The Quiet City

Love this brief video by Andrew Julian, taking in my beloved Paris in the winter, before the tourist season starts to fill the streets increasingly. Like my own Edinburgh the tourists never really stop coming, but you can notice the difference as the seasons pass – early spring and the approach to Easter see the visitors increase rapidly here, and also in Paris. When I was last there it was very early March, so the visitors were at a much lower mass than later in the year, but certain spots like the Louvre or Eiffel Tower are eternal magnets to visitors even at that early time of year, but since we made a point of walking off the main tourist roads we often sat back and relaxed in very quiet bars (also much cheaper than those on the main drag!), or wandering through a street market. The video is rather lovely, very nice, sharp picture quality, and doesn’t hurt having Arvo Part’s music on it…

The Quiet City: Winter in Paris from Andrew Julian on Vimeo.

Can it really be five years since I last walked the streets of Paris? Strolled over the beautiful Pont Neuf, browsed for bande dessinee in the bookstores of the Latin Quarter or the boquinistes along the Seine? Lot of things have happened since I was last in the City of Light, and most of them not very nice, often think it isn’t just that I want to return to Paris, I want to return to that point before so much that was wrong and bad in my life happened.

Rue Saint Andre des Arts by night
(despite not having the tripod with me I managed to get some half decent night shots of Paris on my trip, this is one of my favourites – I loved walking Paris at night)

Since we’re on a Parisian theme, here’s a short video I shot with my old still camera, which had limited video but did the job (not HD back then, alas) – descending from the summit of the Eiffel Tower, I was near a small window in the lift and clicked the camera to video mode and let it run for the whole way down to the first floor:

La Tour

Been browsing through the fascinating Retronaut website quite a bit recently, all sorts of images from yesteryear, be it old catalogue ads, Max Sennett’s 1920s bathing beauties, old footage from the 1890s and more, well worth bookmarking and browsing through. This is one that caught my eye, some fabulous photos documenting the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

 

 

There’s something fascinating about seeing some great landmark construction in its early stages – I remember thumbing through a book I used to sell in my old bookstore which was a photographic history of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge (not dissimilar to La Tour Eiffel if you stood it up, I suppose, both huge Victorian era steel structures, immensely strong yet elegant, both still perfect over a century later, both now indelibly marked onto their respective nation’s psyche and identity).

 

Seeing just foundations at an area you know well but not yet with its primary landmark, then seeing pics of a partial structure, incomplete yet with enough there for you to recognise as it slowly takes shape into the iconic structure we know today…

 

And here are some shots of La Tour I took myself over a century later:

Eiffel Tower from Parc du Champs 4

Eiffel Tower from Parc due Champs

Eiffel Tower 2

Look at the sheer size of the legs close up – if you click on it to go to my Flickr page you can look at the larger version for details, you can make out the staircase inside the legs, a staircase I was walking up ten minutes after taking this photo. Sure, we took the lift from the first floor to the top, but for the first section we walked up through all that metalwork, it’s the best way to experience La Tour if you go.

Eiffel Tower

Looking right up inside the tower:

Eiffel Tower 4

And here’s a short video I shot standing directly underneath the tower:

Some of the huge wheels which wind the lift cables:

Eiffel Tower lift wheels

Looking down at how tiny the people look below – and this is just from the first level, not the top!

Eiffel Tower looking down from first level

View from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the City of Light spread out hundreds of feet below:

Eiffel Tower looking to Place de Varsovie and Jardins de Trocadero 2

And looking towards the Champs Elysee, you can see the Arc du Triomphe clearly here, shot from hundreds of feet in the air above my beloved Paris:

Eiffel Tower looking to Arc de Triomphe

And there is old Gustav Eiffel himself – well a waxwork anyway, in a cabin with his blueprints for La Tour on the very top of his magnificent tower:

Eiffel Tower waxworks

And here’s another short video, this time from the top, looking across the Parc de Champs du Mars, past the Ecole Militaire towards Montparnasse and the (rather ugly) modern towerblock of the Montparnasse Tower (one of the few large modern buildings in the historic area of the city centre – after this blot they stuck mostly to putting the modern skyscrapers outside the historic area in La Defense):

“Made it, Ma, top of the world!”

Je suis Napoleon!

