France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

October 31, 2010

The cats came back again

20 years ago today I adopted my cats Mesha and Sonia from the pound in Anchorage, Alaska. A year and a half later I’d adopt my third, Hopey, from an adopt-a-pet stand in San Francisco. Mesha passed on June 22, 2007; Hopey on Nov. 28 of that year; and Sonia this past February 24, at the age of 20-something. 20 years!

I just took a bike ride along the canal here in Walnut Creek to pick up a cheap bottle of rouge for dinner. On the way back I stopped to look up at a circle of light peering through the gray clouds, and imagined it was my cats, and imagined what they might tell me on this day 20 years after I rescued Mesha and Sonia. They told me that not only were they rescued, but — what lives were in store for them! I thought of the 20 years and of how much I had to give to them (vice versa too), not just how much love but the adventures we had — from Alaska to San Francisco, to New York, Paris, and for Sonia (and Hopey for an all too brief time), the countryside in southwest France, and a river (which Hopey, a real water fiend, loved — the largest water faucet in the world that river was), then still for Sonia, all around the south of France and back to Paris twice. I mean who knew that Mesha would go from the pound (or as I liked to say, the Alaskan tundra) to the couch of a charming Parisienne on the rue de Paradis (the day he escaped from my apartment and went upstairs to my neighbor’s). Back here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve felt that my family, or at least my brothers, are taking me for granted. So I asked my cats for advice. The advice they gave me is that from those packed 20 years, those intense and adventurous 20 years, they know how much love I have to give, and also the richness I offer to my entourage — those around me. So — I deserve better. I’m wasted here. On to New York, my real family, the family who came to me not because of what I am but because of who I am.

April 5, 2010

Faites entrer l’accusé; Jean Gabin can wait

I swear it’s not the grisly details that make Faites entrer l’accusé (on France 2 public television) one of my addictions, but rather that the weekly reconstructions of some of France’s more infamous faits divers also serve as tours de France, the crimes often taking place in obscure villages or cities I’ve never been to. Plus there are certain characteristics of the program itself that might give it cult status: The music for one, the charisma of the fascinated host Christophe Hondelet, and the way the camera zooms in on the often blemished faces of his subjects — not the culpable himself but attorneys, relatives and friends of the victim, policemen and gendarmes, juges d’instruction….Last week-end’s episode came a little too close to (my former) home. The subject was the butcher of the marché Saint-Martin, in both the professional and criminal senses of that word. “Hey, I know that guy!” I exclaimed to the stuffed Northern Exposure moose who is now my sole companion snce Sonia passed. While it was not my regular marché for the six years that we lived on the rue de Paradis in Paris, the marché Saint-Martin had a cheap cheese store with great selection and, indeed, there it was on television, right across from the Italian butcher’s stand of Italian products.

Now, you might think that a television show about a butcher who cuts his lover up into little pieces would be about the latest program broadcast at night, after the kids have gone to bed, but if you thought so you’d be wrong. After midnight is reserved for the French film patrimoinie. And if I often fall asleep before the verdict in Faites entre l’accusé, I usually don’t make it past the first five minutes of the cinema de minuit feature film, no matter how much I want to watch it. Last night’s film — which rolled around at about 12:30, a half hour after the update that the doctor who slowly poisoned to death the military husband of his lover after she’d conned him into believing he was beating her had been released on parole after 6 years rolled across the closing credits in Faites Entrer — was “Remorques,” starring Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud, and Michelle Morgan. Jean Gabin, who has also played Maigret, is just about Mr. French Cinema for me — you might also know him from “The Grand Illusion.” Just the film poster itself — with Gabin in parka battling winds and rain at the wheel of his tugboat — is enough to thrill you. Helas, this was not the best film to watch at 12:30 in the morning with waning attention powers complicating an early but essential rescue scene, with the action going back and forth between the rescue boat and the boat in distress, the dialogue already garbled by the age of the 70-year-old film. Because it was Jean Gabin I weathered the storm and made it longer than usual, but finally had to bow from faitgue, leaving Gabin and Renaud walking along a beach in Brest, before he even had a chance to get involved with Morgan.

I had debated whether to watch the film at all after an intro which explained filming started in 1939 then resumed in 1941 during the Occupation. It’s hard for me to watch French people continuing with life as normal when I know life was getting progressively worse and worse for their Jewish countrymen. But then I noted the scenario was by Jacques Prevert, who also wrote “Barbara,” an ode to a vanished Brest decimated at the end of the war (“It’s raining on Brest”), so to see a film written by him set in Brest before it was bombed out seemed an important chapter in my running history of France.

But here’s my point: Why are these films — France’s heritage — broadcast after midnight on a school night, no less, when the prime-time movie slot is so often occupied by BAD mass-market American garbage. (Though not always: Last night’s prime-time movie on France 2 was, exceptionally, an older and classic, “Les Tontons Flingueurs,” starring Lino Ventura. I’d been wanting to see this one for so long that I overlooked yesterday’s news that a town in France had rescinded a decision to name a street after the author of the novel on which it was based, Albert Simonin, after allegations that he’d collaborated.) There are some good new films produced for the France Television networks, but it seems like half of them are about the war and most of those are about French who helped Jews or fought in the Resistance. Why not replace some of the crappy American films and a few of the probably skewed portrayals of war-time France that take up prime-time movie time with more films like “Remorques” that were actually made before, during, and after the Occupation — at an hour where people are actually awake. If national identity is not just about excluding those who don’t conform to it but actually confirming the MANY parts of that identity about which French citizens can be proud — showing these old films at a time people can actually see them would seem a great way to buttress that identity and legitimate national pride.

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