Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Book Thief: a magical homage to the power of books

The weekend before last I made the pilgrimage to Leicester Square cinema. I was on a quest, a quest to watch The Book Thief nearly 2 weeks before it hit cinemas in the UK. My quest was not unrewarded, The Book Thief is an amazing film. But I must admit early on, in an ironic move, I haven't read the book.

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger; a little girl growing up with her adoptive parents in the fictitious south-western German town of Molching. Liesel hates Hitler because she believes he took her communist mother away. Liesel loves; her adoptive father, the jewish boy Max they are hiding in their basement, and her friend Rudy who spends the whole film oscillating between love for Liesel and wanting to belong in the Hitler Youth. That and books, Liesel has a lot of time for books.

The film is book-ended (ha!) by narration from a third party and the whole film has a sort-of unreal, ethereal feel. Shrouded in cloud, kept distant by time. The town of Molching has fairytale architecture despite the goings-on being decidedly more nightmare. The Book Thief has come under criticism for being too soft on the Nazi regime and the realities of war; Abele calls it 'a convenient backdrop for a wishful narrative rather than the springboard for an honest one.' I think the problem here is partly stylistic; in reflection of a book which I've heard is highly descriptive, the film's vignette style might not be to everyone's taste. Similarly there is limited reference to the suffering of the Jews on a daily basis. But, I would argue it very much does engage with the real problems facing teenagers and young people during the Second World War. Liesel and Rudi join the Hitler Youth but still feel conflicted. There is a great moment where Rudi paints himself to look like Jesse Owens, his favourite, black, athlete. The pain of his father in trying to explain why this is not an OK thing to do in public in Nazi Germany was realistic and credits the German people with more grace than perhaps other films have done.

Abele also claims that The Book Thief will leave audiences unmoved. I don't think that's fair, it is highly emotive. During a sequence portraying Kristallnacht in all its barbaric cruelty; Liesel and Rudi are part of a children's choir singing the Deutschlandlied. The contrast of childhood innocence and the reign of terror is stark and really effective at portraying the level of brainwashing imposed on young people in Germany. 

(Source: www.hypable.com)

Credit is definitely due to the actors, in their teens, who play Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and Rudi (Nico Liersch). Neither of them speak English as a first language, coming from French Canada and Germany respectively, and neither have been cast as major roles in films before. The beauty of picking novices is that there is no fakery. Nélisse and Liersch show genuine emotion, it doesn't look staged when Liesel cries or laughs. Their acting is alive and believable, such a rarity in child-actors. Honourable mentions must also go to Geoffrey Rush, him off of the King's Speech, for playing his now almost type-cast quasi-magician, kind natured, adoptive father. And similarly Emily Watson playing Liesel's severe-yet-soft adopted mother. Final mention must go to John Williams who wrote the score for the film, the first time he's written for anyone but Spielburg in nearly a decade! The music is haunting yet magical and reminiscent of some of his other soundtracks, particularly Schindlers List, Harry Potter and E.T. I bought it when I got home from the cinema in the hope that my life will seem more magical to Williams' soundtrack.

(Source: www.pagetopremiere.com/2013/08/first-six-stills-from-the-book-thief-starring-sophie-nelisse/)

Written by an Australian (Petroni) and directed by the director of Downton Abbey (Percival), I can see why The Book Thief has come under criticism for being distant from the subject matter but this film is pure escapism to a simpler world. Its a coming of age movie, through a fairytale lens. Definitely worth watching when it comes out in UK cinemas on 27th February.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Pere Lachaise: On not kissing Oscar Wilde

I’d heard a lot about Pere Lachaise cemetery whilst on my Cultural Heritage Course: talk of memory, forgetting, commemoration and how even famous people get forgotten.

Pere Lachaise is Paris’ largest cemetery within the city of Paris; it stands at a massive 110 acres with more than a million internments. Accompanied by my oldest friend walking round Pere Lachaise provided many interesting conversations.

View from within.

The first person to be buried at Pere Lachaise in 1804 was a five-year old called Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve. Her grave isn’t there anymore; it was a temporary concession. There are a wide range of famous people commemorated in the cemetery all labelled with a number on a neat little billboard; philosophers, artists, singers, politicians. But finding them is less easy amongst the city of the dead, interspersed by people from all the nations of the world some famous and some not. 

Finding Edith Piaf was particularly difficult because her inscription was a little note on the side of a family tomb, not a massive monument. I still found myself wanting to sing ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Do you think that was appropriate? 

'Non, de rien de rien'

Oscar Wilde’s tomb is covered in a massive Egyptian motive created by Epstein. And the world and his wife have kissed the sphinx. With lips bright red, and the block next to the face is also covered in kisses of every hue. A big plastic box has been put in place to try to prevent any more amorous advances from visitors as the bill for cleaning goes to the family. So again, kissing and leaving your mark, acceptable?  We talked about the Diana memorial and the recent Judd-gate scandal. What constitutes appropriate memorialisation, especially when you can climb inside the memorial?

