at the time of its filming, would only allow 90-minute maximum films (why were 100-minute movies degenerate?), it was shot in two 90-minute parts with an intermission between. The narrative’s main love quadrangle (or quintangle?) is established in Part I, and then 10 years have passed in Part II when the various principals re-encounter one another, some of them now famous and successful.
Children of Paradise contains a protagonist, Baptiste, who must be one model of that much-maligned French type, the mime. My favorite scene may be the very first one, a very famous (I believe) panoramic tracking shot of the “Boulevard de Crimes,” teeming with activity and commerce, where Baptiste (at this point an unemployed and disrespected mime whose unloving father is a star of a local theater) witnesses a pick-pocketing of which the small-time actress-model Garance is initially accused (he provides her alibi). Garance, with whom Baptiste promptly falls in love, has a not-so-successful highbrow peep-show act in which she plays a nude Venus who is only partially visible because immersed in an elevated barrel of water. This opening scene brilliantly establishes the film’s preoccupations with theater, duplicity, disguise, ambition, love & lust, and crime. (It has probably influenced countless other movies, but Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy came to mind for me in particular as an analogue in its depiction of a chaotic 19th-century backstage theater world.)
I learned from Wikipedia that the star Arletty, who plays Garance, “was imprisoned in 1945 for having had a wartime liaison with a German officer…. She allegedly later commented on the experience, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”" Good line, but yikes! Arietty seems to have been 47 or so when the movie was filmed, and I found it a bit confusing that she was supposed to be playing a fresh young ingenue in the first part.
Edward Turk again from 1989: “Until that unlikely time when movie viewers become unresponsive to impeccably mounted displays of grand feeling and form, Les Enfants du paradis will retain a privileged position among film masterworks.” Let’s see, top grossing films of 2011 include Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides– is it possible that this sad day has in fact arrived? Anyway, be sure to catch this new print of Children of Paradise when the DVD comes out…
I mentioned that I’d been reading RJ Smith’s The One: the Life and Music of James Brown. You may have seen the rave review in this Sunday’s NYT Book Review by Al Sharpton (!), who I thought was an odd choice as reviewer given that he was, as the biography explains, a protege of and “like a son” to James Brown. Sharpton did convey some of what’s great about the book, though.
RJ Smith, whose music criticism I used to read in the Village Voice way back in the 1980s, is really good at connecting Brown’s music to larger cultural and political forces and movements — shifting deftly in register from James’ signification as an international black culture hero (the account of Brown’s 1974 trip to Zaire and his meeting with Fela, sometimes called “the African James Brown,” is fascinating) all the way down to tiny details of rhythm, movement, gesture, and song.
This was a brilliant piece of lust and rhythm. “Mother Popcorn” was not soul music; it spoke to the body, and it moved the body in ways that soul music knew not. This was funk, possibly the moment when Brown fully moved from soul to funk — a music that didn’t even have a name yet. It was just James Brown music. It was the sound of the One….
Brown had a capacity for expressing different rhythms through his form. “Every part of his body had a beat, had a rhythm going on — his feet, his head, his neck, his chest, his ass,” said Lola Love, a dancer in the show. “And all those beats were different and were made him funky.”… However explosively or fiercely he moved, Brown telegraphs that there’s more we don’t get to see — his actions exert maximum impact with a minimum of exertion (coolness), a withholding that compels the viewer to follow the gesture through in the imagination.
Smith is not just appreciative, but near-reverent about Brown’s musical and cultural accomplishments — as Sharpton points out, the book leaves no doubt that Brown should be recognized as the single most important figure in later 20th century American music — but the book is also hilarious on the man’s frequently insane behavior. Early in his career he nearly always packed heat, and shot up juke joints more than once, having to pay off those he’d accidentally hit. He beat up his wives and girlfriends (not so funny). He was grandiose but also wounded and perpetually insecure, partly due (presumably) to his upbringing in a Georgia brothel run by his aunt. (With Richard Pryor, this makes at least two towering figures in late 20thC American popular culture who were raised in a brothel.) He was an outrageous and sometimes cruel tyrant to the members of the band, capriciously handing out fines for the tiniest perceived infractions; one former band member calls him no less than “a black Hitler” (which seems maybe a little exaggerated). In his final years, he regularly smoked PCP-laced marijuana while waxing self-righteous about any suggestion that he was a drug user. There’s an implication that he thought PCP was some kind of vitamin-like health booster (he of course eventually served several years in jail.) Most perplexingly, he was a Nixon supporter; Smith makes clear that Brown’s alliance with Nixon in the 1970s fatally tainted his previously godlike status in the African-American community.
“The One,” a mystical concept of Africanist rhythm, weaves through the biography, sometimes amusingly:
If Brown had something to share with the bassist [a teenage Bootsy Collins] after a show, most likely it was his unwavering parental disapproval. “Son, you just ain’t on it,” he would grunt, his head sadly shaking with the bad news. “You just ain’t on the One.” Collins took it for a while, but then he tuned the guy out. “As far as he was concerned, we were never on the One.”… It drove the formally trained musicians around him slightly crazy. “It’s really — it’s a joke,” scowled Fred Wesley. “He didn’t know what the One was to him. To him it’s the downbeat. But he didn’t know what it was. The emphasis of the one of the bar… his music kind of emulated that, but, as far as it being some kind of concept — I don’t think so.”
RJ Smith ultimately does suggest, though, that even if James could be a bit fuzzy on what precisely constituted the state of being on the One, he spent his career in successful pursuit of this state of rhythmic/musical/erotic grace.
JB on the good foot:
p.s. Another great piece of writing on James Brown is this 2006 Rolling Stone article by Jonathan Lethem.