God, I miss Paris, I so want to go back and walk her streets and explore her many boulevards, galleries, bookstores, museums, bars…

Veiled threats

As expected it looks like the French government will ban the wearing of full face veils in public spaces. Also to be banned, Lone Ranger masks, Batman type cowls and wearing bags with eyeholes cut out over your head (except if very ugly and in Paris).

Actually I’m not that keen on governments being able to tell people what they can and cannot wear, although I despise the veil and all it implies – isolation, lack of equality and freedom – but I’d rather it was voluntary. It is a dreadfully dehumanising garment – concealing someone’s face in public at all times is effectively erasing their individual identity and isolating that woman. The vast bulk of human communication is non verbal and by concealing the features they are removing the bulk of their interaction abilities with other people – hardly a positive move. And as someone who has had to serve a couple of women in my old job who were wearing the full rig with only eyes peeking out I have to say I found it quite disconcerting to talk to someone who was hiding themselves from me. I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate it if I had pulled my bandana over my face Western bandit style to talk to them. In addition to the cultural problems the veil causes I have to say that I think it is also quite simply rude – expecting other people to interact with you while you conceal your face simply comes across as very rude to me.

But again I don’t care for governments dictating these kinds of rules – we have, after all, historic precedent for government banning certain clothing in Scotland, such as tartan after the ’45. But surely it would be better to try and persuade women that they are in a free, liberal society and don’t have to hide themselves just because some stupid old men with huge beards and a continual fear of the strength of women have fooled them into thinking they need to…

It Was the War of the Trenches: Jacques Tardi’s WWI masterpiece

It Was the War of the Trenches

By Jacques Tardi

Published by Fantagraphics

I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.

Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.

(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.

And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…

(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.

(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).

(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog

Magical Movie Moment: Cyrano de Bergerac

I thought I might start occassionally blogging on a series of ‘triple Ms’, or what I refer to as Magical Movie Moments. Its those scenes that stand out from a movie – sometimes a fabulous movie, sometimes just a wonderful scene in an otherwise average flick – that just encapsulate for me the real magic of cinema. They are those scenes that transcend narrative, genre or any of the qualities we would normally discuss about a film, they simply are and they are wonderful; they make you forget everything else for a few precious moments by their utter perfection, they enchant you and for those moments you are lost, a child again lost in another world. Long after the film ends and the houselights come back up that special scene, where the story, the imagery, the music all combined to a few moments of magical perfection, will stay in your mind.

For the first MMM I had to select a scene from my all time favourite film, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s astonishing Cyrano de Bergerac. Colossus of modern French cinema Gerard Depardieu is perfectly cast as the titular Cyrano; the finest swordsman in the realm, an inventive wit, writer, poet, philospopher, yet cursed with is enormous nose he feels women judge him not by his prodigious merits but his physical looks and so brave on the battlefield or the duel, he retreats from announcing his love for the beautiful Roxanne (Anne Brochet, never more beautifully luminous as here).

The entire film is simply perfect – the costumes and sets are wonderfully evocative of the period, the characters perfectly played by a superb cast, the doomed tale of love, swords and poetry delivers a heady mixture of swooning romance and flashing blades of pure swashbuckling grandeur, all given with the flair of poetry; even the subtitles, the English ones by Anthony Burgess, are a work or art, often translated into verse, suiting Cyrano’s larger than life character perfectly.

Its hard for me to pick just one scene when I love the film so much (I rewatch it at least once a year) – the balcony scene as Cyrano in the shadows feeds line to the handsome but none too clever Baron to relate to Roxanne (who is drawn to his beauty but his words even more so, unaware they are Cyrano’s), the scene where she tells Cyrano she loves someone, he thinks she means her but then learns otherwise; she leaves all breathless, commenting on his recent duel with a whole crowd of assassins “what bravery”, “oh,” he replies to her departing back, “I have been braver since…” and that wonderful scene where, convinced she does love him, he takes on a hundred men who are sent to kill his brother poet, “take away the midgets, bring on the giants!”, the ‘schink’ of a hundred swords beign drawn then Cyrano leaping from one to the other, dispatching all the villains with his sword as the music swells… Fabulous.