Oscar Wilde's sphinx
City of the dead
The style of memorial at Pere Lachaise might be a little unfamiliar to British audiences. Whilst some tombs were small and enclosed the majority looked like little houses varying in size from port-a-loo to full on chapel complete with pews and crypt. You can enter these memorials, and spend time there. Some memorials seemed to be glorified sheds and others were well maintained. The famous graves have been numbered, all have an address with many different street names. Although these are navigation systems the rows of doors with street signs and neighbouring properties really felt like streets.

The living and the dead

Streets of Pere Lachaise

Freezing a passing moment in time

We visited a strange quasi temple come crypt under this golden dome. I was attracted to one little corner by a flickering light that I assumed was one of those plastic tea lights. I was wrong. It was a real candle; and watching it flicker and then extinguish was a poetic moment full of metaphor. The candle was at the heart of a wider ephemeral memorial surrounding a well varnished plaque and we talked about how even the hardest rock is still temporary and memorials are for the living. 

Guttering flame

Friday, 14 February 2014

La vie quotidienne d'une parisienne

Right, you want to hear stories and with a valentine's day twist. So I'll just jump straight in.

The Revolution: Histoire

One of my biggest questions on my return to Paris was 'where are the museums dedicated to the history of the revolution?'. Here in the crucible of the Republic there are so few memorials. But I did fine one! The Musee Carnavalet is widely respected on the internet yet thoroughly hidden and un-signposted in the 3rd arrondissement. I mistook both a lycee on break and a French cafe for the entrance. But do find it.

Why? Its free. It is the most comprehensive history of Paris I've seen. Architecturally they've skinned various places from the inside and erected them inside the museum.

If you like potted histories of art, this is your place. If you want to learn about French costume and fashion history, its also your place at least til March. For me the real value of this place was the comprehensive collection of the Revolution as expressed through paintings, rope ladders, letters and other ephemera. I found it really helpful for locating what was going on in Paris during the Revolution; my only previous knowledge was what could be gleaned from Les Mis.

This little chap who looks like a hoob is portait of a soldier!

La cité de l'amour

Paris is famous for being the city of love; I saw several things that warmed my heart but I have to say I was low on romance. When myself and my two amigos emerged on Ile de la Cite we followed the sounds of birds cawing to a market full of caged birds and fluffy bunnies. It reminded me of all the books I've read where women are offered caged birds as love tokens and I just thought 'eww!'. The birds are so obviously sad and stuck and the bunnies too were balding and sad. So many things we buy for loved ones; chocolate, diamonds, little pets; with the best of intentions, I think I'll stick to cards!

Far more happily within 5 mins of getting off the tube my friend was snapped up by a Japanese fashion magazine. She deserves it cos she's gorgeous but I don't think any of us were expecting it!

Once we'd been papp'ed we made our way to the Southbank, passing Notre Dame with a cursory glance, in pursuit of Shakespeare and co. This is a bookshop; and you know how any old bookshop renders me helpless but this one had my knees all aquiver! We're talking two floors of higgledy-piggledy, gorgeous shelves, antiquarian and modern editions, a tubby white shop cat, live piano and even a cute little writing space. If heaven is like Shakespeare and co., but with fewer tourists, I'll be happy. Safe to say I bought things, and I'm not sorry.

Pain Quotidien

The whole reason I was in Paris was to witness the Private View of a dear friend and artist. He was displaying his work at ParisCONCRET. Its a gorgeous little gem of a venue run by two Kiwis, Richard and Anna Van der Aa and features (bi)monthly contemporary art exhibitions. Its well worth a lok and free to visit.

Something else that is just part of daily life in France is getting on and off the metro. There are almost as many different exit systems as there are tube lines but one I had particular familiarity with is the rotate-y handle thingamywhatsit! I almost didn’t board a train because of those handles once. Then I realised I had to feel the fear and do it anyway! We enjoyed feeling slightly like James Bond as we exited the train whilst it was still in motion.

Finally, French food. It is delightful. We really enjoyed access to cheap, delicious French cheese and wine and bread, pain quotidien.  One morning I decided to go out for breakfast and this version of a fry-up met my eyes; it looks like a smiley face I think!

Tune in next time for a trip round Pere Lachaise.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

La vie Parisienne: why visit Paris?

Hey Y'all!

I just spent the weekend in Paris and it was great. But why should you bother getting the train to Paris?

Here's my little run-down:

They have pylons shaped like fox-faces!

Its an exotic mini-break just 2.5 hours away from the office!

They have amazing bread, cheese and wine at affordable prices. Pictured below the chevre coeur, &the other cheeses we snaffled; costing like £10, with an amazing loaf and my bottle of appelationed Cote du Rhone for less than 5€. I know, I was shocked too!

You can wear a beret whenever you please! On the first metro I boarded there was a fellow traveller; red beret, green coat, philosophy book in hand. Oh Paris!

The metro seats smile at you; look!

As much history and culture as you can shake a stick at, and most of it free!

Shakespeare and Co. !!! (more later)

Lovely open skies, provided by wide boulevards and hills.

To follow: 'La vie quotidienne d'une parisienne' and 'Pere Lachaise: On not kissing Oscar Wilde'.
Keep your eyes peeled.