But I can pick only one scene and I’ve opted for the famous duel in verse. It happens quite early in the film, as Cyrano is in the theatre after dispatching a fat actor from the stage for insutling his cousin a foppish aristocrat approaches him and insults his prodigious nose. Cyrano then follows him, teasing him and humiliating him in front of the crowd for not being intelligent and well read enought to craft a more inventive insult, himself tossing off dozens of poetic variations on possible insults he could have used, clearly showing that the Viscount may have rank and title but Cyrano is how own man, intelligent and brave and so beholden to none simply because they have the lace and clothes of rank (reminiscent of Rabbie Burns A Man’s a Man for a’ that). Then the swords are drawn and Cyrano announces to the crowd of Parisian onlookers he will compose a poem of the duel while he actually fights the foolish aristocrat. Flashing blades, swashbuckling swords cross as poetry flies, a wonderous marriage of verse and action that enchants me every time. I love film, I love poetry, I spent many years at school and college enjoying fencing, how could I not love this scene?

Vive la Revolution! Off with their heads!

wine bottle in La Marche Francais 2

Happy Bastille Day – vive la revolution! This is the fancy cover on a bottle of wine in my local French deli/restaurant, the fine La Marche Francais in Edinburgh’s Haymarket, that caught my eye one day while in getting some nice wine and cheese and they were nice enough to let me take my ever-present camera out and fire off a couple of snaps, so I thought it seemed appropriate to post today for the Fête Nationale.

ahhh, Paris je t’aime

This time exactly a year ago I would have been sitting at pavement table in a brasserie in the Latin Quarter of beautiful Paris. I think that was the last time I can remember being really happy, blissfully unaware of what was waiting for me just a few weeks down the road. I don’t mean I’ve been sitting around in sackcloth and ashes since we lost mum, I’ve gone out, I’ve done things and even laughed, but its all like little distractions and the great, dark centre is always there waiting and not a day goes past that it doesn’t hit me like a hammer a dozen times and I don’t feel like I’m really me anymore or will be again, just someone who looks like I used to, going through the motions. And Paris has become larger in my head, not just because I love the city and its culture (of the two places I would most like to live in the whole world one is Paris, the other is right here in Edinburgh) but because it is that last time when I felt so freely happy and with what happened so soon afterwards Paris has come to mean something more to me emotionally, a precious space where everything was still alright. Which probably sounds daft but its what I feel. Oh to be back not only in Paris but in that happy space instead of feeling like I’m going to fall apart endlessly through each, long day.

Rue Vavin and brasserie

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

Probably the best known of the poets of the Great War, Owen was treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart, just a few moments from where I live in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (events fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration and the film adaptation of the book). Owen was killed on November 4th, 1918, just a week before the Armistice. He was 25 years old; much of his poetry was published posthumously.


(the eternal flame and the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe; the legend reads “ici repose un soldat Francais, mort pour la patrie, 1914-1918. It stands in stark contrast to the more bombastic militarism of the Arc de Triomphe above it and the triumphant, processional way of the Champs Elyssee in front of it; the larger version is on my Flickr)

La Tour Eiffel – the view from the top

Still processing pictures and some video from the brilliant Paris trip; there’s about 300-odd pictures up on the Woolamaloo Flickr already (there you can click on the ‘all sizes’ button to see the full size versions, handy for detail on some of the aerial shots of the city) and I still have a number to sort and upload. Today though I uploaded some video clips I shot from the top of the Eiffel Tower. We walked up the first two levels – you can take stairs or the lift up the legs, so we opted to walk up just because hey, we can say we did! Final segment is by lift only and they run up the main central spire of the tower. The views, as you can imagine, are amazing – the whole of the City of Light spread out below you. The first one, looking north, is more than a little windy!

When we got to the west facing side we noticed a football match going on at a sports ground below – from this height it looked like a Subutteo game! Talk about grandstand seating…

Out of the wind on the south facing side looking down into the Parc des Champs and the Ecole Militaire with the Montparnasse Tower in the distance (an ugly modern building which most Parisians hate, but apparently gives great views of the Eiffel Tower from the top of it and if you are in it you don’t see the ugliness of the modern tower, which is very out of keeping with the rest of its area), then pan round towards the Latin Quarter and Les Jardins de Luxembourg (which our hotel was next to) and the Pantheon (which has more than a passing resemblance to the front of St Paul’s):

And of course a quick view looking Eastwards along the Seine towards Les Invalides and further in the distance Notre Dame: